Lawmakers unveil $20 billion budget, but a special session to adjust spending may be needed later this year

Utah Capitol 27

Utah will see a $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year the all-powerful Executive Appropriations committee decided Friday night.

But Senate budget chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, tells that he doubts state bosses can get through the interim until the 2021 Legislature meets without at least one special session to “bring the budget back into balance” as Utah struggles with fluctuating revenue collections and the coronavirus fallout.

So, as it stands now, come July 1, the new budget, about 5 percent higher than the current year’s spending, will begin.

That includes:

— 5 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit, the most significant one-year increase in some time. The WPU is the basic per-student spending by the state, and off of which, most of the 41 school districts set teacher pay raises.

— 3 percent pay raises for all state workers, with another 2 percent set aside for workers in areas of greatest need, like 150 open jobs at the prison, state liquor store employees, some Human Services workers and such.

— $100 million in ongoing income tax revenues for a special “savings account” for public education — not only part of a “grand compromise” with education advocates over changing the Utah Constitution to allow income taxes to go for disabled folks and children but a set-aside for unexpected public school needs, as well.

— Blocs of monies to be used for increased mental health services, air quality (which includes some cash to build out a network of electric vehicle recharging stations statewide), the Olene Walker affordable housing fund, and other top priorities.

There is some money set aside for any income tax cuts, to be decided next week by the House and Senate Republican caucuses.

But Stevenson said the amount “is not much” considering the whole $20 billion budget. Lawmakers put aside in the 2019 budget $80 million for tax cuts. And the now-repealed tax reform package had $160 million in income tax cuts.

Stevenson said he’d just as well save that money, as he worries if the fiscal 2021 budget legislative bosses adopted Friday night won’t make it through the next 12 months without some changes/revenue shortfalls.

Legislators will pass half a dozen budget bills next week — reflecting what was adopted Friday night — decide on whether to give a tax cut and make final budget adjustments in the so-called “Bill of Bills,” which officially balances out the new spending plan and pays for a few “money” bills that require cash to enforce, on the final day of the session next Thursday.

The Executive Appropriations Committee leaders ranked all requests from budget subcommittees on a scale from 1 to 4.

Stevenson said all of the 1s got funded. “We did what had to be done.” But after that, the 2-4s didn’t fare as well, he added.

He personally feels bad that several “regional” spending requests didn’t get any money. “As far as they go, we did less this year than in recent years’’ — not funding things like a local dinosaur museum, for example.

Stevenson said expectations were high when the Legislature first started the budget process. Part of that was because GOP Gary Herbert’s recommended budget was based on tax reform taking place — with more sales tax money coming into the General Fund, and huge income tax surpluses in the Education Fund.

But then Herbert and lawmakers repealed tax reform the second day of the session — making much of Herbert’s recommendation for new spending meaningless.

“People said (the governor) funded this and that in his budget, but his budget didn’t matter” anymore, said Stevenson.

Then the coronavirus hit the world, making state revenue estimates for the coming year suspect.

GOP budget leaders did an excellent job considering what has happened just since lawmakers came into session, Stevenson believes, complimenting Senate budget vice-chair Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George; House budget chair Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George; and House budget vice-chair Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs.

You can read the specific motions the Executive Appropriations adopted Friday night here.