Legislative leaders set the table for big budget cuts ahead of Thursday’s special session

Utah Capitol 06

Utah’s top legislative bosses on Wednesday cut nearly all of the new money that was put into the $20 billion fiscal 2021 budget, getting ready for a special session starting Thursday morning aimed at balancing next year’s spending plan, which starts July 1.

Part of the debate in the Executive Appropriations Committee had to do with completely eliminating funding for the Banjo project, which has come under severe criticism lately.

All told, $2.2 million was cut for Banjo from three department budgets, including Attorney General Sean Reyes’ budget. Reyes has been criticized heavily by his GOP primary opponent, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, over Banjo, which is being overseen by the AG. Reyes has already “suspended” Banjo’s contract.

Many of the state departments’ spending plans for next year will be trimmed by around 2.5 percent in bills going before lawmakers Thursday.

Last month, the separate legislative budget subcommittees made recommended cuts of 2 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent for their areas of authority. But updated revenue tax collections unveiled Wednesday afternoon were not as dismal as previously believed.

Senate budget chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said: “I was surprised in the numbers (revenue estimates) coming in better” than anticipated. “We are very fortunate, considering” how badly the coronavirus’ impact has been on the state’s economy and tax collections.

In the end, $850 million will be cut from the current budget year, which ends June 30, and the next fiscal year, together.

But even the pain that is coming may not be the end.

Jonathan Ball, head of the Legislature’s budget office, said lawmakers may have to come back into special session several times before the 2021 general session, come January, to balance out as new revenue estimates come later this year.

State employee pay raises are basically gone next year, with leaders saying if revenues come in better than now believed, maybe something can be done later. However, employee health insurance increases will be funded, so at least state workers’ take-home pay shouldn’t go down.

Public education is being “basically” held harmless, as UtahPolicy.com reported first last month.

In addition to growth for new students coming in the fall, the Weighted Pupil Unit will go up 1.8 percent — keeping the Republicans’ promise to teachers and school advocates that inflation will be put into school budgets each year.

That may not seem like a lot — 1.8 percent — but it is key to a deal GOP leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert made with the Utah Education Association — the main teacher union.

UEA agreed NOT to oppose a constitutional amendment going to voters in November — adding programs for the disabled and children to the current income tax earmarking for schools and colleges — if school advocates got a few things, including at least inflation spending increases each year and money to fund student growth numbers.

A whole lot of numbers were thrown around — and adopted — Wednesday by the partisan elected leaders in both the House and Senate.

While just about every state program was cut back (except schools and Human Services), there were some “add backs” to critical programs.

These include: Affordable housing programs; Medicaid growth; some Human Services, including mental health.

Gone, beside most of the $1 billion new spending originally given in the fiscal 2021 budget adopted by lawmakers in mid-March, are some capital projects — like the new $65 million building to replace the State Office Building north of the Capitol.

Employee travel is cut from most budgets, including the Legislature itself, $299,000.

Higher education’s colleges and universities are taking around a 2.5 percent cuts.

Overall, public education budgets will go up 1.3 percent, not down at all over this year’s spending.

And Human Services will go up 5.4 percent. But much of those increases are “add backs” after some cuts, which bring in “substantial” federal matching funds to some programs, leaders said. It would just be counterproductive to cut those programs, and lose those federal matching funds.

Here and here are lists of cuts and “add backs” legislative leaders adopted Wednesday, which will come in bill form Thursday to lawmakers.

Finally, here are charts of coronavirus federal funds coming into Utah, and where that money is going, which also had to be approved by the Executive Appropriations Committee.

As the charts and lists show, it is not insignificant — adding up to nearly $1 billion.

And here is a list of $281 million where coronavirus-fighting monies — the Coronavirus Relief Fund — have gone, also reported to legislative bosses.