Herbert Proposes Massive Investment in Education

Gov. Gary Herbert seems willing to go to the mat with the legislature over education funding.

“I need education funding today!” said Gov. Herbert during a press conference surrounded by students at Granite Park Junior High School in South Salt Lake.

Herbert’s budget proposal pumps a half-billion dollars of new money into Utah’s public and higher education systems. $311 million of that will be made up of ongoing funds. $246.5 million of that sum would go to public education while $64.5 million would go towards Utah’s higher education system. Another $191 million is one-time money. Herbert proposes $96.2 million of that for public ed and $94.8 million to higher education.

That’s an ambitious increase in education funding. Whether lawmakers go along with him is another thing entirely.

Herbert and legislators are in an enviable position after consensus revenue numbers showed Utah had a surplus of $638 million dollars.

Herbert clearly thinks education should be the priority for that money as he wants to put nearly 70% of those dollars toward schools.

“It’s time for us to start looking at education long term,” said Herbert. “I want to work with the legislature to develop a 10-year education plan so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every year.”

Herbert is proposing a 6.25% increase in the weighted pupil unit, which he says is the largest bump in the last quarter century. That total comes to $161 million.

Other public educational priorities in his budget:

  • $58 million to fund 8,000 new students in public schools

  • $56 million for the Capital Outlay Program to pay for buildings and infrastructure

  • $1.5 million for career counseling

  • $6 million for classroom supplies

Higher education is poised to benefit from Herbert’s budget as well. $29.6 million is for a 3% across-the-board hike for compensation, while $99 million would go toward maintenance of existing buildings and construction of 4 new facilities.

Education and business leaders were quick to hail Herbert’s call for more school funding.

The Utah State Board of Education said in a statement “We share his belief that a strong educational system that is robustly funded is the foundation to economic growth and success in Utah. The Board of Education is very pleased that the Governor recommends such a large investment in Utah’s public education and its children.”

Alan Hall, chairman of Prosperity 2020 said “Never before has the business community been so unified in its approach to improving Utah’s education. This unanimity is seen in the plan announced earlier this year. We look forward to working with the governor and Legislature in implementing these key strategic investments.”

One of the biggest budget flashpoints between Herbert and the legislature will probably be earmarks for transportation funding. Herbert says 19% of the general fund is already taken up by earmarks, which he calls “alarming.”

“There’s no discussion on how we use that money. The decision was made years ago, and that’s not right. Needs should compete for that money, but when we start the budget discussion, 19% of that money is already gone.”

Herbert admits his budget uses $94 million in funds that are already earmarked for other purposes.

Other budget highlights from Herbert:

  • $20 million to purchase new school buses to help reduce pollution.

  • $1.5 million for a grant program to replace wood burning stoves with natural gas or propane burning devices.

  • $46 million for the prison relocation.

  • $10.5 million to reduce the state’s recidivism rate for convicts

Herbert also wants $1 million to outfit all state troopers with body cameras. He says that decision was partially due to recent high-profile events in the national news involving police officers.

“What we’ve seen on the national stage helped me decide we need something to protect the public and law enforcement. It may take a couple of years to phase in. It won’t be a silver bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Another big budget fight will likely be over Herbert’s Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion. The state’s portion during the first year is $4.6 million, which triggers $446 million from the federal government.

Herbert did not talk much about transportation funding during his presentation other than to say lawmakers need to come up with a long-term strategy for funding as Utah is projected to be $7-8 billion short by 2040.

“How can we fund transportation long-term? It might be an adjustment in the gas tax, which hasn’t changed in 17 years. I’m looking forward to having that discussion with legislators.”

In the past, the governor’s budget proposal has been treated by lawmakers as merely a suggestion as the final product usually looks vastly different. Herbert acknowledges lawmakers hold the purse strings, but he’s hopeful they’ll come around to his way of thinking.

“I hope they take this document, noodle on it and say ‘gee, the Governor is brilliant’,” said Herbert. “We have the advantage of working on this for months and weeks. The Legislature comes in cold. I think I’ve picked the rational reasonable way to deal with this and, at the end of the day, they will come to the same point I’m at. We’re going to have a budget in place and it will mirror closely what I’ve proposed here.”