Budget Details Coming Into Focus

Utah State Capitol 10Tucked into the nine-page summary of next fiscal year’s budget is an interesting tidbit, probably not noticed by most observers.

The “conservative,” GOP-controlled Legislature is going back to a process much criticized by their Republican predecessors: Phased funding to construct desired state buildings.

Starting back in the days of Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson, and continuing off and on for decades, GOP Republicans at times embraced – but always condemned – the practice of paying for only a part of a new state building’s construction in one fiscal year, with the obviously required promise to finish paying for the building as it was under construction, one-year-to-the-next until finished.

In the $14.5 billion 2016-2017 budget unveiled Thursday in an open GOP House caucus, is a Utah State University Biological Science Building and a Utah Valley University Performing Arts Building that are, together, paid partly ($11 million each) out of ongoing funds and partly out of one-time budget surpluses.

“It’s phased funding,” said House Budget Chairman Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, his voice a bit scratchy from the many hours he’s been working recently on next year’s state fiscal plan.

There will be a structural imbalance in next year’s budget of around $30 million – needed to finish off both projects, he said.

This does n’t mean that Utah GOP lawmakers are fiscally irresponsible. The overall budget will be balanced.

In fact, they are not issuing building bonds this year in a continuing effort to reduce the state’s overall debt.

Sanpei said some of the budget figures presented to the House caucus may not be as House Republicans please, but are compromises with their Senate counterparts.

The Senate GOP also approved the budget numbers – but did so (as they always do) in a closed caucus – the press and public not allowed in.

Here are some of the most interesting parts of the new budget (which will be adopted in several bills voted on next week), as explained by GOP House leaders:

— $500,000 to reopen six closed state liquor stores; $557,000 to hire new staff for the West Valley store.

— $21 million to build a new facility at Hill Air Force Field (that’s right, the state is building the federal government a new “software” building).

— 2 percent raises for state and higher education workers, with 1 percent additional going to state employee health care plans.

— 3 percent more in the WPU for local school districts, which in turn will allocate pay raises for teachers and administrators.

— Overall, the GOP Legislature is spending $440 million more in public education, more than the $424 million more suggested by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

— $2.2 million to buy “some big tents” to keep the annual Outdoor Retailers convention in Salt Lake City.

— Several million dollars to pay for state prisoners in county jails, the “highest jail reimbursement in 14 years.”

— $600,000 for state judges’ pay raises, as recommended by an independent judicial compensation commission.

— $1.3 million directly to the Weber State University student athletic program. ($1.5 million was given to USU athletics last year.) The WSU money will go to summer classes for athletics so that they can graduate on time, said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

— The state’s colleges and universities are getting so much new money next year, says Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, that tuition should not be increased at all.

“We need to hold (the Board of Regents) feet to the fire to guarantee no tuition hikes at all,” said Draxler.

— Several million dollars earmarked for prairie dog, sage grouse, and wolf mitigation programs to fight federal endangered species listings.

— $500,000 to get special federal grants that will actually help state government battle environmental lawsuits over “state sovereignty” land costs.

— $90 million to pay for new 9.700 students going into public schools next fall.

— $17.5 million to expand Medicaid coverage to 16,000 of the poorest, most sick among us.

This is still a controversial Medicaid expansion brought by House Republicans – while Herbert and senators want the governor’s Healthy Utah expansion program that would cost a bit more, but bring in hundreds of millions more in federal matching funds.

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, introduced the main list of new state building constructions for next year – saying it was the list “of those who sat on Santa’s lap the longest.”

They include the previously-mentioned, phased funding for the two university buildings, plus:

— $42 million for the Salt Lake Community College Education Center at Westpointe.

— $4.7 million for a Snow College Science Building.

— $8 million for a Southern Utah University new business building, and rebuilding a separate structure.

— $1 million for a new Weber Youth Center.

— And $4.5 million for an extension of the current State Archives vault.

No money will be spent on the new $550 million state prison, as plans and site preparation continue on the project, located out by the Salt Lake International Airport.

However, $600,000 will be spent on the new Point of the Mountain Development Commission – studies on what to do with the old Draper prison site.

And while legislators themselves won’t be getting a pay raise next year, $330,000 will be spent on paying lawmakers for ten extra “training” days for the 104 part-time solons in fiscal 2016-2017.