Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he would call a special session of the legislature next week to address the effect the economic downturn will have on Utah’s budget. However, he said he believes lawmakers will be able to avoid cutting the public education budget.
UtahPolicy.com first reported that a special session was on tap for June 18 and possibly the 19th. Legislators will be given the option of joining remotely or in person. Several lawmakers UtahPolicy.com spoke to said they were asked by legislative staffers how they would participate.
Herbert said the economic shutdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic took a bite out of the state budget, but he thinks the state is well-positioned to deal with the economic fallout.
“I do believe based on a number of things we will be able to weather this storm and be able to provide services to the people what they need. That’s going to be a challenge to figure out how we do more with less, but I believe we can do that,” he said.
Lawmakers will get updated revenue projections next Wednesday during the scheduled Executive Appropriations Committee. Those figures are expected to be down from the projected $900 million in extra money legislators used to set next year’s budget at the end of the 2020 general session which ended 3 months ago. How much of a downturn those numbers will show is not yet known.
Legislative appropriations committees spent time at the end of May pouring over their budgets to find where they could cut. Those committees were tasked with coming up with recommendations for cutting 2, 5 and 10 percent out of next year’s budget, depending on how far the projected revenues fall.
Gov. Herbert said he’s hoping lawmakers can find a way to shield the public education budget from those cuts.
“The teachers and those involved with education have been very willing to adapt to the challenges and innovate and find better ways to do things,” said Herbert, referring to the shift to remote schooling because of the coronavirus. “I appreciate the work of our teachers and their efforts to make sure our young people get a good education.”
Lawmakers shifted $50 million into the education base budget during the first part of the 2020 general session to cover the projected growth in next year’s student population.
Other segments of the budget may not be so lucky.
For example, under the 2 percent cut plan, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control would see a reduction in their compliance staff and operating hours in all of their stores cut back.
A controversial $850,000 contract with technology company Banjo is on the chopping block in the Department of Public Service budget. That’s probably not a hard choice for lawmakers after the state put contracts with the company on hold following the revelation that the firm’s founder had ties to white supremacist groups.
Lawmakers have also suggested eliminating the printed voter information pamphlet this year, which would save the state $232,000. About 66,000 households receive the pamphlet produced by the Utah Elections Office, but much of that information is available online.
Corrections could take a big hit, depending on how far projected revenues fall. Under a 5 percent reduction, the state would be forced to cut sex offender treatment for some parolees in Salt Lake County. The 5 percent scenario might also result in the reduction of 500 beds and the elimination of case management personnel. A 10 percent reduction would completely eliminate the community sex offender treatment program and 1,000 beds.
Herbert said the state is in a good position financially, despite the downturn because of prudent fiscal policy.
“You prepare for the bad times by doing the appropriate things during the good times, and as a state we’ve done that very well,” said Herbert. “We don’t spend more than we take in. We live within our means.”
Within the last two years, lawmakers began paying for several construction projects with ongoing money rather than one-time funds or bonding. That move now gives legislators the ability to use those funds in other areas through bonding.
Legislators also have nearly $1 billion in rainy day funds they could tap to make up the shortfall, but that is one-time money.