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Utah lawmakers gave early approval to more than $60 million in education funding cuts Wednesday.
If enacted, the cuts would affect programs like concurrent enrollment and student transportation, and would require school districts to divert a greater portion of their local tax revenue to charter schools.
But in a year of state surpluses, legislators said school districts will more than make up the cuts with other funding.
The intention of legislative leaders, Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson said, is to give even more money to schools, possibly by investing in other programs, as well as increasing overall funding for the state's public education system.
"In the final budget, when we get through with everything, we as chairs are committed to make sure every single [school district] has a sizable increase," Stephenson said. "Hopefully, we can all walk away from whatever we've done and say 'it's fair'."
Traditionally, lawmakers start the legislative session by passing a base budget that mirrors the prior year's expenditures. That budget is then amended with supplemental revenues during the course of the session.
This year, as a budgeting exercise, state agencies were asked to prepare recommendations for a base budget that reflects 98 percent of last year's funding. The goal of the exercise, according to lawmakers, was to highlight priorities and areas of inefficiency.
"It's not a question of good or bad," Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan said. "It's good and what may be better."
The recommendations adopted Wednesday by the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee largely align with cuts proposed by the state school board.
Board members originally proposed cutting funding for school nurses, adult education and elementary arts education. But lawmakers removed those items after suggesting that funding could be restored later.
"We would have put ourselves and the public through a lot of grief and strain through that process," Stephenson said. "In our judgement, we felt that it was appropriate to not include them."
Several legislators objected to cutting state funding for charter schools, which would require school districts to set aside more money for charters located within their boundaries.
Stephenson has sponsored unsuccessful legislation in the past that would have had a similar effect on charter school funding. The Draper Republican argues school districts continue to get funding for "phantom students" who have transferred to the alternative public schools.
But Rep. Kraig Powell said school districts do not get a windfall of revenue when students transfer to charters.
"School districts tax at the rate they need to fund the number of students that they think they're going to have," said Powell, a Heber City Republican.
But Stephenson believes the funding shift will address some of the revenue inequities between school districts in the state. He said school districts stand to gain more from the legislature in total funding increases than they will lose in charter school costs.
"We need to consider that there are going to be sizable increases in education funding in the regular budget that are not reflected here," he said.
Some members of the committee also questioned a proposed $6 million cut to concurrent enrollment, a program that allows high school students to earn college credit prior to graduation.
School board member Mark Openshaw said concurrent enrollment was included on the list to prompt a discussion of whether Utah's higher education system should be more involved in administering the program.
"Concurrent enrollment is important, but we had to come up with cuts somewhere and so that's where we ended up," Openshaw said.