This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah schools, bursting at the seams due to rapid growth in recent years, may see a slowing in the flood of new students pouring through the doors next year.
An estimated 7,951 new students are expected in Utah schools next year, according to state forecasts. That is nearly 25 percent lower than last year's growth and the lowest level of growth since 2003. It is the first time since 2004 that the school population has grown by fewer than 10,000 students.
A total of 630,104 students are projected to be in Utah schools next year.
"Although we are still growing, that growth is slowing and we can expect it to continue to slow for a couple of years," said legislative fiscal analyst Ben Leishman.
The slowing enrollment growth combined with an economy that continues to expand at a brisk clip is one factor that will likely give lawmakers a little budgetary breathing room during the next legislative session.
"This is positive," said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, saying that, after years of tight budget times, it gives the state a chance "to catch up, that's the phrase I want to use, to catch up with some of the needs."
It will still cost about $54 million to educate those new students entering the classroom next year although the number is lower than in past years.
The growth in Utah's Medicaid system, which cares for many of the state's poor, and the Children's Health Insurance Program are projected to have a $15.4 million surplus at the end of the current budget year and see just a slight increase in costs next year of $2.7 million.
The surplus is due, in part, to savings resulting from shifting children onto Medicaid from their coverage under CHIP, which costs the state more. The shift, part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, saved Utah $8.5 million this year and is expected to save $8.6 million next year.
The state's payment into the public employee retirement system is expected to stay flat in the coming year, and the costs for the Public Employees Health Program are expected to rise at 4.9 percent, considerably slower than the 7.6 percent previously projected.
With the economy growing at a quicker pace than in recent years, legislators could have as much as $200 million to spend on new, ongoing programs and up to another $312 million to allocate for one-time purchases of things like equipment or buildings.
But legislative fiscal analyst Jonathan Ball cautioned lawmakers that there will be plenty of demands.
With the demands placed by the new student enrollment, the slightly increased Medicaid costs, health insurance, building maintenance and a relatively minor increase of 1 percent in per-pupil spending and salaries for state workers, legislators would have already burned through $178 million of the available funds.
Hillyard said that doesn't take into account state prisons and higher education. And he said he expects, given the money available, state workers will get better than a 1 percent raise.
Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to put forward his budget proposal sometime next month and legislators will convene in late January for the 2015 session to set budget priorities for the next fiscal year.