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Legislative budget leaders unveiled details of a $14.7 billion budget Thursday that included $440 million in new spending on public and higher education, funding for a plan to provide health care to the poorest Utahns, and a 3 percent salary bump for state workers.
The education funding comes in about $18 million higher than the governor requested in his budget proposal in December. It pays for the roughly 9,700 new students expected to enroll in Utah schools in the fall and increases per-pupil spending by about 3.75 percent.
"Hey hey!" the enthusiastic governor said. "As everyone knows, education is my top budget priority. We try to give the resources as we're able to education. … We're changing the culture in education, making it a priority, and the Legislature is jumping in with both feet and saying, 'Let's help.'"
The budget blueprint contains $15 million to put technology in classrooms far less than the $100 million the state Board of Education had requested and $3 million for an early reading program for kindergarten through third grade. There is no funding for the expansion of full-day kindergarten classes, which was one of the board's top priorities.
"The high points, I think, No. 1 is our commitment to funding education," said Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard. "Secondly, we funded some technology and some of those programs that will really make a difference in making a transformation in public education."
The $440 million continues what has been a recurring trend, as the state has pumped nearly $1.4 billion in new spending into schools and colleges since the end of the recession.
However, Utah continues to be at or near last in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending and class sizes.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said the increases in higher education compensation should spare students from a tuition increase in the coming year, the first time in years that has happened, if it comes to fruition.
Herbert appears to have won a victory in a battle over transferring money from transportation to education.
House Budget Chairman Dean Sanpei said the plan will tentatively transfer $9 million from transportation projects to education. Herbert had proposed taking $10 million from transportation projects this year, $20 million next year and $30 million the following year, with the goal of using it for early childhood education.
Two other bills are fighting to spend the earmarked transportation money in other ways.
SB80 by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, seeks to move scores of millions from transportation to water projects including the controversial Lake Powell pipeline.
HB296 by Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, would transfer the amounts proposed by the governor to state programs other than education to be spent as lawmakers decide.
Sanpei said compromises are being discussed because the state can't afford to do both. That includes potentially moving $9 million to education this year and $20 million to either water or other programs, depending on which of the two bills passes.
The Senate has passed SB80, and the House has passed HB296.
The Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund would receive $9.6 million to make grants to address issues of homelessness across the state.
The budget spends $1.7 million to hire attorneys, staff and lobbyists to handle public-lands issues and endangered-species cases, including the proposed protection of the sage grouse.
Of that, $400,000 would go to extend a lobbying contract the state entered into aimed at having the wolf removed from the endangered species list. The state has given more than a million dollars to the campaign, which was criticized in a 2013 audit for failing to report on how the money was spent.
Budget-makers also include $17.5 million in their draft to pay for House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan's proposal to provide health care through Medicaid to an estimated 16,000 of the poorest Utahns who are homeless, suffering from mental-health or substance-abuse problems, or are involved in the corrections system. The state money would be supplemented by $13.5 million from hospitals and $70 million in federal dollars.
State workers would see a 2 percent pay raise and a 1 percent increase toward health care. Highway patrol troopers would share in an additional $1 million for salaries.
"In higher ed, they were treated fairly well but where they were really treated well is the buildings they asked for," Hillyard said.
Legislative leaders approved $42.6 million for a classroom building at Salt Lake Community College's Westpointe campus, $28 million for a new biology building at Utah State University, and $23 million for a performing arts building at Utah Valley University.
The University of Utah, which had asked the Legislature to pay for $50 million of a massive new $300 million medical center, came up empty.
The figures are still preliminary and likely will be revised some before the Legislature adjourns next week.