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A Bountiful high school will provide the backdrop as Gov. Gary Herbert rolls out his $12 billion-plus budget proposal for the coming year with education expected to be a central focus.
"If he's going to roll out his budget at a school, you know where his attention is going to be, as it has been. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out," said Kory Holdaway, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association.
A state economy that is growing once again frees Herbert from the fiscal constraints of recent years he will have a total of about $400 million in new money to spend. But there is no shortage of demands in education, health care and other areas that have made do in lean times.
"Governor Herbert's budget recommendations are consistent with his priorities education, jobs and energy," said his spokeswoman, Ally Isom. "You'll find them consistent with his personal principles of fiscal restraint, living within one's means and preparing for the future."
On the education front, there are more than 12,500 new students expected to attend Utah schools next year, meaning additional demands for teachers, classrooms and resources.
"We would be very surprised if [enrollment] growth isn't the No. 1 issue," Holdaway said. That is expected to cost about $45 million.
Dave Buhler, the associate commissioner of higher education, said he is hopeful that Utah's colleges and universities will get a piece of what it would take to cover the jump in enrollment seen on campuses. Enrollment has grown by more than 39,000 students over the past decade, but funding has fallen by 14 percent.
"We've been through [several] years with budget cuts, so it's almost like we're hoping for no cuts," Buhler said, "but we'll have some of our most critical needs met."
He said he anticipates there will be money for salaries and to implement mission-based programs in which universities develop specific areas of expertise in accord with priorities set by the state Board of Regents.
Jason Cooke, a Medicaid policy specialist with the Utah Health Policy Project, said at the top of his group's wish list is about $3 million to restore dental benefits to people on Medicaid.
"When people have dental care they are less susceptible to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and adverse pregnancy outcomes," Cooke said. All of those are expensive to treat and could be avoided with preventative care.
And he said he would like to see the governor fund the skyrocketing caseload growth that Medicaid, which provides basic health care to Utah's poor, has seen during the economic collapse.
In 2008, there were 157,000 people on the program; as of last September, there were 246,000 enrolled. That growth could cost the state as much as $100 million, plus an estimated $65 million to cover a shortage in the current year.
"We certainly recognize there are a lots of demands on the state budget, and lots of very valid demands," Cooke said. "Yet each of those demands intersect with each other. If we're not providing quality health care, we're not allowing kids to learn and go to school, meaning higher education may be completely off the table. These things are interrelated."
Audrey Wood, director of the Utah Public Employees Association, said she would like to see a small pay hike for state employees, who have gone four years without a raise. A recent report showed that state employee salaries are below the market rates, even with benefits included, and Wood said that makes it tough to hire and retain workers.
There are also some perhaps less juicy budget issues, but they are important to Republican legislators who will begin crafting the budget in the next few weeks.
Over the past few years, the state has drawn down its Rainy Day Fund from about $418 million to $220 million; lawmakers put a temporary patch on some programs, using dollars that will lapse at the end of the year to keep programs going, creating what is called a structural imbalance.
And the state's debt, fueled by the reconstruction of Interstate 15 in Utah County, has grown higher than many lawmakers are comfortable with nearly $1,200 for each Utahn.
"What I'm hoping is that there's a concerted effort to pay down debt, replenish the Rainy Day Fund, eliminate the structural imbalance and get spending in line," said Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, the House vice chairman of the budget committee.
It would cost $52 million to keep those programs going that are funded with lapsing money and about $85 million to pay down the debt to get it back under the state's historic ceiling.