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Republican House members plan to make funding education a priority in the coming year while holding the line against any proposed tax increase, including any bid to bring back the sales tax on food.
"We want to start a new era of cooperation and appreciation with our partners in education," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden. "Right upfront … we think we need to be funding growth in education. Period."
The 2012 Legislature, with veto-proof Republican majorities in both chambers, starts Jan. 23.
The GOP members, meeting in a daylong caucus Tuesday, voted unanimously for those priorities, as well as reducing Utah's growing debt load and fixing a temporary $52 million patch put on the state budget earlier this year.
An estimated 12,500 additionalstudents are expected to enter Utah schools in the coming year at an estimated cost of $41 million to educate them. Gov. Gary Herbert recommended covering those costs.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that the Senate majority is also on board.
"I'm sure that's what will happen in the end," Waddoups said. "We'll fund the growth."
What remains to be seen, he added, is what other education initiatives lawmakers will choose to fund.
"There are innovations we're looking at, things we can do better," Waddoups said. "The U.S. is falling behind other countries. We've got to find ways to do better."
House Minority Whip Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats made a motion more than a week ago to get the Legislature's budget committee to fund the education growth, but Republican leaders in both the House and Senate voted against it.
"We clearly exhibited where we stood on that," she said. "We're serious about good government and education and we've consistently been there on that."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, noted House Republicans also had no intention of raising taxes this session, although she said she was not aware of specific tax hike proposals.
Several years ago, lawmakers trimmed the sales tax on food. But in recent years, legislators have pushed to reverse that reduction and in turn drop the state's income tax rate.
"[This] rules out an increase in the food tax," Lockhart said. "I would say we're not interested in that."
In addition, GOP lawmakers want to relieve the state's debt burden, which now stands at just under $1,200 per person. Paying down that debt to get back under the customary debt ceiling would cost about $85 million.
Earlier this year, lawmakers tapped $52 million in lapsing funds to avoid cuts to ongoing programs. If the money isn't replaced, those programs will run out of money at the end of June. Dee said legislators plan to find a way to plug that hole.