Utah GOP to take swipe at feds over $101M in education funds

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 16 2010 10:27 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are taking a swipe at the federal government in a resolution that will be voted on in a special session Wednesday to accept $101 million in stimulus funds for schools.

Sponsored by Speaker-elect Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, the resolution states that Congress and the federal government "have consistently and routinely usurped the role of the states" when it comes to state budget decisions.

In this instance, the resolution explains, the U.S. Department of Education will give the money directly to Utah school district if lawmakers reject the resolution, "in a violation of classic principles of federalism."

The resolution was unveiled Tuesday during a meeting of the Executive Appropriations Committee and drew criticism from Democratic minority leaders.

"I find it a little disrespectful," said Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, the outgoing minority caucus manager. She said the resolution was not the place to play "such a political game."

House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said the focus on the vote Wednesday should be on accepting money that will help Utah children. "I think it's misplaced," he said of the political language in the resolution.

But Lockhart told reporters after the meeting that the resolution might not go far enough for some GOP House members.

"I hope it will address some of their concerns," she said, calling the issue a "very, very frustrating thing for us as state legislators, to have the federal government completely go around the sovereignty of the states in terms of appropriations."

The resolution calls for copies to be sent to Gov. Gary Herbert, who chose to apply for the funds, as well as to federal officials.

Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said he's looking out for the state's public school students.

"While the governor has expressed his own concerns about the manner in which this funding was made available, his top priority continues to be education. He is committed to the distribution of the funds to school districts for the benefit of Utah's schoolchildren," Welling said.

The GOP House caucus had hoped to stop the money from coming to Utah, but was told in September by the attorney general's office their chances were "about as close to zero as one can get."

Earlier Tuesday, a conservative leader in the House, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, circulated a copy of a letter he sent to House members urging them to refuse the money.

"Could we use the money? Yes. No doubt," Wimmer wrote. "But you cannot do the right thing the wrong way. By us not fighting and pushing back against this draconian federal bill, we are tying one more thread around the hands of those who support the constitution and state sovereignty."

Wimmer said he had a long-planned business trip scheduled Wednesday and won't be there for the vote. Lockhart said she believes the resolution will pass as written.

She said another key reason for passing the resolution is to ensure the state can ensure that $50 million of the federal money is set aside to cover a shortfall in school funding in the budget year that ended June 30.

Legislative leaders sent a letter to school districts earlier this year warning them not to expect to spend all of the federal education funds coming to Utah.

There was some good news about the current budget reported to the committee Tuesday, a new revenue estimate showing the state will take in nearly $6.4 million than anticipated.

"I'm feeling a little like Pollyanna today," said the state's chief economist, Andrea Wilco, while delivering the first positive news about the budget in some time.

But Wilco said the increase, mostly in corporate income taxes, is statistically insignificant given the size of the budget. "For all practical purposes, the revenues are flat," she said.

The revenue update prepared by Wilco and other members of the legislative fiscal analyst's office, forecast slow revenue growth over the next two budget years.

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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