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Utah governor unveils $12.9B budget proposal

By Paul Foy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 12 2011 2:17 p.m. MST

BOUNTIFUL, Utah — Millions of additional dollars would be devoted to public schools and higher education under Gov. Gary Herbert's state budget proposal unveiled Monday.

Utah is adding students faster than it's hiring teachers, and Herbert said he was only able to hold classroom sizes steady in the face of "fast, dramatic growth."

Utah has the country's fourth most crowded classrooms, said Herbert , who didn't expect that to change.

"We have to run just to keep up," Herbert told students at Bountiful High School Monday.

In all, Herbert said he would devote $2.5 billion to public education out of his $12.9 billion spending plan for the state's next fiscal year starting July 1. The additional money would include $41 million to help cover an enrollment increase of 12,500 students during the next school year.

He added another $21.5 million to give teachers their first salary raise since 2007 — 1 percent.

"It's all about the teachers," he said. "We need to attract good people."

Herbert said he was boosting public education funding by a total of $111 million — the rest is for early intervention programs, charter school startups, more testing and other targeted efforts.

Herbert also set aside a $93 million funding increase for public colleges and universities. That would help higher education rebound after a 17 percent funding cut since 2007. The cuts forced the University of Utah Medical School to cut 20 slots for students that Herbert would restore with $6.5 million in new funding.

Herbert also pledged a goal of creating 100,000 jobs in 1,000 days through ongoing business recruitment efforts, and he proposed Monday to lower companies' unemployment insurance rates without cutting jobless benefits.

Utah already is adding jobs, and Herbert said the 100,000 figure was achievable — he expects Utah to realize 150,000 jobs over 1,000 days.

"Our No. 1 job is to grow jobs," he said.

A budget summary released by Herbert shows that state revenues are climbing to $5 billion from a low of $4.2 billion two years ago.

Herbert's plan calls for no tax hikes, and Utah is out in front of many states recovering from the national recession that started in 2008.

"Utah's economy has markedly improved," Herbert wrote in his budget recommendations. "After every recession in the past 60 years, Utah's economy has recovered at a faster pace than the U.S.

"If the moderate national recovery continues as expected, Utah will be well positioned for a strengthening recovery in 2012," he added.

Utah is accumulating a $400 million surplus over austerity budgets of the past years, but the state's fastest-growing expense is claiming much of that.

"I have to spend (another) $160 million on Medicaid," he said. "I'd rather spend that on teachers."

Utah expects 39,000 more people to qualify for the health care program mandated by the federal government.

Herbert's budget also boosts public safety, including the hiring of six more troopers, and the state's prison system. Road maintenance — "we've been falling down" — would receive an additional $60 million, he said. The 43 Utah parks would share an extra $2.8 million in funding to regain some of the funding they lost over the years.

The budget will be discussed by legislators when Utah's session opens Jan. 23.

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