Finally, it seems as if Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers can breathe a bit while crafting the budget. For the first time in years they face surpluses and the chance to erase some of the poor budgeting practices that were necessitated by tough times.
Chief among these was the decision to use one-time money to fund ongoing programs, something state leaders hoped would be a temporary bridge to keep from decimating important programs until better times returned. When he revealed his annual budget proposal Monday, Herbert demonstrated that this tactic has worked. His proposal would erase the structural deficit created by this practice. Lawmakers also have indicated their desire to do this, making it one part of the governor's budget likely to find its way into the final document that is passed before the end of the next legislative session.
This was not the main focus of Herbert's budget, and yet it is a significant achievement. Once that imbalance is erased, Utah will have effectively emerged from the 2008 economic downturn. It once again will be paying for its yearly operations with current tax receipts, not borrowing from emergency funds, relying on federal bailouts or using one-time money. That puts Utah far ahead of most states and helps it position itself for a robust recovery.
Continued prosperity hinges to some degree on the federal government, as well as on Europe's shaky economy. In a global economy, Utah businesses have many trading partners abroad. But the governor predicts tax revenues in fiscal 2013 will nearly equal those of 2007, which would be a significant turnaround.
Herbert unveiled his budget at a Bountiful High School to emphasize how education should be a funding priority. He would add $111 million in new funding for public education, along with $23 million for higher education. The governor said this would cover expected growth in enrollment, add new charter schools, increase available slots at the University of Utah medical school and expand early intervention and testing programs. He also would fund an extremely modest 1 percent pay raise for teachers.
Governors' budgets seldom, if ever, survive intact through a legislative session. The governor's annual budget unveiling, however, is a good opportunity for the state's chief executive to outline his priorities and goals. In this case, we like much of what we see.
Education ought to be a top priority. Utah has a proportionately large student population, and its future rests to a large extent on how well those students are educated, including how well they learn to innovate and create. Not all is well on that front. For instance, Utah has a disturbingly low rate of college graduation for female students. Public education test scores remain stagnant and too close to national averages, showing little improvement through the years.
Much of both the public and higher education systems seem mired in traditional approaches that offer little promise for dramatic improvement. We wish the governor, lawmakers and education leaders would be more radical in their approaches to this situation.
However, the governor's overriding philosophy is that Utah families are best served by a limited state government that encourages job creation, provides basic educational opportunities and promotes a sense of self-reliance in the private sector. That is a sound philosophy.
Herbert clearly favors a careful approach to emerging from recent hard times, which is prudent. The state is benefitting from $280 million in new ongoing funds and $128 million in new one-time funds. In a $12.9 billion budget, that's hardly enough to encourage wild spending. It is, however, a sign that the state's political managers have done a commendable job navigating the most difficult financial waters in decades.