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Bill to fix $25M budget error passes; uncertainty over high school assessment remains

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 6:06 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to fix a $25 million error in the public education budget blew through a special session of the Legislature with near-unanimous support Wednesday.

SB4003 received only one opposing vote, clearing the House 65-0 and the Senate 26-1.

Lawmakers also abandoned efforts to address two other education bills that would have dealt with early intervention and college-readiness testing.

Amendments to the 2012-13 education budget was the first item on Gov. Gary Herbert's call for a special session. In April, education officials discovered that an accounting error had resulted in the budget being underfunded by $25 million dollars.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, sponsored SB4003, which addressed the budget shortfall by using leftover balances from previous academic years, as well as unappropriated funds from the 2013 General Fund and Education Fund. The bill called for $16 million of unused funds from 2011, $4.5 million from 2012, $2.9 million of unappropriated funds from the 2013 education fund and $1.9 million from the 2013 general funds.

Osmond explained that the underfunded budget represented an ongoing expense for weighted pupil units — used in calculating per-student allocations for schools and school districts — and that the one-time funds used in SB4003 would leave a $25.3 million hole to fill during the next legislative session.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, took time before the Senate, and during the morning meeting of the Education Interim Committee, to clarify questions that he has received regarding the accounting error. He emphasized that neither Herbert nor the Legislature was responsible for the error, but that the mistake occurred at the State Office of Education, where officials were forthcoming and had accepted full responsibility. Two education officials resigned from their positions as a result of the error.

"When you deal with human beings, no matter how perfect you think you make the system, we occasionally make mistakes," Hillyard said.

The senator said the bill's ability to address the budget shortfall was a result of the state's budgeting practices, which overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues to avoid a budget deficit.

"The blessing of that is that in general, each year we'll have 3, 5, 10 million or something like that left over," Hillyard said.

If the bill hadn't passed, he said the money likely would have been recovered by withdrawing a cost of living increase given to higher education employees during the last legislative session or the funding given to public education retirement costs.

"I think all of us felt good that we walked out of the session knowing we funded growth in public education," he said.

Hillyard said the bill is a solution for the 2013 budget, but still creates "serious problems" for ongoing education funding. He said leftover balances are typically used as one-time funding for special projects, such as pilot programs, and the bill would reduce the Legislature's ability to make one-time payments.

"This money has all been pretty much committed to programs that will not have funding," he said. "We don't know what that means for the upcoming year. We hope there's at least $25.3 million to plug that hole."

Osmond said the bill would not result in any cuts being made to programs that were funded during the regular session.

During the meeting of the Education Interim Committee, lawmakers were made aware that Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, did not intend to present HB4002 to the House floor. The bill would have expanded an early intervention computer software program to include the pre-kindergarten grade level.

The committee also heard testimony from State Superintendent Larry Shumway and voted to recommend a bill to the Senate that would have allowed the State Office of Education to expand a pilot program using the ACT test as a college-readiness assessment for all high school students. A similar bill failed to pass during the legislative session, leaving ambiguity as to what test would be administered in schools.

Shumway said the state office has been looking at solutions for the testing problem. He said they can either revert back to the UBSCT test — which he said would be a "terrible direction" to go — find a way to use end-of-level testing, or move forward with plans to focus on ACT testing.

"I think universally we all agree we don't want UBSCT," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said. "If we don't act in this special session, we're basically asking the state superintendent and state school board to ignore the law until we can take the time to fix it and I don't think it's fair to put them in that position."

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said the ACT was a much better indicator of college-readiness compared to the "flawed" UBSCT test. She said it was critical that lawmakers take action on the issue.

"I think everything possible we can do should be done to get this through today," she said. "It's really going to affect a lot of students and that's who we should be thinking about right now."

Lawmakers on the committee agreed about the need to specify an assessment, but some questioned whether the language of the special session agenda allowed the bill to even be discussed Wednesday. The committee ultimately discussed and recommended the bill, but it was not presented to either house.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, said the testing issue is ongoing. She said concerns over funding the acquisition of a new assessment played a role in the decision not to bring the bill before the House and Senate.

Last month, the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees sent a letter to Herbert requesting that college-readiness testing be included in a special session. The issue was not listed explicitly, but committee staff reported that the wording of the special session agenda left open an opportunity for lawmakers to approach the issue.

Ally Isom, spokeswoman for Herbert, said the issue was not included on the special session's agenda because it did not appear that the Legislature had a "sufficient appetite" to address it.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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