Education gets top priority in Gov. Gary Herbert's $12.8 billion budget plan

Proposal anticipates surplus of more than $400 million

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 12 2012 5:40 p.m. MST

Education gets top priority in Gov. Gary Herbert's $12.8 billion state budget proposal, which anticipates more than $400 million in new money.

Ravell Call, Deseret News, KSL-TV Chopper 5

SALT LAKE CITY — Education gets top billing in Gov. Gary Herbert's state budget proposal, which anticipates more than $400 million in new money that hangs on the so-called fiscal cliff.

About two-thirds or $297.6 million of the projected additional state revenue in his $12.8 billion budget would to public and higher education. That includes $96 million for public school enrollment growth and $26 million for the weighted pupil unit, the basic funding sources for Utah schools.

Herbert said his 2013-14 budget would better align public, technical and higher education to reach his goal of 66 percent of all Utahns earning a college degree or certificate by 2020. Hitting that mark, he said, is crucial to growing Utah's economy.

Other state agencies, including public safety and corrections, are in line for some of the new one-time and ongoing revenue which state and legislative economists currently estimate at $421 million.

That number, however, is tenuous as Congress figures out how to deal with the looming fiscal cliff, including whether to allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire. In a worst case scenario, Utah could find itself with a more than $200 million shortfall, which would mean across-the-board budget cuts.

"We're doing very well as a state, and yet there's a kind of a cloud on the horizon that comes out of Washington, D.C.," Herbert said as he rolled out his budget at Granite Technical Institute on Wednesday.

The governor's budget does not include tax increases or tax cuts. State and higher education employees would see a 1 percent salary increase.

The Utah Legislature will build the state budget based on the governor's recommendations and final revenue numbers in February.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard said it's "very unlikely" lawmakers will have $421 million in new money to spend when they finalize the budget.

"For us on the legislative side, we're not going to even worry about it until February," the Logan Republican said.

If revenue projections come in lower than the current forecast, Herbert said he will adjust but his emphasis on education won't change.

"We'll make it work," he said.

Herbert's budget anticipates spending $70.7 million to fund an estimated 13,254 students entering the public education system.

Although the dollar amounts aren't the same in some areas, the governor's proposal addresses many public education concerns, said newly appointed state school superintendent Martell Menlove.

The main difference is in the weighted pupil unit or WPU, the state's basic education funding formula. State school officials wanted to see a 2 percent increase, while Herbert recommends slightly more than 1 percent. The WPU includes preschool, self-contained classrooms, career and technical education, class-size reduction, other basic school programs and compensation for all school employees.

School districts would decide on their own how to use the additional money, Herbert said.

Higher education commissioner David Buhler said Herbert's plan supports almost everything college and university presidents seek.

"Gov. Herbert gets it. The path to continued prosperity in Utah is through doors of higher education," he said.

The governor's budget includes increased funding for science, technology, engineering and math degrees and certificates and for institutions to meet the educational missions. There also is money for 20 new slots at the University of Utah medical school.

The budget also meets higher education's top building priorities, Buhler said.

The proposal outlines $52.4 million in bonding for new classrooms at Utah Valley University and buying land for Dixie State University as well as infrastructure needs at the Utah State Developmental Center.

Health care and Medicaid also bring some uncertainty the governor's budget proposal.

The Affordable Care Act is scheduled to be fully implemented in 2014. But Herbert said many questions remain despite his effort to get specific answers about policy, the state health insurance exchange and Medicaid.

"How these issues are resolved at the federal level will have a significant effect on Utah's household budgets, as well as Utah's economy and the state's budget," according to Herbert.

In addition to education, the governor's plan recommends increases for other state agencies, including $90.9 million for public safety and corrections, $28.8 million for human services and $21 million for economic development.

Herbert also budgeted to keep state parks and state liquor stores open, raise salaries for state and higher education workers and safeguard confidential information in state computer systems.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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