Legislature approves more than $150M extra to public education budget

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 11:40 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public schools will see the largest funding increase in years under the terms of a revised budget that unanimously passed the House and Senate on Wednesday.

HB2 adds nearly $140 million of ongoing funding and $17 million in one-time dollars to the roughly $3.7 billion base education budget for the 2013-14 academic year, which was passed early in the session and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert last month.

The supplemental bill debated Wednesday includes an additional $68.5 million for growth in enrollment and a $47.7 million increase, or 2 percent, to the weighted pupil unit, the basic funding unit for public education.

The bill establishes ongoing funding for several programs that are typically funded on a one-year basis, such as optional extended-day kindergarten and dual immersion, and appropriates one-time funding toward fine arts and science programs, computer adaptive testing and professional development.

"I think we can all be proud of what we've done for education this year," said bill sponsor Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville. "We can always do more, but in light of the circumstances, I think we've done well."

As the 2013 Legislature nears its end, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the major work is done. Bills calling for appropriations already have been passed, and the budget is in place, he said.

"We're really in a great position," Niederhauser said. "I still hope we get out a little early."

But many lawmakers still have bills they want to push through before the session ends at midnight Thursday.

"We all have our personal agendas," said veteran Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

Proposed tax incentives for construction of a downtown convention center hotel will be among the measures that go down to the wire. The omnibus liquor bill and three government ethics proposals await final votes.

There also is a clean-air bill that would initiate a transition to more natural gas use in vehicles, including looking at how gas companies could build and maintain more service stations. Bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, conceded the Public Service Commission could pass a slight rate increase on to natural gas customers to help pay for the stations.

There were complaints in the House GOP caucus Wednesday about how the Senate was treating House bills, but House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, reminded the representatives they're ahead of schedule this year.

For the first time in a long while, the budget is just about finished, Lockhart said.

"We accomplished a really positive thing," she said, acknowledging there's still "going to be amendments, maneuvering, finagling and deal-making" until the session wraps up.

The Senate, she said, has "bills we'd rather not hear and so do we. That's just the nature of it. … I think we have plenty of time."

The budget amendments approved Wednesday include the top two legislative priorities given to lawmakers by the Utah Board of Education — the funding of enrollment growth and the increase in the weighted pupil unit value, or WPU.

Roughly half of the WPU increase will be absorbed by growing Social Security and retirement costs for Utah's educational workforce, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said. The remaining funds will distributed to school districts on a per-pupil basis.

Menlove said the $68 million in enrollment growth funding will not only address the more than 13,000 students expected to enter the public education system next year, but will also allow for growth in other line item areas related to enrollment such as transportation and adult education.

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