Is it time to talk gas tax? Legislature kicks off Monday
His solution for finding more money for schools is raising the gas tax to free some of the general fund revenues now being steered into road maintenance and construction.
"If we want to be competitive economically, we can't be out raising the income tax," the Senate president said. "If we solve the general fund problem, we can get quite a bit more for education."
Herbert and lawmakers have agreed the state should expect $338 million more in revenues in the budget year that begins July 1, including $132 million left over from the current budget year.
But there's already a long list of needs next session, including $64 million for the 10,300 new public school students anticipated next year, a proposed addition to the state prison at Gunnison, and addressing air quality.
Add in boosts in spending to maintain ongoing efforts such as the governor's goal of ensuring 66 percent of Utah's adults having advanced degrees by 2020, and much of the new money is gone.
"This is the new normal unfortunately," the House speaker said. "It feels like we're coasting."
The forecasted 3.8 percent increase in revenue over the next budget year may be positive, but economic growth is being hampered by the federal government's regulatory policies, Lockhart said.
She said state lawmakers may have no control over what Washington does, but they can avoid raising taxes to bring in more cash by trying "to find new and more innovative ways to leverage the revenue we do have."
That includes relying more on technology in the classroom, the speaker said. House Republicans are "looking very seriously" at legislation to ready educators to shift away from paper and textbooks, she said.
Lawmakers also have to tackle mounting expenses from the House's special investigation into former Attorney General John Swallow that could reach as much as $4 million or more.
There's also the costs of defending Amendment 3 to the state constitution after a federal judge struck down the amendment in December, and mounting a defense against a new lawsuit over recognition of same-sex couples who married before a stay in the case was issued.
None of those items were anticipated when lawmakers put together the state's current budget a year ago, but legislative leaders said they have no choice but to find the money.
"Afford it or not, we've got the bill," the Senate president said of the Swallow investigation costs. The House committee is expected to wrap up its work during the session.
Niederhauser was more enthusiastic about picking up the tab for defending the state's voter-approved constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, struck down last month by a federal judge.
While new Attorney General Sean Reyes had told lawmakers it could cost as much as $2 million for outside counsel to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, he announced recently the attorneys involved agreed to cap their fees.
"The Senate is very supportive of us defending our jurisdiction over marriage, so we feel like this is our duty to see this through," Niederhauser said. "The people have spoken. It's in our constitution."
The House speaker said the Swallow investigation price tag was not out of line with the House's expectations, and she praised the attorney general for keeping the costs down in the Amendment 3 case.
Lockhart said the state's appeal of the case may mean legislation won't go forward on related issues including the preservation of religious freedom and a statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
"We're still evaluating what the best course of action is. And the best course of action may be to do nothing. And I'm OK with that," the speaker said. "The answer may be stand down. Let's let this run its course in the courts."
There will be a plan to expand Medicaid coverage this session, the governor said. He announced last week he had ruled out "doing nothing" about the extension available under the Affordable Care Act, but he wasn't ready to provide details.
While the federal government will pick up the initial costs of the expansion, Lockhart has called for the state to start setting aside now whatever funds would be needed in the future.
Herbert said such a fund is a possibility, but there are many ways to handle the expansion.
"In the next 45 days, we'll have a decision," the governor said. "We just want to make sure we're not doing something that will come back and bite us in the behind."
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