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House speaker's education initiative has big price tag

Published: Friday, Jan. 31 2014 7:29 p.m. MST

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, looks up into the gallery of the House of Representatives Friday, Jan. 31, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Becky Lockhart offered few specifics Friday about her pricey plans to introduce more technology into public schools, a proposal that's already being seen as launching her anticipated bid to become governor.

The price tag for the education initiative expected to be unveiled next week is less than $300 million, the speaker said, money that apparently will come from a reallocation of resources rather than a tax increase.

"We know it's a big number," Lockhart told reporters during her daily briefing.

She said because the legislation is still being put together, the exact cost and funding sources have not yet been determined.

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who is carrying the bill for the speaker, said no taxes will be increased to pay for gearing up schools for the switch from textbooks to tablet computers and other technology.

"I don't know all of the sources. But I've been assured it will be there," Gibson said.

Although the speaker urged schools to "think big" Monday in her address to the House on the opening day of the 2014 session, the scope and especially the cost of her proposal surprised many on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers wondered publicly where the money to pay for the initiative would come from and privately about whether the speaker is looking ahead to a run against Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016.

"I know people want to point to ulterior motives, but I think it's unfair," House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said. "It's just a goal to go statewide (with technology) and be more aggressive in doing it by way of a timetable."

Lockhart, who has yet to talk about her future political plans, said she would answer her critics by saying, "everybody wants to have some sort of legacy, some sort of something they can be satisfied with."

She told the Deseret News earlier in the day she had hired Jonathan Wilcox, who describes himself as a leading speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson, to write speeches for her.

His first speech for Lockhart was Monday's opening address to the House, widely seen as critical of Herbert because of references to him needing to lead and being an "inaction figure."

But the speaker said no one should see Wilcox's hiring as a sign she's running for governor, even though she will pay him from campaign funds.

"It shouldn't be shocking," she said. "Politicians hire speechwriters."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, suggested Lockhart may be overreaching with her initiative.

"I love the gutsyness of it, but I think it's too aggressive with everything else we're trying to accomplish this session," said Osmond, who has pushed a number of education proposals.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, also has questions.

"I'm all for public education, but I want to know the details. Where's the money going to go? Where's the money going to come from?" asked King, who unsuccessfully pushed for tax increase in past sessions for schools.

King said he's "suspicious of piecemeal approaches to improving public education" because of the impact on education initiatives, including those aimed at getting more students interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

"There's a lot of detail in that that I'm not familiar with," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

"We would obviously have questions about are we going to use up all that money on this initiative. What about growth? What about the (weighted pupil unit)? Those are questions that will need to be asked as we move along the process," Niederhauser said.

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