House speaker's education initiative has big price tag
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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.
"It's the right direction," said Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, whose husband, Martell Menlove, is the state superintendent of public education. "If she can find a way to fund it, kudos to her."
What's being called "The Public Education Modernization Act" could take up to two years to implement statewide, Lockhart said.
Gibson said some of the funding, such as the estimated $45 million needed for infrastructure improvements to schools, could come from the $132 million in surplus, or one-time monies, from the current budget year ending June 30.
Another potential place to find money is the earmark for transportation funding, a set-aside of 30 percent of the growth in sales tax passed in 2011. The earmark was vetoed by the governor, but lawmakers overrode his action.
Lockhart said growth in state revenues due to the improving economy is also a source. The state is expected to collect an additional $206 million in the coming budget year that begins July 1.
In his $13.3 billion proposed budget, the governor recommended $157 million in new funding for public schools, including a 2.5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit funding mechanism, the biggest increase since 2008.
The speaker didn't rule out cutting that increase or the $7.5 million Herbert wants to use to fund early education intervention programs, including all-day kindergarten.
"Everything is on the table. There are no sacred cows," Lockhart said when asked about the governor's plans for the money. "This is a transformational idea, and we have to have a serious discussion about it."
The governor's office said in a statement that Herbert has been "a strong proponent of enhancing the technology available to teachers and students" since he first convened his Education Excellence Commission four years ago.
"The governor appreciates the support of legislative leadership for this important initiative. He looks forward to working with the Senate and House to find the right balance for funding competing priorities with limited taxpayer dollars."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy
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