No money for House Speaker Becky Lockhart's education technology plan in budget

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 8:45 a.m. MDT

There is no money for House Speaker Becky Lockhart's education technology initiative in the budget deal worked out over the weekend with Senate leaders.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — There is no money for House Speaker Becky Lockhart's education technology initiative in the budget deal worked out over the weekend with Senate leaders that moved forward Monday in the Legislature.

"It finally became apparent the House tried to make history. The Senate tried to make a deal, and we were unwilling to take the deal that they presented, so we chose to back away from the initiative," Lockhart, R-Provo, told reporters.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who had threatened to veto the initiative unless the price tag was slashed, said in a statement "this should not be viewed as an all-or-nothing issue" and committed to advancing the use of technology in public education.

Lockhart said she scaled back her request for $200 million to replace textbooks with tablet computers in the state's classrooms, but the Senate was never willing to go above $26 million and later insisted on less.

And, the speaker said, Senate leaders wanted to push the House to accept everything from full Medicaid expansion to hikes in both property and sales taxes, even as she dropped her request to as low as $25 million annually.

"In the end, what they were offering was frankly change out of couch cushions," Lockhart said.

She said it was clear the Senate was unwilling to invest enough money to take the initiative beyond a pilot program.

The initiative, which originally was estimated to cost $300 million, had stalled budget negotiations between the House and Senate during the past week. A final deal was reached Saturday evening.

The Public Education Modernization Act, which didn't surface until after the start of the session, was viewed as Lockhart's legacy. She is not seeking re-election but is viewed as a possible challenger to Herbert in 2016.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he didn't see Medicaid and some of the other issues the speaker said the Senate raised as being connected to her initiative.

"It's just a surprise to me that that was the issue. I think they felt like there was some implications to that. We just let them know this was a heavy lift in the Senate to get that bill passed," he said.

The Senate president said the speaker's proposal wasn't vetted before the session and came as a surprise.

"We never really had all the details, but we did get some toward the end," he said. "It highlights the problem with bringing out such an initiative during the session. These big type of policy changes take some time to get it right."

Niederhauser said the $26 million the Senate offered for Lockhart's initiative was a reasonable amount given there were still many unanswered questions.

"We were struggling because we didn't think we had enough information," he said, including about the speaker's plans. "We came to the (budget) meeting on Saturday and the whole thing had been pulled. That wasn't our decision."

The governor warned late last week that if the initiative, contained in HB131, passed with more than $20 million to $30 million in funding attached, he would veto it.

Herbert said the initiative should be tried as a pilot project first.

The $26 million that Senate Republicans had been willing to spend on the project came from a school equalization bill that Lockhart has said was nothing more than a property tax increase. The Senate also has a gas tax proposal pending.

Neither, the speaker said, will go anywhere in the House.

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