In the end, what they were offering was frankly change out of couch cushions. —House Speaker Becky Lockhart
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.
House leaders had already dropped another of the speaker's proposals this session, a $35 million alternative to Medicaid expansion that would use state dollars to provide limited coverage to only the neediest Utahns.
The House GOP caucus, which heard details of the budget deal in a closed meeting, did not take a position on the budget. But Lockhart said she expected it to be approved by the House.
The budget passed by the Executive Appropriations Committee on Monday includes more than $127 million for a 2.5 percent increase in the state's funding mechanism for schools and enrollment growth, both in the governor's budget.
House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said higher education "made out like a bandit," getting more than $75 million, including $50 million intended to help rapidly growing campuses such as Utah Valley University.
Also in the budget is $36 million for an expansion of the state prison in Gunnison requested by Herbert, as well as $4 million to pay for the House investigation into former Attorney General John Swallow.
Plus there's $500,000 for the state's defense of Amendment 3, the state's voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, through the 10th Circuit of Appeals.
The new spending is on top of the base budgets approved earlier in the session. The House and the Senate each have $3 million left to spend, split between one-time surplus funds and ongoing revenues.
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said there was little controversy in the budget negotiations once the speaker's initiative was no longer on the table.
"Our approach was, if you really want to do it, there are ways," Hillyard said of the education technology initiative. "She really didn't want to do it that much."