Legislature meets top priorities of public, higher education

Published: Thursday, March 13 2014 11:20 p.m. MDT

Lawmakers appropriated more than $240 million in additional funding to public and higher education during the 2014 legislative session.

Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Education took top billing as the 2014 legislative session drew to a close Thursday evening.

In SB2, lawmakers appropriated an additional $168 million in one-time and ongoing funding to the state's public schools, including $62 million for enrollment growth and a 2.5 percent increase in per-pupil spending.

Utah's colleges and universities received more than $75 million in SB3, including a $50 million boon in equity funding to the state's open-enrollment schools, where a surging student population has stretched state dollars thin.

"This is going to be enormously helpful to these open-enrollment institutions that have grown so dramatically over the last number of years and who need to have capacity to continue to grow," said David Buhler, commissioner of higher education.

Funding for public and higher education accounts for more than half of all new revenues allocated by the Legislature this year. Lawmakers were also able to meet the top priorities of officials at both levels of education.

But with an ever-growing student population, swelling class sizes, some of the lowest funding levels in the country and a statewide goal to increase graduation rates and degree attainment, educators and lawmakers alike say the current practice of relying on year-to-year economic growth may not hold for long.

On Thursday, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser spoke to the issue of transportation costs, often viewed as the funding rival of education, and how a dollar for Utah's roads frequently comes at the expense of Utah's classrooms.

"When we take general funds to pay for transportation, we are taking funds away from education," Niederhauser said. "We’re coming to a point where that just isn’t going to work anymore."

Budget negotiations were further complicated this year by the introduction of a massive school technology proposal by House Speaker Becky Lockhart. The $200 million HB131 — an amount greater than the total new funding awarded to public education — sought to overhaul the state's technology infrastructure, train educators and eventually see a personal learning device in the hands of each of Utah's more than 600,000 students.

Senate leaders balked at the cost, offering $26 million instead for an incremental rollout, and Gov. Gary Herbert said he would veto any figure greater than $30 million. The stalemate threatened to force a special session of the Legislature to resolve the budget, but House leaders receded from their plans entirely, allowing for a consensus budget to move forward.

"I’ve been here for 16 years, and I know how to take a punch," Lockhart said of the defeat of the technology initiative. "You know the real fighters by how they react after they get hit."

Lockhart, who has announced that she will not seek re-election this year, said she remains committed to achieving a so-called "1-to-1" device ratio. She said she will continue to work with her colleagues in the House and Senate to examine ways to increase technology in schools.

"I will still be the speaker of the House for nine more months, and I’m the chair of the Education Task Force that we just voted to extend for another year, so there will be plenty of time to move that initiative forward," Lockhart said.

Buhler said he was grateful for the work of the Legislature in funding higher education. Beyond the equity funding, which will be used to address capacity by hiring staff and opening up "bottleneck" courses, lawmakers approved $3.5 million for the Regents and New Century Scholarship programs and funding for infrastructure upgrades at the University of Utah, new classroom buildings at Utah State University's regional campuses and the construction of a science building at Weber State University that has been a construction priority for several years.

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