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Legislature approves more than $150M extra to public education budget

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 2:55 a.m. MDT

Hundreds of Utah educators and parents gather Monday, March 11, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol in support of the public education funding. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Hundreds of Utah educators and parents gather Monday, March 11, 2013 at the Utah State Capitol in support of the public education funding. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's public schools will see the largest funding increase in years under the terms of a revised budget that unanimously passed the House and Senate on Wednesday.

HB2 adds nearly $140 million of ongoing funding and $17 million in one-time dollars to the roughly $3.7 billion base education budget for the 2013-14 academic year, which was passed early in the session and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert last month.

The supplemental bill debated Wednesday includes an additional $68.5 million for growth in enrollment and a $47.7 million increase, or 2 percent, to the weighted pupil unit, the basic funding unit for public education.

The bill establishes ongoing funding for several programs that are typically funded on a one-year basis, such as optional extended-day kindergarten and dual immersion, and appropriates one-time funding toward fine arts and science programs, computer adaptive testing and professional development.

Security escorts legislators from the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Security escorts legislators from the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"I think we can all be proud of what we've done for education this year," said bill sponsor Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville. "We can always do more, but in light of the circumstances, I think we've done well."

As the 2013 Legislature nears its end, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the major work is done. Bills calling for appropriations already have been passed, and the budget is in place, he said.

"We're really in a great position," Niederhauser said. "I still hope we get out a little early."

But many lawmakers still have bills they want to push through before the session ends at midnight Thursday.

"We all have our personal agendas," said veteran Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

Proposed tax incentives for construction of a downtown convention center hotel will be among the measures that go down to the wire. The omnibus liquor bill and three government ethics proposals await final votes.

Rep. Derek Brown, right, and Rep. Rich Cunningham hammer out details of House Bill 95 that Cunningham is co-sponsoring on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Rep. Derek Brown, right, and Rep. Rich Cunningham hammer out details of House Bill 95 that Cunningham is co-sponsoring on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

There also is a clean-air bill that would initiate a transition to more natural gas use in vehicles, including looking at how gas companies could build and maintain more service stations. Bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, conceded the Public Service Commission could pass a slight rate increase on to natural gas customers to help pay for the stations.

There were complaints in the House GOP caucus Wednesday about how the Senate was treating House bills, but House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, reminded the representatives they're ahead of schedule this year.

For the first time in a long while, the budget is just about finished, Lockhart said.

"We accomplished a really positive thing," she said, acknowledging there's still "going to be amendments, maneuvering, finagling and deal-making" until the session wraps up.

Lobbyists confer in the lobby of the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Lobbyists confer in the lobby of the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The Senate, she said, has "bills we'd rather not hear and so do we. That's just the nature of it. … I think we have plenty of time."

The budget amendments approved Wednesday include the top two legislative priorities given to lawmakers by the Utah Board of Education — the funding of enrollment growth and the increase in the weighted pupil unit value, or WPU.

Roughly half of the WPU increase will be absorbed by growing Social Security and retirement costs for Utah's educational workforce, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said. The remaining funds will distributed to school districts on a per-pupil basis.

Menlove said the $68 million in enrollment growth funding will not only address the more than 13,000 students expected to enter the public education system next year, but will also allow for growth in other line item areas related to enrollment such as transportation and adult education.

Legislators prepare to begin floor time in the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Legislators prepare to begin floor time in the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The superintendent said he would give the Legislature a grade of "a strong B-plus or A-minus" for its efforts in addressing the State School Board's priorities and funding concerns.

"It's not everything we asked for. It's definitely not everything we need. There continue to be great needs," he said. "But if you're grading effort from the Legislature, I think they've made great effort in funding education."

On Monday, members of the education community, including the Utah Education Association and Utah Parent Teacher Association, held a rally at the Capitol to thank lawmakers for their commitment to and investment in public education.

"This is what funding the WPU can do," said Jennifer Graviet, a teacher at Sand Ridge Junior High School in Roy. "It can give us more time to plan, lower class sizes, and it can help us retain and attract the very best teachers."

Legislators enter the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Legislators enter the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

During floor debate Wednesday, several lawmakers stood to commend the Executive Appropriations Committee for its work in drafting the budget and to express their support for increased funding to Utah's schools.

"In my five years, this is the most we've given public education," said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, chairman of the House Education Committee. "I think you can go back to your constituents and let them know this is the biggest amount we've given them in a long time."

While no lawmakers voted against the budget, Sen. Jim Dabakis expressed his concern with the manner in which the Legislature funds education each year. Rather than waiting to see what surplus state revenues are available to then discuss whether school needs will be met, he said lawmakers need to establish a long-term and expansive vision for where education is headed.

"I just don't think that's a good way. I certainly wouldn't run my business that way," Dabakis said. "We need to make a serious 10-, 15-year commitment."

Security guards close the doors during a session in the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Security guards close the doors during a session in the House of Representatives on the second-to-last day of the legislative session at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche and Dennis Romboy

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

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