OREM — Gov. Gary Herbert was mostly upbeat Wednesday as he highlighted his $13.3 billion budget proposal that includes $261 million in new money for education and $36 million to expand the state prison at Gunnison.
State revenues are expected to climb $338 million in the spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1, 2014, "the good news for us," the governor said.
But Herbert also cautioned the state is still "in a very tepid economic recovery" because of the uncertainty over the budget turmoil in Washington, D.C., that could be reversed if taxes were raised.
"We've been healthier," the governor said, noting that revenue growth is some $61 million less than the current budget year. "What you don't want to do is collapse the recovery we've had in Utah."
Still, Herbert said he expects the 2014 Legislature to at least talk about boosting the state's gas tax for the first time in years.
"We'll see where that leads to," he said, suggesting it might not be seriously considered for another year.
The governor referred to a recent report by Utah State Auditor John Dougall that included a warning the state was too dependent on federal funds. The governor said federal dollars account for about $3.5 billion or 26.6 percent of his budget.
That percentage, he said, has stayed about the same over the past decade, though it was higher during the economic downturn.
"Nothing to be too alarmed about there, I would think," Herbert said.
The governor released the budget at Utah Valley University, highlighting the focus on public and higher education spending, which adds up to more than $3.6 billion.
His budget would provide $64 million to pay for the 10,300 new students expected in the state's public schools and increase the funding mechanism for schools — the weighted pupil unit — by $61.6 million, or 2.5 percent.
Herbert is also recommending $2 million to improve counseling aimed at lowering the state's 22 percent high school dropout rate and $7.5 million for early intervention programs, including all-day kindergarten.
The $157 million in new spending going to public education is fair, said Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction.
"It's not quite what we asked for," Menlove said, but consistent with education being Herbert's top priority.
"Within the funds that were available, I think the governor treated public education very well," he said.
For the state's colleges and universities, Herbert set aside $104 million in new spending, including cash for a $57.4 million science building at Weber State University and $19.3 million to help growing campuses like UVU.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler said the money to help campuses deal with enrollment growth will help keep next year's tuition increases minimal.
"Hopefully they'll be modest," Buhler said.
In addition to the new science building, the governor also wants the state to use cash to construct a new $17.5 million facility at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and add about 180 beds to the state prison at Gunnison.
The expansion of the state prison at Gunnison would increase housing for high-security inmates and has been discussed by a state committee currently reviewing whether to recommend relocating the Utah State Prison in Draper.
The Prison Relocation and Development Authority has postponed action on that recommendation, initially expected in time for the legislative session that begins in late January.
Herbert said even though a decision has yet to be made on whether to move the Point of the Mountain facility, expanding the Gunnison prison is "not controversial. It's a no-brainer. It's the least expensive way to add beds."
Also proposed in the governor's budget is a $6.1 million increase in jail contracting and reimbursement rates with county jails, and another $1.86 million for a county jail program intended to reduce recidivism.
The budget from the governor includes money for a 1.25 percent pay raise for state employees and fully funds increases in pension and health care costs. Similar benefits would be available to public and higher education employees.
Herbert acknowledged Utah's pollution problem in his budget, putting aside $18 million to improve air quality. Most of that money, $14.3 million, would go toward replacing aging school buses and state vehicles.
Nearly $2 million would be used to research ways to deal with the state's winter inversions, and another $1.3 million would go to the Utah Clean Air Partnership.
Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said while the money will help, it isn't enough.
"It's a symbolic gesture that has some value in that I think this is the first time we've seen any money committed directly to the air pollution problem," Moench said. "We'd like to see a lot more of it."
Low-income needs dealt with in the budget include $1.6 million for the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund, $500,000 to The Road Home and $500,000 for after-school programs addressing intergenerational poverty.
What's not in the governor's budget is the Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act. Herbert has said he is still deciding whether Utah will accept the additional coverage, which has no cost initially to the state.
The governor's budget is based on revenue estimates already agreed to by the Legislature. Those estimates will be updated toward the end of the 2014 Legislature.
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