Base budgets were approved by the House and Senate on Tuesday for public and higher education.
I'm not willing to put $10,000 down for every math and science teacher at the expense of taking away programs that are helping children. —House Minority Assistant Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — The Legislature on Tuesday approved base budgets for public and higher education at 98 percent of current funds as part of a budgeting exercise.

But lawmakers say the other 2 percent not included in the base budgets will be reallocated later in the session as new funds are distributed.

The exercise was intended to give legislators an opportunity to seek out areas in the budget where efficiency could be improved and to better understand how each item is prioritized.

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, called it a "worthwhile exercise" for legislators and education leaders.

"It's an exercise that will prepare them (so that) when the storms that are out there somewhere do start to roll across the horizon, we're ready," Wilson said.

Base budgets are established somewhat early on during the legislative session to ensure Utah's education systems have funds to operate on if lawmakers aren't able to agree on the finer points of budget appropriations by the end of the session.

Public education

SB1, which allocates $3.9 billion in base funding for public education, is about $63.1 million short of current funding. Those cuts include flexible allocation funds, pupil transportation, adult education, concurrent enrolment, a K-3 reading improvement fund, and USTAR, or Utah Science, Technology and Research centers.

The largest cut is in the charter school local replacement fund at $20.5 million. School districts are required to allocate a portion of their property tax revenues to charter schools, which don't have taxing authority. If the cut was to be enacted, districts would be required to provide additional funds for charters.

All but three of the cuts in the budget were part of a recommendation from the Utah State Board of Education, which participated in the exercise with the Legislature for the first time this year.

Lawmakers say they plan to later allocate more than the $63 million taken from the budget, bringing the public education budget to 102 percent of its current amount. In addition, $55 million will be appropriated to account for an expected enrollment increase of 7,000 students this fall.

Despite the surplus, it remains unclear whether funding for each program that was cut will be restored in full or if the money will be reprioritized elsewhere.

A growing discussion during the session has focused on providing better compensation for school teachers, especially teachers in math and science. One initiative would use the funds to increase teacher pay in those subjects by $10,000. But not all lawmakers agree on how the funds should be used.

"That is a worthy public policy to debate," said House Minority Assistant Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. "But I'm not willing to put $10,000 down for every math and science teacher at the expense of taking away programs that are helping children."

While it's expected the Legislature will refund many of the programs, some lawmakers are asking what the point of the budgeting exercise would be if all funds were redistributed exactly as they were before, despite whatever insights were gained on current budget efficiency.

"My firm belief is the large majority of these items will be restored," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, House chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "To say that our budget was 100 percent perfect and there's not one line item that could be reallocated or re-examined, I believe, is completely false."

Brad Smith, Utah state superintendent of public instruction, has also said he hopes to partner with the Utah State Board of Education in creating a zero-based budget over the summer, which would essentially build the public education budget from scratch in order to examine funding for every line item in detail.

The public education base budget bill passed the Senate unanimously Monday, and it passed the House with a 56-17 vote Tuesday.

Higher education

While the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee was subject to the same budgeting exercise, the approach to finding 2 percent in savings was not the same.

Instead of slicing the budget, the committee said it would ask each higher education institution to find areas of savings if such a cutback were necessary.

Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, vice chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said institutions have been given discretion in the past in how to form their operating budget.

"We don't have a lot of sub-line items and detail within those budgets. We leave it to them to decide how to do that," Stanard said. "It was a little more difficult in this committee to try to figure out exactly what's going to change with that 2 percent reduction because really, it's up to those presidents to decide how and what they were going to do with that."

The approach, however, caused a measure of frustration among legislative leaders, who had asked each appropriations committee to find "real savings" in their budgets. As a result, legislative leaders are unsure whether the higher education budget will be held harmless by the exercise.

"We want to get those base budgets right. We want to test the premise of last year's budget, not just assume that everything happened like it was supposed to," said House Speaker Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "I think that they'll still have the opportunity to build back."

But Senate chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said the committee followed the same process as when actual cuts were made during the recent economic recession.

"This is what we did in the downturn that we faced five years ago," Urquhart said. "It worked well. We give a lot of autonomy to these presidents, and they do run a good system."

Despite the frustration, members of the House passed the base budget in a 61-13 vote, with Democrats opposed. The budget was upheld unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday.

HB1 allocates $1.57 billion in base funding for higher education, including $855 million from the education and general funds.

Lawmakers have expressed a strong interest in implementing a performance-based funding model for Utah's eight public colleges and universities, though only a small percentage of funds would be awarded based on performance.

Legislators will also decide which capital projects to fund among a list of nine proposed buildings outlined by the Utah State Board of Regents.

"I think that we're doing a good job in higher education," Urquhart said. "The table is set to do some phenomenal things with performance funding."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

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