Governor, legislators agree to accept federal education funding

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah lawmakers have decided not to turn away more than $140 million from the federal government, but they're still angry because they say they money has strings attached.

It was an agonizing decision that had Utah legislative leaders both tempted and annoyed at the same time. In all, about $140 million was in question.

Just over $100 million of the money is aimed at teacher salaries to keep teachers in the classroom; roughly $40 million would pay for the Medicare health care burden of low-income residents.

Lawmakers are frustrated that the state would have no say in how the money is spent and that it might come even if the governor doesn't formally request it.

"On one hand, we could use the money -- there's no question about it. But on the other hand, we're saying, ‘Jiminy Christmas! We're getting tired of the federal government telling us what to do and how to do it.' And this is a big deal this time," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins.

At a time when there is a serious deficit in education funding, the money will be put to good use in the short term. In addition, the state is once again facing an overall shortfall of about $48 million this year.

House Minority Leader David Litvack says the money is just what the doctor ordered.

"I think it would be foolish to reject it. This is -- this is Utah taxpayer dollars coming back to benefit Utah," he said.

The Democratic leader says objection to accepting the funding is more a case of political divisiveness gone too far than it is a states' rights issue.

In spite of frustration, legislative leaders and the governor agreed Wednesday they'll take the money.

"We've got to do everything we can to reduce classroom sizes and protect public education," Gov. Gary Herbert. "This is an opportunity to do that, and so we're looking at it very closely."

Exactly where the money will be spent within the education budget will be decided later. Lawmakers are also interested in confirming budget estimates and education shortfalls to guide that decision.

Education advocates, meanwhile, applaud the influx of cash, saying every little bit helps no matter where it's coming from.


Story compiled with contributions from Richard Piatt and Becky Bruce.

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