Governor's budget focuses on education

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert focused on education in his proposed $11.9 billion state budget released Friday, setting aside funds to help public schools pay for enrollment growth and all-day kindergarten.

"This budget is more than just numbers, it is a reflection of my priorities and my vision for the state of Utah," Herbert said. "Utah will never fully recognize its economic potential without a highly educated workforce."

Herbert's spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1, 2011, includes a forecast for more than $215 million in additional revenue growth -- but that's still not enough to make up for the recent tough economic times.

Higher education and other state agencies wouldn't see increases under Herbert's budget. And he is proposing plugging just $100 million of the $313 million gap caused by the end of federal stimulus and other one-time funds -- but that plan may be a sticking point for lawmakers.

"I'm sure we'll be 95 percent there, but it will be the 2 percent to 5 percent where we're different that the media will key on," said Senate President Michael Waddoups.

The governor would dip into the state's Rainy Day fund to close the so-called "structural imbalance" in the budget, leaving $110 million in the emergency fund that once totaled nearly $420 million.

As expected, there are no tax increases in the budget. But the governor is recommending again this year that self-employed Utahns remit their income taxes quarterly rather than annually.

That change, rejected by lawmakers last session in Herbert's first budget as governor, would accelerate the tax collections, resulting in an extra $130 million this budget year.

It will be up to the 2011 Legislature, which begins meeting in mid-January, to set the state's next budget. Lawmakers have already been talking about the need to close more of the one-time spending gap.

Public education makes up $3.4 billion of the state budget. Herbert's proposed increase is $63 million to fund growth and "education excellence" -- things like all-day kindergarten, core standards and assessment.

"Our children in Utah need to have continued investment," said Larry Shumway, Superintendent of Public Instruction. "There are additional opportunities for investment that aren't included in this budget."

But there are members of the Legislature who don't like all-day kindergarten, a program seen by some conservatives as allowing government to usurp the role of parents.

Herbert, however, is recommending $7.5 million to continue all-day kindergarten, a program started under his predecessor, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. There is also another $5.5 million for programs endorsed by the Governor's Education Excellence Commission.

His biggest expenditure for public schools would be $50 million to help pay for the 14,700 new students expected in the coming budget year, about two-thirds of the actual cost.

There are also increases in the governor's budget in Medicaid; the Children's Health Insurance Program known as CHIP; and programs that serve the disabled and the mentally ill to help pay for increased caseloads.

Judi Hilman with the Utah Health Policy Project said, "I'm pleased to see we have enough for caseload growth -- not just for Medicaid, but for CHIP."

The governor would set aside more than $350,000, most of it in one-time money, for the state's multi-agency strike force that deals with felonies associated with illegal immigration and human trafficking.

Herbert, who was elected in November to fill the remaining two years of Huntsman's term, also announced a new website to track the progress of recommendations from his commission on optimizing state government.

The proposed budget reflects his optimism about the state's economic future.

"Although we still have some challenges ahead of us, we are beginning to see signs of economic recovery in many different areas," the governor said. "Utah is poised to lead the nation out of this recession."

"Our watch phrase last year was ‘Do more with less,'" he continued. "Our watch phrase this year is ‘Do more with the same.'"


Story compiled with contributions from Lisa Riley Roche and Richard Piatt.

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