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Governor threatens to veto education initiative if price tag is not slashed

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert threatened Thursday to veto a controversial education technology initiative from House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, unless the price tag is cut from $200 million to no more than $30 million.

"The governor would emphasize Utah is not Washington, D.C.," said Marty Carpenter, the governor's spokesman. "D.C.-style politics leads to D.C.-style outcomes, and this is not the Utah way."

Herbert believes the state "should not throw hundreds of millions of dollars at an initiative only to discover the lessons learned after the fact," Carpenter said.

The most that should be spent, he said, is $20 million to $30 million.

"The governor is prepared to veto anything that comes in above that amount," Carpenter said.

The price tag for the speaker's plan to replace textbooks with tablet computers in Utah schools has also sparked a stalemate over the state's spending plan between the Republican majority in the House and Senate.

Lockhart downplayed the obvious tension between her and the governor. She is seen as a possible challenger to Herbert in the 2016 gubernatorial election and kicked off the session by calling him an "inaction figure" in her opening speech.

"I'm not going to say it's a threat. I think that's harsh," the speaker said of a veto. "The governor has every right to say what he wants to say. And we have every right to legislate the way we're going to legislate. We'll work it out."

Lockhart said her vision for HB131, sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is to bring Utah schools "out of the 19th century" to better prepare students.

"I hope (the governor) will catch that vision and be a part of it," she said.

Before Herbert issued his ultimatum, the speaker and other House leaders skipped their weekly meeting with their Senate counterparts and the governor. Lockhart said it was because they weren't ready to talk about the budget.

Senate GOP leaders said there's not enough money available to cover the cost of the initiative and want to spend no more than $26 million. House Republicans responded by closing their caucus to talk about increasing the gas tax to bring in more cash.

Lockhart said no position was taken on the gas tax and called the presentation merely "informational." She said House Republicans reject the notion that taxes must be raised to pay for her education initiative.

The speaker did not rule out that there may end up being less money available for program.

"We can do a lot with more than $30 million," she said. "I know whatever goes into this initiative will be valuable and will help prepare our children. We owe them nothing less."

Senate leaders said the session may end without a budget.

"We’ve set forth our proposal and they theirs, and we’re quite a ways from agreement," said Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "If we don't come together, the governor will have to call us back into special session."

Lawmakers have already approved base budgets but have yet to divvy up nearly $400 million in surplus funds from the current budget year that ends June 30 or the additional revenue expected in the next budget year.

There's already a long list of programs vying for that money, including a $61 million increase in the funding mechanism for public schools used to boost teacher compensation sought by the governor.

Also competing for a share of the money is the speaker's own Medicaid expansion alternative proposal that would use $35 million in state funds to provide health care to a limited number of needy Utahns through existing programs.

That money may be off the table in the budget negotiations with the Senate. House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, confirmed the House GOP caucus took a position on Medicaid expansion Thursday, but he declined to detail it.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said if lawmakers scaled back Lockhart's education plan, there would be money to fund it without diverting school equalization funds or raising the gas tax.

The Senate approved a bill this week initially proposed to equalize funding among the state's school districts, but would now divert $26 million to the initiative. The House has not taken action on the bill, described by Lockhart as a property tax increase.

Niederhauser said there is "zero support" in the Senate for taking the money from transportation funds, as Lockhart wants to do. The speaker has not identified a source, but a 3-cent increase in the state's 24-cent gas tax was discussed Thursday.

"We wouldn't have to address any of these, but we have this new education initiative now that's come into the budget, and there's not enough money in the revenue growth to fund that and everything else," Niederhauser said.

The Senate president said, "There's enough money to give a reasonable amount to this initiative and we could all go home."

Some House members have suggested the Senate bills are a tactic to get the House to agree to a tax increase.

"I'm just not smart enough to do that kind of planning," Hillyard said. "I think the issue really is they want to take money out of the transportation fund. We want to downsize the amount of money they want to put into technology."

Hillyard said the Senate supports the idea of Lockhart's initiative but that it should be funded incrementally, starting with teacher training and equipping schools with computer networks — something the $26 million could cover.

Taking a giant step without a way to pay for it has been a disaster in other states, he said.

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