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Lawmakers take first look at public education budget bill



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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers began working to determine budget appropriations for Utah's public schools Tuesday, with a special focus on finding ways to improve financial efficiency.

Utah's public education base budget bill is drafted at 100 percent of last year's ongoing state revenues, including more than $2.7 billion for education.

But top lawmakers have temporarily reduced allocations to all appropriation subcommittees by 2 percent as part of a budget effectiveness review. The exercise, they say, will help legislators evaluate existing funding programs, stress-test the existing budget, and find areas of potential savings.

Even though the state is anticipating budget surpluses, lawmakers say the review will also help them understand what the impacts would be if revenues were to decline and cuts needed to be made.

For public education, the hypothetical cut would be about $55 million.

"This is a productive exercise we hope will yield some insights into how money can be better utilized," said Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, House chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "I think it's very important to clarify the intent of the co-chairs is when the final budget is submitted that it will not reflect a decrease in overall funding for public education, but rather an increase."

Sixty-nine percent of the public education budget is composed of state funds, with 16 percent coming from local taxes and another 12 percent from the federal government.

While 77 percent of the funds are unrestricted, meaning they're not earmarked for specific purposes, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, Senate chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, urged other committee members to avoid restricting tax revenues.

Stephenson said fees are often "appropriately" earmarked to pay for specific services, but earmarking tax revenues can become problematic when budgeting for priorities that change over time.

"It basically ties the hands of policymakers and makes them less able to serve the public that they were elected to serve," he said. "I think policymakers need to have flexibility in meeting all of their needs rather than having their hands tied by earmarking of certain major taxes for specific purposes."

Ben Leishman, the committee's fiscal analyst, said the base budget bill is meant to address three key objectives in public education — equity, fostering a partnership between state and local agencies, and allowing local control of education funds.

Equity, Leishman said, is a "fundamental component to the education system." Regardless of where students live in the state, they are entitled to a competitive education opportunity, he said.

As property taxes contribute about 40 percent of revenue for local schools, property values can heavily influence the revenues each district is able to generate. And areas with lower property values often have the largest number of students.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said one priority of the Legislature should be to address funding inequity among Utah's schools.

"Is it right that one district has significant financial resources because of where they live relative to the quality and access of educational opportunity, versus another district that cannot provide that?" Osmond said. "We have to address that as a Legislature (because) we are the ones who drew those boundaries, and we are responsible for ensuring that we can provide equitable access to every student."

Osmond is also sponsoring two bills that would adjust the minimum basic property tax rate to equalize tax levies and set aside 30 percent of growth in income tax revenue for school districts that struggle the most financially.

Stephenson said equity will be an area for lawmakers to consider as they seek to improve the efficiency of funding appropriations.

"We have to address this issue," he said. "That's part of what we as chairs want to do in looking at this 2 percent cut is seeing if there's some areas where we can really drill down into the base budget and make some significant changes so that as we come in for the regular budget, it will already resolve some of those issues."

The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee will continue developing the public education budget in its next meeting Thursday.

Morgan Jacobsen

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