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SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert released his final budget proposal before he leaves office at the end of the year.
While he contends most of his request hasn’t changed from the previous year, the governor said education, social systems and transportation are a prime focus of his $20 billion proposal. The total budget number is based on money from state, federal and local funds. In all, state funds cover about $12.3 billion of the total request.
"$12.3 billion is really what the state of Utah controls; it's what we assess, what we tax. We receive monies we are in charge of," Herbert explained. "That's where we have our opportunities to invest appropriately and make sure we're investing strategically."
Here are some key takeaways from his proposal for the 2021 fiscal year prior to the 2020 legislative session, which starts Jan. 27. The 2021 fiscal year begins on July 1.
College tuition freeze?
As it is every year, education is the leader in what Utah’s budget goes toward. About $4.9 billion in state-directed funds and a combined $7.4 billion from federal, state and local funds are proposed to be spent on public education for the 2021 fiscal year alone. That means one-third of the entire budget would go toward public education.
A total of $1.6 billion of state-directed money is directed toward higher education, as well. Herbert is seeking:
- $38.1 million in one-time funding
- More than $600,000 in ongoing money for construction and maintenance of the Bridgerland Technical College Health, Science and Technology building
- Nearly $35 million for employee compensation
- $15.8 million in performance funding for the Utah System of Higher Education
- $9 million for UTech employer-driven program expansion and student support However, the most interesting piece in the budget proposal centers around tuition. Herbert is asking colleges across Utah to freeze tuition increases so the state can study college affordability. It’s something he’s said he likely doesn’t have the direct power to control, but something he hopes the state’s Board of Regents will agree to do. “If you need more money and want to raise tuition, let’s find out where the money is going and what affordability looks like,” Herbert said. “That’s just a good incentive to get it done.”
Herbert's budget report notes tuition and fees at Utah's universities and colleges have increased 216% over the past 20 years, while general inflation rose 48% and median household incomes rose 62% during the same time span. Yet only 41% of students graduate within eight years of enrolling for associate or bachelor degrees, the report noted.
"The Governor believes that affordability must be defined in a way that all stakeholders can embrace, and he recognizes that the definition may vary with institutional missions," the governor’s 140-page budget request book states. "In defining affordability, the Governor recommends stakeholders focus on what is right for students, families, and taxpayers and avoid being complacent as a result of how favorably our institutions fare in national comparisons of tuition costs."
Social service programs
Utah’s commitment to Medicaid is the biggest change from Utah’s actual FY2019 total and the proposal for FY2021. That’s because the state’s fallback plan for Medicaid expansion, which was approved last month, has now kicked into place. The state is seeking $100 million in ongoing funds related to the Medicaid expansion. Federal funds are expected to cover 90% of Utah’s Medicaid expansion, which covers people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty rate.
In addition, Herbert is requesting $30.5 million in ongoing and one-time funding for “significant investments in the state’s mental health services system.”
Other major social service fund requests include:
- $11 million for a new behavioral health transition facility for inmates with mental illness who have completed their prison sentences.
- $10.4 million toward at least two 23-hour, no-refusal physical and behavioral health crisis treatment centers. These centers would help treat people in crisis and also divert overcrowded emergency rooms and jails.
- $4.9 million for a 30-bed forensic unit at the State Hospital that would ease overcrowding problems.
- Close to $4.5 million in ongoing funding to offer state plan services for 700 children and adults for people with disabilities under a Medicaid waiver.
- $2.5 million in ongoing funds for five mobile crisis outreach teams in underserved counties.
- $1.3 million in ongoing funds toward the Operation Rio Grande Sober Living programs and mental health services.
- $1 million in Medicaid behavioral health reimbursement rate increases.
- $500,000 for healthcare professional student loan repayment “to increase the supply of mental health professionals in underserved areas."
In all, Herbert wants $1.8 billion to go toward Utah's transportation systems. However, a $34 million request for ongoing funds to help Utah Transit Authority work on double-tracking its FrontRunner lines might be the most notable transportation ask.
Double-tracking, or two rail lines, allows trains to move up and down the line without having to stop to allow a train in the other direction to pass by. The governor’s office says some “strategically placed” tracking might allow for increased-capacity express trains that could depart every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes. That, in turn, could help increase efficiency and make the system more convenient for commuters.
Air quality improvements
Herbert touted Utah’s work to cut back on emissions, which he said is starting to show results. He said the state has cut pollution emissions 30% over the past decade despite rapid population growth. He and the Utah Division of Air Quality are also seeking to trim the state’s per capita emissions by another 25% by 2026. That equates to about 100,000 tons in human-originated emissions, according to his budget proposal.
Tier 3 fuel recently became available in Utah. The state expects once all vehicles in Utah have switched to Tier 3 fuel, vehicle emissions could be cut by 80%.
Meanwhile, Herbert is once again seeking $100 million toward air quality improvements, which include transit and electric vehicle infrastructure. The request is specifically $66 million in one-time and $34 million in ongoing funds.
Of the one-time money, nearly all of it — $63 million to be exact — would go toward creating “a comprehensive DC fast charger installation plan to broaden electric car infrastructure in all parts of the state.” The $34 million in ongoing funds would go toward housing and transportation adjustments that would improve air quality.
Herbert asked for $100 million to be put aside for air quality improvements last year; in the end, just $28.7 million of that request was approved for FY2020. Nearly one-third of that money was used for Utah’s wood stove replacement program.
Herbert’s proposal also states he is directing the Utah Department of Transportation to do roadside mowing before the state’s wildfire season begins, which usually starts in late spring and early summer.
“This change will measurably reduce burnable fuels on the roadside, reduce the number of wildfires and improve air quality during fire season,” according to the governor's budget book.
- $20 million is proposed to help market-driven affordable housing programs.
- The proposal seeks $8.6 million to fund Utah Highway Patrol workforce needs, such as highway patrol vehicles. Another $6.5 million is being requested to help hire adult probation and parole agents.
- Herbert is seeking $40 million toward preserving, enhancing and restoring access to open spaces and recreational areas across Utah. There's also $16.6 million proposed to expand and improve state park camping, lodging OHV trails and parking; $1.6 million is being proposed to expand Goblin Valley State Park.
- $3 million is proposed for better optimizing agriculture water; $1 million is proposed to go toward improved water metering for better municipal and industrial efficiency.
- In addition to cutting carbon emissions by 25% over the next few years, Herbert is hoping for 25% improved performance efficiency across all cabinet-level agencies over the next four years. That's based on Quality Throughput divided by Operating Expense. For example, Herbert applauded the Driver License Division for having only a 5-minute wait time.