SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox on Monday unveiled his first state budget proposal as governor, rolling out a record $21.7 billion plan that features a spike in new education spending and $250 million toward Utah's COVID-19 response.
In all, Cox's first budget proposal — for the state's 2022 fiscal year — focuses on themes of "opportunity for all" and efficiency as the governor's new administration looks to prepare for a future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The final budget will be crafted throughout the 2021 legislative session, which begins on Jan. 19 and won't go into effect until later in the year.
In all, the state will enter the session with $13.3 billion in the budget from state taxes and fees, leading to about $9 billion in its general and education funds. Additional money is expected through federal funds and other taxes, leading to about $21.7 billion in funding.
The budget was originally expected to be released last week, but the governor's office decided to delay the unveiling as a result of events that happened in Washington, D.C.
A focus on education
Education is perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the budget — a trend carried over from Cox's predecessor, Gary Herbert. The proposed budget calls for $4.2 billion in public education, with another $1.3 billion toward higher education.
Since Constitutional Amendment G — a bill that meant the state could use income taxes and other taxes for education and individuals with disabilities — passed, K-12 education funding received a boost of $431 million ongoing and $180 million one-time funds, said Sophia DiCaro, the state's new executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget. She explained that would cover enrollment growth and contingency funding to handle COVID-19 disruptions.
The plan calls for a 5.82% increase in weighted pupil unit, a statistic educators have voiced concerns about previously. On Feb. 28, 2020, which wound up to be just two weeks before schools would shift to online learning as a result of COVID-19 concerns, teachers and education advocates marched up State Street to the Capitol and pressured legislators to improve per-student spending. It's a statistic Utah traditionally lags in nationally.
There's also a $26.3 million unit add-on for students at risk for academic failure. Cox explained that this money aims to help students who may "fail out" of the state's economic system, which he said may be larger this year than any other time in state history "because of the way that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted students in some of our less-affluent neighborhoods and some of our rural areas."
An additional $9 million would go toward kindergarten students most at risk for academic failure, and another $8 million will go to rural districts in the state. Cox added that it's a problem that legislators need to tackle "right away."
Another highlight is $112 million that would go toward $1,500 bonuses for Utah public education teachers and $1,000 for other staff members. The bonus proposal was first revealed by legislators last month. It also led to controversy over the plan to leave out Salt Lake City School District teachers if they didn't return to the classroom.
As for higher education, the plan calls for $125 million for workplace upscaling. This includes a $40 million postsecondary education innovation fund proposal that seeks to "seed cooperative efforts between schools, institutions of higher education, employers, and other parties to increase the number of students who receive job offers upon graduation." Cox recommends another $16 million fund for K-12 public education for this purpose, as well.
Cox said Monday that he believes the COVID-19 pandemic will also lead to innovation in higher education. For instance, online education was rolled out by the state's universities on an unprecedented scale this school year to deal with the coronavirus. The governor suggested that may reduce the cost of higher education across Utah if used more widely in the future.
Much like when Herbert billed 2018 "the year of the technical education," Cox's budget proposal takes a focus on technical colleges and workforce development away from four-year degrees. He argued that the focus for every student to get a Bachelor's degree was a "huge mistake" that was bad for the economy and for students, especially as important and high-paying jobs are left vacant due to employee shortages.
"We are putting a historic amount of emphasis and resources into upscaling our tech colleges, into upscaling our workforce," Cox said. "Our UTech institutions here in the state trade and technical expertise is needed more than ever."
Of the $49 million proposed for technical education, $38.7 million would go toward a health science and technology building at Bridgerland Technical College. Another $20 million from the $125 million proposal would go toward Utahns struggling to find work — $15.6 million within that would go toward "degree-granting and technical colleges to provide support for unemployed, underemployed, and vulnerable workers."
COVID-19's impact and other disasters
The impacts of the novel coronavirus struck the state just as the 2020 legislative session came to a close, which led to multiple special sessions to adjust Utah's budgets to account for the pandemic. That also means that Cox's budget proposal is the first-ever in state history to specifically address the pandemic response ahead of the legislative session.
The $250 million request toward the COVID-19 response also includes $50 million to cover impacts to education, such as the "digital divide."
An additional $100 million would go toward public health. The money cover testing and coronavirus surveillance costs; Cox added this money would be "critical" in relation to the state's vaccine rollout plan, as well.
Another $100 million would go toward short-term grants for "heavily-impacted" households and companies.
There are also other disaster points in the budget. For instance, there's a recommendation for a $15 million boost in earthquake insurance coverage following last year's 5.7 magnitude earthquake. There's also $60 million requested for wildfire suppression costs so "the state is better prepared for future natural disasters," the document states.
Medicaid, social services and other projects
The budget proposal also calls for $1.2 billion for Medicaid and other social services. It's the largest state/federal-funded program in the budget.
Another $760 million in funding is set aside for corrections, public safety and criminal justice. That includes an increase of $250,000 in ongoing money for public safety, equity and inclusion staff; and $120,000 in ongoing money for "a courts public outreach coordinator for marginalized communities." Another $2.5 million would go toward indigent defense spending.
Another $34 million would be for for jail contracting to be "consistent with new statutory requirements." Meanwhile, $6.3 million of about $10 million toward the Utah Highway Patrol workforce and equipment needs would go toward replacing a 25-year-old Department of Public Safety helicopter.
There are quite a few budget proposals geared toward state employees, totaling close to over $65 million. They include $12.5 million for discretionary funding and to provide funds to help state agencies retain employees or attract new employees, and there is another $8.8 million proposal to provide raises for state employees.
The plan also calls for $127 million in one-time spending and $133.5 million in ongoing funds for new facilities, as well as another $50 million in one-time money and $3 million in ongoing funds to extend "the life" of current state facilities.
Transportation improvements top Cox's long-term economic investment proposals. One is $350 million for Utah Transit Authority to continue double-tracking FrontRunner lines. The project, which would allow trains to run faster and more frequently between Provo and Ogden, was also a target of Herbert's 2021 fiscal year plan. The state asserts that it would help relieve congestion on I-15 and other freeways and highways across the Wasatch Front.
Another $50 million would go toward improvements to transportation within the Wasatch Canyons. The Central Wasatch Commission made advancements in 2020 as they continue to put together a Mountain Transportation System plan.
Beyond that, there's another $125 million proposal for future open space, trails and parks. This includes $100 million for trails and other outdoor recreation amenities throughout the state
Creating a fairer geographic representation
Building on the theme of "opportunity for all," there is plenty of budget proposals targetting rural Utah. Cox delivered his proposal in an online forum with media while he was at the state's new office located on the campus of Southern Utah University. It's where he signed two executive orders pertaining to rural Utah employment expansion right after he concluded talking about his budget plan.
Within his proposal to the Utah Legislature, Cox seeks $125 million for rural infrastructure including $69 million for a rural infrastructure revolving loan fund and $50 million for rural broadband expansion. The remaining $6 million would go toward electric vehicle charging stations in rural Utah. That's on top of the $8 million for rural school districts.
Cox explained that after touring all 248 towns and cities across the state as a part of his gubernatorial campaign, he wanted to ensure that problems among Utah's lesser-populated counties received a fair amount of attention as the state's four most-populated counties.
"It was critical that everyone in Utah felt like they were represented in this budget proposal and certainly rural is a big piece of that," he said, pointing to problems in infrastructure that were pointed out to him during his campaign. These included a "catastrophic failure" in road infrastructure, as well as problems getting natural gas or power upgrades to small communities.
"It's impossible to attract any type of new economy if you don't have the basic infrastructure," he added. "So it's this vicious cycle that certainly impacts everyone; and as Utah has thrived over the past 10 years, we still have several counties that are recessing since the Great Recession. Not only have they not recovered, but they continue to lose jobs and lose population, and we can't forget about them."