Walker Proposes Detouring Roads, Water Money to Education

Walker Proposes Detouring Roads, Water Money to Education

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Olene Walker's proposed $8 billion state budget would increase money for public schools by rerouting funds from roads and water subsidies, -- a tactic former Gov. Mike Leavitt tried with no success during this year's Legislature.

Walker's proposal, released Monday, features $115.8 million in new state money for public education -- including $30 million for reading achievement -- and also calls for $24.9 million in new money for higher education.

Much of the new money for public schools would come from the Centennial Highway Fund, created about a decade ago to specifically address the needs of 41 highway projects statewide at a cost of $3.7 billion.

Raiding it for education "will never fly," Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich said Friday afternoon. "Last year it was a definite 'no.' I anticipate the same."

Walker herself indicated lawmakers have told her as much. The reaction from legislative leaders was "about what I expected," she said. "Some just smiled."

She is proposing to redirect the ongoing General Fund appropriation of $59.6 million and the 1/64-cent sales tax, or $5.1 million, from the Centennial Highway Fund to education. She wants to make a one-time appropriation of $15 million back to the fund and bond $102 million for roads.

Taking back the money shouldn't be a surprise, she said. When the fund was created, school enrollment was relatively flat; during the 1990s there were only 17,000 new students to take care of. But in the next 10 years, projections show 145,000 new students -- a crisis if the schools aren't adequately funded, she said.

Besides, she said, the Centennial Highway Fund was only supposed to be a guideline. "It isn't scripture; it's a plan," she said. "We've put over a billion dollars into highways. But it's time to (re-examine) it."

Tell that to the bipartisan Rural Caucus, whose members wield considerable power in the Legislature.

Dmitrich, a caucus member, said Walker would do better to look at other funding sources, such as an amended bill offered by Rep. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan. That bill would bring in about $46 million by shifting tax brackets so that those with higher incomes or more children pay a bigger portion.

Calls to other legislative leaders seeking comment on Walker's budget were not immediately returned.

Walker began her budget presentation by announcing the Tax Commission's monthly report showing revenues exceeding projections by $23 million. She said several times that her budget aims for "structural balance," that is, a balance of revenues and expenditures. She said she wanted to share state revenues with local governments.

Like Leavitt, Walker wants to stop multimillion-dollar subsidies for municipal and industrial water systems. This year, rural lawmakers basically resisted the water proposal, saying it would hurt farmers' ability to irrigate crops. Walker said her proposal would have no effect on irrigation.

The governor said her budget would protect basic governmental services and exercise conservative fiscal management. Among her proposals are:

--Give state employees, who haven't had raises in two years, a 2.2 percent cost of living pay increase.

--Deposit $25 million into the state's rainy-day fund. After two years of raids to balance budgets, the reserve fund has dwindled to $26 million.

--Bond $50 million for the Capitol restoration and $11.2 million to purchase the Oxbow correctional facility from Salt Lake County and convert it to a women's prison, thereby freeing up beds at the state prisons. Those proposals plus the highway bonding equal $164 million, which Walker called "modest general obligation bonding."

Walker said her budget wouldn't cover many needs, including drug court expansion, restoring vision and dental benefits to Medicaid and restoring funding to FACT, a collaborative program that unites

youth corrections, workforce services, education, health and human services departments to help families with multiple problems.

The total fiscal year 2005 budget would be $8 billion, a 3.4 percent increase over 2004. The percentage breakdown is: 47.4 percent for public education; 17 percent for higher education; 7.6 percent for health; 7.2 percent for adult and juvenile corrections; 5.5 percent for human services; 4.4 percent to service capital improvement debt; 3.3 percent for commerce and revenue; 2.5 percent for courts; and 5.1 percent for other expenditures.

On Wednesday, the Joint Executive Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. at the Capitol to adopt legislative budget recommendations that then will go to various legislative committees for review.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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