Boosting the salaries of state employees, funding for construction projects and hiking advertising budgets for Utah's tourism industry are among the primary focuses of the first budget delivered Friday to state legislators by Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicGovernor's budgetRequires Adobe Acrobat.

With so much new money to spend — an estimated $237 million in new, one-time dollars and another $370 million in new, ongoing revenue — Huntsman's proposed $8.6 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2005-06 includes a lot of winners, especially among those groups that have suffered cuts during the recent lean budget years. There is also funding for needed renovations to the University of Utah's Marriott Library, road improvements in "critically congested" areas and an expansion of educational programs.

In many ways, the budget is similar to the one proposed by former Gov. Olene Walker last month. During a subdued mid-afternoon news conference in a room at the state Capitol — a setting that contrasted greatly with Walker's enthusiastic December news conference in front of a packed auditorium — Huntsman placed particular emphasis on his proposals to improve Utah's image with businesses and tourists, concerns that essentially doubled the economic development budget. His proposals include $10 million for tourism promotion, a $2 million increase to help attract new business and $4.8 million in one-time money to help keep Hill Air Force Base open.

The tourism promotion budget represents "a sizable change" in what is now actually spent, Huntsman said, as less than $900,000 of the $3 million currently allocated toward developing the travel industry is spent on advertising. His proposal would help Utah compete more effectively for visitors in comparison with surrounding states, especially Colorado, Huntsman said.

The announcement that the governor is seeking a nearly $17 million increase in spending for economic development comes after the controversy caused by his decision last week to fire 33 political appointees in the Department of Community and Economic Development. It also reflects the new governor's plan to dismantle the department and take over the selling of the state himself, which will result in significant growth in the size of the governor's office.

State employees, who have only seen minimal hikes in their salaries in recent years, will also receive nice increases. Following Walker's lead, Huntsman wants a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase, with the state covering insurance premium increases, which amounts to another 2 percent. He also plans to compare salaries to market averages and increase salaries between 2.5 percent and 11 percent for those employees who are 15 percent or more below the salary average.

More, better teachers

Another funding shift will ideally help recruit more "good, quality" teachers to the profession, Huntsman said, by providing $15 million for the vaguely titled "beginning teacher compensation." At the same time, Huntsman proposed a 4.5 percent increase in the state's weighted pupil unit, which apportions the bulk of basic funding for school districts. Walker proposed a 5 percent increase.

The $15 million teacher pay raise was praised by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington, who was also pleased to see $14 million for improving the math skills of fourth- through sixth-grade students. She wished, however, that the budget included money to tutor kids who struggle to pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test, required to receive a high school diploma, a program that would probably cost $6 million to $7 million.

Huntsman also looked to improve the "quality of life" in Utah, especially by acquiring and protecting open space by sending $5 million to the LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation Fund. Supporters of the fund, who had hoped to get at least $3 million and as much as $7 million, were pleased with the funding proposal.

"This clearly shows the governor's commitment to critical lands conservation and that he knows the wisdom of investing now to protect those natural lands," said Dave Livermore, state director for the Nature Conservancy.

Other highlights of the proposed budget, some of which were initially proposed by Walker and others new to Huntsman's budget, are:

Higher education. Higher ed will receive a nice funding bump in the form of a $21.7 million fund to "retain key faculty and staff," although the overall pay increases came in lower than Walker proposed and what Utah System of Higher Education officials want.

"It's tied to every person who may leave this state who is making a real contribution to economic development," UHSE commissioner Rich Kendell said. "We'd like to have a counter offer to them before they leave this state and take their grants with them."

Medicaid. Patients will once again have vision and dental care available to them, as Huntsman restored $5 million in ongoing funds to the program. Since the programs were cut two years ago, they have been a focus of ire for disability advocates and resulted in numerous protests from recipients.

"It's a major improvement and a good way to start out in this new tenure," said Dr. David Sundwall, the state's newly appointed Health Department director.

Corrections. Another one of Huntsman's campaign issues was the relocation of the Utah State Prison in Draper, and in his budget he requests $150,000 to conduct a feasibility study for that possible move. He would also like to fund a new 288-bed addition to the Central Utah Correctional Facility and to allocate $6.3 million to cover the costs of the first phase of the Drug Offender Reform Act. Known as DORA, the program aims to reduce the prison population by diverting first-time, nonviolent offenders to drug treatment instead of incarceration.

Transportation. Clogged roads along the Wasatch Front will probably be improved because of $33 million in one-time funds provided to the Utah Department of Transportation. While no specific projects have been identified, UDOT executive director John Njord said they would look at where "we can get the most bang for our buck," which would most likely be I-15 in Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as I-80 in Salt Lake County.

Initial volley

While Huntsman said the new administration "only had a week and a half to prepare a budget, and we've done it to the best of our ability," he said he did meet with legislative leadership prior to releasing the budget. Thanks to those meetings, he felt confident about its chances, although he knew that it would be the first in a string of negotiations between the two branches of government.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said lawmakers will have to weigh the difference between Walker's focus on education in her budget and Huntsman's emphasis on economic development.

"The governor's recommendations are just that, they're recommendations," Valentine said.

As for the new governor's plan to kick off tax reform with a change in the formula used to calculate corporate income taxes, Valentine said legislative leaders may not agree with Huntsman that it should be revenue neutral. Instead, they could decide to accept the $8 million to $10 million reduction in revenue — in effect, a tax cut. Both the governor and legislative leaders have decided to wait until next year to deal with proposals to change individual income and sales taxes.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said that he was very pleased to see the restored Medicaid funding and open-space money. For the most part, however, it was the budget he expected to see.

"It isn't a major change from Walker's budget, but he didn't have a lot of time," Becker said. "We're fortunate that we have the revenue . . . so that we can deal with some of these issues."


Contributing: Amy Joi Bryson, Erin Stewart, Geoffrey Fattah, Stephen Speckman, Jennifer Toomer-Cook, Zack Van Eyck