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Public education is atop Democrats’ budget priorities

Proposal also focuses on services for the poor and disabled

SHARE Public education is atop Democrats’ budget priorities

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Smaller classes, more local control of education money and better care of people in need are among the budget priorities for Democrats.

Democrats announced their budget priorities Monday, only two days before Executive Appropriations Committee begins considering the final budget and on the same day that most appropriation subcommittees finalized their own priorities.

Education topped the Democrats' list with a huge 10 percent increase, or $202 million, financed by an anticipated $1 billion surplus. The money would go to local school districts rather than to specific programs, such as all-day kindergarten or a math and science initiative that were proposed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"We are taking a different approach to how we fund public education," House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said. "Local school districts are in the best position to determine how best to spend that money, so we want to give them more flexibility to best meet their needs."

Services for disabled people, covering increased Medicare costs, and fully funding dental and vision care for Medicaid recipients were also priorities for Democrats.

"We can find the money for these costs," House Minority Whip Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake, said. "It is just a matter of priorities."

While the Democrats differed from Huntsman on how to spend education money, for the most part their budget proposal looked very similar to the governor's proposal, which was made in December. Aligning themselves with Huntsman is almost a political necessity for the Democrats, who face a Republican super majority in both chambers, Becker said. It does not hurt, however, that the Democrats liked a lot of his proposal.

The ultimate fate of those proposals, as well as the priorities set by the various appropriations subcommittees, will be decided when the Executive Appropriations Committee, which is comprised of leadership, begins meeting Wednesday.

Among the final priority decisions made by the subcommittees:

Health and Human Services: Restoring funds lost through recent federal budget cuts was the No. 1 priority for committee members, with the request for $19.2 million in ongoing funds and $10.3 million to supplement losses to the current year's budget at the top of the list. But lawmakers expressed heartburn about including the amount on their priority list at all, noting that they have no choice but to replace the lost funds to programs such as Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

Secondly, the committee recommended a $1.6 million allocation to address the nearly 1,900 disabled Utahns waiting for services from the state Division for Services with People for Disabilities. Though well short of the some $8 million advocates had asked for the fully fund the list, Human Services Executive Director Lisa-Michele Church said the money — one of her top priorities for the department — will make a substantial dent on the waiting list.

Rounding out the top five priorities for the Department of Human Services was increased funding for drug courts, additional beds at the Utah State Hospital and monies for adoptions of at-risk foster youth.

Overall, Church said she was pleased with lawmakers prioritization, thanking lawmakers for recommending funding to her department building blocks in the face of the dramatic federal cuts.

As for the Utah Department of Health, committee members gave top priority to a program that provides early intervention for young children with delayed development, and also paid special attention to overworked Medicaid caseworkers and those helping implement the new Medicare prescription drug plan in Utah.

"By and large, I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone," Sundwall said after learning that committee members put two of his top priorities — funding for community health centers and ongoing monies for a state epidemiologist — in their top five.

Public Education: Full-day kindergarten, charter schools and funding for a remediation and testing for the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test are some of the top funding priorities of the Joint Public Education Subcommittee.

The committees prioritizations "have allocated amounts that allow us to make some improvement in student achievement," said Patti Harrington, state superintendent of public instruction. Those included $7 million for a full-day kindergarten initiative and $2 million for a math and reading initiative to help students pass the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test.

But the priority list had charter leaders smiling the most with $7.7 million in local replacement money to make up for funds charters don't get through property taxes. Lawmakers also prioritized $2.1 million for charter administrative costs, $600,000 in training and staff support.

"How can we not be happy," said Dave Moss, charter board president. "It's not going to be perfect but it is sure going to be a lot better... this funding is going to make the road a lot less bumpy."

Higher Education: Retention funds for key faculty and staff were rated as the top priority for committee members, a decision that pleased higher education officials, even if the money was not as high as requested.

The $2.5 million in ongoing funds, however, falls below the $5 million initially requested by the Utah System of Higher Education. That trend ran throughout the committee's recommendations, which ultimately chopped $30 million in requests for the Utah Education Network, the System of Higher Education and Utah College of Applied Technology.

"They presented us a budget that they believed to be necessary and we've cut it significantly. There's some sacrifice," Committee Chair Sen. Gregory Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said, noting that much of the initial request was transferred to one-time costs instead of being eliminated entirely.

Roughly $5 million to fund utility rate increases and $2 million in network money for the Utah Education Network also topped the list.

Executive Offices and Criminal Justice: Prisons fared particularly well in this committee, which is responsible for the funding for a number of elected officials offices and all law enforcement agencies.

The panel's priorities include $4 million for the expansion of the Central Utah Correctional Facility, as well as almost $8 million for jail reimbursement for county jails that house state prisoners. A shortage of funding for that program has been a point of contention between county and state officials in recent years.

"This will put a finger in the dyke," Sen. Dave Thomas, R-South Weber, the subcommittee chair, said about the prison funding. "There are long-term problems that we will need to address, but this will help right now."

Capital Facilities and Administration Services: The committee responsible for building projects approved a priority list that included 10 projects totaling about $164.7 million.

The total is closer to what the House had recommended the committee spend than the Senate, but subcommittee chairman Rep. Gregg Buxton R-Roy, said that although he thinks the list is fair, it could be altered as it moves through the budget process.

"I don't know where . . . it's going to be in the end," he said, citing the many factors that could come into play, such as tax cuts and fiscal note bills. The amount of major building projects authorized this year will also depend heavily on revised revenue projections expected next week.

Four subcommittees had finished most of their work prior to Monday, and did not debate their priority lists during final approval Monday. Most notably, the Transportation and Environmental Quality formally approved a $200 million on-going funding request for road construction, a number essentially agreed to by subcommittee members last week.

Contributing: Tiffany Erickson, Peter Nagy, Lisa Riley Roche, Erin Stewart, Angie Welling

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com