SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature is getting closer to determining a budget for public education.
A legislative committee unanimously approved a $3.9 billion education base budget recommendation Wednesday, along with hypothetical budget cuts as part of a budget effectiveness review.
The base budget contained in SB1 serves as an early starting point for legislators in determining what final allocations will be, according to Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, Senate chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
"We have something we can count on going forward, and we'll have plenty of time to pass an agreed-upon budget," Stephenson said.
The base budget does not take into account revenues, which are expected to provide a "significant increase" to the final education budget, he said.
The final budget will also include an appropriation of $48.6 million to account for a projected enrollment of 7,000 additional students entering school this fall, as well as an $8 million increase in property tax revenue from new growth.
"In the final budget when we get through with everything, we as chairs are committed to ensure that every single (local education agency) has a sizeable increase, and that hopefully we can walk away with whatever we've done and say, 'It's fair,'" Stephenson said.
Last week, the Utah State Board of Education gave recommendations to the committee as to where cuts could be made as part of the budget effectiveness exercise. The board recommended cuts totaling $188,600 above the 2 percent target of $53 million.
The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee followed most of the board's recommended cuts but restored funding to adult education, the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program, library books and electronic resources, and matching funds for school nurses.
Stephenson said there wasn't enough unanimity among committee members to include those four recommended cuts, which would have caused undue anxiety to educators and community members — even though the funds would have been restored in the final budget.
"We felt that those four all have such strong advocacy in the community (and) that by putting the four on there, we would create an exercise where we would end up restoring them, but we would have put ourselves and the public to a lot of grief and strain through that process," Stephenson said.
Lawmakers made up the difference by cutting $2.6 million from a K-3 reading improvement fund and an additional $9.1 million from the charter school local replacement fund.
As charter schools do not have taxing authority, school districts are required to allocate a portion of their property tax revenues to charters within their districts. If the cut was to be enacted, districts would be required to provide additional funds for charters.
In all, the state's recommended cuts exceeded the $53 million target for education by about $10 million. The recommendation passed the committee with a 15-4 vote.
While the cuts are hypothetical, it's unclear if those funds will be returned to their respective programs or be added to the weighted pupil unit, which provides funds to school districts and charter schools on a per-student basis, depending on the age and needs of each child.
The budget exercise was created to stress test the current budget and to find areas of potential savings, yet the exercise has drawn criticism from concerned residents.
But the process of choosing where to make the cuts is a way to underscore which programs are most important, according to Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
"It's not a question of good and bad. It's good and what may be better," Hillyard said. "Every one of these items on that list, I say they must be good programs or they never would have been funded by the Legislature. So it's not a good or bad decision at all. The question is: What is our highest priority?"