SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers, after weeks of scouring ongoing budgets of state agencies, found millions under the couch cushions, possibly enough to fund a $6,200 pay raise for every teacher in the state.
The prospect was raised during the Utah House Republican's caucus Thursday.
The pay raise could come in the form of a $2,000 across-the-board pay hike for all teachers. That would come on top of the annual $4,200 education salary adjustment, which is appropriated separately from the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding.
But House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Thursday that there is robust debate among House Republicans whether to "block grant it" by folding the equivalent of a $2,000 raise into the weighted pupil unit or extending it through a separate appropriation. Some lawmakers are contemplating an across-the-board increase while others want to give more to new teachers to stem turnover of recent hires and incentivize new talent to enter the profession.
"For me, at least, in my 16th session, there's something about knowing that you're getting water to the end of the row that resonates with me. But l know this is the last year I'm having this conversation so let them go where they want to go," Hughes said.
Utahns consistently identify education as their top priority, he said.
"I think it's hard for us when you poll education as the No. 1 issue to just recite an acronym as what you're doing. I think we're expected to have better answers than just WPU went up 3 percent or 4 percent. What's does that mean?" Hughes said.
Lawmakers need to "stare at" how Utah compensates public school teachers and the state's tax structure, partly because of the impacts of the recent federal tax reforms, he said.
Lawmakers also have an eye on derailing the Our Schools Now citizen initiative, which seeks to ask voters for a one-time, 0.45 percent increase in sales and income tax rates in 2019, which would generate more than $700 million in annual public education funding.
A proposal by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, envisions funneling some $700 million to education over the next three years without a tax hike. The proposal relies on what Shultz describes as "huge increased revenue projections."
Late Thursday, the House Education Committee decided to hold a bill that would add special educators to a group of other high demand educators — math, science and computer science teachers — who are eligible for salary supplements above negotiated salaries.
HB233, sponsored by Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, would have slightly lowered the beginning supplement to $4,000.
The supplement would not be included in educators' retirement calculations, a proposed change resisted by representatives of the state's teacher unions.
Rita Heagren, American Federation of Teachers-Utah's vice president for political action, said all other compensation she received as an educator — for serving as math department chair, teaching seven of eight class period and even coaching — was calculated as her earnings toward retirement.
"It needs to go to retirement. We earned it," she said.
Potter said his goal was to encourage more people to become special educators and supplement their pay because they are required to complete extra paperwork required by federal laws and because the coursework to become special educators is more rigorous.
But as lawmakers debate a number of possibilities for teacher compensation, the committee moved to hold the bill.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who is co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, said many issues are in flux as the committee considers HB233.
"I don't want to be disclosing anything I shouldn't be disclosing. We're in discussions. House leadership kind of has a direction where we want to go and we're not quite sure which direction the Senate wants to go," Last said.
If the House and Senate haven't worked out a plan by early next week, Last said he would encourage the leaders of the House Education Committee to run HB233 as a stand-alone bill.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy