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Hopes too high for teacher pay raises? 'There isn't the money everyone thinks there is,' Senate leader says

FILE - Science teacher Abby Vanier uses a dropper put alcohol onto her students' hands during a lesson on identifying phase changes at Mount Jordan Middle in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Summary

After "scrubbing" ongoing budgets of state agencies, Ut
FILE - Science teacher Abby Vanier uses a dropper put alcohol onto her students' hands during a lesson on identifying phase changes at Mount Jordan Middle in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Are hopes for sizable teacher pay raises in the coming year overly optimistic?

A Senate leader told members of the Utah Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Friday that projections for revenues that will fund next year's budget don't appear to be much different from the current year's, which may temper expectations for sizable teacher pay raises.

On Thursday, House GOP members mulled raising teacher salaries a total of $6,200 each, something Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said needs to be clarified "very quickly."

"The expectation of what's real in this budget, I think, is not real," said Stevenson, Senate co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee.

"Unless something happens later in the session, we're going to spend a lot of time figuring out here, and (tearing) things apart and putting them back together because there is not the money around that everyone thinks there is," he said.

The budget process is ongoing, but House Republicans in their open caucus Thursday discussed the possibility of a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for all teachers in addition to the $4,200 annual salary adjustment that has been part the ongoing budget in recent years.

"That's about a $240 million spend. I don't know what happened or where that came from. There's been some discussion about taking some money (and) rather than running it through the (weighted pupil unit) but putting it directly into teacher salaries, but that is not a real number. If we had $240 million, we would be able to go to quite a way toward the almost $300 million in appropriation requests that we are faced with," he said.

Earlier this week, the House and Senate passed the base public education budget, which included a nearly 4 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education spending in Utah.

The revenue needed to fund the sorts of pay increases discussed by House Republicans would require a "tremendous tax increase," Stevenson said, "and I don't think that's going to happen, either."

Stevenson joked that serving as the Senate's budget chairman last year was akin to a honeymoon by comparison.

"This was kind of a fun job a year ago, but man, I feel l like somebody that's a week away from a divorce right now," he cracked.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, joked that there is a marriage counseling bill before the body that might be helpful.

While the state budget for the coming year won't be finalized until the waning days of the legislative session that ends at midnight March 8, some committee members worried aloud that demands for public education would come at the expense of other areas of state government.

In 1996, Utah voters passed a constitutional amendment that allowed income tax revenue to also be used to fund higher education. Before that point, state income revenues were solely earmarked for public education.

Some $600 million of income tax revenue now goes to higher education, Stephenson said.

"That has really allowed the Legislature to fund higher education less from the general fund. We're now giving $600 million — and isn't it ironic it's the same number? — to transportation. I see transportation and the Legislature's inability or lack of courage or whatever we need to point the fingers at ourselves about not having highway users pay their fair share.

"To me, that's the problem," he said.

Earlier in the appropriations process, subcommittees were asked to tighten agencies' ongoing budgets. The Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, for example, recommended a 0.5 percent across-the-board cut for the Utah System of Higher Education and 1 percent reduction in tuition waivers.

Some $69 million was set aside after that action by committees, Stevenson said.

"Reality tells me that a lot of that will be reallocated as we go through today with our numbers," he said.