Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is feeling positive about a new, collective focus on critical issues facing the Great Salt Lake, and is proposing a sizable chunk of new funding in his state budget proposal to help mitigate the drought-induced degradation of the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.

And he said he’s committed to sticking to practical solutions when it comes to addressing how to bring the struggling lake back to vibrancy.

“I feel more optimistic about the Great Salt Lake now than I have in a couple years,” Cox told the Deseret News at a Thursday briefing on his fiscal 2024 state budget plan. “We need to look at all potential solutions and we have to be wise about it.”

“(But) we’re not building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean while I’m governor. That’s not going to happen,” Cox said in reference to an idea that’s gained traction recently with some state lawmakers and federal officials to construct a 700-mile pipeline connecting the Great Salt Lake with the Pacific Ocean.

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On Friday, Cox released his full budget proposal for the state’s fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2023, and funding aiming to address water conservation issues was just one of a number of bigger ticket items in the $28.4 billion package.

Ultimately, the Utah Legislature owns the responsibility for setting the state’s fiscal plans but the governor said he’s been working closely with lawmakers throughout his budget-making process.

Cox is proposing over $560 million in funding to support water management and conservation programs, including $132.9 million focused directly on the Great Salt Lake.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson outlined additional water-related spending proposals at the media briefing, including $219 million for water conservation and $243 million to enact strategies in the state’s recently completed Coordinated Action Plan for Water.

Henderson said state lawmakers passed nearly a dozen pieces of legislation in the 2022 session aiming to address water management and conservation practices. Utah residents also have been doing their part to help reduce water use but more work still needs to be done, she said.

“Last year we issued a call to Utahns to really step up when it comes to water conservation and protecting our water resources, and they did,” Henderson said. “They stepped up and they saved billions of gallons of water.”

Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson release their proposed FY24 budget at Daybreak in South Jordan on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Henderson also explained the reasoning behind a proposed $177 million budget allocation that will fund cost of living raises for state employees, noting wage gains in the private sector are driving the need to keep public worker salaries competitive in order to retain talent. Henderson said the increases will work out to about 12% on average for state employees though not every worker will get a wage bump.

“Our growing economy and low unemployment rate have made it really difficult to hang on to our state employees,” Henderson said. “So as a result, our compensation recommendation this year is equal to a 12% (cost of living adjustment) on average but some employees will see more than that and some will see less.”

Henderson said some state job classifications have lagged well behind market averages and, in a few cases, some workers will see as much as an 18% increase in their earnings.

“We know that compensation is a critical component to retaining talent that we need to have good government and to take care of the people of the state of Utah,” Henderson said. “And it will actually save the state a lot of money in the long run and demonstrate that we care and value our state employees.”

Cox’s budget also proposes $150 million to help address the state’s critical housing shortage, though he noted that the more significant work to ease the housing crunch — researchers at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute reported earlier this year that 75% of Utahns cannot afford to purchase a home — will come in the form of policy in the upcoming session.

“The (housing) market forces are the most important,” Cox said. “But government is skewing the market. The market is telling us we need more housing, but what’s holding that back, or was at least until we saw significant rate increases, is ... local governments.”

Cox said that while some local governments excel in their regulatory roles, others are in need of reform when it comes to things like permitting and zoning. Cox also said referendum processes can impede housing solutions because, in some instances, small groups of people can shut down any type of development.

“Everyone wants more affordable housing for their kids and grandkids but they want it to go where they can’t see it,” Cox said.

Other highlights from Cox’s fiscal 2024 budget include:

  • $463 million in direct investments in rural Utah communities.
  • $258 million for the prison redevelopment effort at The Point.
  • $100 million toward continuing to build out a statewide trail network.
  • $25.5 million for a public transit zero-fare, one-year pilot program.

On Thursday, Cox released details about proposals for over $1 billion in new tax relief efforts and as well as changes to education funding, including $6,000 raises for Utah’s K-12 teachers.

Cox said his budget proposal was appropriately cautious and prudent but noted the state’s record-setting revenues are allowing him to propose funding increases in critical areas while also providing widespread tax relief.

“We believe it’s a fiscally conservative proposal, but also one that meets the needs of the citizens of the state of Utah,” Cox said. “We feel very good about this. We think it’s a generational opportunity both to return money to the citizens of Utah in record amounts but also to provide record funding for education and in many areas that have desperately needed it for several years.”