SALT LAKE CITY — At the same place pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Gov. Gary Herbert rolled out a $20 billion budget for Utah Wednesday that includes both a significant increase in education spending and a freeze on tuition increases at state colleges and universities.

The governor, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office, said there should be a hold on tuition hikes until the Utah State Board of Regents figures out what’s affordable for students attending state colleges and universities.

“That’s just a good incentive for them to get it done,” Herbert said, answering “probably not” when asked if he had the authority to halt tuition increases. “But I do appoint, as has been pointed out, the board of regents, and I would hope they would listen to my recommendation.”

The potential hit to campuses comes on top of more than a $400 million increase in education funding in the governor’s budget, including nearly $300 million in new money for public schools that adds up to an average of $432 per K-12 student, Herbert said.

While education continues to be the governor’s top priority, his budget also focuses on what he termed quality-of-life issues, including air quality. Once again this year, Herbert is asking for $100 million to improve air quality by investing in transit and electric vehicle infrastructure as well as $20 million for affordable housing.

Among the other highlights in the budget recommendations Herbert unveiled on a snowy morning in front of roaring fire inside a building at This Is The Place Heritage Park are a $40 million endowment to preserve open space and recreational areas, taxing vaping and e-cigarette products and $5.6 million for health crisis centers.

Dealing with Utah’s population growth is what the governor said keeps him up at night.

“Just like pioneers prepared for people to come and join them later on smoothed out the trail, we need to be doing the same thing,” he said at his budget announcement, and later he become emotional while meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards about the state’s transformation from “a Godforsaken place that nobody wanted.”

The members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who settled Utah “cared about the generations after them. I appreciate the sacrifice of so many people that allowed me to have a good life,” Herbert said. “I just hope I’m doing my part to add to that value. I see the change that has occurred, of people wanting to come here.”

Education, however, dominated the discussion about the budget.

What to do about college tuition

When it comes to the tuition freeze, the governor’s budget recommendations acknowledge that the cost of attending the state’s colleges and universities is among the nation’s lowest, but also notes that’s no excuse for complacency in defining affordability at each institution.

Utah’s interim Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Woolstenhulme said the regents and the Office of the Utah System of Higher Education have been working on various aspects of college affordability and access for the past few years, with particular effort on defining affordability at each of the state’s eight colleges and universities the past six months.

The higher education system is working with the Lumina Foundation to get a national perspective on the tuitions assessed by Utah’s public colleges and universities, and the board is on track to approve affordability definitions for each institution by the time the regents meet to approve tuition adjustments in the spring.

In other words, the governor’s call to freeze tuition doesn’t mean there will be no increases, but it is a call to finish the important work of defining affordability, which will look different on every campus, Woolstenhulme said.

Woolstenhulme agrees that defining affordability will better guide the regents when colleges propose tuition increases and help to keep sharp increases in check.

“It didn’t bother us, in fact, it’s something that we totally support and something that we know that we’ve needed to move the needle on for some time. I would have freaked out if we hadn’t already been working on it. And imagine the presidents would have really freaked out if we hadn’t already been working on it,” he said.

The system needs to keep a check on tuition increases because “boy, they can escalate really quickly,” he said.

According to Herbert’s recommendations, since 2000 tuition has increased 216% while median household income has increased 62%.”

“Even though I say it’s affordable for a lot, there’s a lot that it’s not affordable for. And so we’ve got to look at that constantly,” Woolstenhulme said. “It worries me that we have students taking out student loans and graduating without being credentialed in the right area to where they can really have (a return on investment) on their education.”

Woolstenhulme said Utah is a fiscally conservative state and he agrees that all organizations can find efficiencies.

”So for him to call that out, that doesn’t bother me because we’re already looking into those things and going down that road,” he said. “What I don’t ever want to happen is that these (measures) become so efficient, though, that it becomes a negative to the education we provide.”

Universities need to maintain “the value of those degree programs to be able to get the best professors, to be able to continue to do the great research, be able to continue those things that make our programs very valuable.”

Woolstenhulme, who has worked in Utah’s higher education system for 20 years, said college administrators carefully weigh increases and seek input from students during on-campus “truth-in-tuition” hearings before asking the regents to approve any increase.

“So they’re not just raising tuitions to raise tuitions. When there’s a tuition increase, it’s because of need. And a lot of times those needs are driven by students and students have asked for the tuition increase” for certain initiatives, he said. For example, Utah State University students asked for a tuition increase to expand and improve student counseling resources.

When Woolstenhulme was an administrator at USU, tuition increases “were scrubbed pretty hard before there was a number put on it.”

A boost for kindergarten

The Utah State Board of Education expressed appreciation to Herbert for proposing $18.6 million in new funding for optional extended-day kindergarten, which was one of the board’s funding priorities for the coming legislative session.

“Early learning is one of four priorities for the board along with safe and healthy schools, personalized teaching and learning, and effective educators and leaders,” said spokesman Mark Peterson.

According to state assessments of Utah children entering kindergarten, 40% are unprepared for kindergarten work.

Another complication is that Utah has relied on nearly $2.9 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding to help support full-day and extended-day kindergarten programs. The funds were in reserve but have been spent down and will expire at the end of this school year.

The loss of the federal funds would result in “dismantling programs in 46 schools across 17 local education agencies, according to the board.

Peterson said the State School Board also acknowledges the efforts of the Utah Legislature for including enrollment growth during the special session on tax restructuring.

“Board members and staff look forward to working with the governor and Legislature during the session to fund our budget requests of expanding successful programs and needed improvements as outlined in our strategic plan,” Peterson said.

Herbert’s budget proposal includes a 4.5% increase to the value of the weighted-pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding in Utah.

The State School Board, Utah Education Association and Utah School Boards Association had joined in a request for a 6% increase to the WPU’s value.

UEA President Heidi Matthews said while recent state investments in public education are appreciated, a 4.5% increase “isn’t going to give us or the districts the resources they need to make needed investments in public education.”

Matthews said she was somewhat surprised that Herbert’s proposal did not embrace the think tank Envision Utah’s recommendations, which included boosting teacher starting pay to $60,000 annually, bolstering retirement benefits and spending some $45 million annually on college scholarships for education majors.

“What we’re really looking toward in the legislative session is a game-changer, something that will set us on an incremental path to make the investments we know our schools need,” Matthews said.

Dealing with the tax cut package

What is likely the governor’s last full set of budget recommendations to the Legislature comes as a referendum is being circulated statewide to repeal the recently approved tax reform package reducing income taxes but raising sales taxes on food, gas and some services.

Herbert’s budget cites the $160 million overall tax cut in the package, the result of dropping the state income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.66% while providing an increased dependent exemption and new tax credits aimed at low- and moderate-income Utahns.

Lawmakers, who begin meeting in regular session on Jan. 27, have yet to deal with the education piece of tax reform that seeks to remove the requirement in the Utah Constitution that income taxes only be used for education while making it easier for local school districts to increase property taxes.

The governor emphasized his commitment to continuing to fund education even as income tax collections are expected to drop by $639 million. He told a Utah Taxpayers Association conference Tuesday that sales taxes spend the same as income taxes and announced his $4.9 billion funding goal for public schools.

University of Utah students walk across campus during a snowstorm in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Gov. Gary Herbert rolled out a $20 billion state budget on Wednesday, including a call to freeze tuition increases at state colleges and universities until officials can define what is affordable. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Trying to clear the air

His hope to reduce per-capita emissions in the state 25% by 2026 would be aided by the $34 million he’s seeking to expand transit options as well as $63 million to enhance the infrastructure for electric vehicles, possibly adding as many as 400 charging stations throughout the state.

The governor’s ask of $100 million to address air quality issues brought praise from advocacy groups.

”This is the second year in a row that Gov. Herbert has requested $100 million to deal with Utah’s serious air quality problems,” said Dr. Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah. “Last year, the state Legislature appropriated only $28.7 million of that request, but it was still unprecedented. We applaud this commitment, but we still have a way to go before our air will be healthy to breathe every day for every Utahn. “

Williams said the group hopes the momentum carries into 2020, with even more financial investment in the air pollution battle. 

”This ambitious $100 million is a good next step and we believe that focusing on clean transportation infrastructure is the right priority,” he said.

The governor’s spending plan is up from the current $19 billion state budget that ends June 30, but includes money for the full Medicaid expansion with a work requirement that was just approved by the federal government. There is a 2.5% pay increase for state employees, but Herbert stressed the workforce hasn’t been lower since 2001, despite population growth.

No new bonding is recommended, and there is $635 million set aside in rainy day funds. The budget was released later than usual because of the Legislature’s tax reform efforts, intended to fix the state’s structural imbalance between the two key revenue sources, income and sales taxes.

The Utah Legislature’s GOP leadership, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, issued a joint statement on the governor’s budget proposal, saying they appreciated “the thoughtful consideration put into” the recommendations.

“The collaborative relationship between the executive and legislative branches has consistently resulted in a strong fiscal and economic track record in our state. We look forward to continued collaboration in education, infrastructure, public safety and other critical areas that help Utah remain a national leader in innovative and effective policymaking,” their statement said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats are “pleased to see the governor recommend significant additional funding for air quality and for public education, particularly optional full-day kindergarten. These are the priorities we believe most Utahns want and we hope the Legislature implements his recommendations on those points particularly.”

Contributing: Amy Joi O’Donoghue