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Legislative committee recommends 2%, 5% and 10% cuts to public education’s budget

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly 3 1/2 hours of discussion, the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee Monday agreed on three tiers of recommended cuts to the $3.8 billion public education base budget that totals some $380 million.

A 10% cut would include more than $149 million for class-size reduction and $99 million for the Teacher and Student Success Act program, according to recommendations approved by the subcommittee. Passed in 2019, the act created a mechanism to send millions of dollars directly to Utah schools to create and execute plans intended to improve student achievement. Much of the funding is used for salaries.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who made the motion to recommend a cut in class-size reduction funding, told subcommittee members that he had neither a “glad heart” nor a “happy face” as he asked them to consider the proposed reduction.

“We are in a budget crisis and there are tough decisions to be made,” Gibson said.

It has not yet been determined whether the 10% cut will be necessary. The subcommittee also prepared reductions of 2% and 5%, although each builds on the others.

Legislative leaders asked all appropriation subcommittees to come up with recommendations to cut $2 billion from the state’s $20 billion budget set to take effect July 1.

While Gibson acknowledged the process is painful, he said other appropriations subcommittees have been pressed to make difficult decisions, too, as state lawmakers attempt to manage the state’s finances as the national economy has sputtered due to business closures, job losses and likely reductions in state income and sales tax revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, attempted to include the newly passed Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program to the reductions list, which provide up to $6 million in tax credits to donors, which could impact the state Education Fund by a like amount.

Legislation to create the program passed during the general session of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert. Education stakeholders urged the governor to veto HB332, sponsored by House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

Similar legislation was introduced during a special session, HB4003, which passed by slim margins in both legislative houses and was signed into law by Herbert, who said the latest version of the legislation addressed his earlier concerns.

Riebe said state lawmakers should look in “every nook and cranny” to find ways to cut the budget.

“I understand the sensitivity of this but I think that all of our programs should be looked at and every one of them should be on the table,” she said. The motion failed.

The proposed cuts ranged from funding for foreign exchange programs, supplements for National Board Certified teachers, more than $400,000 for the ProStart Culinary Arts Program and $7 million in incentives to schools and educators to improve the low-performing school. The program also includes leadership development.

The committee voted to spare a $350,000 pilot that trains teachers on evidence-based interventions for students grades K-5 who are at risk for or experiencing a reading difficulty such as dyslexia.

The subcommittee’s recommendations will be forwarded to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which will develop a revised budget. That budget will be put to a vote of all lawmakers later this summer during a special session.