SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled his first budget plan Monday, proposing an $80 million tax cut for some Utahns in the form of a Social Security tax credit while also committing about $431 million ongoing and $180 million one-time boosts for K-12 education.

Cox rolled out his recommendations on how to allocate the state’s $21.7 billion budget amid better-than-expected revenues despite the COVID-19 pandemic. He and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced their spending plan in an online press conference from their new rural office at Southern Utah University.

The theme of the budget, Cox said, is “opportunity for all.” While proposing big new infusions for education, Cox also prioritized investments in rural Utah, including $125 million for rural infrastructure and roads, expansion of broadband access into rural areas, and more electric vehicles off of the Wasatch Front.

He also recommended $250 million to continue responding to the pandemic, with a focus on vaccine distribution, helping hard-hit Utahns and businesses, and help for teachers.

“Even with the success we’re experiencing overall as a state, it’s clear that some are not experiencing the same successes or even have the same opportunity,” Cox said. “We don’t guarantee success in this life. Our constitution, our way of government doesn’t guarantee success. But it does guarantee equal opportunity. And we want to focus on that in our budget and in and in our administration.”

Education

Cox’s proposal, which will be considered by the Legislature during its session that begins Jan. 19, seeks to deliver on his pledge to prioritize education, recommending over $296 million ($248.3 million ongoing and $48 million one-time money) for a 5.82% increase in the weighted pupil unit that serves as a base for school funding and enrollment growth.

He also wants to use $112 million for $1,500 bonuses to teachers and $1,000 for school staff, backing a plan already laid out by lawmakers last month.

“I cannot overemphasize how essential teachers are to our state’s long-term success as they educate the young Utahns that literally are our future,” Cox said. “Let’s give them our support as a state.”

Cox is also proposing a $26.3 million increase to help students at risk of academic failure, $9 million for optional enhanced kindergarten for at-risk children, and an additional $8 million for rural school districts. He also recommended $2.8 million for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, a one-time allocation of $12 million for special education intensive services, and $7.5 million to expand access to computer science for all students with an initial focus on those who have the least access to STEM fields, a $22 million increase for the Teacher and Student Success Program, and an additional $30 million to help equalize funding for poorer districts.

Additionally, Cox as part of his budget recommended the Legislature reexamine the role of the statewide school property tax to “better enhance educational equity, so that education funding becomes more fair for both taxpayers and students in all ZIP codes.” His budget, however, doesn’t detail how to get there.

But Cox told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday that the lack of detail in his budget proposal around property tax equity doesn’t mean he’s simply leaving the issue open for the Legislature to tackle alone.

“We will be intimately involved in those discussions and the proposals that come,” he said. “This, however, is one that is a very heavy lift, and we recognize that. A lift that could take at least a year if not longer. So we batted around the possibility of throwing some ideas out there, but we worried that would maybe short-circuit the process and hurt us moving forward.”

So in the coming months, Cox said he and Senate Majority Whip Ann Milner, R-Ogden, along with other stakeholders, will work on laying out specific proposals. “There are a lot of ideas out there. I’m less interested in the exact mechanism and more interested in just getting it done. And so we’ll be working on those very closely and hope in the next couple of months have some concrete proposals to be able to share.”

Acknowledging property tax reform has historically been a tough issue on Utah’s Capitol Hill, Cox told reporters after his budget proposal that the “good news is we are seeing much more willingness to at least have the discussion” this year.

The cost of not addressing the issue, Cox said, is students don’t achieve the American dream and taxpayers pay for it down the line anyway as more students from less affluent school districts struggle, or maybe even enter the criminal justice system.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews applauded Cox’s budget proposal, saying it — combined with the lawmakers’ plan to give teacher bonuses — signifies “a significant commitment by both the governor and the Legislature to invest in the students of Utah.“

“When enacted, not only would this budget represent one of the highest levels of funding for Utah education in recent years, the significant step of establishing much of the increase in the base budget as proposed by the Executive Appropriations Committee makes this truly remarkable,” she said.

She also expressed appreciation to Cox and the Legislature for their willingness to prioritize students and public schools.

“Our educators are doing remarkable work in extraordinary circumstances. The bonuses for all school employees are a recognition of those efforts,” she said. “As legislators begin their work later this month, we respectfully ask that they reverse the overwhelming workload and support Utah educators during the COVID pandemic crisis by strictly limiting education-related bills to the budget and essential legislation that must be accomplished during the 2021 general session.”

Skills development

For higher education and workforce development, Cox also wants to prioritize $125 million for an upskilling initiative, including $56 million for an innovation fund focused on skill and career development, $20 million to help those struggling to find work and $49 million for technical education.

Cox said those would put a “historic amount of emphasis” on developing trade and technical expertise that don’t necessarily need a four-year degree — certificates that are “needed now more than ever.”

“We made a huge mistake in our country over the past four years — this idea that every kid needs a bachelor’s degree. It’s bad for our kids and bad for our economy,” Cox said. “What we’re trying to do is open up opportunity. We have to remove the shame in not getting a four-year degree. That’s ridiculous. Too many parents and students feel like they’re failures if they don’t do that. It’s just not true.

“So we need these students, we need them in the workplace,” Cox said, “and we’re going to make sure we’re working with the private sector to enhance those opportunities so that more and more kids can choose and get a training technical certificate or can go and get a four-year degree or do both.”

Tax cut, cost-of-living raise

Leaving $80 million unspent in the budget, Cox wants that money to go toward a Social Security tax credit for low- and middle-income senior citizens and an increase to the state’s existing dependent tax credit for Utahns who were hurt by federal tax changes in recent years.

Lawmakers will ultimately decide how to use that money, but legislative leaders indicated it’s likely to be used for some form of a tax cut during Monday’s annual Utah Taxpayers Association Legislative Outlook Conference.

“Because Utah has weathered the pandemic so much better than any other state, we have an opportunity to do this,” he said. “The budget looks better than I think anyone predicted, especially over the past 10 months, and it’s important. I believe that the people of Utah know how to spend their money than the government of Utah knows how to spend their money.”

Cox, while crediting lawmakers for “tightening the belt” in special sessions as the state took a nosedive of uncertainty into the early months of the pandemic, he also wants to restore some priorities that were cut out in that process.

That includes restoring a cost-of-living raise state employees lost last year after the lawmakers slashed the budget amid worries of COVID-19’s impact on the economy. Cox proposes using $25 million to give all state employees a 3% pay hike and $8.8 million to increase salaries for employees lagging behind market standards.

He noted those priorities were possible with rainy day funds that are “still very robust” — at about 13% of the budget, which approaches about $1 billion under his budget recommendation. This year’s revenues brought $728 million in new ongoing money and nearly $1.3 billion in new one-time money, bringing the state’s total education fund and general fund budget to about $9 billion, according to his budget proposal.

Not included in Cox’s budget, beyond asking the Utah Legislature to explore property tax equity, is a larger conversation about tax reform that troubled lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert after their plan in 2019 met stark public opposition and was ultimately repealed.

Though the passage of Amendment G was a “huge” step, Cox said discussions around tax reform and bringing more structural balance to the state’s budget aren’t going away. But for now, as the state’s budget analysts continue to watch the pandemic’s impact on tax revenues, the governor said it’s “going to take a year or two to understand where we are and where we need to go as far as structural imbalances are concerned.”

“We feel good about where we are now,” he noted. “We have several years before that pressure point hits again. But it’s something we are constantly evaluating and that we will continue. We have had some initial discussions with legislative leadership on the potential for additional tax reform down the road, and what that might look like. Nothing substantive yet, but those conversations will be ongoing.”

Funding for the pandemic

For the fight against COVID-19, Cox is recommending $250 million in one-time funds to continue Utah’s pandemic response, which includes $100 million for public health efforts, $100 million for short-term grants for heavily impacted households and businesses, and $50 million for education.

That proposal may change as more details emerge about Utah’s specific benefits from the recently passed federal COVID-19 relief package. But in general, Cox said the $100 million for public health efforts will be focused on vaccine distribution to “get those vaccines off the shelf every week.”

The money will also go toward increasing testing, he said, so there will be tests available “all across the state for anyone that wants a test at any time,” as well as more surveillance testing and contact tracing.

“That’s how we’re going to prevent the spread until everyone that wants a vaccine can get a vaccine,” he said.

The other $100 million, Cox said, will be for “helping those industries that are struggling” and making sure there are “more grants available to keep doors open so that when the pandemic is over that those industries can come back and people will have jobs to come back to.”

Some industries he outlined as “obvious examples” of those that will be targeted for the funding include the arts community, and the restaurant and hospitality industry.

For the $50 million for education, Cox said that funding will be used for increased testing and personal protective equipment to help keep teachers feeling safe in the classrooms.

“Keeping kids in schools is so important, and making sure that our schools have the resources necessary,” he said.

Transportation and rural investments

Cox’s proposal also includes sizable investments for two major transportation projects: $350 million to double-track FrontRunner and $50 million to deal with traffic problems in the Wasatch canyons.

Double-tracking FrontRunner in high-congestion areas “has to be a top priority,” Cox said, to help reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality along the Wasatch Front. Currently, FrontRunner is “incredibly slow right now,” the governor said, because it only runs about every 30 minutes and if there’s an incident it shuts down entirely.

It’s not clear yet exactly how the $50 million would need to be used to help traffic issues in the Wasatch canyons, as Cox said that’s a decision that will need to be made in conjunction with the Utah Legislature. But setting the money aside now, Cox said, would help move the issue forward sooner rather than later.

Cox also wants to prioritize $125 million in rural infrastructure — including $69 million for a revolving loan fund, $50 million for broadband and fiber access, $6 million for electric vehicle charging stations to be installed in rural areas, and $8 million for rural county economic development grants.

“When rural Utah succeeds, that means less congestion on the Wasatch Front,” Cox said. “It means cleaner air on the Wasatch Front. It means just a better Utah for all of us.”

Utah’s “greatest infrastructure need,” Cox said — along with mass transit in the Wasatch Front — is roads in rural Utah.

“If you went to half the cities and towns we went to (on the campaign trail), there were places where you could lose a car,” Cox told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

“Filling potholes” on rural roads might sound “mundane,” Cox said, but it’s a huge issue facing rural cities and towns across the state, which can often only afford to fund chip seal for maybe one or two blocks in their areas.

“At that rate it could take 20 years to get through chip seal in your entire town,” Cox said, noting that roads can have “catastrophic failure” at 7 years old, and at that point require even more money to repair.

Cox on Monday also signed two executive orders — one to review remote work opportunities with the goal of expanding telework opportunities, and one to require all state agencies to review positions and offices that could move to rural areas.

Other priorities:

Some other budget priorities of note that are included in Cox’s budget propose are:

  • $125 million for open spaces, trails and parks.
  • $50 million one-time and $3 million ongoing to reconfigure state work spaces and focus on telework, allowing the state to exit leased sites and consolidate space.
  • $20 million in ongoing funding for traditional Medicaid consensus costs and restoration of $36 billion to the Medicaid expansion fund.
  • $34.1 million, including a $1.6 million increase for jail contracting.
  • $10 million, including $8.6 million one-time and $1.4 million ongoing, to fund workforce and equipment needs for the Utah Highway Patrol, including 46 UHP patrol vehicles and a new helicopter.
  • $4.8 million to fund the fourth year of a pay plan to increase pay for the Utah Department of Corrections to improve officer retention.
  • $15 million to increase the state’s earthquake insurance after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the Wasatch Front in March.
  • $30 million boost to the state’s wildfire suppression fund reserves, in addition to covering the $30 million in costs from last year’s wildfire season.
  • $12.8 million in one-time money to create a regional, multiagency state office in Richfield for over 200 employees.
  • $7.5 million for Brigham City Consolidated Public Safety building
  • $38.1 million for the Bridgerland Technical College Health Science and Technology building.
  • $3 million for Olympic facilities improvements.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Cox’s proposed budget prioritized $9 billion for education. That figure is actually $7.9 billion.