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Utah lawmakers laud ‘historic’ early budgeting for education

Base budget bill for schools funds 6% weighted-pupil increase, $1,500 teacher bonuses

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature’s passage of base budget bills early in the session is usually an uneventful, though important, step to fund the state’s business each year — but lawmakers lauded Thursday’s education base budget bill as one that was “historic.”

That’s because with the passage of SB1, the Utah Legislature funded not just ongoing operations for Utah’s public schools, but also a 6% weighted-pupil unit increase, inflation, student growth and $1,500 teacher bonuses.

“Those are normally things that take a lot of time during the session,” Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, told reporters Thursday, calling the education base budget “the big winner” to receive the most money through the Legislature’s early-session budgeting process.

“It’s an amazing process we’ve gone through, and I think as a Legislature and a staff we should be very pleased with the process we’ve gone through and what we’ve accomplished with this,” Stevenson said. “There are only 49 other states that would like to be in the position we’re in, and I think that puts us in a great spot.”

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, called it a “historic time for public education in this budget.”

“If you think about it, we have never funded growth and the inflation factor in the base budget for public education, and in addition to that we fully restored 6% of the (weighted-pupil unit) that we had to cut when we had budget estimates that showed severe cuts with the opening of the pandemic,” she said.

Millner said it demonstrates lawmakers are committed to fulfilling their promises made with the passage of Amendment G last year, which expanded flexibility of how income tax can be used for children and people with disabilities.

“It will make so much difference in public education over time,” Millner said.

The Legislature’s budgeting process is far from over, and lawmakers will spend the remaining five weeks of the session debating how to spend roughly $90 million of ongoing money and nearly $1 billion one-time money still available for appropriation.

Now that base budgets have been approved, though, lawmakers have guaranteed that state agencies can operate through next year in case the 2021 session is cut short for any reason — perhaps a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Legislative leaders, however, have expressed confidence in the state’s daily rapid testing of lawmakers and staff and the ability to conduct business virtually as well as in person, so they don’t expect the session will be canceled for any reason.

“Most of the discussion in the next 35 days we have left will revolve around the ongoing money we have in the budget,” Stevenson said, calling the $1 billion of one-time funds still available a “big tranche.”

“We had to save something to do during this session,” Stevenson said, noting that the deadline for appropriation requests is noon Friday.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who has been saying 2021 is the “year of the tax cut,” said “I think I’ll amend that and I’d say this is the year for the tax cut (and) this is the year for education.”

Adams also said the nearly $1 billion available will enable lawmakers to fund some major infrastructure initiatives.

“It’s pretty unique to be able to do all three: a tax cut, education and infrastructure in the same year,” he said.

It wasn’t a unanimous vote, however, that gave final approval to SB1 in the House. It passed on a 59-14 vote, with some House Democrats voting against it.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, credited legislative leaders for prioritizing public education, calling the base budget for schools perhaps “the best we will see.”

“The amounts appropriated by the state are significant and welcome,” Briscoe said.

But Briscoe then expressed concerns that the bill placed too tight of constraints on schools for how they would be able to spend federal COVID-19 dollars. He argued schools should be able to spend the money on building improvements like air filtration systems or other issues to prevent COVID-19 spread and not face having to pay the money back.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said the intent of the bill’s language was to ensure those federal dollars “make a difference for students who have suffered a delay or setback in education due to COVID-19.”

“While we could have a discussion about capital improvement or air handling equipment at this juncture ... we want those funds to be laser-focused on student learning to help remediate some of the challenges brought on by COVID,” Eliason said.

He also called it a “historic bill.”

“It probably won’t end up on front pages of national newspapers, but I believe it’s worthy of such headlines because of the tremendous effort that this is putting toward funding of public education in the midst of a national recession,” he said.

As lawmakers work through how to spend the rest of the state’s budget, Adams said lawmakers continue to eye some form of tax cut.

Out of the $80 million that has already been set aside for a tax cut this year, the Utah Senate last week approved $43 million to reduce income taxes for Utahns on Social Security and military retirement. That proposal still needs to be considered by the House.

Lawmakers continue to weigh those tax cuts, as well as expanding the state’s existing tax credit for dependents to reverse some harms from federal tax law changes in recent years, as well as an across-the-board income tax cut.

Adams, however, warned an income tax cut “is pretty hard to do right now,” so the three other proposals may be more likely.

Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said lawmakers are still discussing their options.

“If there is room to do an income tax (cut) then maybe that’s a discussion we have,” Cullimore said. “But maybe we tackle those (other proposals) and see coming out of the pandemic if the economy is still roaring for us. Then maybe that’s something we can address in future sessions.”