Utah Legislature approves massive $25 billion budget. Here are the highlights

With less than 20 minutes to go until the curtain fell on the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session at midnight on Friday, lawmakers put their final stamp of approval on the state’s over $25 billion budget — one that legislative leaders called the largest in state history.

“It’s an eye-popping amount of money,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters in a media availability Friday. “But I think we’ve invested it well.”

Even though the Legislature had an extra $2 billion to spend this year, lawmakers complained that this year’s budget process was among the most difficult they’ve ever had to navigate, with budget requests far outpacing the amount of money lawmakers had to spend.

Legislative leaders opted to take a cautious and conservative approach with spending, wanting to ensure Utah would remain in a strong financial position if the economy ever hit a “financial cliff” as concerns about inflation continue to grip the nation.

“It’s been a challenge,” House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, told the Deseret News. “We had unprecedented revenue ... but all the federal money that’s been flowing in has been a complicating factor.”

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On Thursday night, the Executive Appropriations Committee took a majority of the federal COVID-19 relief money that’s flowed to the state this year to fund an additional $1 billion in one-time funding for transportation infrastructure.

The move sets aside cash for major public transit and road projects. Some of that will be going toward transit projects, Last said, including double tracking of FrontRunner. Stevenson said it will allow many projects, prioritized by the state’s transportation commission, to be completed a year or more earlier, depending on the project.

Last week, lawmakers appropriated $2 billion more for a slew of priorities, including education, water, funding to preserve the Great Salt Lake, and more.

“There’s a lot of big winners. A lot of big numbers. Bigger than we’ve ever seen,” Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, told the Deseret News.

Gov. Spencer Cox discusses the 2022 legislative session on its last day during an interview at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox told the Deseret News in an interview Friday afternoon he’s thrilled with how this year’s budget shaped up.

“I feel great about it,” he said, noting that water was an especially important priority for him — along with tax cuts.

Although Cox had proposed a $160 million grocery tax credit in his budget recommendation, lawmakers opted to do a $193 million tax cut, including $163 million for an across-the-board income tax rate cut for all Utahns, dropping Utah’s income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.85%, plus a $16 million nonrefundable earned income tax credit and a $15 million expansion for the state’s Social Security tax credit.

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Cox, who has already signed the tax cut bill, said he was particularly “excited” about the nonrefundable earned income tax credit as “something I’ve wanted for a long time.” He said he initially included that in his budget recommendation but took it out because he didn’t think it would stand a chance.

“Then we started talking, and there was optimism for an earned income tax credit, so I immediately said yes, let’s go that direction,” Cox said. “So I’m grateful that that passed.”

Cox also applauded lawmakers’ prioritization of $250 million in federal money for secondary water metering and $40 million to help preserve the Great Salt Lake. Lawmakers also prioritized $5 million for a unique statewide turf buy-back program to incentivize Utahns to rip out their lawns.

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“This idea of actually putting money aside for these projects will help us conserve,” Cox said. “So I’m very excited. And people are recognizing how important this is, and that’s a real paradigm shift as well.”

Education was another big winner, Cox said, pointing to a total of nearly $200 million that lawmakers have set aside for a 6% increase to the weighted pupil unit, “which will be I think the highest ever,” Cox said.

Overall, the state’s education budget grew by about 9%, including $12 million to expand optional all-day kindergarten and $64 million for HB396, a bill that funds paid professional hours for teachers, “which is something they’ve wanted for a long time,” Cox said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks with members of the media as Utah lawmakers work through the last day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in a media availability with reporters Friday, harkened back to the House’s priorities that lawmakers set before the session and said many of those priorities were well funded by the end of the session, especially water and education.

He pointed to, in total, a nearly $500 million in investment “and some major policy shifts around water conservation, water protection, water quality — all part of our agenda,” Wilson said. “All those bills have passed, all those that we cared about. It’s a big win for the state.”

Wilson also said lawmakers made “significant strides” for Utah’s housing affordability — even though housing advocates would disagree, frustrated that the Legislature funded less than half ($55 million) of the $128 million Gov. Spencer Cox wanted for deeply affordable housing.

Wilson noted that combined with the $50 million that was funded for affordable housing and homelessness last year, this year’s money totals “well over $100 million.” He said “a lot” of last year’s funding is still waiting to be spent, “and so it didn’t make a lot of sense to us to put more money than actually the system can absorb” into housing.

Next year, if housing programs turn out to be “going well, and it’s solving the problem,” Wilson said the Legislature will be open to funding more. “This issue isn’t going away.”

The governor said he’s still optimistic about the amount of funding that made it into the budget for housing and homelessness.

“I can look at it as a glass half empty or a glass half full. I’m a glass half full person. This is more money than we’ve ever gotten before,” Cox said.

Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, discuss HB11, Student Eligibility in Interscholastic Activities, during the last evening of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said education was indeed a big winner this year, but there is “more to do, for sure,” for housing and homelessness.

“It’s critical, and we’re already looking for more next session,” Escamilla said.

Wilson also applauded the 6% weighted pupil unit increase — “one of the biggest we’ve had” — and nearly 9% overall increase to the state’s education funding.

Wilson said lawmakers made “big, generational investments,” pointing specifically to the $57 million set aside for the first phase of The Point’s infrastructure, plus another $25 million for the Point of the Mountain for demolition of the old Utah State Prison.

The Point is the name of a major master-planned “complete community” state leaders have envisioned for about 600 acres at the former Utah State Prison’s site in Draper. The prison is scheduled to move into its new, $1 billion home on the far west side of Salt Lake City in June. Demolition on the old prison facilities is slated to begin in July.

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“This amazing place that we’re going to see developed there is going to have a big impact on jobs, on quality of life, on even our recreation opportunities,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the “icing on the cake” this session was money funded in HB409, which would create a new account for “outdoor adventure infrastructure” of about $38 million in ongoing sales tax revenue. The new fund will help build new recreation infrastructure for Utahns, Wilson said.

“We haven’t ever had that,” he said. “We’ve had a $1 billion a year going into roads, but we haven’t had anything going into building more state parks or more trails or more places to take your boat — just fun things we like to do as Utahns. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also lauded “record” spending on education, plus the $1 billion for infrastructure, and $55 million for housing and homelessness, the $38 million for outdoor infrastructure in more as all budget priorities — plus tax cuts — that show Utah’s envious economic position.

“We do all that? That’s a pretty phenomenal session,” Adams said.