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Legislators: After education and Medicaid, surplus won't go far

by Eric S. Peterson
Posted // 2012-01-18 -

The good news according to the Legislative leadership at a panel Wednesday morning was that the state has an expected $230 million surplus. The bad news is that there’s a $230 million surplus and too many programs that could use the extra money.

“When we have no money it’s really easy because everybody gets told ‘no,’” said Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. “When you have money it’s a lot harder then, as the process kicks in where we have to prioritize the needs of the state. “

Having a surplus is good, Lockhart said, but it’s still tough when the state has been reeling from years of recession. “There a little bit [of money] and a lot of demands and a lot of pent-up demands because of the last couple of years where we’ve had to make reductions—so this is going to be a difficult process,” Lockhart said.

The legislative preview, put on by nonprofit The United Way, focused primarily on education and health issues, and it was clear from the beginning that much of the surplus would need to be funneled toward funding enrollment growth. In opening remarks, Governor Gary Herbert argued that funding new growth was his top priority, and hoped to see $111 million dedicated to it and providing public education teachers a 1 percent pay increase, along with funding other initiatives like optional extended kindergarten.

“Because our economy is growing, because the programs we put in place over two and half years ago are bearing fruit, our economy is expanding,” Herbert said. He noted estimates that the new year’s growth in new-student enrollment was projected to be up to 12,500 from 11,500 last year, but that raising taxes would not be the solution to accommodating the new students, calling that suggestion “bad economics at a difficult time.”

That's a sentiment echoed by Republican legislators on the panel, who argued that how much of the surplus goes to public education will depend on how the legislative process develops over the coming session that begins Monday. Utah House Minority Whip Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, however, did argue that Democrats were blocked by Republicans during the Executive Appropriations Committee meeting from a resolution urging that the surplus funds to go through the committee process but still be directed to education.

“[The motion] tried to make the leadership statement from both parties that, ‘Hey, education is important,’” Seelig said. “The motion failed.” Panelist Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, pointed out that legislators need to be flexible with the budget. For example, he pointed out that potentially as much as $115 million -- roughly half of the budget surplus -- could go to Medicaid, which would not leave much for any other health- and human-services programs that have languished over the past few years the economy has been down.

Hillyard used the example of a farmer with more cows than his barn can fit to explain the winnowing process of prioritizing funding in the next session. “If you have 55 cows and a corral that will only take 30, we have to figure out how to get those 55 cows in there,” Hillyard says. “Some of those cows are going to get killed before they make it in there.”

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, however, argued that the Legislature needs to make a committed focus on education, the same way transportation projects and business development have in the past.

“We currently rank 42nd in the nation,” Jones said in reference to a recent ranking by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that overall gave Utah a 'D'  for school finance. “We’re number-one in business and number-one in so many great things that I hope our effort now would be to become number-one in education.”

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