Utah lawmakers finalizing budget as session nears end

This Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 photo shows representatives on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Lawmakers were finalizing legislation Wednesday for Utah’s roughly $13 billion budget as they wrap up the last days of the legislative session.

As it does almost every year, education was taking center stage, accounting for a little more than half of the budget proposal that has to be finalized before the session ends Thursday night.

This year, legislators want to spend $68.6 million to cover the cost of more than 13,000 new students and about $48 million to increase the formula for per-student spending by 2 percent.

“That’s wonderful news and I think we are greatly appreciative of that,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he was glad to see lawmakers found a way to increase the per-student spending.

“I think that’s a great message to the education folks, to our teachers, of appreciation and of merit that they’ve deserved to have an increase in pay,” he said Tuesday.

The 2 percent increase was needed for districts to cover increasing costs of teacher retirement and other benefits. It might not translate into a higher paycheck for teachers, Menlove said.

However, the superintendent said the increase could put teachers on about the same level as other state employees, who are set to get a 1 percent cost-of-living pay raise this year.

The budget also has $5 million set aside for teacher supplies and another $5 million for science technology, engineering and math teaching programs.

“It’s not everything we asked for. It’s definitely not everything we need,” Menlove said.

But overall, he said, lawmakers met most requests from the Utah State Board of Education.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said lawmakers haven’t always been able to pay for new student enrollment as Utah’s economy slowed in recent years. But this year, they were able to put a big chunk of additional revenue toward that and other education programs, he said.

“Since I’ve been in the Legislature, the first place that we spend money is education, and the last place that we cut is education,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

The governor said he’s pleased with the numbers lawmakers came up with.

“My No. 1 priority was education, and you can see that the Legislature agrees with that,” Herbert said.

The budget also sets aside $54 million for a new classroom building at Utah Valley University, almost $3 million to extend a tax credit for alternative-fuel vehicles for one more year, and $3.5 million for a school-based mental health program that aims to diagnose disorders early in a person’s life.

Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to redirect $300,000 in the budget to lobby federal officials to oppose any potential efforts to reintroduce the gray wolf in Utah, saying that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Lawmakers also chose not to backfill about $39 million the state is losing in federal funds that resulted from recent broad spending cuts in Washington, D.C. Legislative leaders said they were unable to predict exactly where those cuts would hit or whether Congress and the White House would be able end a standoff on federal spending.

Federal money makes up a significant portion of Utah’s budget, representing about 40 percent of state revenue.

Some Republican lawmakers say Utah is setting itself up for a budget crisis if it continues to rely on federal money. They have introduced a package of legislation to identify all federal dollars flowing into the state and study what would happen if the state lost that money.

Legislators are also proposing to set aside $5.6 million the state owes to Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan, his attorneys and other firms hired to liquidate assets of a communal land trust once run by jailed polygamist Warren Jeffs.

That will allow the key players in the lengthy legal battle to move toward the creation of a trustees board to oversee the properties.

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