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$16.7 Billion Budget Includes Earmarks For Schools, Olympic Upgrades And California Coal Lawsuit

Austen Diamond

Utah lawmakers are using their last two days of the legislative session to finalize a $16.7 billion budget plan that includes $10 million to help tackle homelessness and $8.5 million to get the state's Winter Olympics facilities ready for another bid for the games.
Surplus tax collections last year gave Utah lawmakers an extra $453 million to put toward the budget, along with $128 million for one-time projects like construction. That does not include about $80 million extra the state is expected to collect because of the major overhaul of the nation's tax code passed by Congress in December. 

Lawmakers will cast final votes on the budget before adjourning at midnight Thursday.

Highlights from the budget plan:

Lawmakers are looking to boost public education spending by about $124 million, which can go toward costs like raising teacher pay. They're also setting aside $36 million to pay for an estimated 7,700 additional students in public schools in the upcoming year, along with $9 million for children considered to have a higher risk of struggling, such as those in poverty or who have limited English proficiency. It's not quite as much asGov. Gary Herbert had requested for public schools, but lawmakers are hoping to pass a last-minute deal that would let voters decide on a dime-per-gallon gas tax increase, which could funnel an extra $120 million into education.

The budget includes $9 million to address growing enrollment at the state's colleges and universities. There's about $9 million to cover tuition that is waived for some students. Lawmakers have also bookmarked $5 million to help renovate athletic facilities and classroom space at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.

Lawmakers have set aside $10.5 million toward Operation Rio Grande, an effort tackling problems of crime and overcrowding around Salt Lake City's downtown homeless shelter. The operation includes a focus on stepped-up policing, job training, drug treatment and health insurance for some of the poorest of the poor, along with the construction of three new homeless shelters.

The Inn Between, a Salt Lake City hospice center for the homeless, will receive more than $1 million to expand from a 15-bed center to an 85-bed facility. Legislators have also tucked aside $300,000 for a southern Utah nonprofit called Cherish Families, which helps those in polygamous communities with housing, food, clothing and employment assistance.

The budget plan includes at least a 2.5 percent pay increase for almost all state employees, including the governor. Herbert's pay would rise to $156,825 a year, up from $153,000 annually.

Lawmakers on Wednesday evening folded in $1.65 million to sue California over rules that make coal-fired power more expensive. Republican Rep. Mike Noel has proposed the lawsuit, saying California's policies are hurting coal miners in his rural district and violate the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause. Gov. Gary Herbert says the cost of the lawsuit seems "exorbitant'" and has suggested that the coal industry foot the bill.

The budget includes $8.5 million to repair Utah's Winter Olympics facilities as Salt Lake City prepares for a bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. A state audit last year found Utah will eventually need to spend about $39 million on upgrades to be ready to host the games. That's in addition to $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion it would cost to host the Olympics. Lawmakers are looking to set aside $1 million for a celebration next year marking 150 years since the transcontinental railroad was completed in northern Utah.

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Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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