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Gov. Spencer Cox’s First Budget Recommendation Focuses On Pandemic And Education Funding

Gov. Spencer Cox released his first recommended budget during a virtual press conference Monday.
Renee Bright
Gov. Spencer Cox released his first recommended budget during a virtual press conference Monday.

Following up on his campaign promisesto focus on education and Utah’s COVID-19 response, Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled his first budget proposal Monday.

The nearly $22 billion budget includes $250 million to aid the state’s pandemic response and a nearly $431 million increase in K-12 education funding.

“We know that there's so much more to do when large portions of the population feel like access to the highest levels of opportunity are only for the well-connected,” Cox said during a press conference to roll out the budget recommendation. “We need to make sure that life provides opportunity for all to succeed. As we do so, our entire state will be stronger.”

The budget recommendations also include an $80 million tax cut. It includes “a social security tax credit for low- and middle-income seniors and an increase in the state’s existing tax credit for dependents.”

Pandemic Response

Of the $250 million proposed to help in the fight against COVID-19, $100 million would go to the public health response, including vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing.

“We've let our local health departments know that they will have any resources they need at their fingertips to get people vaccinated within a week [from when] the vaccines are received,” Cox said.

Public K-12 schools would get $50 million to help them respond to the pandemic. The budget recommends $100 million for grants to help industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, including the restaurant and hospitality industries.

“We are working to fully understand the impacts of the recently passed federal pandemic relief bill for Utah and may adjust this recommendation based on additional insights we gain in the coming weeks,” Cox said.

Public Education

Cox is recommending an almost $431 million increase in yearly funding, and $180 million in one-time money, to K-12 education, which includes the $50 million in pandemic-related assistance.

That includes a nearly 6% increase in per-pupil funding, a funding increase for students “at risk of academic failure”, and a boost in per-pupil money for rural districts.

In an effort to make funding for schools in richer and poorer areas more equitable, Cox is also asking the Legislature to re-examine how statewide property taxes are spent on K-12 schools.

“We are recommending we fix this by putting a greater emphasis on the statewide property tax for school,” Cox said. “We can't just allow greater opportunities for those in more affluent parts of our state.”

Higher Education and Workforce Development

Cox’s budget introduces an “Upskilling” initiative, with $125 million in funding behind it. Higher education and K-12 schools would get a total of $56 million to create “innovative approaches to skill and career development.”

“Although we are leading the nation in job growth over the last 10 years, that doesn't matter if we are not creating opportunities for people, if we're not focusing on our people to make sure they have the education necessary to to take those jobs and provide for their families,” Cox said.

Under the proposal, the state’s higher education system would get $4.4 million to create a three-year pilot program that would assign college advisors to work at state employment centers. The system would also get $15.6 million for “technical colleges to provide support for unemployed, underemployed, and vulnerable workers.”

Technical education programs and colleges would also get $49 million as part of the “Upskilling” initiative.

Social Services

Cox’s budget recommends $3.3 million to pay for new social service and state hospital workers that are employed by the Department of Human Services. That money could also go toward retaining current workers.

The budget allocates $700,000 toward grants for behavioral health programs like Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams. The budget also calls for $1.1 million to pay for Medicaid rate increases for mental health providers.

Cox’s recommendation sets aside money to make working for the state government more attractive.

“A number of employee classifications are 20 to 30% below market wages,” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said. “We're having a really difficult time attracting and retaining employees.”

The budget calls for $8.8 million to go to pay raises. State agencies would get $12.9 million to use however they want to attract new, talented employees.

During budget cuts this summer, the Legislature eliminated the annual cost of living increase for state employees. Cox’s budget allocates $25 million to restore that. It also recommends that state employees get three more weeks of parental leave, bringing the total leave to six weeks. All new parents, including mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents, qualify.

Rural Utah

Cox has made rural Utah a focus of his campaign and early administration. He appointed the state’s first ever senior adviser of rural affairs, and held hisinauguration in Washington County.

He emphasized investment in rural Utah during the budget rollout. His budget recommendation includes $1.5 million for rural emergency services, and additional per-pupil funding for rural school districts.

Under the recommended budget, $125 million of one-time money would go toward improving infrastructure in rural Utah. That includes $50 million to improve internet access, $6 million to install electric vehicle charging stations and $69 million to fund infrastructure projects through loans.

Tax Cut

Cox’s proposed budget includes an $80 million tax cut, which comes after the Legislature reduced state spending by $850 million in June as revenues dropped due to the pandemic.

“The budget looks better than I think anyone predicted over the past 10 months,” Cox said. “The people of Utah know how to spend their money better than the government of Utah knows how to spend their money. And so any opportunity we have — as long as we are fulfilling our obligations and doing the very best we can with the mandates that we have been given in state government — to return money to the people of Utah, that should always be a priority.”

Cox also said he has no immediate plans to revisit a major tax overhaul. The Legislature passed a tax reform package in December 2019 to address what Republican leadership called a “revenue imbalance” of slowing sales tax growth and increasing income tax growth. Lawmakers repealed that law the next month after major public criticism.

Voters approved Amendment G in November, which allows lawmakers to use income tax money, which pays for education, for programs that benefit children and people with disabilities. Those programs are usually funded by sales tax money.

“The passage of Amendment G is huge for those tax reform efforts,” Cox said. “It's going to take a year or two to really understand where we are and where we need to go as far as structural imbalances are concerned. We feel very good about where we are now and think we have several years before that pressure point hits again.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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