Updated 3:56 p.m. MDT 01/08/19:
Continuing his focus on education and managing Utah’s growth, Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled a $20 billion budget proposal Wednesday that includes $100 million to improve air quality, an endowment to preserve open spaces and an education funding boost.
“The budget has grown in some significance,” Herbert said. “But if you analyze the budget over the last ten years there’s only three areas that have grown, [transportation, medicaid and education] … but everything else remains basically flat.”
This is Herbert’s last budget recommendation as governor. Speaking at This is the Place Heritage Park on Wednesday, he said the proposal is meant to keep Utah a desirable place to live.
“This is the right place, it still is,” Herbert said. “We’re going to continue to be the good example the country needs. We’re kind of the island of tranquility in what is a sea of chaos out there.”
The budget includes a $357 million ongoing increase in education funding and $50 million in one-time funding, which includes a 2.5% pay raise for higher education employees.
“My first, number one budget priority has always remained the same,” Herbert said. “And that’s education.”
It also recommends several policy reforms, including more oversight of K-12 education by the governor, and a freeze on tuition in higher education until The Board of Regents defines “affordability."
“It’s not an easy issue,” Herbert said. “I don't want to be too harsh but I'm just saying this will be kind of an incentive to — if you need more money and you want to raise the tuition, let's find out where the money's going and what affordability looks like.”
The Utah System of Higher Education is close to finishing affordability definitions, according to Interim Commissioner David Woolstenhulme.
“If we hadn't been prepared and been working through the process of defining affordability, I probably would have freaked out a little bit,” Woolstenhulme said. “But because it's something that has been on our radar and it’s something we've been working towards, we actually really support that.”
Woolstenhulme said the Board of Regents could vote on the definitions as early as March, so a tuition freeze likely won’t be necessary.
With a goal to reduce per capita emissions 25% by 2026, Herbert is proposing that $100 million go towards air quality projects including an expansion of public transit and electric vehicle infrastructure.
“Overall our state is much cleaner than it was ten years ago, but that’s not enough,” Herbert said. “With the congestion on the Wasatch front now we are at critical mass and forms of mass transit now are functional and economically doable.”
If the money for electric vehicle infrastructure is approved, Herbert said the project would allow owners to drive almost anywhere in the state without fear of being stranded.
Herbert proposed the same amount last year for air quality improvements, but only received about a third of it. He said he hopes that by providing more specificity in the proposal, it will garner more funding from the legislature.
Housing & Growth
Utah’s rapid growth has led to rising housing costs, and Herbert’s proposal allocates $20 million towards addressing the issue. It includes $5 million of ongoing funding for housing vouchers to help some Utahns who may be stuck on long waiting lists for federal housing vouchers.
“The biggest challenge we face is growth,” Herbert said. “Our population is anticipated to double by 2065 approximately. So that is a real challenge for us.”
As Utah’s population grows, Herbert said he wanted to ensure that the state has adequate outdoor space for all residents. The proposed budget creates a $40 million endowment to preserve open spaces and $16.6 million to expand and improve state parks.
The budget leaves a $635 million surplus and does not include authorizations for any new bonds.
“We want to lead by example by being fiscally prudent,” Herbert said. “We are only one of 12 states that have a AAA bond rating.”
Herbert also said during his time in office that state government has become more efficient. When he took office in 2009, there was one state employee for every 127 residents. Now, there is one for every 155 residents.
“We respect the taxpayers’ dollars,” Herbert said. “We want to spend them as effectively and efficiently as we can to get the best outcomes we can.”
Herbert’s budget recommendations will be sent to the state legislature, which can make changes and will eventually pass a series of spending bills. Utah’s 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 27.