Utah

Will Utah raise per-pupil education funding next year? Gov. Cox says conversations ‘have been incredibly positive.’

Legislators are required by law to include enrollment growth and inflation-related costs in education spending. The governor believes there is an opportunity this year to do even more.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 15, 2022.

As the Utah Legislature began rolling out its budget priorities this week, Gov. Spencer Cox’s $65 million proposal to increase state spending on education per student was nowhere to be found.

While lawmakers have earmarked $135 million for public schools — the minimum amount required by law to cover enrollment growth and inflation-related costs — the earmarking would not be enough to cover the 5 percent overall increase that Cox included in its own priorities last week .

But the governor said Thursday he was optimistic the Legislature was still willing to spend more income taxes on Utah’s youth — and maybe even more than he had proposed.

“In fact, all the conversations I’ve had have been incredibly positive that (legislators) are willing to support (increasing school funding) at this level and maybe even more,” Cox told reporters during his monthly news conference. “The talks were so positive.”

Utah’s per-student funding is consistently at or near the low end of all 50 states.

Also in its proposed fiscal 2024 budget, which begins next July, Cox is targeting $200 million to increase public school teacher compensation by $6,000. The Salt Lake Tribune first reported that the Legislature had hoped to tie teachers’ pay rises to school voucher legislation. Nor did the legislature include financing the increase in compensation in its own early priorities.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 15, 2022.

The governor said Thursday it was unusual for the Legislature to earmark that kind of money for a new program so early in the budgeting process. He said newly elected members have not even been sworn into office and these decisions will have to be discussed during next year’s legislature, when the budget will be finalised.

“There’s nothing controversial about not including that, it’s just the way the process works,” Cox said, adding that there was still time to have more talks about education funding.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said during the introduction of their early budget priorities that lawmakers “have an obligation to fund education in a meaningful way.”

On Tuesday, the Executive Appropriations Committee allocated $193 million in public education funds to a bad-day account to be used when the economy plummets.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, December 15, 2022.

When asked about lawmakers’ ability to tie increasing education funding to the creation of a school voucher program, Cox said he’s always supported school choice but thinks funding for teachers and public schools is a bigger priority.

“We’ve made some very compelling proposals this year,” said Cox. “I expect there will be a School Voting Act this year and I hope we can get a significant amount back for education so I can support that.”

Cox also proposed spending $400 million to send one-time tax refund checks to taxpayers, but that’s another idea lawmakers hadn’t set aside money for yet.

Again, Cox was optimistic. He said his proposed tax refunds could come into play during the legislature, although it’s unclear whether or not lawmakers are targeting a one-off or permanent tax cut. Lawmakers have announced that there will be a tax cut next year.

“I think we get both,” said Cox. “I hope we get both.”

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