No money for school tech plan in Utah budget
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah legislators closed in Tuesday on a $13 billion-plus state budget after negotiating over the weekend and abandoning a pricey school technology initiative that had stalled talks.
The initial budget plan was presented to the full House and Senate on Tuesday after receiving approval from the Legislature's Executive Appropriations committee on Monday afternoon.
Lawmakers were expected to make final adjustments before adjourning late Thursday.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, a Provo Republican, had been seeking about $200 million for her technology initiative that would have equipped every public and charter school student with a digital tablet.
Republican leaders in the Senate and Republican Gov. Gary balked at the proposal they said was short on details and introduced too late to properly vet.
Herbert threatened to veto the measure if it cost much more than $26 million — the figure Senate budget negotiators proposed to Lockhart.
Instead, Lockhart pulled the proposal from the negotiating table over the weekend.
"In the end, what they were offering was change out of the couch cushions," Lockhart told reporters Monday. "One more pilot program is not going to transform the way we deliver education."
Herbert said Utah needs to enhance technology in education but Lockhart's proposal was not the right approach.
"We must make progress in this effort in a strategic manner, with consideration for competing funding priorities, such as increasing teacher pay, funding growth and equity funding for higher education," he said Monday.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said senators felt like they were offering a reasonable amount of money for the plan, which they generally support. He thinks legislators will address the issue next year or beyond.
"This isn't a dead issue as far as we're concerned," he said.
Despite the loss of her tech plan, Lockhart said there are a lot of good things in the budget.
Education was one of the top priorities, with about $128 million going toward public teacher salaries and to fund growing enrollment in schools.
Another $20 million is earmarked for science, technology, engineering and math programs.
For higher education, the budget allocates $50 million for state colleges and universities to keep up with the demands of growing student populations, and $57 million for a new science lab building at Weber State University.
Air quality initiatives, a priority for many lawmakers this session, are set to get about $4 million for research and tax credits for energy efficient vehicles, among other programs.
Other budget highlights include about $36 million to expand the state prison at Gunnison, and $500,000 to pay outside attorneys brought in to defend Utah's same-sex marriage ban in federal appeals court.
Legislators are also setting aside $15 million for tourism marketing, and another $1 million for the Sundance Film Festival that will go toward branding films shown at the Utah festival.
The budget plan also provides $4 million to cover the cost of a special House investigation of former Attorney General John Swallow and another $100,000 for an investigation of Swallow conducted by the lieutenant governor's office.
Swallow, a Republican, resigned late last year after nearly a year in office. He faced multiple allegations of misconduct, including accusations he offered to protect several businessmen in return for favors. He repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
One thing legislators didn't touch in the budget was Medicaid expansion.
They have several plans to consider, from doing nothing to fully expanding the program as offered under the federal health care law.
Herbert, who has put forward his own plan, has said legislators might need to take up the issue during a special session.
Associated Press writer Annie Knox contributed to this report.