Utah governor unveils first budget with emphasis on education

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled his first budget plan Monday, proposing an $80 million tax cut for some Utahns in the form of a Social Security tax credit while also committing about $431 million ongoing and $180 million one-time boosts for K-12 education.

Cox rolled out his recommendations on how to allocate the state’s $21.7 billion budget amid better-than-expected revenues despite the COVID-19 pandemic. He and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced their spending plan in an online press conference from their new rural office at Southern Utah University.

Cox’s proposal, which will be considered by the Legislature during its session that begins Jan. 19, seeks to deliver on his pledge to prioritize education, recommending over $296 million ($248.3 million ongoing and $48 million one-time money) for a 5.82{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} increase in the weighted pupil unit that serves as a base for school funding and enrollment growth. He also wants to use $112 million for $1,500 bonuses to teachers and $1,000 for school staff, backing a plan laid out by lawmakers last month.

“I cannot overemphasize how essential teachers are to our state’s long-term success as they educate the young Utahns that literally are our future,” Cox said. “Let’s give them our support as a state.”

Cox is also proposing a $26.3 million increase to help students at risk of academic failure, $9 million for optional enhanced kindergarten for at-risk children, and an additional $8 million for rural school districts. He also recommended $2.8 million for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, a one-time allocation of $12 million for special education intensive services, and $7.5 million to expand access to computer science for all students with an initial focus on those who have the least access to STEM fields, a $22 million increase for the Teacher and Student Success Program, and an additional $30 million to help equalize funding for poorer districts.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews applauded Cox’s budget proposal, saying it — combined with the lawmakers’ plan to give teacher bonuses — “signify a significant commitment by both the governor and the Legislature to invest in the students of Utah.“

“When enacted, not only would this budget represent one of the highest levels of funding for Utah education in recent years, the significant step of establishing much of the increase in the base budget as proposed by the Executive Appropriations Committee makes this truly remarkable,” she said. She also expressed appreciation to Cox and the Legislature for their willingness to prioritize students and public schools.

“Our educators are doing remarkable work in extraordinary circumstances. The bonuses for all school employees are a recognition of those efforts,” she said. “As legislators begin their work later this month, we respectfully ask that they reverse the overwhelming workload and support Utah educators during the COVID pandemic crisis by strictly limiting education-related bills to the budget and essential legislation that must be accomplished during the 2021 general session.”

For higher education and workforce development, Cox is proposing $56 million for an innovation fund focused on skill and career development, $20 million to help those struggling to find work and $49 million for technical education

Cox also wants to restore a cost-of-living raise state employees lost last year after the lawmakers cut the budget amid worries of COVID-19’s impact on the economy. Cox proposes using $25 million to give all state employees a 3{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} pay hike and $8.8 million to increase salaries for employees lagging behind market standards.

Leaving $80 million unspent in the budget, Cox wants that money to go toward a Social Security tax credit for low- and middle-income senior citizens and a dependent tax credit for Utahns who were hurt by federal tax changes in recent years.

For the fight against COVID-19, Cox is recommending $250 million to continue Utah’s pandemic response, which includes $100 million for public health efforts, $100 million for short-term grants for heavily impacted households and businesses, and $50 million for education.

Cox’s proposal also includes sizable investments for two major transportation projects: $350 million to double-track FrontRunner and $50 million to deal with traffic problems in the Wasatch canyons. He also proposes using $125 million for open spaces, trails and parks.

With an eye on Utah’s rural communities, Cox is also seeking $125 million be spent on rural infrastructure, including $69 million for a revolving loan fund, $50 million for broadband and fiber access, and $6 million for electric vehicle charging stations to be installed in rural areas. He also wants $8 million for rural county economic development grants.

This story will be updated.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Cox’s proposed budget prioritized $9 billion for education. That figure is actually $7.9 billion.

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