OREM -- Education is the top item on Gov. Gary Herbert's priority list for the upcoming year.
On Wednesday, Herbert announced his priorities at Utah Valley University as he unveiled his budget proposal for the state's upcoming fiscal year. Herbert's budget looks to increase education funding by more than $260 million -- a figure that fully funds growth in Utah's public school system and increases the pot that handles per pupil spending by 2.5 percent.
"I believe if we are going to have the healthiest growing economy possible ... certainly we have to have a skilled labor force. That means education," said Herbert.
Herbert's proposal puts $157 million new dollars into the public education budget for the state. In addition to funding the new 10,300 students in the system and increasing the amount of pupil money sent to the districts, the proposal calls for $2 million to be used for a two-year career counseling initiative, $7.5 million for all-day kindergarten programs and $600,000 for technology infrastructure in elementary schools.
Mark Mickelsen, executive director for the UEA, said he appreciated that Herbert's top priority has been education but observed the funding levels Herbert proposed simply keep Utah's education system at the status quo. Mickelsen said the state could do better.
"What we are proposing is we get back to pre-recession funding levels," said Mickelsen. "To do that would take half a billion."
Mickelsen said the UEA would seek to get an increase to the state's education budget by $158.3 million over three years and a four percent increase to the per pupil spending budget.
"We've seen when we put additional resources into our education system that we do have success," Mickelsen said.
Hebert's budget also calls for $104 million new dollars to be put into the state's higher education institutions, $57.4 million of which would go toward a new science building at Weber State University.
The higher education budget also calls for $3.4 million for scholarships, a $1 million incentive for each school to achieve its mission and $3.9 million in increased compensation funding.
In addition to education, Herbert's proposal also calls for an allocation of funds to further enhance the state's economy. His proposal calls for $16.7 million to go toward tourism and sports marketing, as well as global branding and another $4.9 million for small business development.
Herbert stated that the $16.7 million for the tourism budget would be money well spent. The governor said when taxpayer dollars are invested in tourism, the returns can reach as high as seven to one on dollars invested.
Herbert said he would not call for state lawmakers to bond or take out additional loans to fund state programs or building projects. He said the state is still close to its borrowing limit and he feels right now is the time to continue efforts to pay down the debt, not increase it.
The governor did not make a pitch to raise the state's gas tax while laying out his budget proposal. While cities and counties have been calling for a raise in the tax, which hasn't been increased since the late 1990s, Herbert said the discussions are still in the early phases on whether the Legislature will increase that tax or not in the upcoming session.
"It certainly is a discussion that we need to have," said Herbert. "That is a discussion we are starting now and we will see where that leads to."
Cleaning Utah's air was also included in Herbert's proposal. Herbert is seeking to put $18 million into efforts to clean up the air in the state. His proposal includes $1.8 million to go toward studying the air on the Wasatch Front and potential ways to clear the air. Another $14.3 million would go toward replacing aging school buses and other state vehicles that produce large amounts of pollution.
Herbert's budget does not address the pending Medicaid expansion that Herbert is still deciding on. Herbert noted if he goes with the expansion, it would still be money taken from taxpayers. He stated that money that comes from the federal government is not "free money." Herbert said everything is still on the table as far as his decision on the expansion.
Democrats responded by claiming that Herbert is punting on the decision again and called on him to make a decision on the issue soon.
"For the last 18 months, he has dithered. Other states, many of them with Republican governors, have decided that the health and well-being of their citizens are more important than meeting the political demands of the far right," said Democratic Party chair Jim Dabakis. "Governor Herbert, 123,000 uninsured families across our state are once again imploring you to decide. It's long overdue."
Herbert's budget proposal serves as a constitutionally-required recommendation to the state Legislature. The Legislature takes his recommendations into consideration when they craft the final state budget during the general legislative session.
The budget proposals are for the 2015 state fiscal year, which begins on the first day of July in 2014.