Lawmakers nearing budget deadline

2014-03-09T00:26:00Z 2014-03-21T20:20:21Z Lawmakers nearing budget deadlineBilly Hesterman - Daily Herald Daily Herald
March 09, 2014 12:26 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY -- With only four days to go, many questions still remain unanswered on Utah's Capitol Hill; most notable of all, what will the final budget look like?

While lawmakers have already passed base budgets this session that carry the state's various agencies forward at current fiscal year levels, the House and Senate are still haggling over how to appropriate the nearly $250 million in revenue the state is expected to receive over the next year.

It appears that funding the student growth in public education, increasing the fund that handles teacher salaries and putting some money towards state workers' compensation is on the top of the priority lists for the budget, but House Speaker Becky Lockhart's, R-Provo, education modernization plan is holding up the final proposal from being drafted.

"I think we are just trying to find different ways to approach the same problem," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate's budget chairman. "The House does not want to vote on a tax increase ... and we don't want to take any money out of the transportation fund."

Lockhart's plan calls for every student enrolled in Utah's public schools to eventually receive a computer or iPad like device to assist them in their education. The plan calls for teacher training to aid in the utilization of the devices and for the schools to receive money to upgrade their infrastructure so they can handle the load of hundreds of students signed on to the Internet at once.

Lockhart is asking for $200 million for her program but the Senate is offering $26 million.

"The good thing is we are now having some communications going on," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R- Sandy. "We don't have a lot of details but there are some substantive discussions going and I think we are encouraged."

Earlier in the week the Senate Republican leadership team said that GOP House leaders failed to show up to a meeting with the Governor and the Senate that would have involved discussions on the budget. Lockhart said her group was not prepared to discuss the budget yet and notified the governor that they would not attend the meeting.

On Friday, however, the House was ready to talk as Niedhauser indicated that discussions were starting to make some headway and said he hopes to see a final budget on Monday.

Legislative leaders on the Executive Appropriations Committee, the master controllers of the budget, were scheduled to meet Friday evening to pass some framework for the budget so it could be printed over the weekend but that meeting was scrapped Friday afternoon.

Lockhart is also facing pressure from Gov. Gary Herbert on her education technology plan. On Thursday, he stated that he would veto the plan if it came in for more than $30 million.

On Friday, he did not back down from that threat as he told reporters that he would like to see a plan that is a little more thought out and allows the state to pay as it goes and learn how to best increase technology in the classrooms.

"It is a good idea, but every good idea needs to have a good plan," Herbert said. "We haven't seen that. There is just a big idea with a lot of money but not a plan that goes with it."

Herbert suggested that Lockhart look at something smaller such as a pilot program or a less aggressive plan for implementation.

Lockhart responded to Herbert's comments by reading quotes Herbert made supporting the increase of technology in the classroom over the past few months and said that Herbert clearly has the vision that she has but that he now needs to invest in that vision.

Lockhart also said that she would reject a pilot program as she said schools are already doing that. She said she was open to putting the rollout of her plan over years to come to lessen the cost to the state each year.

Lockhart said she expected the House and Senate to come to some terms on her program and the final budget over the weekend.

"We are having really positive talks," Lockhart said.

Lawmakers are also facing the dilemma of what to do about medicaid expansion. While lawmakers in both the House and Senate have drafted plans for how the state should handle the matter of providing health care to some of Utah's poorest residents that don't qualify for care under the Affordable Care Act, finding enough votes for either plan seems to be an uphill battle.

Senate Republicans have indicated that the caucus has yet to find any strong support for one particular medicaid plan. The House has considered a plan that would not accept the millions of dollars the state could receive from the federal government under the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, to expand Medicaid as Lockhart has said she does not believe the federal dollars will be sustainable. The plan was debated on the House floor on Friday but the pause button was hit on the bill as the House members said they wanted more time to deliberate on the plan.

Herbert also has laid out a plan that both leaders in the House and Senate have called full expansion of Obamacare in Utah just under another name.

Herbert has also said he would be open to the Legislature not passing a plan before the session ends to allow him the option to go back to Washington to see what he can negotiate for the state.

"I've said also don't tie my hands. Let me go back and see if I can negotiate the best deal possible for Utah," Herbert said. "Let me go back to Washington to see if I can come back with something that the legislature can approve."

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the House Majority Whip, said that option may gain favor as he explained that House members right now want to make the right decision on this as they will not be able to back out of it later.

Hughes said the option of not doing anything before the session ends could be attractive to some lawmakers as it would allow more time for Utah to learn from other states on what is successful and what is not in terms of Medicaid expansion.

"The magnitude of this decision is not lost on our caucus," he said. "We think there is more information to be garnered from around the country."

That could mean a special session will take place once the governor and the Legislature decide which direction to take the state in regards to Medicaid if there is no decision made by Thursday night.

-- Billy Hesterman covers the Utah State Legislature and local politics for the Daily Herald. You can connect with Billy by email at bhesterman@heraldextra.com or by

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