SALT LAKE CITY -- House Speaker Becky Lockhart's, R-Provo, plan to increase the amount of technology found in Utah's classrooms is the main sticking point between the House and Senate as the Legislature is looking to come up with a final budget before it adjourns next week.
On Thursday Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, explained to reporters that the Senate is willing to give Lockhart $26 million to get her program, which seeks to give every student enrolled in Utah's schools an electronic device such as an iPad or laptop computer, up and running but Lockhart is asking for $200 million, a number the Senate can't find in the budget proposals it is considering to support.
The discussions have broken down as Lockhart has said she believes the program could be more adequately funded if the lawmakers use money from the state's transportation fund for her initiative but the Senate has said they are not willing to touch that money.
Hillyard said one option on the table could be that the Legislature adjourn next Thursday night without passing a budget. The lawmakers have already passed bills that keep funding levels at the same level they were set at for the previous fiscal year, which would mean the government would continue to operate should they adjourn without a budget.
That particular maneuver would seem unlikely though as the lawmakers would want to adjourn without at least funding growth in public education, adding money to the fund that controls teacher salaries and also increasing the pay of the state employees with an election coming up.
"I think the Senate is agreeable that we need to focus on technology more," said Hillyard.
He went on to explain the problem was the money. Senate Republicans are saying the experts they have discussed the plan with say doing a full rollout like Lockhart's proposal would be problematic. Some senators have said they'd prefer looking to make sure all of Utah's schools have the infrastructure in place to handle the technology before they start purchasing the devices.
"The question is how we do it and how do we do it in such a way that we are not wasting money," Hillyard said. The Senate has given Lockhart a couple of tax increase options to help fund the tech program.
The Senate has sent the House a bill that would change Utah's gas tax structure. The bill would be revenue neutral when it goes into effect but is structured in such a manner that Utah over time would gain additional funds from the structure change. That could serve to cover the transportation money Lockhart wants to use.
The Senate also amended a bill dealing with property tax rates that would lead to an increase in revenue over time for the state. The Senate has indicated that money could also be used for her program.
Lockhart said she would not support any tax increases to move the program forward.
In addition to the Senate, Lockhart appears to have to get Gov. Gary Herbert on board with her plan as he said on Thursday that he would support a plan to start putting technology in Utah's classroom but only at a cost of $20-30 million. If the price tag got higher than that, Herbert has indicated he would use his veto pen on the program.
Herbert's spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said the governor has long been a proponent of the value of technology in education but that the governor's feelings on this plan was the state should not throw hundreds of millions of dollars at an unproven initiative.
Carpenter said Herbert could support the figures the Senate is proposing to Lockhart so the state can "learn as it goes" as it attempts to increase the amount of technology in Utah's classrooms.
"I would go as far as to say that he is prepared to veto anything that comes in over that amount," Carpenter said.
Lockhart said she had not heard that statement from the governor and explained that the Legislature is still early in their negotiation process. She stated her bill was not about the money but about a vision she is attempting to get the rest of the lawmakers to see.
"What this bill is about is a vision and it is a vision of moving us out of the 19th century in education and transforming our system to better prepare our children for now and for the future." Lockhart said.
Lockhart said she didn't characterize Herbert's statement on her plan as a threat and went on to say she plans to continue negotiations with the Senate over the coming days to reach a budget agreement before adjournment.