Education, Medicaid Focus of 2011 Session

Senator Steve Urquhart
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said he is prepared to make cuts in higher education. | Photo courtesy of Steve Urquhart

ST. GEORGE – Dixie State College’s announcement that it was approved by the Utah Board of Regents for two new four-year degrees came just days before the 2011 General Legislative Session, and at the top of this year’s agenda is further budget cuts – including cuts in higher education.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said that although the economy is showing signs of improvement, the state has used one-time revenue – such as federal stimulus money – to pay for on-going expenses. Utah now finds itself with a $300 million hole to fill, he said.

“Part of the reason we’re doing better than all other non oil-producing states is we haven’t run those deficits in the past, but now we’ve been carrying a structural imbalance. So we’re worried about that hole and we want to plug that hole,” he said.

He said the state is going to see further budget cuts for the third year in a row. The problem is, he said, the state’s largest expense is Medicaid, and although it is run and mostly funded by Utah, it is a federal program. Urquhart said that means the government restricts where Utah can and cannot cut from the program. That leaves the state’s other largest expense, education, at the top of the chopping block.

After paying for education and health and human services, “We might as well go home,” he said. “That’s all the money.”

In 2001, Medicaid made up 9 percent of the state’s budget. It now makes up 18 percent of the state’s budget, he said. He said the state has not funded growth in Medicaid or public education in two years. With the economic downturn, more people are qualifying for Medicaid, and the state’s budget cannot keep up with that growth.

“Such a huge percent of our budget is going to Medicaid,” Urquhart said. “Money that’s not going to public education or colleges where Utahans would rather see it go. We’ve got to get it under control.”

As Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, focuses on Medicaid reform – Urquhart said he has confidence Liljenquist will make necessary changes that may be hard but are needed – Urquhart is spearheading changes in higher education.

As chair of the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, he said his priority is running mission-based funding.

“We’re sending a lot of kids to college that aren’t completing,” he said. “That’s stranded capital.”

Urquhart said most colleges in Utah are only graduating 20-30 percent of their students, with the exception of the University of Utah, who graduates 56 percent in six years, and Brigham Young University, who graduates 78 percent. However, vocational and applied technology schools in Utah are seeing a 66 percent completion rate.

Urquhart said colleges and universities should take a serious look at their acceptance rate, and accept fewer students who have a better chance at actually graduating. He said is working a program that will fund colleges based on their success rate.

“Think about all the wasted money,” he said. “[With vocational schooling], they can learn stuff in a much cheaper way. The point of college is to learn stuff and get a degree. We failed in our job in being accountable to the taxpayers in these funds. I need to apologize to the taxpayers, and do a better job in helping account for this huge chunk of money.”

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