CEDAR CITY — On Monday, Gov. Spencer Cox announced a proposed $21.7 billion state budget, which includes increases in education funding and $250 million toward Utah’s continued COVID-19 response efforts.
Cox, along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, outlined the budget proposal for fiscal year 2021-22 during an hourlong virtual news conference. Cox and Henderson were speaking from their new rural offices on the Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City.
In his opening remarks, Cox highlighted the theme of the budget as “Let’s Go, Utah: Opportunity for All.”
“We lead the nation and upward mobility,” Cox said. “But we know that there’s so much more to do when large portions of the population feel like access to the highest levels of opportunity are only for the well-connected.”
“We need to make sure that life provides opportunity for all to succeed. As we do so, our entire state will be stronger, just like a chain with a weak link. Our entire state can pull together when all of those links are strengthened.”
“So to start, we need to think how we generate and spend our education funding,” Cox continued. “School property taxes need reform, and we need greater focus on students at risk of academic failure. We also need to invest in critical infrastructure in our state, like broadband and roads in rural Utah, where lacking even basic infrastructure in some places, is limiting opportunity.”
“We need to rethink our approach to economic development, ensuring that we’re minimizing government picking winners and losers, and ensuring that when the government does engage, that the people of Utah are the clear primary beneficiaries of those efforts.”
Education continues to be a major focus of the state’s budget. The proposed education fund allocations include some $4.2 billion for public education and another $1.3 billion for higher education. The K-12 budget includes a proposed 5.82% increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU) figure used to determine school funding, plus an additional $26.3 million increase for creating a WPU add-on designed to help students at risk for academic failure.
Cox said the proposed increases “should allow school districts and charter schools to provide meaningful pay increases to teachers who are absolutely critical to student success.”
“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,” he said. “Let’s give them our support as a state.”
Cox said he will continue to push for $1,500 bonuses to school level educators and $1,000 bonuses to other school staff members as a gesture of gratitude for their efforts to keep schools operating during the COVD-19 pandemic.
“I’m encouraging this for those in all of the state school districts and charter schools,” he said.
In addition, some $50 million from the proposed $250 million COVID-19 response fund will be used to cover impacts to education.
Cox said he also plans to work with the legislative chair to reexamine how statewide school property taxes are allocated.
“We need to do better to ensure tax burdens and student funding are more equitable, no matter the zip code,” he said. “We can’t just allow greater opportunities for those in the more affluent parts of our state — we need to make sure that every student in our state gets a high quality education, as guaranteed in our state constitution.”
Regarding higher education, Cox said the state’s system of universities, colleges and technical colleges should have a greater focus on workforce development.
“A highly trained workforce is essential to the state’s economic success to further enhance training and skill development, particularly for those who are unemployed or underemployed,” he said, as he mentioned several proposed initiatives designed to boost technical education and training, skills acquisition and innovation.
Henderson also outlined several recommendations under the proposed $1.2 billion social service budget, including Medicaid and other programs that are jointly funded by the federal and state government.
“We’re recommending $20 million in ongoing funding for traditional Medicaid costs, and we further recommend $36 million dollars be restored to the Medicaid expansion fund to promote structural balance between ongoing resources and future program expenditures,” she said.
The proposed budget also includes some $760 million for corrections, public safety and justice. In addition, the transportation budget from state-collected funds totals about $2.2 billion.
Although the governor’s 2021-22 proposal represents the highest state budget to date, Cox said it does include a tax cut of about $80 million.
“As you know, there were a lot of unknowns last year, and one of those was we didn’t know how the pandemic would affect the state budget,” Cox said, “so state government tightened its belt. It’s what we do in Utah. And that prudence has resulted in $728 million in ongoing and $1.27 billion in one-time available funding for this year’s budget.”
“That means there’s a lot of general fund and education fund revenue available for allocation,” he added. “However, those funds need to essentially cover two years of costs, as our population has continued to grow, even with the pandemic. With these revenue amounts, Utah’s resilient economy provides the opportunity to return $80 million to Utah taxpayers.”
“We are calling for this tax cut to include a Social Security tax credit for low and middle income seniors and an increase in the state’s existing tax credit for dependents to mitigate the impacts from federal tax law changes over the recent years,” he said.
The Utah Legislature will consider the proposed budget when it convenes for its annual session, which is scheduled to start Jan. 19.
Also during Monday’s news conference, Cox and Henderson signed two executive orders designed to boost rural economic employment.
The first order requires all state agencies to review all jobs within their agencies, with the goal of expanding opportunities for working remotely.
“During the pandemic, we found that 40% of state employees work outside of the office, which has resulted in savings to the taxpayer and higher employee satisfaction,” Cox explained, adding, “I’ve asked agencies to complete these reviews by July 1. Teleworking will really help prevent air pollution, improve the quality of life for so many of our state employees and reduce congestion on our freeways and other roads.”
The second executive order will require all state agencies to determine which positions and offices could be relocated to rural areas, Cox said.
In one final announcement, Cox and other officials said plans for a new visitor center at Cedar Breaks National Monument would be moving forward.
Cedar Breaks National Monument superintendent Kathleen Gonder said the park saw a record number of visitors during 2020.
“Even with the COVID restrictions on international travel, Cedar Breaks saw an increase of 46% over 2019,” she said. “That is amazing. That is huge.”
The more than 870,000 visitors reported last year brings the area’s average over the past five years to 775,824 visitors per year, she said.
As previously reported in St. George News / Cedar City News, the new center, planned to be built at Point Supreme station is designed to provide visitors with a more amenable experience than that offered by the 650-square-foot historic log cabin that has served as the Cedar Breaks visitors center for nearly 50 years.
“This visitor facility will provide our visitors with orientation, and other information during the busy summer and fall seasons,” Gonder said Monday. “This new contact station will meet the basic visitor needs in a modest, efficient and sustainable way with a very light impact on the park’s dramatic landscape.”
Half of the money for the planned visitor center has been raised by Zion Forever Project, the official nonprofit partner of Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument, with the other half coming from National Park Service matching funds, through “Centennial Challenge” senior pass sales.
Zion Forever Project director Mark Preiss said approximately $6 million has been raised to date, including the NPS matching funds.
Preiss thanked the various project partners, including Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant, Iron County, Cedar City, Enoch, Parowan, Visit Cedar City | Brian Head Iron County Tourism Bureau, Southern Utah University, National Park Service and the Five County Association of Governments.
“These partners, combined with thousands of donors and private businesses are making this legacy project possible,” he said. “This project really is inspired by our rural community vision and leadership.”
Construction on the new visitor center could start as early as this spring, Preiss added, noting that the park is expected to make an official request for construction proposals soon.
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