DALLAS — The Utah Legislature opened its 2008 session in a remodeled capitol with $1 billion in new revenue to finance state operations, 1,200 bills to consider, and 45 days to complete the task.
Key finance issues include a major increase in education funding, as well as creating a more equitable formula for spreading tax revenue across districts. If revenues allow, the Legislature will also consider property tax relief for homeowners, leaders said.
Lawmakers from around the state arrived in a snow-covered Salt Lake City as workers were applying the finishing touches to the capitol. The opening day Monday fell on Martin Luther King Day, prompting an invocation honoring the slain civil rights leader. If voters approve a ballot measure in November, future opening dates will be changed to avoid conflict with the national holiday.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s proposed $11.7 billion state budget, including federal funds, represents a 3.2% increase in spending over last year’s measure. Revenue for the general fund and education fund of $5.9 billion represents a 3.6% increase over the previous budget. With revenue rising 11.3% for the general fund and budget surpluses from the two previous years of $537.7 million, the total new revenue comes to $1.1 billion.
Huntsman is calling for no additional general obligation bonds, with spending of $258.2 million for state and education employees, $142 million for essential items like school enrollment growth, Medicaid provider increases and programs in Human Services and Corrections. The governor’s budget provides $437 million for roads and buildings.
Huntsman also wants to add $40 million to the rainy-day fund, bringing the balance to $393.4 million.
Teacher raises, money for roads, and expanded health care are the House leadership’s top priorities this session. Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said he would like to see a teacher salary raise similar to last year’s $2,500 increase if updated revenue figures allow. Curtis also supports pay differentials for teachers in specific areas such as math, science and special education.
Another proposal is optional year-round school year for high school and possibly junior high students.
Among the transportation projects in need of funding are the Mountain View Corridor and Interstate 15 in Utah County. A bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne A. Harper, R-West Jordan, proposes to index the motor fuels tax every two years based on inflation. Like other states, Utah is struggling to find revenues to provide maintenance for existing roads while building new highways. In the tax-averse Southwest, most Republican leaders have strongly opposed increasing the fuel tax.
Another proposal expected to receive strong consideration is eliminating the enrollment cap on the Children’s Health Insurance Pool, or CHIP.
Curtis said that the House leadership is backing a property tax relief package of about $100 million, and he said he would like to see yearly assessment of property. In 2003, Utah was 50th in property value growth, but it was first by 2006.