DALLAS - Utah lawmakers are considering cutting education funding in an effort to trim state spending by 7.5% in the current fiscal year and twice that much in the next budget.

The 2009 legislative session began this week with committee meetings to tackle budget shortfalls in the fiscally conservative state that enjoys triple-A credit ratings.

In advance of the session, the Utah State Office of Education asked districts for proposals of how they might cut 4.5% or as much as 7.5% from their budgets by the end of the current fiscal year June 30.

In higher education, officials are bracing for 15% cuts worth nearly $122 million.

For K-12 schools, cuts could come to a 12.6% reduction in per pupil spending in 2010. Even before the cuts, Utah ranks last in the nation for per-pupil spending.

Every 1% cut to the Minimum School Program could mean a loss of 371 full-time teachers and an increase in student-teacher ratios by nearly half a student, according to legislative analysts.

The State Board of Education has voted that school districts and charter schools should take a cut proportional to the amount of money they receive from the state each year.

State superintendent Patti Harrington said that the cuts will be felt by every district and will be painful.

Most districts expect to impose hiring freezes, expand class sizes or reduce the number of school days.

The biggest expenditure program in the state budget is the Minimum School Program of more than $3 billion for school districts and charter schools. The Legislature also funds the School Building Program for construction and renovation.

A separate fund covers student development and outlays for the state's disabled populations. Programs include the State Office of Education, Educator Licensing, State Office of Rehabilitation, Schools for the Deaf and Blind, Child Nutrition Programs, Fine Arts Outreach, Science Outreach, and Education Contracts.

Utah has suffered in the economic downdraft, though not as severely as neighboring Arizona.

National pressures that included tighter mortgage lending standards and higher energy prices amplified Utah's deceleration, according to a state economic report to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Contraction in housing-related and manufacturing industries, combined with diminished growth in other sectors, caused Utah's annual employment growth to fall from 4% in 2007 to just 0.2% in 2008 and the unemployment rate to increase from 2.7% in 2007 to 3.7% in 2008. The value of permit authorized construction fell to the lowest value since 2003. The value of energy and mineral commodities produced in Utah remained at record levels, due to both higher prices and increased production.

While the state is funding several major transportation projects, overall net debt, including state lease debt, is low at just $588 per capita, according to Standard & Poor's. Estimated debt service obligations represented a low 3.2% of combined general and uniform school funds. The state's direct obligations maintain short maturities, with 99% of existing general obligation debt maturing in 10 years.

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