On the campaign trail, Gov. Gary Herbert was knocked around a bit by the opposition who said Utah’s top-dog wasn’t doing enough for schools. But now the election is over, and Herbert, back at the helm, says that indeed education is his priority.
In his budget unveiling Wednesday, Herbert said the state’s growth—both from larger families and immigration from other states—has put pressure on Utah classrooms.
Utah has one of the highest birth-rates in the country. But Herbert argued if Utah family sizes matched the national average, the amount the state spends on education wouldn’t seem so abysmal.
“We have a significant growth challenge in the state of Utah,” he said. With this in mind, the budget is allocating 79 percent of the $287 million in new ongoing revenue—which is a reduction of about $100 million from last year—to go toward education.
Last year, his administration announced a five-year, $1 billion plan to go toward public K-12 education and $275 million to higher education. The new budget will put the state on pace to meet that watermark.
In addition, the governor hopes to one day prop up Utah as the best performing state in various education marks, including graduation rates, test scores and combating dropout rates. He aims to align the school skills with the marketplace.
“I feel very comfortable and confident that if we continue to work together we can, in fact, become the No. 1 education system in America,” he said. “Now it’s not a sprint. This is a marathon. It’s going to take us step by step by step.”
The budget increases per-pupil spending—known as the weighted-pupil unit—by 4 percent. Local schools would be able to allocate the extra cash in ways they see fit.
“If they want to put that into professional development, increase teacher salaries, technology, if they want to put it into reducing classroom size by hiring more teachers, at-risk early intervention, they have the ability to make that choice and that decision as far as how to best effectively spend that money,” he said.
Despite criticism cast about Utah schools, Herbert says the education system is trending in the right direction. He credits teachers, principals, and school boards. “The fact that we’re improving is good news. The fact that we’re not No. 1 means we still have a challenge out there,” he said.
Herbert says, though, instead of upping the income tax, he’d prefer to find extra funding by closing existing loopholes, exemptions and tax credits. A large chunk of online sales tax—more than $200 million—is owed to the state but not collected, he said. Members of the U.S. Congress are devising ways to collect tax through internet purchases, but he says states will have a role, too.
“We need to have the states—not just Utah, but other states—step up and say, ‘If you don’t fix [online sales tax loopholes], federal government, which is your responsibility, then we’ll do our own thing and fix it state by state by state,” he said.
During a budget press conference Wednesday morning, Herbert also addressed funding for public safety and transportation.
The governor is asking the Legislature to authorize up to $100 million in additional prison relocation costs. The state set in motion plans last year to move a prison in Draper to a site near Salt Lake City International Airport.
“We don’t know how much of that we will use, if any,” he said. “We may need to use some or all, but we need to have that in place so we can move ahead.”
Herbert also praised Utah’s reduction of state employees, at a ratio of one state employee to every 150 residents. That’s down from a 1:134 ratio in the past, which he calculates to be a $191 million cost-saving for taxpayers. This is possible, in part, by making systems more efficient with the use of technology. State troopers, for example, used to take up to three hours on average to file DUI reports. That timeframe is down, he claims, to one hour.
“This allows now troopers to spend time out now patrolling,” he said. “And doing what they need to be doing to protect public safety … instead of just doing paperwork.”