In Utah, we don’t gamble. Games of chance are against the law. In fact, our State Constitution prohibits gambling. Yet every year a high stakes poker game plays out in our State Capitol as a $13.5 billion budget is ironed out. Think the World Series of Poker.
On one side, The House led by Speaker Becky Lockhart. On the other side, the Senate let by President Wayne Niederhauser. Together, the two legislative bodies appropriate the budget. Another player at the table with a smaller stack of chips is Governor Gary Herbert who has veto power.
There is a lot at stake. Unlike the feds, Utah must balance their budget every year so hard choices must be made. This poker game is pressure packed and the State is watching.
Because most of the budget is considered a base budget made up of previous on-going commitments, much of the poker game comes from spending the projected surplus. Some comes from reallocating previously funded programs.
When the budget projections came out last week, the Legislature has $253 million in ongoing money to spend and $144 million in one time funding. Most of the increase is earmarked for education because Constitutionally all income tax goes to fund education and most of the increase is income tax.
What will get funded? Putting on my swami hat, here are my predictions:
1. Public Education Student Growth – $60 million ongoing
2. Public Education WPU – mostly earmarked for retirement $40 – $60 million ongoing
3. Higher Education Equity Funding – $30 – $60 million ongoing
4. Health Care Medicaid Expansion – $35 – $50 million ongoing
5. Public Education Modernization – $100 – $150 million ongoing
6. Public Education Modernization – $50 million one time
7. Higher Education/Other Buildings – $65 million – $100 million one time
That pretty much eats up the available money. There will be some adjustments. During the base budget discussions early in the session, legislators identified around $60 million that might be used in other places. In addition, there are supplemental pots of money that will be found to fund other priorities during the last week of the session.
All 104 legislators and the Governor have a favorite funding need or needs. My own favorite is STEM Education. HB 150 is asking for $23.5 million to fund Professional Development STEM Endorsements for Elementary and Secondary education and a new innovative CTE program for Jr. High and High School students.
What is an absolute essential government function to one person is pure pork for others, so figuring out what to prioritize is a real challenge.
Because the Legislature is over Thursday March 13 at midnight, the longer it takes for the House and Senate to agree on how to spend the surplus, the more the pressure grows. The clock keeps on ticking. Pressure builds. Think of those poker players trying to find the aces, a full house, a straight or a flush. How will the money be spent? Which priorities will they choose? Tax increases in an election year? Tax cuts? Watch closely and know that poker may be illegal in Utah, but not in the Legislature.