Utah Legislature: Republican Senators Back School Funding Cut
March 4, 2010
SALT LAKE CITY — GOP senators backed a $1 tax increase on a pack of cigarettes in their closed-door caucus Wednesday — and, for the second day in a row, endorsed cutting public education by $21 million to pay for other state needs.
"This has a way of bringing you to the table, when you start seeing the cuts," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "Even though it’s hurting some people, I was able to get the votes."
A major portion of the $21 million cut from public schools would go toward restoring some of $60 million in budget reductions faced by higher education, Jenkins said.
Still being decided is how to spend the additional $43 million raised by the tobacco tax hike. Legislative leaders are negotiating a list of some $60 million to $70 million in budget "hot spots" with Gov. Gary Herbert.
The House passed the tobacco tax increase Tuesday.
After the caucus decision, the Senate put both that bill, HB196, and SB40, another tobacco tax increase proposal, sponsored by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, at the top of its agenda for today.
Both bills are expected to end up raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes from the current 69.5 cents to about $1.70. A section automatically increasing the tax as the national average surpasses that amount will be removed, Jenkins said.
&# x0A;Before the session ends next week, lawmakers must balance a budget facing a $700 million shortfall. The governor has pressured them to avoid raising taxes. It’s an election year for the governor as well as a majority of the Legislature.
Although Herbert threatened last week to veto the cigarette tax increase, he has also said he doesn’t want to see funding for public and higher education cut in the budget year that begins July 1.
The governor "remains committed to keeping funding for education, both public and higher, at current levels," his spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said after the caucus decision.
Jenkins withheld a list of proposed cuts to public education presented in the caucus, saying it still needed to be shared with House Republicans. GOP House members have yet to discuss the cut.
But House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said it’s not unreasonable to look at cutting public schools, especially given Herbert’s stand against tax increases.
"We’ve cut to the bone," Garn said. "There is a feeling that everyone should share in the misery. And that we shouldn’t hold public education harmless."
Both the governor and lawmakers have already said there’s no money to pay for public school enrollment growth, despite an expected increase of 11,000 students next year.
That already translates to around a 3.5 percent decrease in the per-student formula used to fund public education, or about $90 a student. The 1 percent cut approved by Senate Republicans would be in addition to that reduction.
State Superintendent of Public Education Larry Shumway said the additional reduction would mean bigger class sizes, few resources for schools and reductions in compensation.
Shumway said the gov ernor’s plan to maintain the $2.9 billion in state spending for schools has been "widely recognized as a reasonable budget recommendation and we continue to encourage legislators to find a way to fund education that way."
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Wednesday he was asked by the caucus to come up with cuts that wouldn’t directly affect the classroom.
"I’ll tell you, it’s very, very difficult," Hillyard said, declining to be specific about what cuts were being considered. "It’ll be more peripheral programs."
Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said Democrats don’t want to cut public education. "We’re doing everything we can to keep public education whole," she said.
Another Democrat, Sen. Karen Morgan of Cottonwood Heights, said schools will already be behind $74 million because there’s no money for enrollment growth. "The school districts will just have to absorb those children without any additional funding for them," she said.
Jenkins said the Senate will need Democratic votes to pass a budget with a 1 percent cut in public education — and the cigarette tax. Jones said some Senate Democrats oppose the tax increase but a majority favor it.
The governor came up with two other possibilities for increasing revenues. But his proposed elimination of the "vendor discount" that allows big companies to hang onto a percentage of their sales tax collections, though, was labeled "DOA" by Hillyard.
Herbert also wants to require the self-employed and others who don’t have their income taxes withheld from their paychecks to make quarterly rather than annual payments to the state.
But lawmakers say that only produces a one-tim e boost to state coffers. Hillyard said rather than $125 million the governor has projected, the actual amount would be closer to $109 million.
Jenkins said no decision is set in stone at this point in the budget process. "It’s all fluff right now."
He said some House members are already expressing "buyer’s remorse" over passing a tax increase. "We’ve tried so hard to put this budget together with no tax increases," Jenkins said.
Contributing: Amy K. Stewart