$4.9 billion for education, $100 million for air quality in Utah governor’s proposed budget

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Governor Gary Herbert unveiled his proposed budget for the next year, seeking to invest in ways to fund education and dramatically improve the state's air quality.

In a presentation at This is the Place Heritage Park, the site where Latter-day Saint pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, the governor unveiled a $20 billion budget.

"I’m here as the 17th governor to say 'this is still the right place' and we are driving on and a lot of good things are happening," he said, referencing a famed quote by Brigham Young.

The governor touted Utah's economic successes. His proposed budget takes into account the legislature's recent overhaul of the tax code, including a $160 million income tax cut. Lawmakers cut the income tax (which is earmarked for education) but also raised the sales tax on food, gasoline and imposed new taxes on some services.  It's now the subject of a citizen referendum gathering signatures to force a public vote to overturn it.

Utahns should start seeing more money in their paychecks as a result of the income tax cut, the governor insisted.

"The whole point of tax reform is to make sure we have sustainable opportunities to grow economically and provide for the services we need as a state," he said.

The governor announced $4.9 billion for education, with $290 million in ongoing funding earmarked for K-12. He wanted funding specifically for enhanced kindergarten, computer sciences and student spending.

Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, said she liked some ideas in the governor's budget, but said it did not go far enough.

"We are looking for enough revenue to really address the needs of our students, the needs of our teachers, and don’t see that in the recommendations that were made," she told FOX 13.

Lawmakers have looked at the idea of removing the constitutional earmark on the income tax that funds education. Matthews vowed a fight if the legislature attempted to do that. Instead, she proposed a new constitutional amendment with better funding mechanisms.

"The proof is in the pudding. If we can see a constitutional amendment that is improved ... and will make for a better education system, gives us more of an ability to provide those schools for our students that they know they need, we will work hard to get public support. Right now that hasn’t been offered," she said.

Gov. Herbert is also seeking a freeze on higher-ed tuition rates until Utah's colleges and universities can determine what "affordable" is. He acknowledged to reporters that he doesn't really have the power to do it, but he does appoint the Board of Regents (which oversees higher education) and can put pressure on them.

The governor also announced a stunning $100 million investment in air quality initiatives, with an eye toward building out the state's electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The goal is to spread out the charging infrastructure, so people can feel more confident in buying electric cars and being able to travel across the state. That will cost about $66 million.

Gov. Herbert proposed spending $34 million on transit improvements. The money will go toward Utah's Department of Transportation, who would coordinate with the Utah Transit Authority on best ways to spend it. The governor also proposed lifting a cap on transit-oriented development projects, which are developments centered around TRAX, FrontRunner and bus stops.

Last year, lawmakers only funded $29 million of the $100 million the governor wanted. Even then, it was a record amount of funding for the issue.

"I’m hopeful they understand the importance of air quality," the governor said of lawmakers. "Here’s some areas where we can put money and make a difference."

Thom Carter of the Utah Clean Air Partnership said he believed the money would go a long way to making a difference. Half of all air pollution in Utah is caused by vehicle tailpipes and improvements to transit and electric vehicle systems could help.

"The number one reason people don’t do things for air quality is convenience. The second thing is cost," he told FOX 13. "If we can broaden that base, make things more convenient for people, we believe they’ll come to us and be part of the solution."

The governor's proposed budget also included a $40 million endowment to create new parks and preserve open space.

He also proposed enacting new taxes on vaping products, similar to tobacco; more money for crisis centers and mental health treatment; and continuing to fund Medicaid expansion.

Read the governor's budget proposal here.

The governor makes an annual budget proposal, but it is the legislature that passes it and funds it. The Utah State Legislature begins meeting later this month.

Watch the governor's budget presentation here:

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