The Utah legislature met in special session last week passing dozens of bills, most related to budget cuts, in response to COVID-19 revenue shortfalls. Legislators elected to appropriate small increases in education and social services funding.
House District 54 Representative Tim Quinn told KPCW the legislature is scheduled to another special session in August and another one possibly in October as they anticipate additional tweaks to the budget. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Utah, the legislature passed a 6% increase to the weighted pupil unit known as the WPU. Quinn says they passed some 25 bills in special session last week. Most were related to budget cuts in response to decreases in tax revenues due to COVID-19.
“I think the key points to take away from it was that there was a lot of money that had to be shifted. But education had an actual 1.8% increase which some may argue wasn't enough, but I think under the circumstances where we’re a billion and a half dollars short from what we projected in revenue, that's an incredible feat. We did tap into the rainy-day funds somewhat and social services were held harmless. Social services were not cut. Those two budgets I said education increased and social services were not cut but everything else was cut between one and 18%.”
On Friday, the legislature passed HB 5011 which provides for an annual increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit in the public education base budget. A constitutional amendment question is on November’s ballot which would allow the state to use income tax revenues to address structural imbalances in the state’s revenue stream. Currently, these revenues are constitutionally obligated to fund education. The state board of education is supportive of the constitutional amendment providing the state commit to a 6% increase to the WPU and fund inflation and student growth.
“It was a negotiation between the state and stakeholders in education, State Board of Education, the Superintendent’s Association as well as the UEA. The negotiations went up until the very last minute with UEA and they finally came to the table and said they would agree to that. So, I think certainly it has a relationship with that November ballot question, but I don't know that if we had not passed that it would have put that in jeopardy.”
Quinn says this is an unprecedented year due to the drop in tax revenues resulting from COVID-19 shutdowns. He says it could have been a disaster for education, but they were able to fund paying for new students and increasing the budget by 1.8%.
“I think given the year and the situation we’re in, that was a phenomenal feat. And the Executive Appropriations Committee and those people working on the budget, they should be applauded for their efforts.”
Quinn spoke out against HB 5010 which would accept federal economic recovery funds through the CARES Act. However, in the end, he voted for the bill and is hopeful the money will help small businesses. But he is concerned there is little oversight on how the funds are used.
“The one comment I’ll make that I made in committee was yes this is federal money. The federal government is trillions and trillions of dollars in debt and if states continue to take these monies without some way to shore up and make an attempt to balance the federal budget, we're only going to get worse as a country. Just because the federal government offers it, doesn't mean we ought to take it all the time.”
With the first round of coronavirus recovery funds, it was revealed that some businesses could access the money, but they didn’t really need it. Quinn says there are some stipulations with how the funds are used but he says a lot is dependent on trusting people to use it to stimulate the economy in Utah.
Quinn says they have redirected money from several rainy-day funds at the state but will have to replenish them as the economy improves. Utah is hitting new records in coronavirus cases with 643 identified on Saturday. The spread of the virus will impact decisions to further open economies throughout Utah.