Neatly summarizing the just-concluded 2016 session of the Utah Legislature is nearly as challenging as the 45-day crucible itself. Collectively, thousands of hours have been spent hearing, sifting, debating and refining hundreds of bills to create new law and determine how best to spend taxpayer monies. As with all legislative endeavors, funding requests easily swamped available dollars and the greatest challenge was finding a balance that will serve well the residents of our state.
Perhaps leading the win column is the resolution of a number of issues surrounding justice reinvestment, homelessness and Medicaid expansion. After months of discussion and negotiation, both the House and Senate have agreed upon a new, uniquely Utah solution to address all of these difficult issues in a more streamlined manner that better utilizes resources, and allows the state to budget according to funds. Many business, community and advocacy groups are supportive of this legislation.
Funding for Utah’s school children and college students once more dominates the $14.5 billion budget for 2016. The total increase for both higher and public education is over $445 million – over $20 million more than originally sought by the governor.
The legislature is appropriating $94 million to accommodate growth for a projected 9,700 new public school students this fall, as well as a nearly $74 million expenditure representing a 3% increase to the Weighted Pupil Unit, (WPU). Monies headed to public education also include $20.4 million in ongoing funding for Charter School equalization and $15 million, $10 million of that ongoing, targeted to improve technology in our schools.
Construction on Utah’s college and university campuses is another big-ticket budgetary item, including more than $113 million approved for new buildings at Utah State and Utah Valley Universities and the West Point campus of Salt Lake Community College.
Medicaid / Homelessness / JRI
Homelessness, justice reform and Medicaid were all addressed this year in a comprehensive fashion that will allow the state to do more for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues, while also reforming our justice system. The Medicaid expansion by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, HB437, will provide a program of coverage through an expansion of traditional Medicaid that will preserve services and benefits to the core group of 300,000 current Medicaid recipients, including children and disabled adults.
Newly-covered populations will include the chronically homeless, individuals involved in the justice system and those in need of substance abuse and mental health treatment. A new data system will also be implemented to allow the state to align programs and track and share data to more efficiently use resources.
The 2016 budget also fully funds consensus Medicaid growth estimates of over $40 million.
Drug Fraud Prevention / Treatment Center Reform
As the need for substance abuse and mental health treatment escalates, it is incumbent upon the state to ensure that limited dollars are being used appropriately and those seeking help are actually receiving it.
The work of Rep. Eric Hutchings, House sponsor of SB123 and HB259, will go a long way in helping to detect and weed out fraud and abuse surrounding these types of facilities. Those seeking services, as well as those paying for services, will have greater assurance that suitable treatments are being administered, and in an appropriate manner.
State Employee Compensation
Continuing to recognize the importance of the state’s highly trained work force, lawmakers approved a 2 percent raise for state employees with an additional 1 percent designated to cover health insurance increases.
Water / Infrastructure
The Legislature took action this year to look ahead and plan for future needs by passing House sponsor Rep. Lee Perry’s SB80. It provides appropriations from the Transportation Fund to be deposited into the Transportation Investment Fund and the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account to pay for future water needs. According to UDOT no currently programmed projects will be impacted, and current funding for the Transportation Fund will be maintained.
Rep. Timothy Hawkes was the House sponsor of SB251, which funds the establishment of criteria for better water data and reporting to allow for the creation of new water conservation targets. As our desert state continues to expand, along with our water needs, we must prepare for the future as we look for solutions that allow us to sustain our present trajectory of growth and prosperity.