In Utah’s highest-ever budget, Gov. Cox wants millions for housing, homelessness and debt

A year after standing on the widening shore of the dying Great Salt Lake and proclaiming that water conservation is among the state’s top priorities, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is poised to spend more than half a billion dollars to help to conserve the state’s rapidly dwindling water resources.

But that proposal doesn’t come close to matching government spending envisaged in Cox’s proposed budget for next year, which includes massive tax refunds and education spending. The plan, released Friday afternoon, calls for $1 billion in tax breaks for Utahns and a total of $1.52 billion for public and higher education.

And while an increase in teachers’ salaries and benefits would be among the governor’s biggest spending, the increase, with a proposed endowment of around $200 million, could depend largely on whether and how lawmakers negotiate a school voucher program. The Utah legislature will eventually create a state budget during the 2023 legislative session, with Cox having the ability to approve or veto the spending.

At a whopping $28.37 billion, the proposed fiscal 2024 budget is the largest in Utah state history.

Previewing the proposal Thursday afternoon, Cox said his plan also included spending $400 million to issue rebate checks to taxpayers.

On a snowy street in the Daybreak neighborhood of southern Jordan, Cox and Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson on Friday the final details of the governor’s proposed budget. Cox said his plan for next year was created with families in mind and planning for Utah’s future.

“We are reviewing policies to ensure Utah remains the best place in the world to raise a family,” said Cox.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer J. Cox announced their fiscal 2024 budget recommendations at a press conference in southern Jordan on December 9, 2022. The proposed budget includes $1 billion in tax cuts and a $6,000 increase in compensation for every teacher in the state.

An example he cited Friday in his proposal for $8.7 million in funding to extend Medicaid health coverage to new mothers after childbirth. Currently, the state only offers coverage for two months after birth, Cox said, explaining that he wants to extend it to a full year.

The governor also wants to allocate $53.5 million to domestic violence prevention, which he says was a historic effort that’s long overdue.

The proposal also includes an additional $54 million for mental health resources.

water protection

According to Cox’s budget, the governor wants the state to spend about $561 million on water and conservation efforts statewide, which is one of the largest budget items. Proposed spending includes improvements to government water infrastructure, water planning, and water management.

The budget also appears to earmark $132.9 million to combat the drying up of the Great Salt Lake, in addition to investing $217.9 million in statewide protections in hopes of benefiting the lake in the long term.

The governor’s plans also state that the state has withdrawn 23.5% less water from Utah’s reservoirs this year compared to 2021, although it’s not entirely clear what caused the drop in water use. Cox said the decline was due to reductions in use in homes and agriculture.

housing and homelessness

The proposed budget sees the state spending approximately $150 million on housing initiatives, including specific earmarking for affordable housing and homeless services aimed at getting people into stable housing.

Cox recommends the state spend an additional $100 million in one-time spending, which would aim to add an estimated 2,000 affordable housing units across the state. That award includes $80 million in federal funding, primarily from the American Rescue Plan Act, and $20 million from the state’s general fund. In the past fiscal year, Utah spent approximately $55 million in ARPA funds to create over 1,000 affordable housing units.

For current and potential homeowners, the budget recommends $15.3 million in homebuyer assistance, with Cox asking for funding for programs designed to help educators, firefighters and veterans make first-time home purchases.

The proposed budget provides for approximately $463 million in direct investment spending in rural Utah. A portion of this award includes funds for rural housing, including $2.3 million in funds for the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which provides interest-free loans for single-family homes in rural areas.

pay off debts

Cox’s plan takes an aggressive approach to deleveraging, allocating nearly $1 billion for that purpose.

Utah currently allocates about $465 million a year for state debt. Cox plans to more than double that total by adding $321 million in one-time payments and another $200 million in long-term payments.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Governor Spencer J. Cox announced his fiscal 2024 budget recommendations at a press conference in southern Jordan on December 9, 2022. The proposed budget includes $1 billion in tax cuts and a $6,000 increase in compensation for every teacher in the state.

Utah has almost $2.5 billion in debt from bonds from various construction projects. Approximately $400 million of that amount is due in fiscal 2024 and an additional $414 million in the following year.

Last year, lawmakers used $350 million in one-time cash funds to pay off the outstanding debt from construction of the new state penitentiary.

wages of state employees

Utah teachers aren’t the only public employees who may get a raise under the proposed budget package.

Cox’s proposal calls for $143 million in ongoing expenditures and $34 million in one-time expenditures to increase the pay of state employees.

Included within that additional spending is $38 million for larger, targeted pay increases intended for jobs with average salaries most dramatically below market value. One of these targeted positions includes clerk for the Department of Children and Family Services, according to the proposed budget.

bits and pieces

Cox continues his push for a tuition freeze at public colleges and universities in Utah.

For transportation, Cox wants to set up an Active Transportation Investment Fund with $55 million from the state’s general fund and additional government revenue to help build a nationwide network of highways, a goal Cox outlined during a trip to Woods Cross October.

Cox also proposes a one-time capital investment push for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services. The state says it needs a new warehouse to ensure DABS can keep up with demand, as all liquor in the state must be processed in an aging warehouse in Salt Lake City. Without a new warehouse, retail sales are expected to stagnate, officials said.

The budget provides that $119 million will be used to acquire land and construct buildings. Not only would this fund the proposed camp, but the money would also fund replacement stores in Moab and Roy, as well as a new store in the Ogden area.

Nowhere in Cox’s plan is funding for a proposed gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon of the Wasatch Front. The governor said Friday he has no plans to allocate money until the project plan is finalized.

“It’s still a process with the gondola at the moment,” said Cox. “We’ll go through the whole process, see where it all ends up after we get all the comments back, and then we’ll look at our options at that point.” In Utah’s highest-ever budget, Gov. Cox wants millions for housing, homelessness and debt

Justin Scacco

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