UT: Right Wing Legislators "Apoplectic" At Federal Aid To Save Utah Teachers' Jobs

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, says an infusion of federal cash for education is a "states' rights issue." Tribune file photo.

An offer of $140 million in federal money for education and health care is not being met with gratitude by Utah legislative leaders.

Far from it.

Instead, Utah’s Republican leaders are apoplectic that Congress provided the money — aimed at keeping teachers in the classroom and helping with the health care burden of low-income residents — and frustrated that any attempt to reject it may be fruitless.

“I’m truly astonished,” House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said Tuesday. “Congress has unequivocally carried out the constitutional responsibilities of this state and this Legislature. … [Congress said] ‘The Utah Constitution doesn’t matter. We’re doing an end-run around this, and we’re going to decide how the money is going to be spent.’ ”

No decision has been made on whether Utah will seek the funds. Legislative leaders are meeting this morning with Gov. Gary Herbert, who has about three weeks to request the funds, to discuss the state’s approach.

But even if state leaders decide not to request the funds, the law allows the U.S. Secretary of Education to go around the Legislature and governor and give the money directly to other entities within the state.

“We are so tired and it’s one thing to receive money, but when it is in this fashion, where you’re told what to do and how to do it, it becomes a states’ rights issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. “How many more rights do you want the federal government to take away from you?”

John Nixon, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, said the governor hasn’t decided whether to request the federal dollars, and won’t until he meets with legislative leaders.

But, he said, the money consists of stimulus dollars that were allocated for other purposes and then redirected in the new bill, so it won’t increase the federal debt.

Clark challenges that, citing line after line in the bill where programs, many of which are in the Defense Department, are being reduced to fund the bill.

The funds could help alleviate some of the budget pressures the Legislature and governor will face.

Budget analysts were already warning of a $50 million budget shortfall that could grow to as much as $150 million, in large part because of weak individual income tax collections, which fund education.

Herbert said in a statement last week that he’s committed to reducing class sizes in Utah and, “This may provide an opportunity where we can do something meaningful to address that challenge.” Utah had the highest student-teacher ratio in the nation, as of fall 2007.

According to federal guidance released Friday, if governors don’t apply for the money by Sept. 9, the funds could be “significantly delayed.”

Utah could get $101 million for schools. School districts would be expected to spend the money this school year but could technically continue using it through September of 2012.

They could use the money for compensation, benefits and support services to retain current employees, rehire past employees and/or hire new ones.

The money could only be used for school-level employees such as teachers, principals, assistant principals, academic coaches, classroom aides, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and others, and it could be used for salaries, performance bonuses, health insurance and retirement benefits, among other items.

The White House has estimated the money could add or save 1,800 jobs. State officials, though, have said it could fund about 1,600 jobs.

That infusion could translate to a boost of about $168 in basic per student funding, known as the weighted pupil unit, said Todd Hauber, state associate superintendent.

The additional $30 million to $40 million would go toward the federal portion of Medicaid and foster care programs. Local entities that participate in the Medicaid program could receive additional funds.

The exact amount is unknown, since it depends partially on how many people are participating in the program. Those numbers are still being solidified.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he believes the full Legislature will have to vote on whether to take the money. He said state leaders are working to learn more about the money before deciding what to do.

He said, at this point, he thinks the money would likely have about a 75 to 85 percent chance of being approved by the Legislature. He said he’s in favor of taking the money partly to help prevent teacher layoffs and furloughs and to strengthen Utah’s overall financial picture in this downturn.

“There are reasons it should be done, I think,” Waddoups said.

Jenkins said some conservative senators are suggesting Utah needs to draw the line and say no to the federal money on principle, but Congress has made that an unattractive option.

“They’re saying, ‘This is your money and you’re going to take it whether you want to or not,” he said. “You look at that and say, ‘Wow, even if we wanted to let that go, we couldn’t,’ and that’s a huge debate in this.”

Clark said Tuesday the state doesn’t have many good alternatives. Ultimately, he said, the only thing the Legislature can do to fulfill its budget-making duty is to step up quickly, take the money and spend it as it sees fit.

That means one of the topics of discussion between the Legislature and Herbert will be whether to convene a legislative special session to deal with the federal funds.