SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) — With this year’s theme of “Let’s Go, Utah: Opportunity for All,” Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled his first state budget proposal Monday from his new rural office at Southern Utah University. He also signed two new executive orders and announced a new visitor center at Cedar Breaks National Monument.
“Even with the success that we’re experiencing as a state, it’s clear that some are not experiencing the same successes or even have the same opportunity,” Cox said during the online press conference. “Our Constitution and our way of government doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee equal opportunity.”
The new administration’s record $21.7 billion plan, which will be finalized during the 2021 legislative session that begins Jan. 19, features an increase in new education spending, an emphasis on rural economic development, and $250 million towards Utah’s COVID-19 response.
“We must do everything we can to facilitate vaccinations and continue to educate the public,” Cox said, proposing $100 million of the pandemic relief to be spent on public health response.
Cox’s proposal seeks to “ensure equitable educational opportunities and focus on improving outcomes for all students” with a 5.82% increase in the weighted-pupil unit, the foundation of Utah’s public education funding system, including add-ons for rural students and students at risk of academic failure similar to existing add-ons for special education students.
The new governor supports $112 million for the $1,500 teacher bonuses endorsed by the Legislature. The proposed budget also recommends $4.2 billion in public education in addition to $1.3 billion toward higher education.
Looking to Utah’s rural communities, Cox is seeking $125 million to be spent on rural infrastructure, where he said “a lack of even basic infrastructure in some places is limiting opportunity.” His proposal includes $50 million for broadband and fiber access, $69 million to create a new revolving loan fund for rural infrastructure and $6 million for electric vehicle charging stations.
With sizable amounts of one-time resources available this year, the governor also recommends several generational infrastructure investments that include $350 million to double-track FrontRunner, expanding transportation options, relieving freeway congestion, and improving air quality, $50 million for Wasatch canyons transportation issues and $125 million for open space, trails, and parks.
The proposal also promises a return of $80 million to Utah’s taxpayers recommended through a Social Security income tax credit to low- and middle-income seniors and increasing the existing income tax credit for dependents.
“We have an opportunity to do this as the budget looks better than I think anyone predicted, especially over the past 10 months,” Cox said. “As long as we are fulfilling our obligations and doing the very best we can with the mandates that we have been given in state government, returning money to the people of Utah should always be a priority.”
Cox and Henderson also signed two executive orders. The first executive order will require all state agencies to review jobs within their agencies by July 1 with the goal of expanding opportunities for working remotely. The second executive order will require all state agencies to determine which positions and offices could be relocated to rural areas. Moving some offices may require additional infrastructure, Cox said.
“We also want agencies to develop educational opportunities for rural residents and to work with the private sector to encourage rural employment opportunities,” Cox said. “Together, these two executive orders will be good for rural Utah and good for the taxpayer.”
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