SALT LAKE CITY -- Despite a small surplus, fiscal matters will remain a priority for Utah lawmakers as they begin their 2012 general session Monday.
Above all else, leaders from both parties as well as Gov. Gary Herbert want to boost education funding, and it's reasonable to expect that a good portion of the $280 million surplus will be dedicated to schools. It's almost guaranteed that the $41 million needed to cover the costs of the estimated 12,000-plus new students will be funded, as will a small raise for teachers.
The debate, however, will focus on how school officials use any additional money.
Republican legislative leaders, who have a two-thirds majority in both houses, are pushing initiatives that include online classes, expanded charter and private school opportunities and technology training.
"We have students that are growing up with iPads and iPhones, and 10-year-olds can operate computers better than a lot of adults," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "We need that kind of technology in the classroom."
Fellow Republican Herbert also supports many of the proposals with money targeted for increased technology, even if those mean less money going directly to schools in the form of per-pupil appropriations.
"We are finding more efficiencies and a better way to do things," the governor said. "It's a matter of everyone coming together for the better whole."
Democrats have aggressively promoted their own education proposal focused on decreasing class size, increasing teacher pay and measuring classroom performance.
The biggest challenge for the minority party, however, may be the limited funds available for new programs. Republicans have taken a hard position against raising any taxes.
"We should be able to meet the needs of Utahns without overburdening them with taxes," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "We must be cautious about how we spend taxpayer money to make sure our blooming economy doesn't wilt."
While one of government's most important roles is to "provide a safety net for the most vulnerable," Lockhart said she prefers to reduce the bureaucracy by supporting private enterprises that work more efficiently.
"As lawmakers, we can be aware of problems plaguing society ... and help lift those who have been knocked down," Lockhart said.
Despite the ideological differences, the competing proposals for spending from lawmakers -- as well as hundreds of millions in dollars in other funding requests -- underscores an optimistic tone for the Legislature after multiple years of tight budgets. Even last year, when the state had a comparable surplus, the focus remained on belt tightening and shoring up those agencies that had already cut to the bone.
Outside of budgetary issues, lawmakers will tackle management problems at the state's liquor agency, revisit immigration laws and continue to challenge federal authority, especially when it comes to public lands.
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin