I'm writing this column in the closing hours of the 2011 general session as we put to bed the last few remaining issues the Legislature will consider.
One issue that broke last week dealt with our government records laws and the way we handle electronic records and various technologies that didn't exist when the law was originally enacted. HB477, Government Records Amendments, was proposed with about a week left in the session. It moved through the two chambers quickly, which led to concern by media outlets and citizens that things were happening too fast.
After the bill passed, we had a weekend to think it over, and the Legislature decided we needed a little more time to find the appropriate balance on this issue and recalled it from the governor's desk for some amendments. The bill now has a delayed effective date and a task force has been appointed to hear concerns from all sides.
The governor has promised to call the Legislature back into a special session in June where we will implement changes suggested by the task force. One of the limitations of our 45-day session is that sometimes in our zeal to finish our work by the end of session deadline, we get ahead of ourselves and the will of the people. One of the great parts about out system is that we can always reconsider our actions and change our minds upon further investigation. This compromise will allow us the proper time and provide the proper venue to give this important issue the consideration it deserves.
The budget for the coming fiscal year is always one of the last things to be finalized before we close the session for the year. Weighing in at nearly $12 billion, this year's budget experience was a much happier one than in past years. It is my very sincere hope that we have reached the end of budget cuts due to the recession.
We started the session staring down a $313 million shortfall. After revised revenue estimates came through in late February, we were able to shrink the gap to $50 million. Though it still boggles my mind a bit to cheer a $50 million dollar budget gap, I know there are legislators across the nation who would gladly trade Utah's deficit for their own. The 7 percent across the board cuts that we thought would be necessary at the beginning of the session have now been pared down to 1 percent, although some departments might be slightly higher or lower.
In our new budget, we will be able to fully fund public education including the projected growth of approximately 14,000 new students. This is the first time that this growth has been funded in three years due to the recession. Higher education will also do better than in past years, with only a 1.6 percent cut to their budget. Medicaid spending, unfortunately, continues to increase. That budget will grow by 4.1 percent as we attempt to fund ongoing programs as well as new caseload growth.
This is an area of the budget that is growing so fast we can hardly keep up with it. As the federal health care laws start taking affect, this budget could sky rocket even more. The Legislature is starting a process this year to look at Medicaid reform in order to control Medicaid spending in the future.
The budget process, like the entire legislative process, can be a bit noisy and boisterous at times. There are always some differences of opinion of what should be funded or done and to what extent. Compromise is a big part of the process and this year is no exception.
However, we can all agree on the importance of a balanced budget and that everyone is trying to do what they think best; that gets us through the worst of disagreements on how to spend our limited resources.
Overall, things are much better financially this year than the last two. We all hope that the economy can continue to grow and allow us the opportunity to keep funding education and the other state programs that are so critical to our communities.
If the economy does improve, the challenge will be to continue our fiscal conservative attitude and not allow state government to grow as rapidly as it did during the years before the financial balloon popped.
We can all agree that returning to a time of budget cuts brought on by speculation and overspending is something we never want to do again. Thank you all for the opportunity to represent you on the Hill this session.
Rep. Brad Dee is the majority leader in the Utah State House of Representatives. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber counties.