Utah governor signs contentious, sweeping tax overhaul

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah governor Gary Herbert has signed a sweeping overhaul of the state's tax system that lowers income tax while increasing taxes on food, fuel and several services. The Salt Lake Tribune reports Herbert defended the bill that cuts taxes by a net total of $160 million during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's governor released an annual budget proposal calling for a freeze on college and university tuition increases until a specific definition of higher education affordability can be established.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert requested that the governing bodies of the state’s higher education and technical college networks be merged into a single, post-secondary education oversight entity, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The education proposal was among the final recommendations announced Wednesday by Herbert, who is not seeking reelection in November.

Herbert’s $20 billion budget proposal makes use of an estimated $682 million in surplus state revenue, while also reflecting a $160 million tax cut approved by legislators during a December special session.

Herbert asked lawmakers to increase public and higher education spending by about $400 million and direct $100 million toward transportation projects that could help improve the state’s air quality.

The transportation request includes $34 million for expanded transit services and $66 million to build an electric vehicle charging network. Herbert’s budget categorizes those programs as an investment in air quality.

Other proposals in the budget included a 2.5% cost-of-living increase for state employees, $30.5 million in funding for mental health services, $40 million to create an endowment supporting outdoor recreation, and $850,000 for processing the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits.

The proposals also included $18.6 million to expand optional full-day kindergarten in the state and a 4.5% boost to the weighted pupil unit, a per-student budgeting amount for the public education system.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said she was surprised Herbert’s budget did not include specific funding for teacher recruitment and compensation.

There were positive elements to the proposal, but the governor's request for $292 million in new funding for K-12 education would not translate into significant gains for Utah’s schools, Matthews said.

“We won’t be able to move the needle in the ways that we know that we need to,” Matthews said.

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