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With Economy Booming, Utah Educators Draw Up Wish Lists

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With a booming state treasury and a rare respite from soaring school enrollments, 1996 could be the year that Utah lawmakers increase classroom spending, raise teacher salaries, or launch new education programs.

Educators in the state with the lowest per-pupil spending in the country are preparing to scramble for the dollars pouring into state coffers. They are optimistic that the state's strong economy may soon provide more for schools than just keeping up with new enrollments.

The state board of education this month asked the legislature for an increase in K-12 spending of about 11 percent, to about $1.9 billion. Lawmakers in the past five years have signed off on increases of around 7 percent each year.

"The economy is good, our [enrollment] growth is down, and we feel like it's an opportunity for the state to invest in education," said Laurie A. Chivers, the state's deputy schools superintendent.

But what educators see as a perfect chance to significantly boost state aid will likely clash with the state's preparations to host the 2002 Winter Olympics and build new roads and bridges--and with the legislature's eagerness to make election-year tax cuts.

The education department's budget wish list flies in the face of Gov. Michael O. Leavitt's call to tighten belts in the state's $2.6 billion budget. He has asked state agencies to cap increases for fiscal 1996 at 2.5 percent, roughly the current rate of inflation.

Gov. Leavitt hopes to expand Utah's transportation and water systems. Utah's projected population-growth rate for the 1990's is the fourth highest in the country. The influx of newcomers to the state has cooled in the past year, but roads around Salt Lake City remain snarled, a worrisome problem with the city slated to host the Winter Olympics in 2002.

The governor, who will release his budget proposal in the next few weeks, also wants to make sure the state is not caught short if proposed cuts in federal programs are passed by the U.S. Congress, said Tim Sheehan, one of the governor's spokesmen.

"We can't bank on money that we've had in the past," Mr. Sheehan said.

Extra Cash

Talk that the state should assume more of the tab for schools focuses on its kitty of surplus funds. Utah closed the books in fiscal 1995 with a $61 million surplus, thanks in large part to business growth in the state.

Total K-12 expenditures average about $3,500 per pupil, the lowest in the country. The state picks up about 56 percent of the cost of precollegiate education. While that share is well above the national average of 46 percent, it has stayed constant in recent years, according to Patrick Galvin, a school-finance expert at the University of Utah.

Steep increases in enrollments during the 1980's and the first part of the 1990's brought the state's K-12 population close to 500,000 and demanded almost every dime of state school funds, according to Ms. Chivers. But the rise in new enrollment this year is estimated at less than 1 percent, giving the state a chance to catch up and pay for things that have been neglected.

Rough and Tumble

The surplus "will go out on the floor, and everybody will fight for it," said Rep. Beverly Ann Evans, the chairwoman of the House education committee. "This will be one of the toughest sessions we've had in my 10 years here."

With such different interests all staking a claim to the state's extra dollars, predictions are for a contentious legislative session.

Some would like to see the new money go back to taxpayers. In Utah, lawmakers passed $140 million in tax relief last year, but some grumbled then that more needed to be done.

With this rough and tumble on the way, the state board's request does not have a prayer, Ms. Evans said. "It's a dream. We're looking at something closer to 5 percent."

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