SALT LAKE CITY — Improving public education, paying for road repairs and helping the poor get health coverage are among the pricey issues lawmakers will dive into during their upcoming session, Utah officials said Friday.
Gov. Gary Herbert joined several Republican and Democratic lawmakers at a conference to discuss early plans to fund those objectives. But they noted Utah's budget surplus isn't enough to address all of those needs.
Herbert, a Republican, discussed his Medicaid expansion plan, which would help poor Utah residents enroll in private health insurance.
Taylorsville Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who serves on a health care committee, said House Republicans are concerned about the cost of the plan. Dunnigan and other lawmakers noted that schools, roads and water will also need to be addressed and will compete for the same limited funds.
Here's a look at some of those issues lawmakers plan to address once the session starts Jan. 26.
Herbert said he understands concerns about the long-term costs of expanding eligibility for Medicaid, but he reiterated Friday that if Utah does not accept federal help to pay for the expansion, the state is missing out on about $680 million a year. That's money Utah taxpayers have already sent to Washington, D.C., and it should be spent back in the state, Herbert said.
Herbert also said there's a moral obligation to help those most vulnerable.
Under President Barack Obama's health care law, the federal government has offered to help pay most of the cost if states allow more people to be eligible for Medicaid, with the federal government paying a higher share in the first few years.
Dunnigan said that sounds like an attractive offer in the short term but that lawmakers have to look down the road. Expanding could still eventually the state about $80 million a year, according to legislative estimates.
Herbert noted that Utah must find a way to pay for more than $11 billion in road and highway maintenance over the next few decades. Lawmakers are talking about raising Utah's gas tax for the first time 1997 or finding a different way to generate road repair money. The governor suggested legislators might come up with a plan that combines those approaches.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican, said it's politically difficult to raise Utah's 24.5 cents per gallon gas tax and that's why it hasn't happened. He said lawmakers should consider moving away from a flat rate and instead looking at some kind of percentage-based rate that would automatically adjust with inflation.
Sen. Stuart Adams, a Layton Republican, said one challenge is electric and hybrid vehicles. Like all vehicles, they contribute to wear on the roads, but drivers of those cars may not be paying the same share because they're not purchasing fuel, he said. Lawmakers have discussed instead raising registration fees for those vehicles, but Adams said that could be complicated because the state doesn't want to discourage people from having cleaner cars that could improve air quality.
Herbert said Utah's growing population is putting pressure on public schools. In addition to paying for growing enrollment, the governor's budget recommendations call for that the state to double the amount of money sent to school districts for teacher salaries and other costs.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Salt Lake City Democrat, said the state needs to look at sending more money to schools. She noted that Utah has many large families, which she said means there are many more students in the public school system than there are households helping to pay for it.
Hughes said the governor's budget is "very aspirational" and lawmakers will consider his recommendations, but said, "I think it's a tall order when you look at the other demands that are out there."