Well, we knew it was likely to happen sometime this year, we just didn’t know when or why.
There must be a special legislative session, perhaps as early as next month, to correct a budget error.
In this case, a $25 million mistake in the calculation to fund new student growth when schools open next fall.
House Republican leaders told their 58-member caucus Wednesday that they want the special session in late June, but Gov. Gary Herbert’s office is talking about a July or August session date.
“We think we need to take care of this sooner rather than later,” said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, so that the state’s 41 school districts know for sure that extra money will be coming before they finalize their budgets in late June, early July.
Jonathan Ball, the Legislature’s chief budget officer, said that the error occurred in the translation between what his office uses in calculating per-student funding in the $3 billion public education budget and the State Office of Education’s conversion of those numbers into the actual Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU), the per-student formula the different school district’s rely on.
Whatever the case, the preferred solution can’t be accomplished within the budget authority of the various agencies involved.
There must be actual transfers of money between budget funds, and that can’t be legally done without legislative action, he explained.
It is rare these days that the Utah Legislature can go from one January-March general session to the next without having to be called into a special session by the governor for one reason or another.
Under the Utah Constitution only the governor can call the 104-member, part-time Legislature into session. He also sets the agenda.
Once in special session, lawmakers have 30 days to finish their work.
This session shouldn’t take more than one day, leaders say.
Likely Herbert will call the session on the same day that legislators gather once a month to hold study committee hearings, that way lawmakers won’t receive any extra pay and the session won’t cost taxpayers anything.
Ball explained that while the solution to the problem is rather simple, down the road it will have policy implications.
Each year lawmakers estimate how many new students will come into schools over the next nine months and then fund for that growth.
Historically, they fund on the high side so school districts don’t run out of money during the school year.
Eighteen months after the close of the school year, legislative budgeters “sweep” those school funding pots for the extra cash not spent before.
“We will just sweep those pots of money earlier than usual,” said Ball. “We hope that will cover the $25 million.”
But, the governor in office has used those extra funds each legislative session to pay for one or two special education initiatives he wants.
“If we take those funds for the $25 million, they won’t be available” next year and the year after for that use, said Ball.
And so Herbert, and his legislative education allies, will have to find other pots of money to pay for any extras.
And those political battles have, at times, been legendary.
In the 2004 Legislature then-Gov. Olene Walker wanted $15 million more for a new elementary school reading program. GOP lawmakers balked.
Walker ended up privately threatening to veto the whole education budget if she didn’t get the extra cash.
Leaders caved in, but later changed the whole legislative budgeting process so that no governor could carry out such a threat again.