Overview of 2016 Session
Most Utahns enjoy a pretty high quality of life. We live in a state with one of the strongest and most diverse economies in the nation, very little unemployment and high wage growth. Our population is young, our families are large and though our state government has the ability to tax only about one-third of our land, we continue to grow and prosper.
We are consistently able to do more, with less, than most other states. The credit for this goes to a hardworking populace that values productivity and a Legislature made up of people who believe that individuals do best when allowed to regulate themselves, while acknowledging the crucial role of government in providing certain protections and basic services.
Funding for education consistently takes priority in the Legislature and this year $445 million in new money was directed to public and higher education, amounting to 2/3 of new spending. This included a Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) increase of 3 percent, an amount comparable to another ¾ percent WPU for equalization, $15 million for technology programs in the classroom, an expanded emphasis on school readiness for at-risk children and a number of new buildings on university campuses. Additionally, nearly $60 million was placed into the state’s Education Rainy Day Fund this year.
During the 2016 legislative session, there was significant focus on keeping our communities safe and improving quality of life as lawmakers looked to more effectively deal with increasing levels of homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and criminal recidivism within our state. A number of bills were passed this year to help with better integration of services for those dealing with these problems, and additional money was appropriated to support state workers in areas such as corrections, law enforcement and probation & parole.
A new system will allow for the tracking and sharing of data among various agencies and localities in order to more effectively and efficiently help those who need it, with the goal of saving money and improving lives. Success in these areas will lead to safer communities, less dependency and higher workforce participation, which benefit all of us.
There was also a notable focus on preparing for future growth and the many challenges that come with it, especially in the middle of a desert. Water infrastructure, once the funding domain of the federal government, has now shifted to the state as demands for everything at the federal level have increased. Utah this year set in place a funding mechanism to facilitate financing of future water projects, while at the same time establishing a system for gathering better data to allow for more effective water conservation and planning.
Air quality bills were also again on the radar of many in the Legislature. A fund was established that would allow taxpayers to make voluntary contributions to be used for clean air projects, and it became easier for individuals to choose to use solar power to provide energy for their homes. There was also additional money appropriated for construction of a technical support center for the Department of Environmental Quality and for additional air quality monitoring, research and awareness.
Even as we deal effectively with the inevitable difficulties that come with the dynamics of a state like Utah, we learn that there is always more that can be done to improve our quality of life. At no point in time do we stop trying to improve, to innovate, to seek out new solutions to old problems. Hopefully this year that is exactly what we were able to accomplish.