Here’s what a key lawmaker is thinking about as the 2021 Legislature gets to work

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

In this episode of U Rising, Utah Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard shares what she wants to hear from leaders of higher education institutions in the state as they prepare to present their funding requests in the 2021 Utah legislative session. The U’s priorities, according to Vice President Jason Perry? Compensation for faculty and staff and funding for the renovation of the Applied Sciences Building. Rep. Ballard also shares how students, in particular, can work proactively and productively to make their voices heard. Record on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Hello, I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. The Utah Legislature will open its 2021 session on January 19 and given the past year, I think it will be a very busy session indeed. I'm fortunate today to have two marvelous guests that will give us great insights into the Utah legislature and a little bit of a preview of what's ahead for higher education, in particular, and a little bit about the legislative session in general. It's my pleasure today to welcome Representative Melissa Garff Ballard and also Jason Perry. Jason Perry is our vice president for governmental relations at the U and also director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Welcome, Representative Ballard.

Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard: Thank you for having me.

President Watkins: We appreciate it. Well, what an exciting time it is as we launch the 2021 legislative session. Representative Ballard, I think listeners would very much like to hear a little bit about you, your district that you represent, what motivated you to want to be part of the Legislature and some of the committees that you serve on.

Rep. Ballard: It has been exciting to be part of the Legislature. I actually represent House District 20, which is Bountiful, Woods Cross, North Salt Lake and West Bountiful — just around the corner from the university there. And I have been in for . . .  just starting my third year. And what has been exciting for me is really the opportunity that I grew up with, which is to ask the question “What else can I do? And what can I be part of that can help to make a difference?” And the Legislature is exactly that. It really is a collaboration of great people from all across the state really working on planning for the future and listening and working together. It's very different from what you see on the national level. And I've been very impressed and appreciative of the many committees and commissions that really serve that purpose.

So, I am on the public education committee, transportation committee and also am the vice-chair for higher education appropriations for this next year. So, I have enjoyed really working with all of the institutions with higher ed and look forward to that this next year.

President Watkins: Well, Representative Ballard, we feel privileged that you are representing higher ed and helping guide higher ed policy for the state of Utah. Tell us a bit about what you think the Legislature will focus on this year related to higher education.

Rep. Ballard: Education is always a priority in our funding in the Legislature. Last year, we funded $2.1 billion for higher education. That's tremendous, which is 16% of our total budget just for higher education, which also includes our tech colleges. So, that culture will continue and will be a priority this next legislative session. And what I have been impressed with is really the change that the new commissioner, Dave Woolstenhulme, has really brought to the perspective for higher ed. He has been instrumental in combining the Board of Regents with the Utah technical colleges into one system. That has created much more efficient opportunities and also improving the student experience across the state, both in colleges and universities and the tech colleges.

So, I will actually be running legislation this year that tightens up the combination of those two boards and commissions into one and working closely with Commissioner Woolstenhulme on that. But really what I'm looking forward to the most in higher ed is continuing what has been done since I've been in over the last few years, there's been a tremendous amount of collaboration within the institutions.

And I have to say, the University of Utah is truly the flagship of the state. You have been a critical leader and trendsetter within the system. And many times, when we have said “Here is something that we need to work on as a state” it is really looking to see what has the University of Utah done and how can we model your process that you have created. And I really have appreciated your willingness to share your expertise and share your metric that we have really held all the other institutions to those metrics as a way of reporting and to be able to help streamline our students from the K-12 system into either the tech colleges and/or into higher institutions.

And a compliment to you is that you have the highest graduation rates in the entire state. Out of all of the institutions, you definitely have the highest graduation rates and that's a great compliment to your leadership and your staff and the goals that you have created.

President Watkins: Well, we appreciate that you know that and that you're advocating for that, and we couldn't agree more. We see it as our job to be the model and to act like the flagship. So, we appreciate your support in that endeavor and also agree very much with you that the integration of all of the post-secondary ed in the state can really help our students and create better pathways between different types of higher education. So, Vice President Perry, you're about to enter the busiest time of your year, I think, the next with the weeks ahead. Tell us about the priorities we have for the University of Utah in this 2021 legislative session.

Jason Perry: You have to put all this into context because what's interesting is we ended the last legislative session, thanks largely Representative Ballard and also President Watkins, with what we thought was the greatest year we'd ever had. I mean, I'll just tell you in terms of the appropriations, from the bills that were filed and passed, it was the greatest year of the university has seen. And, of course, COVID started, and the budget started being hit, and the state started worrying about what was happening and impacted everything. Not many people would know. Almost all of those great allocations that went everywhere were frozen, and in some cases, taken away. And most of them were.

So, our priorities for this year are a continuation from last year. The things that were really important to the Legislature and to us are the things that are going to be important again this year. And thanks to Representative Ballard and many of her colleagues, we are kind of starting with that as a foundation because those were articulated very well and the needs were well-substantiated.

As it was last year, the No. 1 priority for us, as set by President Watkins, is compensation. We have such a great need not just to retain, but to recruit the right kinds of talent. And a lot of our people on campus were not able to get any of those increases. In fact, no one was because of those cuts that came rightly and appropriately so, but that's what we're starting with. So, for our faculty and staff and our Legislature already said it's in their interest to have this compensation increase go forward. So, we're really excited about that, but also for the people who are listening that are watching closely on campus, you have to talk about our building, our Applied Sciences Building.

The Legislature was kind enough to prioritize it as one of three buildings that were prioritized last session, $60 million was appropriated for this building, and we need to get that one back. So, I'm going to put that in the other high category, president — compensation, this building, and, of course, so many other ways the Legislature helps us when it comes to the things that they want us to do, performance funding for our university, really giving us the right metrics that Representative Ballard helps establish along with you, President Watkins, as we hit those metrics, the money being appropriated to be able to help with those priorities. Those are the big ones.

President Watkins: I think that's a great summary, Jason, and it's really wise for us to be that focused on what we're trying to do. And, of course, one of the things we've learned in the pandemic is we don't need to use space quite the same way as we thought we did or used to. But we also know that there is really no way to turn an office building into the science lab building, so there are space needs that will continue even as we learned that we can be more efficient with our space. And I wanted to ask you, Representative Ballard, we've all learned a lot through this pandemic. When you think about how we have changed teaching and learning during this time, what are your takeaways on this and, particularly for higher ed, are there lessons learned that you think we ought to be paying attention to right now?

Rep. Ballard: That's a really important question. In the higher ed appropriations committee meeting, we have all of the institutions come and report to us. Well, for me, it's very important that we don't hear all the details of here's what happened to us. I want to know what have you learned from it and how are you doing things differently and what are your goals that will be different now that we are doing so much more online learning? It was interesting back in 2019, I was in Austin, Texas, for a legislative conference and the Texas educators were so proud of the fact that they did not have any online classes for K-12 or higher ed. And I was shocked. And because Utah has really led the way in thinking ahead and preparing for that, and this pandemic has been a catalyst to do more online. But it still costs money. It's not ideal for every situation, but I think it's important for the institutions to really report back how have our goals changed or been adjusted with the funding that we're getting from the Legislature and how do we want to think about it differently?

I think the second thing that we've learned from this pandemic is really the impact it has on our student mental health, and the universities really have quite an important role of helping the young adults to understand how they can manage some of these jarring social and political events that have gone on over this past year. And we appreciate the efforts that you and other universities have done to focus and be able to respond to these challenging downstream effects. But I'm an optimist, and I believe we can come out of this stronger. We have many bright days ahead, but that will rely heavily on this next generation of leaders and innovators — our students — and higher ed has such a central stewardship in creating those transformative opportunities.

President Watkins: I couldn't agree more. And I think it's on us to say, "What have we learned during this time that will help us be better going forward" and adapt our practices. And I think we are hard at work at that at the U with a lot of good minds thinking about the takeaways from this time. So, Vice President Perry, let me ask you, this is an amazing process. And a few years ago, well, eight years ago, when I came to the U, I started to learn a lot more about the legislative process, and in the last three or four sessions, I really had a front-row seat. So, I think listeners would be very interested in how this happens and how this process works. And a bit of the committees that are involved and how we make our way through the process of advancing our priorities during this time.

Jason Perry: Wow, I'll give you the really quick legislative process lesson. You know it perfectly, president, but for the people who are listening to it, it is a process with lots of very important considerations and a lot for our legislators to balance. There are a few key committees — Representative Ballard sits on some of them that matter the most to us — that's why I'm so glad she’s on them. So, she controls all of our money. Thank you, Representative Ballard!

President Watkins: It's good to have friends.

Jason Perry: It's good to have friends chairing that committee! Because the higher education appropriation subcommittee, which she sits on is one of the co-chairs in the House, is amazingly important. I want to talk about just a couple of those things really quickly because during this entire year and particularly the last month or so, all the institutions of higher education are meeting together with the Utah System of Higher Education. And they meet with the governor and they say these are the most important priorities for all of us. And they work through that list. They prioritize it, and they take it to the governor and the governor has it and he's already issued his own budget, and Representative Ballard could comment if she wants. The governor, of course, doesn't control any of those funds, doesn't control the purse as they say, only the Legislature does. They control the money.

So, the governor sets those priorities for the executive branch and those functions, but the Legislature decides. So, when it comes to our biggest priorities, Representative Ballard has the biggest hand in this because she gets to help set what the recommendations are because it's not just us. She has to balance the University of Utah, every other state institution and so many other things. And there are a lot of requests that come to the Legislature for funding, a lot, particularly in a year like this. For people who want the inside scoop, a whole lot of one-time money, right Representative Ballard? That's what we got this year. Our economy has generated the kind of money that is going to have a huge one-time impact, but probably not going to be something they put in programs that go on and on and on. So that creates its own series of problems and considerations for our Legislature. So, we're trying to work our priorities through that group.

The one other one maybe I should mention, president, is the infrastructure committee. They're the ones that decide on the priorities for buildings. And it's not just higher ed, it’s every school that happens, the prison projects, whatever it is that state government needs to fund, all goes into this big list of priorities. And the legislators have to decide one by one how far down they go on that list. Those are the key committees we're working with. And just for the sake of thoroughness, all of this rolls up to the Executive Appropriations Committee and even Represented Ballard or whatever counterparts will have a chance to say for higher education, these are what we think you should fund. And, of course, they have their own list of priorities, so we have to work with them as well. It's a very interesting process, lots of interesting committees with a lot of varied interests on it. And at the end, I will say, everything gets funded, it's very well vetted by a group of very committed and thoughtful people after a lot of probing. And that's what's going to happen as we go through the session.

President Watkins: It is a remarkable journey. And I have to say that comments you've made about one-time money, non-recurring funds, we're hard at work at thinking of things that are important for Utah's education and workforce needs that actually generate a return on investment for Utah's economy. So, we hope to have a chance to talk about those as well. Representative Ballard, I think we should give you the last word today. What advice would you give all of us as we're watching the legislative session unfold? What should we be paying attention to, particularly related to higher ed and frankly in the legislative session as a whole?

Rep. Ballard: That's important for all of us because it affects everyone in the state. Utah has had the No. 1 economy in the nation for 13 years in a row. Why? We have to have a balanced budget. We plan ahead, we have emergency day funds, and we really work together. It takes a lot of work to have a bill pass through 100 legislators and the governor for it to become law. So, it needs to be effective policy. So, I would watch for funding for COVID needs, transportation projects that will be either bonded, one-time funds that will be spent. I would look for some tax cuts. We do have a surplus this year that will, those tax cuts, I believe will help support our families and needs that we have. Support for clean air and really because of Amendment G that was passed in November's election, in the voting cycle, we have the opportunity now to really plan for education-based funding, planning for growth planning, for salaries better. We'll have so much more continuity of funding because education has been the No. 1 priority in the state of Utah for funding for decades and especially this last decade, it's just increased exponentially.

So, I think the last thing I would say since this is really for us, and especially for these young adults that are on your campus, think about a way that you can step up, think about the process. “What is the best way that I can have my voice heard?” It's one thing to throw tantrums, or riots as I call them, but it's another thing to understand who's in charge and “What can I do to help the process to be better? How can I provide solutions to the problems and be part of that?”

And that is what we need to do as a community and as a people, and why I appreciate this legislative process because there's a lot of listening, a lot of collaboration and much of the ideas that we get are really from each of you saying, “I have a suggestion for a solution to some of the problems” and by doing so, that's really what continues to make this such a great state with the No. 1 economy in the nation.

President Watkins: Well, Representative Melissa Garff Ballard, we are so fortunate to have you leading in our state. It is an enormous responsibility, and I know you take it very seriously. Your representation of education, its importance to well-being in Utah and particularly to higher ed, we are grateful. Thank you for being with us today.

Rep. Ballard: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

Jason Perry: Thank you.

President Watkins: My pleasure. And Vice President Jason Perry, I know, I guess, put on those running shoes because he's off to the races here for a couple of months, and thank you very much, Jason, for being with us today.

Jason Perry: Thank you.

President Watkins: Listeners, thanks for taking time to join the U Rising podcast. And I hope you'll tune in for the next edition.