SALT LAKE CITY — State government spending — especially for public education — is shrinking compared to what Utahns are earning, according to a new analysis by the Utah Foundation.

The nonprofit research organization released its findings Tuesday as part of the Utah Priorities Project, an ongoing effort to identify the top issues of voters in this November's special gubernatorial election.

State spending ranked third among voters surveyed at the start of the project in March, behind energy issues and public education. Participants in the Utah Priorities Project also include the Deseret News, KSL-TV, KSL Radio and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"It seems like the default choice in Utah is that education and the overall state budget is always going to grow slower than the economy. It gives us some advantages," said Stephen Kroes, Utah Foundation president.

However, Kroes said there are also disadvantages to not producing the educated work force the state needs for economic growth that lawmakers should be prepared to address as the recession eases.

"Over the long run, we are investing less and less of our incomes on educating our kids," he said. "In our desire to reduce the burden of state government, much of that reduction has come from education, and I think that's exactly the wrong priority."

Kirk Jowers, head of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the waning commitment to funding education is troubling.

"When you're dead last in per-pupil spending, we certainly cannot afford to decrease our commitment to education, because innovation can only take you so far," Jowers said. "The state is saving money on government, including education, but there will be a price to pay."

The foundation looked at how much the state spends per $1,000 of personal income by categories, including education, transportation, corrections and health and human services. The analysis did not take into account federal dollars spent by the state, including stimulus funds.

Not surprisingly, the total spending per $1,000 jumped in the budget years when there were surplus state revenues available. That changed, of course, when the recession hit.

In the 2007 budget year, the total spent by the state per $1,000 of personal income rose almost $6, to more than $88. In the 2008 year, the total was more than $100. But that number fell to just over $99 in the 2009 budget year, and dropped to less than $91 in the 2010 and 2011 budget years.

Spending for public education over those five years was as high as more than $35 in the 2009 budget year, compared to more than $32 in 2011. Back in the 1991 budget year, however, the amount per $1,000 spent on public education was just under $40.

The issue of public education funding is already being debated among the major candidates for governor, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and his Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

Corroon unveiled his own proposal for public education on Monday, calling the state's K-12 classrooms underfunded and in need of a long-term plan for improvement.

Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said Tuesday the governor "absolutely agrees that adequate education must be a priority for the state" and that he was proud of his role in holding the line on education funding during the 2010 Legislature, when other programs lost nearly a quarter of their budgets.

"He will continue to be a champion for education in Utah," she said.

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