Utahns divided on gas tax hike to fund education

By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent

Are you willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline to put more money toward public education? This November, Utah voters will have the chance to weigh in on that question.

“Anytime the state government earmarks more money for education, it’s a good thing for us,” Grand County School Superintendent JT Stroder told The Times-Independent. Proponents of the ballot question argue Utah’s underfunded education system places a financial burden on teachers, many of whom buy essential school supplies out-of-pocket. Stroder said he’s never had any teachers complain about buying their own supplies, but he added, “I’m sure we probably have some that do; they’ve just never said anything.” According to Our Schools Now, the campaign encouraging people to vote “yes” on the tax hike, the average Utah teacher spends $479 of their own money on school supplies every year, which totals more than $13.7 million.

When asked if Grand County teachers buy school supplies out-of-pocket, Grand County Board of Education member Jim Webster responded, “Of course.” Webster expressed his support for a tax increase, though he wasn’t familiar enough with the details of the ballot question to say exactly how Grand County schools would benefit. “Anytime the people say they want to send more money to the schools” he says he would be in favor of it. He explained how the combination of Grand County’s high property values and the relatively low income level per student complicates matters.

“Because of our high property values, we end up getting less income tax money coming to this school district from the state and our property taxes are what make up the difference,” he said. Under state law, Grand County’s school board could collect more in property taxes, but they don’t want to place too heavy a burden on Grand County’s citizens, Webster said. Therefore, an alternative measure such as the gas tax could really help Grand County’s students. “Rural school districts usually get the short end of the stick because we have so few students… but our students deserve everything the Wasatch Front students get,” he said.

Question 1 on the ballot will ask voters to approve raising the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon. Our Schools Now claims the increase will cost the average driver about $4 a month. Austin Cox, the Our Schools Now campaign manager said, “This would give an allocation to each school, about $150 per student. It can’t be used for school administration, it can’t be used for school construction, it has to be used inside the classroom at local schools to help students and teachers.” Cox noted that a committee of school leaders, teachers and parents will decide how the money is spent.

The ballot question arose from a compromise between Our Schools Now and the Utah State Legislature. Lawmakers agreed to allocate more money to schools in exchange for replacing a citizen referendum with a nonbinding ballot question that measures opinion but still requires legislative action before the tax increase is implemented. A statement from the Utah House of Representatives says the agreement led to an additional $292 million going toward education this year, while also allowing them to “fix the significant structural issues in the tax system that have led to our current education funding imbalance.” Our Schools Now originally pushed an initiative that would’ve created more than $700 million in school funding through a combination of sales and income tax increases.

The gas tax could bring schools about $100 million by freeing up funding that currently goes into transportation costs. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst’s Office expects adding 10 cents to the current 29.4 cents a gallon state gas tax would bring in about $180 million in the first full budget year that begins July 1, 2019. Of the new revenue, 30 percent would go to local roads and 70 percent would be used to offset an equivalent cut in the state’s transportation budget that would then go toward education. The compromise also included a five-year freeze on the state property tax levy.

People often balk at higher taxes, so the ballot question may have an uphill climb ahead. In June, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a poll of registered Utah voters found 56 percent opposed Question 1 compared to only 42 percent who indicated support. Notably, 64 percent of Democrats supported the tax increase, while only one-third of registered Republicans did. Unaffiliated voters were split evenly, with 49.7 percent in support of the ballot question.

On Aug. 21, Our Schools Now officially launched their advertising campaign to generate support for the ballot question. It will involve television commercials and highway billboards. Utah Governor Gary Herbert has voiced his support. “This major investment in per-student spending is going to make a noticeable difference for student success in Utah. This solution also allows us to invest in local road needs and make significant progress toward reducing some of the imbalances in our tax code,” Herbert said, adding that he looks forward to “working to pass the November ballot question and implementing the will of the voters.”