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Utah business leaders will gather signatures to put education funding on ’18 ballot

First Published      Last Updated Dec 03 2016 05:32 pm

Ballot initiative » Our Schools Now will start gathering signatures in summer for taking an income-tax-increase proposal to voters in 2018.

A group of Utah business leaders is turning to voters to raise funds for public schools.

The Our Schools Now initiative will begin collecting signatures next summer, organizers announced Tuesday, to place the question of an income tax increase on the 2018 ballot.

If successful, Utah's personal income tax rate would climb from 5 percent to 5.875 percent — a seven-eighths of 1 percent bump — netting roughly $750 million in new annual funding for the state's K-12 schools, colleges and universities and applied technology campuses.

Nolan Karras, former Utah House Speaker, said Utah students deserve a first-class education and that current funding levels are insufficient.

"Constantly underfunding education has the potential to undermine the foundations of our economy and our society," he said.

Last year, Utah business-led advocacy groups Prosperity 2020 and Education First urged lawmakers to put a non-binding tax proposal before voters.

Lawmakers did not respond to the non-binding ballot option, which would have polled voters on their interest in a seven-eighths of 1 percent bump in income taxes.

Zions Bank president Scott Anderson said a ballot initiative provides "added emphasis" to the Legislature.

He was optimistic about securing signatures and the public's support, but added that lawmakers retain the ability to act during the upcoming legislative session.

"They may come up with a better idea that will not require the initiative," Anderson said.

If successful, the Our Schools Now initiative would distribute new funding to schools on a per-pupil basis and is estimated to generate $978 for each Utah student during its first year.

Funding would be given to all public education institutions, with school districts receiving roughly $629 million, colleges and universities receiving a combined $108 million and the Utah College of Applied Technology network receiving $6 million.

In addition to Education First, the Our Schools Now initiative is supported by the Utah Education Association, the Salt Lake Chamber and representatives from businesses and education groups throughout the state.

"Businesses endorse our schools now because they realize their success depends on a better-educated population," Anderson said.

A recent UtahPolicy.com poll found broad support — 67 percent — among voters for an income tax increase to fund schools. The poll, conducted by Dan Jones and Associates, included 812 Utahns and had a margin of error of 3.43 percent.

Additional results from that poll showed 30 percent of Utahns responding that they, personally, pay too little in income taxes.

Utah's income tax rate was lowered from 7 percent to 5 percent in 2007. That change, as well as other policy adjustments over the last 20 years, eliminated $1.2 billion in annual funding that would have otherwise gone to schools, according to a recent Utah Foundation report.

UEA President Heidi Matthews said she was encouraged by the support of the business community at a time when issues like school staff shortages and turnover have reached the public's attention.

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