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Senators say Utah schools will be ‘kept whole’ without a tax increase

First Published      Last Updated Feb 01 2017 12:21 pm

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser reiterated Tuesday that before lawmakers will raise public school funding, they first need to know what the money would buy.

The Sandy Republican said it is unlikely the Legislature will approve anything beyond the traditional budget increases that stem from annual economic growth, despite a threatened ballot initiative that seeks $750 million in school funding though an income tax rate increase.

"Right now the discussions are about where the money would be spent," Niederhauser said. "Once, I think, that is settled, we'll talk about how we get that started."

The Senate's budget chairman, Layton Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, said lawmakers expect to have roughly $285 million in new funding to appropriate during the 2017 legislative session.



Updated revenue projections are due in February, but Stevenson said current figures suggest public schools will receive around $190 million.

"They get two-thirds of the budget," Stevenson said. "I think there's a very good chance that education will be kept whole. We seem to work really hard to do that every year."

Public education requires roughly $68 million to keep pace with enrollment growth for the 2017-2018 school year.

Utah's per-student spending is currently lowest in the nation, and each 1 percent increase to that formula costs approximately $29 million,

The Utah Board of Education is asking for a 2.5 percent bump in per-pupil funding — for $72 million — and Gov. Gary Herbert's budget called for a 4 percent increase — or $116 million.

Based on Stevenson's estimates, the school board's recommendations would allow for another $50 million to be spent in areas like classroom technology and teacher supplies, while the governor's requests would exhaust education funding with growth and per-student spending.

Rather than change the income tax, which feeds into the Education Fund, Niederhauser said there is a need to look at sales tax, which supports the General Fund.

As sales tax revenue has diminished, he said, the Legislature has had to rely on the Education Fund to support colleges and universities, which pulls resources that would otherwise go to school districts and charter schools.

"We're losing the base, or the main sources for the General Fund," he said. "I think we're going to be forced to have to deal with that, either this session or next session."

But any changes to tax policy would be difficult, Niederhauser said, and would require the clear support of the public to sway the political reservations of lawmakers.

Rather than raise the tax rates, he said it would be better to limit tax credits, deductions and exemptions in order to broaden the revenue base. But he added that currently there are no specifics efforts in the Legislature to do that.

"That's going to be a big part of this discussion," he said, "which is probably a couple years ahead of its time."

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood

 

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