The Legislature has been talking about taxes, including a plan to add back the sales tax on food, but that's not to get money for schools. Adding food to the list of taxable items would be offset by lowering the overall sales tax rate. There's a promise to protect low-income families from the added food tax, but those same families won't see anything more in their classrooms. And neither will any other families.
Utah's sales tax receipts have been falling short of expectations, so that has put a spotlight on the uncollected tax from internet sales. Everyone is on board with collecting more internet sales tax, but no one knows how much that really is and whether one state alone can really collect it. Schools can't bank on that at this point, and it won't be enough anyway.
And, while the governor mentioned it as a priority, we haven't heard much talk this session about raising revenue by eliminating exemptions. In fact, there was talk during the session of adding another $60 million tax break for manufacturers, although that apparently died.
The fact is that Utah education needs a financial injection on the scale of $1 billion annually. Of the funding options being discussed, only the Our Schools Now group's $750 million income tax increase that has come close to that.
Legislators and the governor are right that the relationship between education funding and education success is not linear, and Utah has done well with its underfunded school system. But we simply do not put enough people through college to keep up with the global demand for knowledge workers, and there is no way we're going to reverse that from the bottom of the funding scale. We can't even get our teachers to stick around.
There are two things going our way these days. The first is that Utah is on a roll. The governor and legislators are right that we don't want to kill that with a heavy layer of taxes, but what's heavy? Utah's gross domestic product has grown to more than $130 billion. It is plausible to pull $1 billion of that into schools without killing the goose.
The second thing working in our favor is the declining birth rate. We're still the baby capital of the nation with the lowest per-pupil spending, but the gap between us and the rest of the country has closed considerably.
Our Schools Now plans to run a petition to get its tax increase on the ballot by November of next year. Theirs may not be the optimal plan, but the petition serves as stick to force elected officials to come up with something better. If there was little movement to raise taxes for schools in this off-election year, legislators will need even more motivation in an election year.
Meanwhile, the people at Envision Utah have been running advertisements to create public awareness around the benefits of funding schools. Elected officials have more cover for a tax increase than they think.
The time is right in 2017 for full and broad look at Utah's tax structure — income, sales and property taxes — with an eye toward beefing up schools. It's been more than 10 years since we've taken a comprehensive look, and the world has changed tremendously.
Education is not just an expense. It's an investment. Whatever dollars we can come up with — without overburdening the economy — will be returned to us many times over. It's not a matter of whether we should make the investment. It's only a matter of whether we can, and we can.
The arguments won't end about how we're spending the money, and that's healthy. But to continue to starve the public education system is to starve ourselves.