A proposal that would have increased school funding in Utah by hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade taking Utah out of last place in the nation for per-pupil spending stalled in committee on Friday.
The Senate Education Committee voted to table SB54 rather than vote on it after some criticized it as a tax increase.
The bill sought to raise the minimum amount of money the state spends per student by about $750. Bill sponsor Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, proposed reaching that amount through a number of methods. For one, he wanted to freeze the value of income-tax deductions for dependents, meaning instead of that value increasing with inflation as it does now, it would stay the same. The result would be more money for schools over time.
Also, until that minimum funding level per student was reached, he wanted to freeze property tax rates, so as property values rose over the years, so would revenue for education (now, property tax rates decrease as values rise). He also wanted to direct 30 percent of sales tax revenue growth each year to education until the state was able to reach that new minimum level.
"I recognize more funding does not automatically mean better learning, but we cannot continue to maintain a quality education system without financial support," McAdams said.
But Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he could not vote for the measure because it's a tax increase a notion McAdams denied.
"By passing this bill, the good people of Utah will have $5 million less in their pockets next year than they would if we don't," Thatcher said. "If that's not a tax hike, I don't know what is."
Thatcher said part of the reason Utah's per-pupil funding is the lowest in the nation is because of the state's large proportion of federal lands, from which the state does not receive tax revenue.
McAdams, however, challenged the idea that retaking those public lands would help better fund public education, noting that it's unlikely Utah would win such a lawsuit against the federal government, and even if it did, it would be decades before the state saw that increased revenue.
Representatives from the Utah School Superintendents Association, Utah PTA, the United Way of Salt Lake and the Utah Education Association (UEA) spoke in support of the bill. Kory Holdaway with the UEA urged lawmakers to remember that money spent on education is an investment in the state's future.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he was struggling with the bill but liked some of the concepts and viewed it not as a tax increase but rather "tax stabilization." He voted against holding the bill in committee along with Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights.
"In talking to my constituents ... the one thing I hear over and over again is they are concerned we are not adequately funding education," Osmond said.
McAdams said after the vote he'll continue discussions with other lawmakers about his bill to see if there's an interest in bringing any of it back this session.