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Godot won't fix Utah education
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot," several people are anticipating the arrival of a figure they believe will transform their lives.

As they await Godot (the t is silent), numerous opportunities are presented for moving on with life. But these people stay put because Godot will surely come.

I hope this is not a parable of Utah's future.

After all, recent legislation would have the state sue the federal government for millions of acres of land to fix our education funding.

You see, we don't want to fix education funding ourselves; we're waiting for Godot to fix it for us.

The trouble is that we'll have to wait years, maybe decades, and spend millions of taxpayer dollars to find out if Godot is coming.

As we wait for Godot our education system slips further into malaise. Utah's once-proud public education system now ranks among the top-five nationally in falling high school graduation rates. Southern states are thankful there is Mississippi because it ranks last in so many things. When it comes to education funding, Mississippi is probably thankful there is Utah.

The trouble is that our education funding malaise is a ticking economic development time bomb. The billions of tax dollars Utah spends to attract firms and launch new ones will be undermined if our future workforce is unable to fill the very jobs our taxes are being used to create.

As we wait for Godot, what can we do to elevate Utah from the bottom of too many public education rankings?

There is about $1 billion on the table right now, waiting to be picked up. More is needed, but we can start with these enhancements:

First, we can reverse the Jon Huntsman administration tax cuts of the 2000s. This will raise $400 million or more. One consequence is that the affluent may pay more. I view this as a benefit recapture.

After all, their affluence may be attributable to the public education they received growing up. The affluent also benefit when they hire educated Utah graduates.

You get what you pay for; you earn what you learn.

Second, we can institute mineral and petroleum severance and related taxes akin to our competitors in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and a score of other states.

Utah seems alone in leaving this money on the table, perhaps $500 million or more. Since many of these resources are exported, why not have other states and foreign countries help finance our education needs?

Third, we can make our liquor laws comparable to other northern Rocky Mountain states.

Our eating/drinking establishment liquor licensing quotas create monopolies, stifle competition and thwart entrepreneurism. Aren't competition and entrepreneurism the very hallmarks of Utah?

These laws also cost the state about 25,000 jobs, deprive it of up to $1.5 billion in economic activity, and rob Utah of $100 million or more in revenue that could go to education.

Fourth, we can eliminate those sales tax exemptions that have run their course, generating a few more millions.

These education funding enhancements will generate about half of what we're told is needed to bring Utah up from mediocre to average. As the state's economy expands, we should add 50 percent of new tax revenues to education.

Until Godot arrives, let's do the right things now to assure Utah's future prosperity.

Arthur C. Nelson is a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, where he also is director of the Metropolitan Research Center.

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