Roads vs. education
During the election season we hear politicians extolling Utah's unique family values. Candidates attempt to impress voters with how he or she will fight to protect those values. Roads and transportation are seldom mentioned.
In the final analysis it is how we spend our state tax money that reflects our values, since political rhetoric is quickly forgotten after the election.
Last year, with SB229, the Utah Legislature chose to earmark 30 percent of the growth in the state's sales tax revenues to future road construction. Gov. Gary Herbert's veto was overridden. Herbert had argued that the bill would tie the hands of legislators and elevate roads above all other state funding.
"Today's biggest loser is education,' Herbert said in a statement. "[Earmarking funds] is a bad way to allocate our very limited resources. ... The battle for education funding is not over." ("Legislature paves over governor on road bill," Tribune, May 7, 2011.)
The Legislature's infatuation with increased transportation spending is not attributable to the public transit construction along the Wasatch Front because public transit is not funded by the state; it is funded solely with federal and local tax money. Utah is one of only four states that do not subsidize transit with state tax dollars, according to the Survey of State Funding for Public Transportation.
An analysis of how Utah's transportation funding is spent in comparison with other states shows that Utah is in the top category for percentage of spending for new road capacity, transit, road maintenance and minor widening. Utah is in the lowest category for proposed spending for bicycle/pedestrian improvements, and in a group of only four states with the lowest spending for projects categorized as safety improvements ("Tracking Transportation Dollars," July 2012).
In total dollars of state and local spending per capita from 2005 to 2010, Utah ranks well below the national average. However, Utah is a leader in state and local spending for transportation, where we rank among the top 10 in the highest spending per capita. In health care spending we rank among the 10 lowest states. In per-capita welfare spending we are in the lowest 20 states, well below the national average.
In 2010, the most recent year for which national data is available, the average state spending for education was 39 percent, compared to 5 percent on transportation and 13 percent on health care (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Policy Basics: Where do our State Dollars Go?," updated March 28, 2012).
By comparison, Utah's state spending mix was 31 percent for education, 12 percent for transportation and 14 percent for health care. The primary difference is Utah's prioritization of transportation over education.
State spending priorities shifted significantly from 2005 to 2010. While spending in Utah increased by 25 percent, state transportation funding doubled and education funding increased less than 17 percent. Utah is last among all states in per-pupil spending for K-12 public education.
Education is clearly an investment in the future of our youth and the long-term economic well-being of our state. However, our elected officials have chosen to pave our children's future through increased spending for highway capacity as their highest priority.
Utah's most treasured value must be the family car.
Chad Mullins is chairman of the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee (http://www.bicycle.slco.org/). He lives in Holladay.