Op-Ed: We have a surplus in Utah, and our children need it
We look forward to this year's "Public School Budget Play" with great anticipation. Not only for what it includes, but also for what it excludes.
Quietly held in Gov. Gary Herbert's budget bag is a whopping $242 million surplus in the Education Fund for fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. Why have the governor and Legislature been so quiet? Do they want to surprise our parents and school teachers with a down payment on lower class sizes or cost-of-living increases to make up for salary cuts over the past few years?
No, they are quietly letting half of that surplus slide into the Rainy Day Fund. A real pro-education governor like, say, a Walker, Matheson, Bangerter or Huntsman might have opened up the budget with a special legislative session in early June and distributed half of the surplus to Utah's starving K-12 education system.
So, what about the other half of the $224 million surplus? Will it stay in K-12 education or be siphoned off to pave more roads? Their answer to this question has been that "the surplus was primarily made up of 'one-time' funds, so we need to be cautious about how they are spent."
Our reply to that is that the $121 million transfer to the Rainy Day Fund should be considered as the "one-time" fund allotment. We calculate that 20 percent to 40 percent of the remaining $121 million could be deemed "one time" too, if one was super conservative. That still leaves $73 million to $97 million on the table to bolster Utah's public schools in the current fiscal year.
Even after appropriating some of the balance to higher education, there should be at least $60 million to $80 million in the Basic (K-12) School Program's beginning balance. If those funds are not there, you can bet that the other half of the surplus has been siphoned off to pay for roads.
How else can Utah's Department of Transportation spend an additional $120 million this year to expand and refurbish Davis County's I-15? Its gas tax revenues are in decline. So one would think there could be no road expansion unless: 1) more sales tax earmarks go to UDOT (funded by education funds) or 2) more debt is incurred.
The facts are that this governor and Legislature have systematically cut revenues to fund our K-12 public school system despite poll after poll that shows 70-plus percent of the people demand more spending there.
We are still in last place in the dollars we spend per student. Since 1996, our spending effort on K-12 has dropped from 4 percent of our personal income to 3.1 percent. On $103 billion total personal income, that means we have cut K-12 spending by $927 million per year from levels 17 years ago.
Recent test scores reveal that Utah's primary and secondary students are behind our peer states, those states with similar demographics and economic power. Given Utah's favorable demographics and strong families, our ACT test scores should be in the top 10 in the country, not lagging in the middle. Now is the time to take the long-term economic development view and invest in our children's future.
We need to take a cue from our pioneer parents who started building schools and even colleges as soon as they came to these valleys.
Doug Macdonald is an economist and member of Davis Alliance for Public Education.