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Op-ed: Polling challenges Legislature on school funds

By Carol McNamara

First Published Feb 01 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 03 2014 12:24 pm

A new poll, conducted for the 2014 Legislative Policy Summit, indicates that education, jobs and air quality are top issues Utahns want legislators to address. Predictable, perhaps, but that does not make the job of legislators any easier. The fine print in the poll makes clear that tough choices await when trying to balance the public’s priorities with a balanced budget.

The survey, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University and The Exoro Group — a political consulting company — found that educating children, especially K-12, for a successful future was the top priority of the 627 registered voters polled.

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A recent Education Week "Quality Counts Report," ranks Utah at the bottom of per-pupil state funding. Utah spends about $2,000 less per student than any other state. At the same time, the report also found Utah in the middle of the pack in terms of "Chances for Success" and "Achievement"— 24th and 27th respectively.

These numbers suggest that Utah gets a lot with its low per-pupil spending, but legislators must ask, "Do our children get enough? Should we spend more to prepare them for the future? Should we do things differently?"

Gov. Gary Herbert has embraced the goals of getting more third grade students reading at grade level and having 66 percent of Utahns obtaining post-high school education by 2020. The Legislature and the governor will have to discover creative strategies and financial resources to make progress toward those goals.

The poll showed some — but not a great deal — of willingness on the part of Utahns to sacrifice a tax exemption to help fund education. About 25 to 30 percent of those polled said they would sacrifice the personal/child deduction to increase education funding.

With more than 70 education bills submitted prior to the first day of the session, the Legislature clearly plans to address voters’ priorities. But will they meet the public’s expectations?

The poll indicates that 60 percent of Utahns think the state is headed in the right direction. Still, jobs rank among the top three priorities. Clearly, the effects of the Great Recession are still with us.

If this confidence in the state coincides with higher tax revenues, however, the legislators might be willing to increase spending for K-12 and higher education priorities.

The palpably dense air across Northern Utah recently, no doubt, affected the air-quality poll results. The overwhelming majority of those polled indicated they would be willing to make some changes in their lives: convert cars to alternative fuels, walk to work, carpool, take public transportation and use less electricity to improve Utah’s air quality. Turning good intentions into action might prove elusive, but the message is clear: Utah’s residents are starting to think seriously about air quality.

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The number of bipartisan proposals in the Legislature already for the 2014 session, and the governor’s initiatives reflect voters’ concerns.

Finally, the poll demonstrated substantial support for replacing the caucus/convention system with a direct primary. Support was spread across the political spectrum, with 40 percent of even "very conservative" registered voters supporting a change. Here, too, legislators seem to be responding. Rep. Kraig Powell and Sen. Curtis Bramble have bills that attempt to address voter concerns.

Thanks in part to the poll commissioned by the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University, legislators know the priorities of Utahns. Now it’s up to those elected leaders to take the citizens’ road map and find creative solutions to complex challenges.

Carol McNamara is director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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