‘Trib Talk’: Did Our Schools Now cut a bad deal for education funding?

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Using school desks as props, and surrounded by teachers of the year and Alpine School District students, Our Schools Now formally launches its tax increase initiative during a press event at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

On this week’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood chats with Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, about November’s non-binding public vote on a 10-cent gas tax increase to support Utah’s public education system.

A lightly-edited transcription of their conversation is included below.

Benjamin Wood: Last summer, a group of Utah business and education community leaders formally launched the Our Schools Now initiative, a campaign to enact $700 million in tax increases for education through a public vote.

Over the last year, things have changed. Negotiations with lawmakers led to a compromise in which Our Schools Now agreed to halt its initiative in exchange for property tax changes that will net some $200 million for public education, and a non-binding ballot question in November asking Utahns to support a future 10-cent gas-tax increase that will indirectly support schools.

Recent polling by The Tribune shows majority opposition to the gas-tax hike. And last week, Gov. Gary Herbert softened his support, suggesting new sources of sales tax revenue could provide the extra funds for schools.

But Utah schools are still among the lowest-funded in the nation, with some of the country’s largest class sizes and least-paid teachers, who have watched the promise of Our Schools Now fade from $700 million, to $300 million and now, perhaps, to just $200 million.

From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is Trib Talk

I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now.

Austin, I want to start by first stating that the numbers we’re going to be throwing around are ballpark, rough estimates. But also I was hoping you could break us down what the Our Schools Now initiative is in its current form.

Austin Cox: Sure, thanks Ben. I appreciate the time that we’ve got this morning. As you know, we gathered a whole lot of signatures prior to the legislative session. In total, we collected 165,000 signatures for our ballot initiative, which was going to put on the ballot a sales and income tax proposal for Utahns to consider.

We went through the legislative session and were prepared to move forward, still hoping for a legislative compromise, but weren’t sure that it was going to happen and in the last 10, or seven days or so, it materialized where we were approached to maybe consider changing our proposal to a gas-tax proposal.

As you know, over the last several decades, the Transportation Fund hasn’t been keeping up with the transportation needs. And so they’ve been dipping into the General Fund, which reduces the amount of funding available to public education. By increasing the gas tax, a small 10-cent gas tax increase, that funding would go to transportation, freeing up or making more available funds for education.

So Our Schools Now is now supportive of that. The Legislature asked us to support that, the governor asked us to support that. They want it to succeed so we’re out there preparing a campaign for this fall for what I think will be called ballot question number one. We’re still waiting for confirmation from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, but we’re supporting ballot question one, which will be a 10-cent gas tax proposal to increase education funding by $150 per student. In the grand scale of our compromise that we reached, it is part of an $850-per-student increase.

Wood: And all told that lumps together to be 300-something million, correct?

Cox: In new revenue, it’s about $350 [million], just close to $400 million in new revenue. The Legislature, as kind of the third part of this, has said that they will continue to fund growth in new student enrollment and inflation in the coming years as well. This was kind of a five-year agreement, for the next five years we’re going to work as close together as we can to increase funding for education. And the Legislature said, as part of this, we’re not just saying that this new revenue is sufficient and we’re done funding education.

They’ll continue to do what they’ve been doing the last several years to make sure we don’t increase momentarily and then just drop back down to where we were. They’ll continue to build on this increase if the voters approve it later this year.

Wood: I wanted to follow up, you mentioned the negotiations with lawmakers. And like you said, Our Schools Now went into the session in a much different form than what came out of the session.

Cox: You called it. I remember reading your chat, you gave it a 50-50 shot.

Wood: I did.

Cox: I remember. I was like “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” But sure enough, you knew more than I did.

Wood: Well, I got lucky on that one. And obviously a lot of that was in meetings that I was not privy to. What can you tell us about the decision to pivot from income and sales tax to this property and gas tax compromise?

Cox: Our position was we wanted to work with the Legislature. When we set out, eight years ago, to try to make education funding more of a priority in the state’s policies and politics, we were never doing it to oppose the Legislature or make the Legislature or legislators look bad in this. We wanted to work with them, we wanted to find a solution. We weren’t necessarily set on one tax or the other tax. You can make the case that all of our taxes — the property, the sales, the income — they’ve all decreased over the last 20 years, which is why we’re at this tipping point or this crisis in education funding. You look at The Utah Foundation where they found the tax policy changes over the last 20 years are now resulting in $1.2 billion less for K-12 schools each and every year.

A lot of taxes over the last 20 years have been reduced and now we need to find ways that we can invest in public education. The Legislature believes that an income-tax increase would kill our economy. We have a 5 percent — or a 4.95 percent — rate now, and our economy is beating a lot of states that have a zero percent income tax rate. So our economy is doing fine with a marginal income tax. We felt as business leaders — Gail Miller, Scott Anderson, the Salt Lake Chamber, a lot of the top-notch business leaders in our state — that increasing it marginally to 5.5 or 5.8 percent wouldn’t have killed our economy, but would have made it even better because we’re investing in education and creating a workforce that will succeed.

But we weren’t necessarily dead-set on that. We just wanted increased funding for education and that’s when they approached us with the gas tax. They understand they have not funded local roads, which would get some additional funding through this as well. They understand that they haven’t been funding education to some degree that their constituents would like. And they also realize that they’ve been kind of using this pot of money to fund that fund and this pot of money to fund that fund, so it’s really a win-win-win as the governor is calling it.

Wood: Let’s talk a little about the polling, which is part of why we’re here today. In the original version of Our Schools Now, The Tribune ran a few polls that showed a slim, but consistent, majority support. Since it has pivoted to the gas-tax question we saw a majority opposition.

Now the armchair statisticians will tell you that is bad news. That if you’re asking people to raise their own taxes you need to be starting from a strong position. There are people saying this initiative is dead, we saw the governor softening his support but not saying he’s opposed. I’m curious what makes you optimistic that this can still happen between now and November.

Cox: And hopefully we can talk about the governor, because there are discussions there as well.

Wood: Absolutely, we’ll circle back.

Cox: We’re feeling really optimistic. I don’t want to look at necessarily just one poll as we’re looking at this. First of all, we’ve been polling for eight or 10 years on this issue and Utahns continually say that they want to pay more for education. We’ve done polling since the legislative session ended on this specific gas tax and a lot of entities out there, a lot of publications, have done some polling and shows that we still maintain that majority support.

We have internal polling that shows Utahns are still willing to pay more this November if they know that it’s going to their local school, if it’s going toward teacher salaries, if it’s local control, things like that, which are all part of our plan. So we remain confident. Keep in mind that our campaign hasn’t even started yet. A lot of people still aren’t sure what happened during the legislative session.

Wood: Let me interrupt you then. When is the start? We’re in summer, we’re past the primary [election]. Isn’t now kind of the time to get that going?

Cox: I think we’re targeting more of a back-to-school [launch], when kids go back to school and parents start tuning in again and kids are in school and teachers spending four or five hundred dollars out of their pocket.

Wood: And education is on people’s minds.

Cox: Education is on people’s minds. And teacher turnover. We’ve talked to some principals and they’re turning over about half of their schools, half of their faculty, each year. I know that doesn’t shock you, you’re very well informed about that. So we have a lot of messaging and a lot of information that we need to get out there because people don’t understand that transportation has been taking from education and how a gas tax, necessarily, will relate to increased funding at the local level for teachers and students.

Once we have the resources and are focused on getting that message out there, then you’ll see a campaign that is in full swing.

Wood: Now we should state that the ballot question is nonbinding, so Utahns will be voicing their support or opposition for a gas-tax increase which lawmakers will then come back and consider next year.

So let’s talk about the governor’s comments. If I’m understanding the governor correctly, what he said was “vote for the tax increase, show that support, but when the lawmakers get together in session we may not have to do it because we may have other revenue that can fill that hole.”

Is that how you took his comments to mean? Or what did you take from the governor’s comments last week?

Cox: From a policy perspective, I can appreciate where he wants to continue having discussions and thinking about other ways to approach this. I think it’s going to be a quick discussion though, because to my understanding a lot of the, at least some and maybe a majority, of that online sales tax that’s being collected is already doing so voluntarily. So that funding is already in the state’s budget and is already being spent.

The Legislature, to my knowledge as well, also passed a bill this last legislative session, that dedicates most of that new funding if it becomes available through the recent Supreme Court decision to some sort of tax credit for manufacturing companies. So from what we’re understanding is there’s not a lot of new revenue that’s going to be available to invest in education as a result of this new online sales tax. Also keep in mind, we’re not even sure how much money is out there right? There’s not a lot of firm estimates that are there.

So we’re moving forward, full steam ahead. The governor still supports us. We’re still standing behind the agreement. We withdrew our signatures and that obviously took a lot of good faith effort on our part to remove those signatures. We still remain behind this gas tax and the Legislature wants it to pass, the governor wants it to pass. It will do a lot of good, not only for our students and our schools and our teachers, but also for local government and their local road funding. It’s much cheaper to invest in roads now, proactively, than it is to repair and replace them for much more expensive and costly ways down the road.

It also fixes some of the budget gimmicks that have been going on over the years, so we still believe that we have the governor’s full support and that he’ll be campaigning with us and for us this fall. I think at this point there’s just too many uncertainties regarding online sales tax to pivot a different direction. We’ve been open to changing our plan and we’ve done that three or for times over this, to try and solve this problem. But we don’t think moving to online sales from this gas-tax compromise is the right way to do it.

Wood: The governor is perhaps saying “vote for the gas tax and maybe we won’t need it.” The opposite, however, seems like a much harder lift. If Utahns vote against this gas-tax increase, I have a hard time seeing the Legislature coming back and doing it anyway. If this doesn’t succeed in November, where does that leave this compromise that was enacted with Our Schools Now?

Cox: We fully believe that we’re going to be successful this fall.

Wood: I love the optimism. Let me ask the question differently then. During the session, half of this was enacted. The property tax elements, there was a special budget created to take this money from the gas tax and give it to schools. We’ve already seen school districts adjusting to that with some of these one-time stipends and some of these appropriation things they’re doing with their salaries.

Just realistically there have been laws enacted in anticipation of this gas-tax increase. I know that you’re fully optimistic and you expect it to pass, but I just want to talk about it policywise. Where does that leave our education budget if that revenue doesn’t come in the way that you thought it was in March.

Cox: I think we would look at other polling that would show that Utahns still believe education is the number-one issue and education still needs to be invested in. There was a recent poll that said 80 percent of Utahns believe our teachers are underfunded and teacher salaries need to be increased.

If Utahns don’t support, necessarily, this gas tax proposal on the ballot this fall, I think we would still work with the Legislature and the governor to find other ways to increase education funding. I think we’re all in this together at this point and we all believe, from a policy and political perspective that this is the right way to do it and we’ll see if the public gets there as well. If the public doesn’t get there, our schools still need to be invested in and our teachers still need resources. Our students still need opportunities to learn and receive a high-quality, world-class education.

The need will still be there. And at that point we’ll go back to the Legislature, lawmakers and the governor to see if there are other ways out there that we can solve this problem. But we really believe that if we’re going to do it soon and going to do it right, it involves this 10-cent gas tax.

Wood: I spent many years as an education reporter. I’ve just now started to pivot away from that. And I’ve heard a million times, as I’m sure you have also, that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better education.

At the same time we know there is a correlation. If we gave our schools no funding at all, then students would be sitting on the ground in an empty field without a teacher and no textbooks. It wouldn’t work. Conversely, if we gave a million dollars per student we’d have individual tutors and cutting-edge technology, so there is some sort of a correlation that I think most people can agree on.

The middle area, where we’re at kind of right now, is where it gets harder to draw those clear-cut lines. Fundamentally Our Schools Now is saying “more money will improve schools” and there are many people in Utah that disagree with that basic premise. How do you convince them that what Our Schools Now is asking for would make a difference?

Cox: I think when people make that argument or try to approach that premise, they’re doing it on a national level and looking at national data. This is a Utah issue, so let’s look at Utah data and Utah-specific examples.

There are countless examples here in our state where some additional funding, whether it be through a private donation or a pilot program or a federal grant, where the local district and the local teachers have utilized that and maximized that investment to help their students learn.

Let’s take here in Salt Lake City School District, there is a teacher-mentoring program that I know you’re very familiar with. The Legislature funded it for a couple of years, it worked, there were great improvements in [increasing] teacher success, finding the good teachers, finding the teachers that needed improvement, keeping the teachers there, giving them the resources and the tools that they needed to be more successful. Then after a couple years the Legislature said “Great, if you want to use it, use your local dollars. But we’re not going to expand it.”

Wood: Yeah, they essentially said it’s working so well that we’re not going to pay for it anymore.

Cox: You’ll have to explain it to me, I don’t know what that means.

Wood: That program is called Peer Assistance Review if any listeners care to look that up. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.

Cox: No, that’s great. Another example in Weber School District, a local business man was disappointed in the high school graduation rate. [He] put up some of his own funding, they hired some counselors and some data people to figure out what the issues were for their students. They decreased the absenteeism there, got the kids to come to school, and now they have one of the highest graduation rates in the state. They increased the cohort rate by 19 percent.

There’s counselor programs, there are early childhood education programs at local districts that if invested in, are proven to succeed here in our state. We’ve got great parental engagement. We’ve got great teachers who are dedicated. We’ve got a business community that is supportive. So here we have all the right ingredients for success in education in our state, if it’s properly funded.

I’m not sure of ways you can increase teacher salaries in our state without additional funding. Likewise, there are some programs here that can’t be implemented or can’t be expanded statewide if there’s not additional funding put into it. That’s our proposal, let’s put the funding in the hands of the locals where they know the needs of their students. But let’s measure it, let’s account for it, let’s make sure it’s being used properly and that it’s being used to invest in the specific needs of each student. Their needs in St. George are different than Alpine, that are different from Cache County, right? So putting it in the hands at the local levels but making sure it’s being used to invest in programs that are proven to actually make a difference. We’ll see outcomes increase as a result of our investment increasing.

Wood: After the compromise came out the Tribune’s editorial board wrote a piece that was skeptical of the negotiations with lawmakers. To reiterate, I’m not a member of the editorial board, I have no involvement in editorials. They are allowed to have an opinion, I do not.

I want to read a little bit, they talked about this pivot from the signature gathering and the binding ballot question for an income and sales tax increase, to instead this nonbinding question of a gas-tax increase.

They wrote: “The tens of thousands of people who thought they were part of a true paradigm change were reduced to being leverage in talks they couldn’t join.”

I’m curious, after the session ended I think some people were probably caught off guard to see that Our Schools Now had evolved into this new entity than what they had been campaigning for for weeks and months, or at least supporting and going to meetings and signing petitions for.

What would you say to those educators, parents and even students who perhaps feel left behind by the compromise that was struck?

Cox: Ben I was one of those people gathering signatures, right? I talked to thousands of people. The thing that came back from those people is that they want to better invest in education. They weren’t necessarily signing their name for a 0.45 percent income tax increase or a 0.45 percent sales tax increase. They wanted to send a message to the state Legislature that we care about education funding, we want to invest in our local schools, and we want our teachers and our students to have the opportunities that they need to be successful.

That’s the message that we took to the Legislature. You even saw during the session some proposals come and arise to the public front where if this passes, we’ll gut it. Or if this passes, we’ll repeal it or we will overturn the will of the people and just do what we want anyway.

I don’t think the people who signed our petition would want that to happen. And so we, wanting to do what’s right for education and our teachers and our students, giving them an opportunity to be invested in, were willing to work with the Legislature because we wanted something that was going to be long-lasting, significant and long-term.

If we go to all this work and yes, we have 165,000 signatures, and the people pass it by 65 percent, nothing would stop the Legislature from reducing current funding, stripping this new funding. And so we always thought, and we were open with this even prior to gathering signatures, so I’m not sure it would come to a surprise that we believed the best solution was a legislative solution.

But we had been up there advocating for six to eight years, asking them to make education funding more of a priority beyond just inflation and growth. Let’s really make a difference to invest in these programs that will make a difference for our teachers and our students. And they weren’t willing to do that until we gathered those signatures.

I wouldn’t say it was leverage. I think it was a mechanism available to us through our state’s constitution, to send a message to the Legislature. And keep in mind, we’re still going to the people this fall and getting their input. So they were part of a movement, they were part of an effort that will give them a voice in this. And I assume that the people who signed it, 165,000 of them, are still grateful to have that voice and will still support us this fall.

Wood: There are a lot of questions on the ballot this November. And one of the things that we’ve been talking about throughout the year is this idea of ballot fatigue or voter fatigue.

At this point voters are going to be looking at a gas-tax increase, allowing the Legislature to call themselves into special session, medical marijuana legalization, independent redistricting, Medicaid expansion. There’s others that I literally can’t remember right now because there’s so many questions on the ballot.

Are you worried about this proposal — because it is complex, this is a complex and complicated funding scheme — are you worried about it getting lost in the shuffle?

Cox: I wouldn’t say we’re worried about it getting lost. Like I said, I think we’re ballot question number one. So we’ll be higher on the list than some of those other ones. But each campaign has their own uniqueness and intricacies that make it a little bit different from the other ones. We’ll do everything we can to get our message out there so people know that this is funding for education.

“To provide additional funding for public education and local roads, should the state increase the state motor and special fuel tax rates by an equivalent of 10 cents per gallon?” — Proposed Our Schools Now ballot language

Yes, it’s a gas tax. But the ballot question itself is about 15 words. It’s very simple: to increase funding for local schools and local roads, should the state increase the state gas tax by the equivalent of 10 cents?

It would cost the average driver $48 a year. That’s about $4 more a month. I know it seems gimmicky, right? But if you look at it that way there’s probably a lot of things that, as an average Utahn, you spend $4 on that if you compare it to everything else in your budget, there’s probably a good argument to say investing it in my local schools is going to be what’s best for my kids, my family and our state’s future.

Yeah, there’s ballot fatigue. I’m not sure why there’s so many this given year. We’ve been out talking about this for many years, so I think Utahns are ready and expecting a question on education funding. We’ll make sure our information is out there so they can make an informed decision.

Wood: Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, thanks so much for being on “Trib Talk” today.

Cox: Thanks Ben.

Wood: “Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your feedback at sltrib.com. Or you can also email the show at tribtalk@sltrib.com.

You can tweet to us @tribtalk on Twitter, or to myself @bjaminwood. We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.