Gehrke: If voters reject a tax increase for education, it will doom any realistic chance to improve Utah schools

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke wants you to vote “yes” on Question 1.

There’s a question I’ve been asked several times since voters received their ballots in the mail: Why on earth are we being asked to raise the gas tax to pay for education?

It does seem odd. Gas taxes usually pay for roads. Hiking the tax at the pump to pay for schools makes about as much sense as taxing liquor to help pay for school lunches (which, by the way, we also do in this state).

So voters are, perhaps justifiably, a little wary. As one reader who called me recently wondered, if she voted for the gas tax increase, would all the money just end up going to road construction?

Understand this: At its core, a vote for Question 1, while technically nonbinding, is a vote to support infusing about $120 million into our lagging education system. A defeat would doom any chance for a major boost to our schools.

That’s the big picture. The mechanics are a little more complicated — and opponents have used the complexity to their advantage. So, let me break it down.

For decades, Utah lawmakers bent over backward to avoid raising taxes. It forced them to play a shell game, taking money meant for one purpose and using it to try to meet other demands.

Let’s start with the gas tax. Historically, the idea behind the gas tax has been that it should fund construction and maintenance of roads. And for decades, that worked. But as demands increased, legislators resisted increasing the gas tax to keep up with inflation.

By 2013, Utahns were paying a lower percentage of their income toward the gas tax than they had at any time since its inception in 1929, when Studebakers and Ford Model A’s ruled the road, according to a report by the nonpartisan Utah Foundation.

Instead of raising the gas tax, lawmakers would siphon money from other programs, and that got a lot easier in 1996. Until then, K-12 education was paid for exclusively by income tax revenue, and higher education was paid for by sales tax. But voters approved an amendment to the constitution that allowed income tax money to pay for both public and higher education.

The 1996 amendment meant that all that sales tax money that had been paying for colleges and universities could suddenly be spent on other things — things like, you probably guessed it, roads.

On top of that, the Legislature passed a substantial income tax cut under Gov. Jon Huntsman that eroded the education fund, right in time for the state to be walloped by the recession.

Higher ed became the Legislature’s piggy bank as lawmakers pulled money out and spread the education money thinner and thinner.

Nowhere was this diversion more evident than in 2011, when the Legislature adopted SB229, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, which earmarked sales tax money to cover a shortfall in the road construction needs.

In 2015, the Legislature finally found the courage to raise the gas tax, but just by a nickel. With Utah facing a projected $11 billion shortfall in road funding, it’s not nearly enough.

Utah’s shell game of a tax system is broken and unsustainable. And the blame for that falls squarely on state legislators who are more concerned about political fallout than making smart choices about balancing the state’s needs and the state’s revenue.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said that a few years ago education advocates came to him proposing an increase in the income tax. The solution, he suggested, wasn’t income tax; it was raising the gas tax and rebalancing the entire tax structure.

Which brings us back to Question 1, the ballot question asking voters to support a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase.

If we vote for this, then legislators have said they would put the $120 million in gas tax money into roads, and all that money that had been diverted to asphalt can go back into education.

It won’t simply go back into some giant pool of education dollars — it will go directly to local schools, where local councils can decide how it can best be used. On average, per-pupil spending will increase by $150. If you want, you can go to ourschoolsnow.com and see exactly how much will go directly to your child’s school.

“I think it’s a giant step in the right direction to create a better balance for both our infrastructure and education,” Niederhauser said. “We have limited funds, and we need to address that.”

Unfortunately, opponents of the education increase, namely the Koch Brothers-bankrolled Americans for Prosperity, are using the complexity to confuse voters. And it may be working.

The poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics out this week showed that 51 percent of registered voters oppose the gas tax increase — a really bad spot for proponents to be in, since typically undecided voters end up voting no on ballot propositions, especially tax hikes.

Theoretically, the Legislature could still boost education funding if the ballot question fails.

“They won’t. I guarantee it,” said Niederhauser, who is retiring at the end of the year. It would be better not to have put it on the ballot at all, he said, than have it fail, “because then you have a public opinion of voters that don’t want the increase … almost a mandate not to do more.”

It would relegate Utah schools to the bottom of the pack for the foreseeable future; it would mean years of graduates unprepared for college or the job market; and it would leave businesses without a qualified workforce.

We can’t let that happen. Don’t let the opponents muddy the waters. Understand the issue and talk to your friends and neighbors; encourage them to vote for Question 1. It’s the best way — the only way, really — we will see a measurable improvement in the state’s starved school system.