A Utah campaign to generate more than $700 million in annual public education funding is well on its way to securing a spot on the November 2018 ballot, according to Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson.
Anderson, who co-chairs the Our Schools Now ballot initiative, said Wednesday organizers had already gathered one-fourth the required number of voter signatures, with the remainder expected months before the April 15 deadline.
“We have gathered about 28,000 signatures,” Anderson said. “We’re on track to hit the 113,000 [requirement] by the end of the year.”
The news comes as a new Salt Lake Tribune-backed poll shows the initiative is holding on to a slim but consistent majority of support among Utah voters, with 54 percent of respondents now saying they view the measure favorably.
If approved by voters, Our Schools Now would impose an increase of 0.45 percentage points on the state’s sales and income taxes, lifting those tax rates to 5.15 percent and 5.45 percent, respectively.
The changes would be made over a period of three years, and would generate $715 million when fully implemented, according to an estimate by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.
Anderson said the campaign has largely found Utahns to be willing to add their signatures to the initiative. While that does not necessarily indicate voter support, he said, it speaks to a desire to discuss and debate education funding.
“They think it should be on the ballot,” he said. “They think it’s important for the people in the state of Utah to have a chance to vote on this.”
The new poll shows that out of 605 registered Utah voters surveyed, 54 percent said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the initiative, while 43 percent were opposed. Commissioned by The Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, the survey was conducted between Oct. 10 and Oct. 13 by Dan Jones and Associates, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.98 percentage points.
"The people in Utah recognize that we are not spending enough money on education,” Anderson said. “They are willing to have a tax increase to have that additional money go to the schools.”
The Tribune and Hinckley Institute commissioned two previous polls on Our Schools Now, in January and July, that similarly showed rates of support between 50 percent and 60 percent.
In January — when Our Schools Now planned to raise only the state’s income tax — 55 percent of respondents supported the initiative. In July, after the sales tax piece was added, 57 percent of participants indicated support.
“The majority feel that we need more money for education and I’m thrilled to see that,” Anderson said.
Last week, a counter-campaign called “Stop the Utah Tax Hike” was launched by Utah‘s chapter of Americans For Prosperity. State director Evelyn Everton said her group has conducted its own polling that shows support for Our Schools Now fades when Utahns are reminded about the impact of a tax increase on their personal finances.
“People start to really understand that is money that they will be having to give to the government,” she said, “and less money they will have to buy groceries or pay for rent or buy school supplies.”
Many Utahns may still be unfamiliar with Our Schools Now and the specifics of the tax proposal, Everton said. She said “Stop the Utah Tax Hike” campaigners will be knocking doors, making phone calls and sponsoring ads and mailers to educate voters in the lead-up to next November‘s election.
“I think that as we get closer to the vote, the level of awareness will be a lot higher,” Everton said. “I think that we will have more accurate polling as we get closer to next summer and closer to election day.”
Support for Our Schools Now among
Men: 49 percent
Women: 58 percent
Age 18-24: 74 percent
Age 25-34: 64 percent
Age 35-44: 64 percent
Age 45-54: 43 percent
Age 55-64: 46 percent
Age 65+: 49 percent
If Our Schools Now is able to complete its signature gathering by the end of the year, it could signal the initiative’s strength just as Utah lawmakers gather for the 2018 legislative session in January.
And Anderson said he is still open to working with lawmakers to fund schools in a way that negates the need for a citizen initiative.
“Ideally, the Legislature should handle this,” he said. “If they’re not willing, or if they feel that this is an issue they want the people to vote directly on, I’m fine with that.”
The new poll results show that support for Our Schools Now is highest among younger voters and women. Support and opposition were statistically tied for Republicans, while 77 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of unaffiliated voters support the initiative.
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said in an email that while its poll numbers are consistent, Our Schools Now will need Republican support in order to succeed next November. Tax initiatives also need a cushion, he said, to counter the last-minute erosion of voters who experience a “gut check” at the ballot box.
“Out of the many initiatives that are likely to appear on the 2018 ballot, Our Schools Now may face the biggest challenge to pass when voters actually show up to the polls,” Perry said. “There is a difference between wanting more funding for our schools and being willing to personally pay for it.”
Utah ranks last in the nation for state funding spent per-student on public education. Anderson estimated that Utah would climb to 49th place with the money generated by Our Schools Now, illustrating how public schools in the Beehive State are significantly underfunded.
“If it is voted down, we’ll come back,” he said. “This is not a conversation that will end in November of 2018, regardless of the outcome.”
But Everton said Utah schools succeed despite the state’s low funding rankings. School districts need to be more transparent in their accounting, she said, and a tax increase poses too great a risk to the state’s economy without any proof that education would improve.
“The reason why we enjoy such a great economy here in our state is because of our low tax,” she said. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the kind of economic growth that we’re having.”