United Utah party backs $715 million-a-year school funding initiative, but state's Democrats and GOP aren’t choosing sides

Our Schools Now organizers are gathering signatures to put the sales- and income-tax increase initiative to boost funding for public schools on the state’s November ballot.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank speaks in support of Our Schools Now as its formally launched its tax increase initiative in June. The newly formed United Utah Party has endorsed the $715 million-a-year tax initiative, while the state’s Republican and Democratic parties are not taking a position.

A new Utah political party has come out in support of a proposed ballot initiative to raise taxes and increase education funding, but the state’s largest political organizations are staying mum on the issue.

In a Tuesday op-ed for the Deseret News, United Utah Party chairman Richard Davis wrote that state lawmakers should fund schools by at least the levels proposed by the Our Schools Now initiative. And if elected, he wrote, United Utah candidates would not attempt to micromanage spending of the money raised by the ballot measure.

The Our Schools Now initiative proposes boost yearly education funding by $715 million through a combination of sales and income tax hikes.

Davis told The Tribune on Wednesday that he would prefer a more progressive tax structure — with wealthy Utahns paying more — than the flat-tax hike proposed by Our Schools Now. But the United Utah Party agrees with the initiative’s organizers, he said, that additional investment in Utah’s classrooms is needed.

“We felt like we wanted to give a shoutout to Our Schools Now to say we agree, there needs to be much more funding provided for education,” Davis said.

If it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters in November, the initiative would raise Utah’s income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.45 percent, while the sales tax rate would climb from 4.7 percent to 5.15 percent.

The changes would be phased in over a period of three years, with new funding distributed to public schools — including the state’s colleges and universities — on a largely per-student basis.

The United Utah Party launched in 2017 as a centrist alternative to the state’s Republican and Democrat parties, with stated hopes of drawing supporters from both traditional parties’ camps.

Its executive director, Jim Bennett — son and campaign manager of the late three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett — ran as the party’s nominee in November’s special election for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, winning just under 9 percent of the vote.

A total of 234 Utah voters are currently affiliated with the United Utah Party, according to the latest numbers from the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office, compared to roughly 178,000 Democrats and 716,000 Republicans.

Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said he understands the difference between teaching a class of 300 students and a class of 30. The state is facing a teacher shortage, which he said is due in part to Utah’s lowest-in-the-nation school funding levels.

“We know that our class sizes are much too large,” Davis said, “that our students aren’t getting the individual attention that they need.”

Polling by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics shows Our Schools Now holding a narrow majority of public support. The initiative is most popular among self-described Democrats, with a small majority of independents and a plurality of Republicans also supporting Our Schools Now.

Our Schools Now spokesman Austin Cox said the United Utah Party endorsement adds to broad support the initiative has received from business leaders, educators, civic organizations and parents in the state.

“We are all increasingly concerned that Utah’s investment in education is insufficient to prepare Utah kids for the opportunities of the 21st century and sustain Utah’s economy,” Cox said. “Our Schools Now gives Utahns the chance to make the critical investments necessary for future individual, community and statewide prosperity.”

Some individual Republican lawmakers have spoken against Our Schools Now, suggesting a tax increase could harm the state’s business-friendly economy. But Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Anderson said the party does not have a formal position on the initiative.

Anderson said he’s supportive of Utah voters being allowed to vote on the issue. But he added that state law already sets aside all income tax revenue for public education, and that the bulk of the state’s budget is currently directed toward schools.

“The Legislature has done what they can to essentially squeeze blood out of the turnip,” Anderson said. “Obviously education is the highest priority.”

On a per-student basis — a primary budgeting metric for public education — Utah’s schools receive the lowest funding among U.S. states. Those spending levels are partly a function of tax revenue and demographics, as the state’s population has a high proportion of school-age children.

Our Schools Now is one of six proposed ballot initiatives that could appear on November’s ballot.

Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, declined to state a party position on Our Schools Now, but he commended the level of grassroots political activity in the state.

“We’re focused on the election of great Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in 2018,” Cragun said. “We’re confident the voters will give each ballot initiative proper consideration, and we are excited to see so many people engaged on issues where the Republican Legislature has dropped the ball.”

Paul Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, also took a stance between support and opposition on the initiative Wednesday.

“The governor has always supported Our Schools Now’s goal of getting more funding into education,” Edwards said. “But he is concerned about any effort that would raise tax rates without considering the importance of broadening our tax base.”

Davis said candidates recruited to run on the United Utah ticket will share support for public-education funding.

Utah had a vibrant economy before taxes were cut to their current levels, he said, and there’s not reason to expect that the increases proposed by Our Schools Now would drive businesses away.

“Even with this increase, we’re not going to be anywhere near the high-tax states,” Davis said. “There’s a balance here. You don’t want to have such a low tax situation that you starve public education.”