All eight presidents of Utah’s public colleges and universities have signed a letter urging public support for a tax-reform package aimed at boosting education funding — including an upcoming vote on raising the state’s gasoline tax.
Those tax adjustments were made as a compromise with Our Schools Now, a ballot initiative that sought $700 million in new annual school funding through a combination of sales and income tax hikes.
The compromise “represents a significant investment in public and higher education that can open the doors for more students to fully participate in the opportunities of our growing economy and assure its growth for the future,” states the letter signed by the campus presidents and David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education.
Released Thursday, the letter also applauds the governor and Legislature for “forward-thinking leadership” toward funding schools. Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a measure that adjusts several state taxes to generate more revenue for schools.
A separate bill, approved by lawmakers, will also put the question of a 10-cent hike in state gas taxes on the November ballot.
That ballot question is non-binding, but would signal public support for legislators considering approval of that tax increase next year. Combined with property tax reforms and other changes, the gas tax boost would lead to annual public school funding increasing by roughly $375 million once fully in place.
In their letter, Utah’s campus presidents said, “We encourage the entire higher education community to join with public education, businesses, our elected officials and families across the state in our campaign to send a strong message to continue the successful path we have embarked.”
Austin Cox, spokesman for Our Schools Now, said in a written statement that investing in children will preserve the state’s quality of life and lead to higher-paying jobs and stronger communities for Utahns.
“Without greater investment in education,” Cox said, “our economy is at risk of falling behind other states that recognize high-quality education drives economic activity.”
Polls conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics over the last year showed a narrow, but consistent, majority of support among Utah voters for Our Schools Now. But critics, including legislative leaders, questioned whether boosting the state’s income tax rate would damage its economy and business climate.
In the waning days of the 2018 Legislature, lawmakers rolled out a pair of bills that would generate roughly half the funding total of Our Schools Now. In addition to the potential gas-tax increase, lawmakers approved a five-year freeze on a statewide property tax that funds schools — the tax rate otherwise floats down as property values increase to be revenue neutral — and a slight decrease in the state’s income tax rate.
The tax package also incorporates a new formula for equalizing the funding of individual school districts. That has the effect of creating a school funding floor that over time will lessen budget discrepancies between districts in areas with high and low property tax revenues.