Utah legislators are working behind the scenes to broker a possible compromise with members of the ballot initiative campaign pushing to raise school funding $715 million by increasing taxes.
The negotiating is being done by a small group of top legislators from the House and Senate. A final plan has not been broadly released in either chamber.
But the groups are exploring raising more money for schools outside the Our Schools Now ballot initiative, according to six sources with direct knowledge who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are ongoing.
That the groups are talking isn’t groundbreaking. Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, filed a bill last month that would have canceled out the sales and income tax increases if voters approve the initiative in November. He said at the time he was in talks with the campaign, though they weren’t “in the same place yet.”
But the ongoing negotiations show that, while lawmakers have largely publicly discussed cutting taxes through six weeks of work, they’re working in the final days to see whether they can come up with a plan that would raise a significant amount of money for schools and possibly prevent a costly and politically taxing ballot initiative.
“We’ve been approached by individual legislators and will continue to have discussions,” said Austin Cox, a spokesman for the Our Schools Now campaign who had called Schultz’s bill “tragic.”
The groups are looking at various possible ways to raise revenue as part of the discussions, but it’s not yet clear whether they’d pass a package outright or ask voters to do so in November.
“It would surprise me if there have not been discussions,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, a Salt Lake City Democrat who’s not part of the talks. “I don’t really think legislative leadership wants to be in a position where Our Schools Now is on the ballot and fails.”
If voters reject the Our Schools Now ballot measure, King said, it would be difficult for legislators in future sessions to raise taxes for schools.
Lawmakers all session have talked about how, due to cars that are becoming much more efficient, the gas tax isn’t fully paying for roads and drivers aren’t covering the real cost of driving.
That gap costs the state’s budget $600 million a year, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser says, which makes it harder to send more money to schools. Lawmakers have said they weren’t looking at a gas tax increase this session and instead passed a bill that could lead to widespread tolling and they may hike vehicle registration fees.
But sources confirmed that there are backroom discussions of raising money through several sources, including a gas tax hike, which would allow them to spend more on education. There were also other pieces of the framework being worked on through the weekend before lawmakers return Monday the the busy final four days of the session.
If a deal is reached, leaders will have to scramble to find support from their colleagues who may be wary of any package that raises taxes in an election year. Supporters of the initiative, including some lawmakers, will also need to be convinced to support a compromise.
“There’s rumblings about it,” said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who added that he wants the campaign to continue unchanged so that schools get more funding. “They should go for the whole enchilada. What we need is the voice of the people.”
— Columnist Robert Gehrke and Reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report.