Gehrke: Opposition to tax hike for schools shows Utahns don’t value education the way they claim to

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

There’s this bizarre disconnect in the brains of Utah voters. Every time they are asked about their top priorities, education comes in at or near the top of the list.

Yet, when they’re given an opportunity to put their money behind it, they refuse.

That inconsistency was illustrated with crystal clarity in the recent poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics, where 56 percent of voters said they opposed a measure on the November ballot to encourage an increase in the gas tax with the proceeds going toward improving Utah’s miserable education funding.

The gas tax proposal was supposed to be part of a compromise with Our Schools Now, a group of prominent Utah business leaders like Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and Zions Bank president Scott Anderson, who contend Utah’s underfunded schools are jeopardizing the state’s workforce and future economic growth.

They had sought an income tax increase that would have generated $700 million for public schools. That proposal, however, was in trouble right out of the gate, with mediocre support. And with opponents poised to unleash millions of dollars of ads opposing the initiative, they did the prudent thing: They made a deal.

The Legislature agreed to make a change to property tax formulas that could bring in as much as $200 million and then put a nonbinding gas tax measure on the November ballot for voters to decide. (Leaders targeted the gas tax because it could replace other sales tax dollars that have been propping up sagging road funding in recent years.)

As part of the deal, state leaders agreed to encourage voters to support the initiative, and if it passed, it was assumed that the Legislature would then hike the gas tax.

We got a taste of that milquetoast support from Gov. Gary Herbert last week, when he questioned whether the gas tax increase was even necessary, because Utah could see new money coming in after the Supreme Court ruled that states could begin collecting sales taxes from online purchases.

“If we find that money coming in [from new online sale tax revenue] would be enough to offset and forgo the raising of the gas tax … that’s part of a discussion going forward. We will have that debate,” he said.

For a long time, Herbert had thrown around a projection of how much the state was losing from online sales, figures as high as $285 million.

The court’s ruling was the right one. There is no reason that mom-and-pop stores on Main Street should be required to charge sales tax and behemoths doing business online should not.

Here’s the problem: Most of the big online retailers are already paying sales tax. Amazon, of course, is the biggest of the bunch, accounting for 1 out of every 5 dollars in online sales.

But, according to the Utah Tax Commission, other big companies are already paying, too, like Google, Apple, Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Zappos, WalMart, Netflix, BestBuy, Overstock, eBay and many more.

The amount the state is losing is nowhere near $285 million.

“We figure we’re down to less than $100 million [from those] that are not,” said Charlie Roberts, spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission. Picking up the Amazons of the world was plucking the gigantic, low-hanging fruit. “You start chasing all the little guys across the nation, that’s a whole different story.”

Long story short, we can’t count on internet sales tax to turn around our inadequate education funding.

Moreover, we need to start preparing for the future. Utah consistently ranks as the fastest- or among the fastest-growing states. That means more students will be entering a school system already bursting at the seams.

The Legislature and governor, to their credit, have been increasing education spending faster than the national average — with an 8.3 percent increase between 2010 and 2015, according to a study by the nonpartisan Utah Foundation.

Still, because of large families, Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending.

If Utahns truly value a public education, they need to pay for it. It’s as simple as that. And if just 42 percent of voters are willing to get behind the ballot measure to fund education, then we need to admit that we don’t care if our kids go to school in crowded classrooms with overworked and undersupported teachers.

I always believed we were better than that. I believed the polls where voters say education matters. Turns out 56 percent of Utahns are proving that simply may not be true.