Residents of the Jordan School District have every reason to be angry at the big increase they are about to see in their property tax bills. A 23% hike in the levy is indeed a shocker.
But the good people who took their anger out on the neighbors who serve on their school board were aiming their vitriol at the wrong target, and using some absurd arguments in the process. It was another example of how the state’s political class is able to protect the interests of the wealthy few by getting the rest of us to quarrel among ourselves.
An editor I worked for a long time ago called it, “Let’s you and him fight.”
It has long been the tactic of those who want smaller taxes for the rich to oppose all kinds of public spending on the grounds that too much of it goes to benefit “those people” -- the poor, immigrants, people of color -- when the truth is that adequate spending on education, health care and other responsibilities of civilization benefits everyone -- most of whom around here are white and middle class.
More recently, as was heard at some length at the Jordan School Board meeting last week, anger at high taxes takes the form of totally fabricated fears about public money going to shame white kids over generations of racism or to implant in young children doubts about what gender they are.
If anybody has any specific examples of that happening, it needs to be brought out and dealt with. Otherwise, it’s just another trick the rich use to dodge their duty to pay their fair share of the costs of civilization.
In the case of the Jordan School District, nobody seemed to be aware of how local property tax hikes follow the income tax cuts made by the Utah Legislature. Lawmakers praise themselves so loudly for those cuts that, they hope, nobody notices how costs will be dumped on local property tax payers.
Utah has been at this for years. The provision of the Utah Constitution that dedicated all revenue from the state’s income tax to public schools was amended in 1996 -- with the consent of the voters -- to allow sharing that revenue with the state’s colleges and universities. It was amended a second time, in 2020, to further diffuse income tax revenue to programs to aid children and the disabled.
Meanwhile, lawmakers moved several times over the years to cut the Utah income tax rate. It was basically a flat 5% from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2017, 4.95% through to this year, and now 4.85%. Unlike the federal income tax, there are no higher tax rates for the wealthy and little in the way of tax breaks for lower-income households, though the state this year did add an earned income tax credit for working families and a reduction in the rate of income tax charged against Social Security income.
After an understandable dip during the economic downturn of 2008, Utah state support for public education has been rising. But not enough to keep up with costs, skyrocketing student populations and increasing need for counselors, psychologists, nurses and multi-lingual teachers.
As far back as 2016, number-crunchers at the Utah Foundation worked out that years of tax cuts cost Utah public education $1.2 billion a year. That’s a burden that gets shifted to local school boards, whose only tool is the property tax.
That matters because property taxes are the most unfair and the greatest burden on the middle class. Using the value of property owned as a measure of wealth is pretty iffy and, as a measure of ability to pay taxes, completely bogus.
Maybe 200 years ago, when most property was held by a few people, real estate was a source not just of wealth but of income -- the value of crops and livestock sold or rents collected. Now homeownership is an aspiration of the middle class, but we realize income only when we sell our homes. Living there day to day costs us money in upkeep, utilities and property taxes.
Shifting the financial burden of public education, as Utah keeps doing, from wealthy income tax payers to middle-class property tax payers increases the pain both for the school districts that collect property taxes and for the homeowners who pay them. It leads to outpourings of anger and foolishness such as the Jordan School Board was subjected to last week.
Instead of shouting at their school board members, angry taxpayers ought to be telling the Legislature to raise income tax rates back to what they used to be for most of us, install higher marginal tax rates for those of higher incomes and limit the number of exemptions large households may claim.
Public education is the core of our civilization. We shouldn’t be tricked into fighting over it.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks schools should be beautiful and comfortable, so students know how important they are.