Ballot question will ask Utah voters if they support gas tax increase for public education funding
In a few weeks, residents throughout the state will be able to voice their opinions on a number of local, state and national matters. Whether the Utah Legislature should up the amount of funding for public education is one of them.
Nonbinding Question 1 will ask voters whether they support a 10 cent increase to the gas tax. The money from the tax increase would be used for transportation projects, freeing up monies from the general fund to be used for public education. If voters support the increase, the Legislature can later craft a law to reflect voter opinion or choose to not make a change.
Utah’s state gas tax is currently 29.41 cents, ranking 25th among the 50 states in 2017, according to data from the tax policy nonprofit Tax Foundation. If the tax is increased by 10 cents, Utah would move into the top ten.
The ballot question emerged out of a compromise the Legislature made earlier this year with leaders of the Our Schools Now initiative, which sought to raise the income tax to provide an additional $700 million annually for public education.
In the compromise, the Legislature froze the state basic property tax rate for five years and created a new tax rate for the weighted pupil unit, which the state uses to determine funds for public schools, resulting in a $292 million increase in education funding.If the proposed gas tax increase were to go into effect, schools would receive about 70 percent of $170 million raised from the tax. The other 30 percent would go toward transportation projects.
Eighty percent of the total funds toward education would be alloted for K-12 education and the remaining money would be used for higher education.
Lanae Ritzman, a teacher and librarian at North Summit High School and president of the North Summit Education Association, said many of the teachers in the district are excited at the prospect of increased funding.
“We have a great community and they are always supportive, but there are always things we just can’t do with what we have,” she said. “We all understand the benefits that that money could bring.”
If the changes are adopted as is, it would bring in $209,339 annually for the district. South Summit School District would be expected to receive $274,112, and Park City School District would receive $677,882, according to the Question 1 facts website. Each school in the state would be expected to receive approximately $150 per K-12 student.
Part of the potential funding increase that Ritzman and others are happy about is that individual schools and principals would be able to decide what to do with most of the money. The additional funding would not be able to go toward building or administrative costs, said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Teacher Association and a former librarian at Treasure Mountain Junior High. After 25 percent of the funds are used for compensation and other benefits for school personnel, each school could decide where to allocate the rest of the money.
Ritzman said that kind of flexibility would be extremely helpful for teachers and schools that regularly lack money to pay for things like teacher aides, school supplies or academic programs.
While she can imagine the benefits, Ritzman also sees the other side of the tax increase. In her rural community, where people have to drive to get just about anywhere, it could have major impacts.
“Everywhere we go is far,” she said. “The 10 cent tax hike is obviously something that each of us has to look at seriously and see how it is going to affect us and our families. But education has to be paid for somewhere. If it doesn’t come from one place, it will come from another.”
Matthews said the question people should ask themselves is not whether they want the gas tax to rise, but whether increasing public education funds in the state is a priority.
She has been involved with the push to increase funding since Our Schools Now formed two years ago. She said the reason the Legislature settled on using the gas tax was because transportation has pulled money from the general fund for years that would have otherwise gone to education.
There are some who think taking money from a gas tax and using it for public education is too convoluted, though. Todd Hauber, business administrator for the Park City School District, said a dollar would have to move three times, from the transportation fund to the general fund to the education fund, to be accessed by K-12 public education.
“You are going to watch a dollar flow through three different funds on a way to public education,” he said. “That is a pretty long path for a dollar to make it to public ed.”
Critics of the non-binding ballot question have said the percentage of Utah’s budget that is spent on education is already more than any other state in the country, and that more money does not necessarily equal better educational outcomes. Opposition groups believe lawmakers and school districts should better allocate resources set aside for education and improve transparency in spending. Currently, Utah is last in the U.S. in per-pupil spending.
But Matthews said perhaps the most positive part of the non-binding question is that the public education sector is working with the Legislature to find a solution, rather than protesting as teachers have been in other states over the past year. Although she said the solution is not perfect, she sees it as a step in the right direction.
“We are on the best path that we have been on in Utah in years,” she said. “The continuation of this path is contingent upon question one voting.”
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Compensation is the largest issue left on the table after a contract governing most every other aspect of teachers’ employment was negotiated earlier in June.