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The Our Schools Now citizen initiative effort is officially off and running – with the filing Tuesday morning of a petition that, if approved by voters next year – would over three years raise the current state sales and personal income tax rates by around $700 million annually.

There seems to be kind of a peculiar pride some Utahns feel for being “dead last” in the nation in per-pupil spending, said former GOP Utah House Speaker Nolan Karras.

“It’s not for me, and I hope you are not” proud about that dismal statistic, either, he said.

UtahPolicy last week wrote about the compromise OSN backers are offering GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

OSN had talked earlier about a 7/8th of 1 percent increase in the state personal income tax rate – which would bring in around $750 million annually.

However, after blowback from Herbert and other Republicans about jacking up only the income tax, OSN backers agreed to a half-a-percent increase in the state sales tax, a similar increase in the income tax.

New Tuesday was the announcement that both taxes rates would be increased slightly over the next three years after the Nov. 2018 vote of the people:

  • 4.7 percent state sales tax remains as is until April 1, 2019.

  • Then an increase to 4.9 percent to Jan. 1, 2020.

  • Then an increase to 5.1 percent to Jan. 1, 2021.

  • Then an increase to 5.2 percent – the total 0.5 percentage point hike in 2021 and beyond.

  • The 5.0 percent flat-rate personal income tax rate stays until Jan. 1, 2019.

  • Then it goes to 5.2 percent until Jan. 1, 2020.

  • Then it goes to 5.4 percent until Jan. 1, 2021.

  • Then it goes to 5.5 percent – the total 0.5 percentage point increase in 2021 and beyond.

20170606 OSN Chart

Various speakers at Tuesday’s press conference in the Capitol said OSN if approved by voters, would be a big first step in making Utah’s public schools some of the best in the nation.

But the political reality is this:

-- If OSN passes, it would be unlikely that the conservative Legislature would increase taxes for schools anytime in the near future. It needs to be a significant tax hike because there would be no additional hikes for quite some time.

-- If OSN fails – either to get the required 120,000 voter signatures or at the 2018 general election – lawmakers wouldn’t be likely to significantly increase school taxes for some time to come.

In short, a lot is riding on the petition filed Tuesday.

And the business, education and societal leaders gathered to applaud the OSN filing Tuesday know it. 

Zion Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson:

-- Public education has been a pillar of our community since pioneers settled the valley so long ago.

Herbert and lawmakers should be congratulated on making education funding so important in recent years.

But those efforts, while considerable, are barely keeping up with student growth and inflation.

“Something more must be done.”

The petition will get the needed signatures, and at the ballot box Utahns “will overwhelmingly say yes.”

Utah can’t afford to export its children because they can’t get the education needed for the new jobs coming. “We cannot rest” on what has been done in the past, both in education and quality job training.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union in the state:

-- While this is a tall order, it puts the needs of students first and foremost.

While some school districts are making a great effort (through property taxes) to fund schools, not all can raise the necessary funds for teachers. There are enormous discrepancies in competitive wages.

This is a clear choice --  not a promise of some time, not eventually, but right now.

Ron Jibson, retired chair and CEO of Questar:

-- 89 percent of Utahns agree that schools need to be funded properly.

This effort will not be easy, but in the end, we are confident the citizens will voters will agree with us.

If successful, this will be a generational change.

Allison Riddle, Teacher of the Year 2014:

-- Yes, this will increase teacher salaries. But more importantly, it will allow for a (discontinued) program of teacher mentoring, where novice teachers work with master teachers, increasing the performances of both.

It costs each school district at least $10,000 for every teacher that quits the profession or moves out of state. An intense mentoring program will save dollars and produce a better student education.

Gov. Gary Herbert said in an email comment to UtahPolicy.com: "We all agree that Utah’s students deserve a world-class education. I will continue to support an expanded tax base for education by aggressively promoting economic growth and engaging in meaningful tax reform that closes outdated loopholes. I appreciate Our Schools Now efforts to enhance funding for accelerated student achievement in our fast growing state. Should our best efforts to expand the tax base fall short, this initiative preserves the option for Utah voters to choose to increase education funding via petition initiative."

But there will be a battle royale, with any number of conservative groups and individuals standing against OSN.

And it didn’t take long for taxpayer advocate groups to oppose the petition.

The Utah Taxpayer Association – mostly funded by businesses – came out against OSN, saying the petition is not detailed enough, and that a “trust us” approach is not sufficient.

“More controls are needed,” wrote Billy Hesterman, association vice president, in a taxpayers’ press release.

Evelyn Everton of Americans for Prosperity Utah, a group, funded in part by the Koch brothers, said raising taxes is not the answer to this “misconceived education plan.”