Herbert: No Tax Hike for Public Education in 2017

Gary HerbertGOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2017-2018 budget proposal, to be unveiled in early December, will not have a tax hike for public education, the governor said Wednesday.

Considering Herbert is up for re-election this year – and leading Democrat Mike Weinholtz by 40 points in the latest UPD/Dan Jones & Associates poll – that may not be a surprise.

Asked by UtahPolicy at his monthly KUED news conference if he would support a 7/8th of a percent increase in the personal income tax, Herbert talked around the issue, repeating how many hundreds of millions of dollars he and the Republican-controlled Legislature had added into education budgets in recent years.

Pressed by reporters, Herbert said his new budget would not have a tax hike for schools – but added that may or may not be needed, depending on how much money can be “moved” from other budgets into education and how fast Utah’s economy may grow, naturally bringing in more tax revenue.

Herbert started the press meeting by saying how much he and other Utah leaders respect and praise “dedicated” teachers.

“We can’t thank them enough,” he said.

He said he has increased the Weighted Pupil Unit each year recently – providing more money to the 42 Utah school districts, who in turn give teacher pay raises.

But Herbert admitted that despite real financial improvements, many Utah schools can’t hire new teachers (who are graduating from Utah universities but leaving for better starting pay), and can’t keep veteran teachers, who either leave for private industry or go into school administration – both places where they can earn more money.

He said the Legislature needs to provide more money to education, increasing teacher starting pay and increase the career ladder pay – so veteran teachers don’t top out so quickly and then look for higher paying employment.

As recently reported by UtahPolicy, Education First is calling for a 7/8th of 1 percent increase in the state’s personal and corporate income taxes (both at 5 percent) with the money going to public schools, mainly to local community schools.

While Democrats favor this idea, so far neither Herbert nor GOP legislators are on board.

The pro-education groups are considering giving GOP lawmakers political cover by running a citizen initiative petition or a citizen referendum aimed at the 2018 ballot to get the 7/8ths passed by voters.

By not putting it in his 2017-2018 budget recommendation, Herbert is playing second fiddle and not forcing his conservative legislative colleagues to take some kind of action on a tax hike in this upcoming general session, which starts in January.

Herbert said Wednesday:

  • Over the last four years, he and the Legislature have put in a combined $1.8 billion in new education funding, the money mainly coming by increased personal income taxes spurned by Utah’s Great Recession recovery.
  • In the 2016 Legislature alone, Herbert put $458 million of new money into education.
  • Two-thirds of the state’s $15 billion budget goes to schools – public or higher education.

Assuming he wins a new term in November (his last, he says), “we will have to have a discussion” at some point in how to get even more new money into public education.

Herbert says his four-year goal will be to bring Utah schools into the top 10 best in the nation.

But Education First co-chairman Nolan Karras, a former Utah House GOP speaker, says despite what Herbert and lawmakers have done in increased public school spending recently, a study shows that as a percent of personal/family income, Utahns are making less of a percent contribution to education than in recent memory.

Utah may be getting a big bang for its public education buck – because of strong parenting for education and dedicated teachers – but the buck is too small and must be increased or Utah’s economy, lifestyle, and carrying for its children will suffer, the 7/8ths advocates say.

Herbert added that there may be some out-of-the-box thinking coming in Utah education, including a stronger merit pay program for teachers whose pupils excel, allowing principals more flexibility in setting their teacher pay levels.

“Not all teachers should be paid the same,” said Herbert. “That is an aspect of life, the better you perform, the better you get paid.”

There might also be bonuses for teachers who work in rural school districts or work in troubled urban schools.

“This (merit pay) should be the same in the teacher profession, too.”