Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Time for Herbert to Become a ‘Big Idea’ Guy

Bob BernickBefore the Utah Capitol was remodeled, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt had a small “working” office behind his official, ornate office on the 2nd floor west wing.

In that small office was a long row of metal filing cabinets.

His senior staff liked to joke that each cabinet was labeled “Mike’s ideas.”

Down on the bottom of the last cabinet, one drawer was named “Mike’s good ideas.”

Meaning, of course, that for all the ideas Leavitt had, only a few were good ones.

But at least Leavitt had ideas. Lots of them, to make Utah state government, even the U.S. government, better, more responsive and effective.

And Leavitt was, by and large, a big idea guy. He likes to talk about turning the “big gear” of government. Turn it just a little, and like the main spring of a watch, and all the little gears move a lot – you get things done.

Current Gov. Gary Herbert is a nice guy. As nice a guy as anyone who has sat in the governor’s office over the last half century.

And now with his last four years before him, Herbert would be well served to become a big idea guy – at least to put forward some big ideas, even if they aren’t accepted by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Such an opportunity is before Herbert currently – even if it is not of his own making.

He can take charge, lead the way, to finding significant new monies for Utah’s public schools.

Herbert has already said – in his 2016 campaign – that he opposes, for now, the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition that would raise the personal state income tax rate by 7/8th of 1 percent.

If done, the tax hike would bring around $750 million more into public schools each year. Some high schools would see up to $2 million more each year – a real increase in funding.

Herbert, with House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser clearly agreeing with him, says state leaders should first look at doing away with some sales tax and income tax deductions and exemptions.

And only then, if not enough new school money is found, look towards a tax rate increase.

Herbert points, for example, to the estimated $200 million lost each year through owed retail sales tax on many internet purchases – owed, but not paid by the retailers or the buyers.

That $200 million could go to Utah’s colleges and universities, freeing up another $200 million in income tax which could go to K-12 education.

Sounds good.

But $200 million, while certainly welcomed, is clearly not nearly enough.

It will cost the state $100 million this coming year just to pay for the growth in the number of new students coming into public schools.

In fact, it has been two steps forward, one step back in public school funding for a number of years, a new Utah Foundation report on school funding shows.

The report shows that over the last 20 years, various tax changes/exemptions have actually DECREASED public school funding by 29 percent from where it would be today if the changes hadn’t been made.

If the changes hadn’t happened, Utah schools would have $1.2 billion more each year – even more than the $750 million the proposed tax hike would bring in.

Herbert et al. say such a tax increase today could well kill the golden economic goose that is driving Utah’s economy – one of the best performing among the 50 states.

Taxation vs. economic development is always a balancing act.

But when one gets out of whack – like Utah’s is today – then the trickle down effect of 2 percent or 3 percent economic grow just doesn’t keep up with the needs of a well-educated populace (which, in itself, is an economic driver.)

Herbert seems to be letting the GOP legislative leaders take the lead in finding some compromise with OSN.

That’s a mistake.

Herbert has the political capital – as seen in his impressive 2016 primary and general election victories – to lead out on public school financing.

The question is whether he has the personal will to do so.

Time for Herbert to come up with some big, good ideas.

Time for him to lead out on public school finance reform.