By far, most Utahns say the top priority of the 2017 Legislature should be improving education in the state, a new UtahPolicy poll shows.
And while GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican legislative leaders would certainly agree, how one gets there is a whole other issue.
And Herbert and the leadership have already taken a stand against the Our Schools Now proposal to raise the personal income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent, which would provide $750 million more each year for public schools.
Dan Jones & Associates asked the following question:
“Which of the following issues do you think should be the top priority for the 2017 Utah legislative session?”
The possible answers – provided by Jones – were: Improving education, air quality, lowering taxes, transportation issues, water quality, and don’t know.
Among all Utahns:
50 percent said improving education.
16 percent said air quality.
22 percent said lowering taxes.
4 percent said transportation.
4 percent said water quality.
And 3 percent didn’t have an opinion.
Several legislators want to form a special education fund tax force to study for several years how best to provide tax dollars to schools.
At the very least, that would ensure lawmakers will NOT vote on the OSN issue until after 2018.
OSN, backed by several civic and business leaders with considerable financial resources, plans on running a citizen initiative petition aimed at getting the tax hike on the 2018 general election ballot.
If approved there, citizens would in effect be raising their own taxes for schools.
OSN leaders say they welcome meeting with Herbert and legislative leaders to discuss other possible education revenue producing alternatives.
But OSN bosses don’t believe lawmakers and Herbert have the will to raise education taxes themselves.
So far the “tax reforms” floated by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, wouldn’t come close to the $750 million a year infusion of the proposed income tax rate increase.
Previous Jones’ surveys for UPD find that nearly two-thirds of Utahns support the OSN income tax hike, assuming the lion’s share of the new money would go to local schools.
Under OSN’s idea, all schools would get considerable funding increases, with some high schools getting more than $1 million a year more.
Currently, Utah ranks last in the nation in per-student spending; although Utah school children do fairly well in national test scores in math, English and other measures.
So our underfunded schools, with teacher pay and resources a real issue, are doing pretty well as is.
But OSN says without concrete funding hikes, teachers will continue to quit the profession and Utah will fall behind the nation in quality education for our children.
As it stands just one week before the 45-day general session starts, the state has a bit more than $200 million more from the income tax (which all goes to schools) than it did a year ago.
But more than $60 million of that must go just to pay for new students anticipated for the Fall 2017 start of school, leaving well below the $750 million extra for other school enhancements.
And the funding shortfall has been going on for years.
While Herbert touts the fact that under his administration more than $1.4 billion in new money has come into schools, a Utah Foundation study shows the state is out $1.2 billion a year for schools because of tax “reforms” over the last 20 years.
In any case, Jones finds that there are only two demographic groups with less than 50 percent saying improving education should be this year’s Legislature’s top priority: Men and those who consider themselves “very conservative.”
Utah women are much more supportive of education improvements than are men: 42 percent of men say it should be the state’s top priority, 58 percent of women say it.
Historically, in Utah’s patriarchal, family oriented society, women have more to do with the raising and education of children than do men.
And archconservatives are generally anti-government, anti-taxes.
Jones finds that among “very conservative” Utahns, 39 percent say improving education is tops, while 41 percent say lowering taxes should be lawmakers main goal this year.
The Legislature, were Republicans outnumber Democrats 86-18, is mostly men and mostly conservative.
Jones polled 614 Utahns from Dec. 8-12. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95 percent.