‘Our Schools Now’ vows to be back in 2020 if ballot initiative fails in 2018

Utah State CapitolThe Our Schools Now group is willing to discuss modifying their citizen initiative petition to include raising the sales tax, or a mix of sales and income tax hikes, or even a phase-in of tax increases for public education, UtahPolicy is told.

But for now, they are going full steam ahead, aiming to gather the 120,000 or so needed voter signatures to get their education reform plan on the 2018 ballot.

Even more, Nolan Karras of OSN tells UtahPolicy, that should their effort fail at the 2018 ballot box, they will be back in 2020 with another petition effort to save Utah’s struggling school system.

Karras and other OSN officials have been meeting with GOP legislative leaders off and on for several months.

He met Tuesday with Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. (See accompanying story.)

“The first times we met with them they were angry, really ticked off” that OSN was going around the Legislature to ask citizens to raise their personal state income taxes to support schools, said Karras, known for his blunt assessment of Utah politics.

The current OSN plan is to increase the personal income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent or 7/8th of 1 percent.

But Karras says the tone on Capitol Hill has changed some, and leaders are willing to talk about all kinds of changes to the tax code.

(As UtahPolicy first reported last week, GOP leaders are looking at putting the state sales tax back on unprepared food sales and phase-out various income tax exemptions at a lower level, all to get more money for schools eventually. However, leadership wants all changes to be revenue neutral next year.)

Legislative GOP leaders “badly want us to move to the sales tax, and not (raise) the income tax,” said Karras.

And, indeed, OSN leaders – like Gail Miller of the Utah Jazz and Scott Anderson of Zions Bank – are willing to consider various changes to their petition.

“We don’t need to start gathering signatures for six months,” said Karras, a former GOP speaker of the Utah House, candidate for governor in 2004, and Board of Regent chairman.

“We continue to hold our hand out” to the Legislature and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert – both of which have officially opposed the OSN petition effort.

“We hope they will do something meaningful” to raise new money for public schools – which still rank last in the nation in per-pupil spending.

“But we don’t see it now,” mainly because the GOP legislative plan to broaden the sales and income tax bases and lower the rates “is revenue neutral” – and won’t provide much new money for schools, certainly not the $750 million annually that raising the income tax rate 7/8th of 1 percent will.

Karras said OSN is seriously concerned about bringing the tax increase to voters on the November 2018 ballot and losing. That is one reason, said Karras, OSN is willing to come back in 2020 if they fail next year.

But the group has hired the Cicero Group (Dan Jones) to conduct polling and focus groups.

“We are encouraged by the polling and the groups’ reactions,” Karras said.

Previous Dan Jones’ polls for UtahPolicy have shown a majority of Utahns favor raising their income taxes for schools, specifically for their local schools, as the petition will call for.

But opposition by Herbert and GOP lawmakers is making a difference, UtahPolicy polling reflects.

GOP leaders are talking about making any number of tax changes, said Karras. Such as freezing Truth in Taxation rates so that natural growth in property taxes (which also supports schools) can grow faster.

But these are relatively small steps, Karras added, and “are not meaningful” tax reforms that will result in a substantial increase in public school revenues.

Such efforts can raise $10 million here or $20 million there. “But it is too little,” said Karras. “We need a big lift.”

And anger by some Republicans at OSN likely won’t hold up over the long haul, especially when the group starts running advertising for their petition in the summer and fall of 2018.

After all, Miller – reportedly the wealthiest person in Utah – just turned the Utah Jazz and their arena over into a trust, so the NBA franchise will remain in small-market Utah for the foreseeable future.

That is amazingly good PR, as is a citizen petition aimed at providing money for public schools.

Legislative leaders realize, said Karras, that the state’s current tax structure “won’t provide the revenues needed in 10 or 20 or 30 years.”

“They know it is not working. Our economy is changing, from production to service – and we are not taxing a huge part of the service industry – like health care.

Said Karras: “The question is, are any” of the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill “willing to do something creative?”