Legislature passes education funding bargain with Our Schools Now

In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Several days ago GOP leaders of the Utah House worried they couldn’t cobble together 38 votes (a majority) to pass a compromise, gas-tax-hike bill that would end the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition.

But HJR20 passed with 55 “yea” votes to only 17 “no” votes.

In the Senate it was the same, just in a slightly different key as the bill cruised through on a 24-4 tally.

But still, now Utah voters will decide this November whether to raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon – which in turn will allow around $100 million to be taken out of the state Transportation Fund in sales tax revenue, which will go into college and university budgets. That will allow $100 million in income taxes to be used for public education.

You get all that?

Don’t worry. All lawmakers and GOP Gary Herbert want is for you all to vote “yes” on the referendum question this November.

Now, it’s only a nonbinding question. It will be up to the 2019 Legislature (after the 2018 legislative elections) to do what voters wish.

The OSN petition would raise around $715 million by increasing the sales and personal income taxes slightly.

In another bill is a “freeze” on property taxes for one year – with the understanding that after that assessments can increase with inflation.

That was included in HB293, which also passed on Thursday evening.

Down the road a few years, that will bring in more than $125 million to public schools by the 2022-2023 budget.

Add the gas-tax switch to the property tax natural growth, plus anticipated increases in income tax growth, and you’ll get around $575 million more for public schools in five years.

That’s less than OSN’s $715 million – and thus a bargain by comparison – Herbert et al. say.

And it takes away the risk that OSN may bring to Utah’s growing economy – which could be harmed if sales and income taxes go up, the governor and others say.

House conservatives tried to amend HJR20 to put language on the ballot indicating a 10-cent-per-gallon hike is actually a 33 percent gasoline tax increase. (The current tax is 29.4 cents per gallon.)

“You say you want to respect the voter,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, by letting them make this decision.

“But you won’t give them all the information,” like the tax hike is really 33 percent. “You don’t trust them” to realize what a percentage increase means, she said.

HJR20 sponsor Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt, said percentages and much, much more information will be in voter information pamphlets sent to every voter – and the ballot question itself was carefully crafted to be precise and short.

Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, said the real question before lawmakers is whether Utah faces a $715 million tax hike via Our Schools Now or a $100 million gas tax hike via HJR20.

“Between those two choices, this is the better choice,” he said.

In fact, if voters approve the gas tax hike in November, more things will happen – like the lop-sided Transportation Fund, which now sees $600 million in sales tax money flowing into it, will see $100 million less of that transfer.

“We can stop (Our Schools Now petition), the largest tax hike in state history, in its tracks,” said Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley.

A former mayor, Winder noted that a gas tax hike provides more money to cities and counties for their B&C roads – construction and maintenance.

Another reason to support the OSN compromise, he added.

Technically, if the nonbinding voter approval of a gas tax hike passes in November, a future Legislature will have to adopt it.

But several House members said a vote for HJR20 is really a vote for a tax hike, for voters will likely approve it – OSN will shift its fall campaign budget from its petition to passing the gas-tax referendum – and lawmakers will be held accountable by some voters.