Do you remember the 2018 compromise between GOP legislative leaders and the Our Schools Now public education funding citizen initiative?
If you do, you’ll recall that the deal had several complicated working parts, including a “freezing” of Truth in Taxation limits so local property taxes that feed school budgets would be allowed to climb for five years, unhindered.
Now a GOP Utah House member, Rep. Norm Thurston, has a modification bill to that original OSN funding compromise – one aimed at making legislators take some kind of affirmative action on growing school funding formulas.
It is not a break with the OSN compromise – although in a very real way voters themselves broke that possible deal by voting down last November a gasoline tax hike for schools. (A gas tax hike for schools? I told you it was complicated.)
You can read the bill here. But reading HB374 isn’t going to help much, agrees Thurston, R-Provo. The formula changes are confusing in and of themselves.
“It is really hard to explain,” Thurston told a veteran reporter who didn’t understand what the bill was supposed to do.
“I doubt if four people” in the Utah House really understood what the whole OSN compromise meant financially last year, he said.
Paraphrased – quotes really don’t work here – Thurston says the five-year freeze of the compromise could very well harm individual school districts from bonding for needed capital improvements, as citizens will see their property taxes automatically going up in their school districts because of the compromise changes to school funding.
They won’t want to vote for additional property taxes via issuing new bonds.
So, Thurston wants to make lawmakers to take some affirmative action on state school funding – until the five-year freeze ends in 2023.
His new bill would say that the 2018 funding deal (and formulas) would stay the same up through a 3 percent increase in the WPU – or the Weighted Pupil Unit, the basic per-student statewide funding formula which lawmakers increase every year they can afford to do so.
But, any WPU increases ABOVE 3 percent (and in recent years, lawmakers have given more than 3 percent increases in the WPU) can’t come from the “automatic” property tax hikes that came in the 2019 OSN deal.
Instead, any WPU funding above 3 percent would have to come out of the state’s own Education Fund, which is basically the personal and corporate income taxes.
Join the club.
Now, says Thurston, all this IS NOT to try to harm school funding, nor break the OSN deal of 2018 – which promised $300 million more for schools annually in return for OSN stopping their petition drive.
But it is aimed at legislators having to make a conscious decision to take more state funds, above 3 percent WPU increases, and not just count on the whole WPU hike coming, partially, out of increased property taxes at the local school district level.
Why should anyone care about this?
Well, maybe most won’t.
Maybe most legislators won’t even understand it – much.
But it may be some fast-growing school districts, whose patrons are already seeing big property tax hikes because of the OSN deal, will see less property tax hikes – if this bill passes — and so those patrons/voters could agree to a needed bond for school construction – with the state picking up more of the WPU growth costs.
At least that’s what Thurston appears to be thinking. If you happen to see Thurston up on Capitol Hill these final three weeks of the 2019 Legislature, you can ask him yourself to explain this.