Lawmakers say school districts should boost property taxes, cut school construction costs to fix education funding problems

Utah Capitol 03

Local school districts, and to some extent their patrons, took a bit of a beating in Thursday’s Tax Reform Task Force meeting.

Some high points:

— If the local 41 school districts took all of their possible property tax headroom, there would be $1.1 billion more flowing into public education. None of the districts are maxed out on their property tax levy ceilings.

— Over the last five years, the state Legislature has increased public education spending by $1.4 billion, or a 30 percent hike.

The local school districts, by comparison, increased their spending by only 11 percent.

— Local school districts are spending 40 percent more on buildings than the national average. If new buildings were more modest, more money would be available for school operations, like teacher pay and class size reduction.

— If the state spending per-student is compared to other states’ per-student spending (the local school districts’ spending not added in), instead of being 50th in the nation in overall per-student spending, Utah would be 44th. Not a big difference, but at least Utah wouldn’t be last in the country in per-student spending year after year. That means legislators would not be political whipping-boys over that last-place finish.

In short, local districts are not levying property taxes as high as they can, and so are not making the effort that the Legislature is – and the 104 part-time lawmakers are taking the political heat for being last in the nation in school spending.

Said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley: The question is, “Who is the bad guy? A tax is a tax,” whether levied by a school district or the Legislature.

This discussion falls to complaints heard by task force members in their statewide tour of public hearings this summer: Citizens saying the state should not look at raising taxes, or extending the sales tax to various services, like haircuts and Uber rides until state spending is cut.

But Jonathan Ball, the Legislature’s chief budget officer, shared a dozen or more graphs showing that since 2008 state spending has stayed BELOW inflation-adjusted spending in all but three areas – transportation, social services, and public and higher education.

And except for roads, education and social services have barely grown more than inflation and population growth.

Roads, admittedly, have gotten significantly more money than other state spending, but that is because lawmakers decided to try to keep up with road construction and reconstruction – including rebuilding large parts of urban freeways.

And tax force members weren’t apologizing for that spending Thursday night, saying Utah isn’t falling very far behind in road repair as are other huge-population states back East.

So, nanner, nanner, nanner to those folks complaining in the summer tax force public hearing tour – Utah is controlling spending and has been responsible for keeping costs down in state government.

All this is useful information, of course.

But it does little, ultimately, unless the Legislature, through statewide tax reform, orders local districts to levy more property tax (and who would be blamed for that?) and takes over the power of designing and building local schools (and how much would local voters hate that idea?)

Task force members are looking to make recommendations to legislators and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert for a fall special session on tax reform.

Speaking politically, if lawmakers want to put off some controversial tax increases/extensions before the 2020 elections – all 75 House members up, half of the 29-member Senate – then there could be some stop-gap suggestions that would help balance out state taxing among sales tax, income tax, and gasoline tax. recent polling by Y2 Analytics shows citizens don’t want to increase the gasoline tax, really don’t want new toll roads, and don’t want to re-impose the state sales tax on food.

Polls show citizens are willing to at least look at extending some sales taxes to services – as Herbert and GOP legislative leaders are proposing.

Likely no task force votes on recommendations will come before the last meeting, in mid-October, and it will be up to Herbert and the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate to make final decisions on tax reform introduced in a fall special session.