Herbert Not Sold on 2015 Tax Hike

If Utah GOP legislative leaders are serious about raising taxes in 2015 for education, don’t count on Republican Gov. Gary Herbert rubber-stamping any tax hikes.

In his monthly KUED Channel 7 press conference (search for the governor’s press conferences), Herbert said Thursday morning that he is leery about messing with the “humming motor” of Utah’s economy, which is outpacing all other states’ but one.

“A rise in the income tax could stifle economic expansion,” said Herbert, who has already said he’ll seek re-election in 2016. (All personal and business income taxes must go to public and higher education.)

Several states have recently seen that when they raise taxes they actually take in less, not more, revenues, said the governor.

“The revenue stream has gone down,” said Herbert.

Still, while Herbert stressed that funding education is his No. 1 budget priority, and that over the last few years Utah’s economy has generated $850 million more for public and higher education, Utah still remains last in the national in per-student funding – and has held that sorry position for years.

“The best way to” get more money for Utah schools is to grow the economy, said Herbert. And that is where his emphasis has been, with fine results.

Since meeting with reporters over a month ago, Herbert said his goal of 100,000 new jobs in 1,000 days has been achieved.

In fact, he has overseen strong job growth, reaching 112,200 new jobs over that set time, “10 percent more than our goal.”

But a growing number of Utah business and economic development officials are saying Utah is falling behind in public education – with thousands of high-tech jobs not being filled because qualified workers can’t be found.

Various groups, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, have called for greater education funding.

Politicians can have long or short memories.

And no doubt Herbert is well aware of the terrible political position former GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter found himself in 1988 when he supported and push the Legislature into a large tax hike for education in 1987.

There was a citizen tax revolt, with Bangerter barely winning re-election in 1988 with 40 percent of the vote in a tough three-way race.

Herbert is clearly reluctant to walk in Bangerter’s footsteps – raising taxes a year before a re-election bid.

“I’m concerned about hampering (economic) growth” via a tax hike,” said Herbert.

“We are at a good balance point” in tax rates, he added.

Herbert was pressed by reporters over whether he supports – or believes it is a good idea – for Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, to be appointed by the 15-member elected State Board of Education to the superintendent of public education, the highest administrative education job in Utah.

Herbert said he has no say in who the board appoints, and he treaded carefully when reporters pushed him on the issue of Lockhart’s candidacy.

Lockhart, while holding a college degree in nursing, has never been a teacher, a school administrator, or an elected member of a local school district board.

“I wish her well in the process, which is open to anyone,” said Herbert. “I’m not going to weigh in on it pro or con, it is the State Board’s decision.”

That’s correct.

But Lockhart has hinted that she may run against Herbert in 2016 for the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination.

And so it might be good politically for Lockhart to be in the superintendent’s job and not running for governor.

Herbert said that like interviews for an open media reporter’s job, different candidates bring different strengths and weaknesses.

“You are saying, “Hey, I’m the best. Pick me.”” And Herbert’s expects the same discussions to be made by the board when it interviews “the many” folks who will apply for the job.

Current law says only that the board will appoint based on a candidate’s “outstanding professional qualifications."

But the law doesn’t define that language.

Herbert said neither he nor others should try to “box the board” in by restricting appointment qualifications.

Some believe the superintendent should have good business skills, can get along well with others.

And while some believe that having classroom experience is “a benefit” for the superintendent’s job, teaching “it should not be an end all” to the selection process.

Asked if Lockhart’s appointment could “take her off the table” for the 2016 gubernatorial, and thus be a good thing for Herbert, he said: “It is too early to even talk” about the 2016 governor’s race.

“I’m concerned about governing. Some time next year look at my campaign to win re-election; it’s not on my radar screen right now.”

Herbert did say it would be a healthy discussion to talk about whether the governor should have more say in public education matters.

“I have much more” influence in the governance of higher education, he pointed out – he appoints the Board of Regents, which oversees the whole of Utah’s higher education system, and he appoints the boards of trustees of each college and university (with state Senate confirmation.)

“But I’m a little reluctant to build my kingdom bigger” by getting power to appoint the State Board of Education and/or the superintendent.

Finally, Herbert said that while he has not yet studied a new legislative audit critical of the Utah Transit Board and management of the UTA – Utah’s largest transit special district, he basically sees that the audit’s complaints are old and all, or nearly all, of the audit’s suggestions have already been implemented by transit officials.

“If you go back to the problems of 2009, there is a world of difference” in how UTA is run today, said Herbert.

One suggestion, which he believes may help, is to have more elected officials on the board. That way board members are at least answerable to voters – even if they are sitting lawmakers or county officials. He doesn’t favor now electing UTA board members specifically to the transit district.

“We have new people” on the UTA board from eight years ago – when some of the problems first surfaced – including David Burton, the single appointee Herbert gets to board. Burton is the former bishop of the LDS Church and is now vice chairman of the UTA board.

Burton and UTA board chairman Greg Hughes, who is also a member of House GOP leadership, “have done a wonderful job” of providing openness and ethical conduct.

UTA “is not perfect,” but clearly is going in the right direction “and I’m confident” needed changes will be made, said Herbert.