Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Utah Needs to Pay for Education

For me, this is a difficult column to write.

First, because it will bring misunderstanding and controversy; the latter is OK, but not the first.


Second, a number of my good LDS friends may be upset over it, and that is never a good thing.

Still. . . .

Utah GOP businessmen and education supporters are on the verge of calling for some kind of tax increase for public education.

The signs and public positions are there for all to see.

During the last general session of the Legislature, a number of civic leaders ran a TV ad campaign vaguely hinting that the time for a renewed public financial effort for public education was at hand.

Asking conservative GOP lawmakers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert for a tax hike is never easy. In fact, the easy part is saying no.

But it appears to be coming – the asking part. Whether the giving part is coming is yet to be seen.

There is one clear disconnect in the general Republican tax philosophy in Utah – which may well play a part in the upcoming tax debate.

Republicans, by and large, expect citizens who use a government program to pay for that program – or at least for the citizens using the program to pay more into it than the non-using citizen.

You want to drive on Utah roads? You pay a gasoline tax.

You want to run a business? You pay a business registration fee.

You want to use government subsidized recreation facility? You pay not only a property tax for it (usually), you also pay a recreation fee.

You want to use public mass transit? Not only do you pay a small sales tax, but you also pay $2 or more for each bus or light rail ride.

But when it comes to paying for public education that philosophy is turned on its head.

The more children a family has, the LESS it pays for public education, not more.

That’s because families with children get personal state income tax deductions for each dependent (minor) child in the family.

This upside down taxing philosophy runs outside of Utah, also.

But it has a unique impact in this state because of the dominant LDS religion.

I’m not LDS, and so no expert on that religion’s tenents. But having lived here all my life, by osmosis I’ve learned a few things – among them that the LDS religion has a pre-existence, an earthly element, and a post-existence.

And in the pre-existence are “spirit children” waiting for their time on Earth.

The more children an LDS family has, the more chances children get on Earth, and that a family will be together in the post-existence and so on.

While the size of Utah families has been going down in recent generations, through religion and societal influences Utahns still have more children in a family than any other state.

Thus, more children to educate in public schools per family.

My daughters are now in their childbearing years. And they have always had a number of good LDS friends. Those friends are now starting families. And a number of those friends are talking about having three, four and five kids. Maybe not as many children as their parents had, but still a higher number than most American families are having these days.

If Utah Republicans followed their general conservative (even with a twinge of libertarianism included) ideals, they would be expecting those larger families to pay MORE for the public education of their children.

But they aren’t.

(Yes, there are school fees, especially in high school, based on each child’s participation. But children don’t HAVE to play sports, don’t HAVE to be in the choir or band to graduate with a basic education.)

State Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and a few other legislators have suggested over the years that the state’s income tax system – all of which goes to public and higher education – be changed so that after a set number of children, three or four or five, in a family, the income tax deductions end, and the family pays more into the public school system.

These attempts have all failed.

(Jones’ latest effort would have the increased tax dollars go to community school councils, which would decide how the money would be used in their neighborhood schools within some guidelines – and that idea is getting some support.)

But I recall one interim legislative session when Jones was yelled at by a conservative GOP senator following a public hearing on her personal income tax reform idea.

He was yelling that Jones (who is LDS) basically was a communist: For she wanted to “redistribute the wealth” of Utah families by making those with many children pay more than those with no or fewer children.

Or, in his mind, a family with many children would “subsidize” a family with fewer or no children.

Of course, it’s exactly the opposite way around now: Senior citizens or single young people are “subsidizing” through income taxes the educations of many-children families.

Now, I realize that an educated society is a general good for all.

My wife and I, whose two girls are out of the public school system, benefit today by having well-educated young people coming up through the ranks.

Those young people will get better jobs, pay more taxes, and help support us in our later years through Social Security, Medicare, adequate police and fire protection and so on and so on.

But, still, what sense does it make – and what conservative/libertarian philosophy justifies – large Utah families paying LESS for public education than no-children or fewer-children households?

Pay for what you use, be it roads or high schools.

In a true conservative/libertarian ruled state that would make sense.

But it sure doesn’t in LDS/conservative Utah.

At least not now.

We’ll see as civic leaders’ call for a public school tax hike whether that dynamic changes in the months and years to come.