GOP Leaders Not Inclined to Follow Herbert’s Lead on Education Funding

Don’t count on legislative Republicans increasing Utah’s main public education funding formula by 6.5 percent, as GOP Gov. Gary Herbert suggests in his recommended 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Herbert takes ongoing and one-time monies from all over the state’s tax revenue landscape to suggest the largest increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit by 6.5 percent next year – the highest in a number of years.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was asked that specific question Friday during the annual pre-legislative conference sponsored by the Exoro Group and Zions Bank.

Besides putting a lot of new cash into public schools, Herbert also wants to take off the sales tax earmarks for roads and give it to schools.

The state sales tax is the main revenue source for the General Fund, but several years ago the GOP-controlled Legislature earmarked 30 percent of the growth in sales tax each year to into the Transportation Fund.

Today that equals around $93 million annually – and Herbert wants to give it back to the General Fund, shifting equal dollars to schools and the WPU.

But GOP lawmakers may be wary of taking that money out this general session.

Rather, says Hughes, let’s fix the current inadequate per-gallon gasoline tax.

Hughes’ ideas were reported earlier in this UtahPolicy story.

Isn’t it great, said Hughes, for Herbert to go to a public school, surrounded by kids and teachers, and say he wants 6.5 percent more for schools – or saying in another way he’s adding $500 million to schools.

But legislators have to deal with another political reality – Utahns natural dislike of raising taxes.

(Herbert’s budget doesn’t have a general tax hike in it, but he does spend on schools the lion’s share of new ongoing tax revenues and tax surpluses from two years.)

Herbert’s budget “is very aspirational,” said Hughes.

It will be a “tall order” for GOP lawmakers to follow Herbert’s spending plan, said Hughes – specifically addressing the GF sales tax earmarking.

The gas tax must be fixed, said Hughes and other GOP leaders who spoke Friday.

“We can’t be lazy policymakers,” said Hughes. Politically speaking, legislators can’t find 38 votes “and just raise taxes.”

“We have to leverage dollars.”

Earmarks are a symptom of a “very political problem,” said Hughes.

As state, city and county and transit officials fight over road and mass transit dollars, Hughes said those three groups need to get together and bring a “unified plan” to the 2015 Legislature.

“We aren’t interested in being referees. Don’t expect us to stick out our chins. Give us a plan and we’ll have the political will” to do something about lagging transportation funding for local entities and transit districts.