GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and state legislators can take a quiet breath of relief – one of the largest pro-education groups in Utah won’t be asking for a tax hike this general session.
Nolan Karras, one of the top leaders of Education First, tells UtahPolicy that the group is satisfied with Herbert’s $500 million increase in public education funding for fiscal 2015-2016.
And if the GOP-controlled Legislature comes very close to that – enough said for the 2015 public ed funding.
This does not mean Education First, Prosperity2020 and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce won’t be asking for more money in future years, education advocates tell UtahPolicy.
But at least for the 2015 Legislature, if the Republican majorities in the House and Senate come close to $500 million more for public education they won’t be leaned on.
A lot is to be decided when the 45-day session starts Monday.
But Education First, water development advocates and transportation supporters were all looking to hit legislators up for some kind of significant increased funding this year – only to see the political wind taken out of their sails when state economists revealed a $638 million surplus coming into the Legislature, and Herbert recommending $500 million more for schools.
That’s the largest increase for schools in 20 years or more – all driven by Utah’s growing economy.
Legislative leaders were quietly telling public education, water and road advocates to get together and provide a unified taxation plan in 2015 – or face the real possibility they would get little if their lobbyists and citizen activists ended up squabbling with each other.
But now as the session looms – and with all that money on the table – tax hike talk is quieting down.
The big fight – and isn’t there always at least one – may turn out to be between cities and counties and the Utah Transit Authority over a proposed local option sales tax for roads and transit.
That argument was discussed in this UtahPolicy story.
Education First Utah does have a five-year plan for Utah schools, aimed at bringing the state’s K-12 students up into the top 10 nationally.
And that five-year plan is going to take a new level of financial commitment by the state.
Currently, Utah schools, through various measurements, are around mid-level in the 50 states.
That’s not good enough, says Karras, a former GOP Utah House speaker and candidate for governor.
Justin Jones, chamber spokesman, said Education First, Properity2020 and the chamber all back the five-year plan.
The plan does not have a specific tax hike proposal, which was seen as lacking by some political pundits. Rather, the plan outlines specific areas/goals for Utah education to meet.
“We’ll support whatever funding mechanism the (Education) Task Force comes up with to get us there,” says Jones.
But for the 2015 Legislature, with all that surplus money coming in, it is not seen as a time to ask for a specific tax hike.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, has already introduced a bill that would raise Utah’s flat-rate personal income tax from 5 percent to 6 percent. By law, all income tax revenues go to public and higher education.
“We don’t endorse that bill at this time,” said Jones – leaving Draxler an even higher hill to climb in the 2015 session.
However, things could change.
For example, to reach his $500 million education injection, Herbert would take a big General Fund sales tax earmark off for transportation.
That earmark – 30 percent of growth in the sales tax each year – is now at about $93 million annually.
Herbert gives that nearly $100 million to education.
But House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, tells UtahPolicy he doesn’t see his 63-member caucus going along with that – at least not all of the $93 million leaving roads.
If Herbert’s $500 million new for education falls to $400 million new, then public education advocates could decide to get involved, UtahPolicy is told.