Utah Capitol 30

UtahPolicy.com is told that the last large group needed to make a significant change to how colleges and public schools are funded, now and in the future -- the Utah Education Association -- is close to coming on board with a legislative grand compromise.

The deal “is very close,” one source said Tuesday afternoon, but the final wording and budgeting remain to be negotiated.

On the money side, GOP lawmakers (Democrats would certainly be on board with this idea) would fund the Weighted Pupil Unit, the basic per-student state funding formula, close to 6 percent more this coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. That would be nearly $200 million more in new funding for schools.

Republican budget-setters had already agreed to a 5 percent increase, one of the largest single-year hikes in recent times.

This is actually a big deal on two fronts:

First, a 6 percent WPU is what the UEA, the main teacher union in the state, desired before the session started in late January. But no one actually thought the Legislature would go that high.

Second, with the UEA agreeing, there would be little, if any, organized opposition to an anticipated constitutional amendment going to voters this fall.

To change the current constitutional earmark that says individual and corporate income taxes can only go to higher and public education, legislators have to pass it with a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

It then goes to a general election ballot, and voters by a majority have to agree.

If the UEA, which basically repealed private school vouchers with a huge referendum effort back in 2007, opposed the amendment -- and got its organization and funding power behind it -- the proposed amendment could very well fail.

And with the UEA on board -- the PTA agreed to support the amendment and accompanying statute changes -- it is likely other pro-education groups, like Our Schools Now, and leading businesses and civic leaders would also join.

Such a coalition likely couldn’t be beaten -- Republican and Democratic legislators, Gov. Gary Herbert, the State Board of Education, the associations of school districts and administrators, and now the teachers, as well.

As far as politics goes, this would be one of the great coming together/compromises in recent legislative history -- and that is not an exaggeration.

UtahPolicy.com first reported the earmark compromise and has been dogging the issue since.

The earmarking deal, as worked out already, puts programs for the disabled and for children into the constitutional income tax earmark.

The best solution to the budget problems facing the state -- and which tax reform aimed to solve before it was killed by voter opposition in January -- is to take all the income tax earmarks out of the Constitution.

That would allow income tax revenues, growing steadily, to be used in the General Fund, now fueled by sales taxes.

But it’s clear pro-education groups would not agree to that -- and would fight mightily at the ballot box.

So an elegant solution was promoted by GOP leaders: Put programs for the disabled and children INTO the earmark. And who, besides maybe the UEA, could oppose more secure funding for the disabled and children?

With the compromise UtahPolicy.com is told -- and the UEA coming on board -- most possible opposition melts away.

Finally, putting 6 percent WPU into the new budget builds that into the base, for other parts of the grand compromise ensures that basic school funding is guaranteed each legislative session -- even inflationary costs to schooling is likely to come each year, from now on.