Utah’s Legislative Session ends with school funding surprise

Mar 9, 2018, 12:28 AM | Updated: 5:58 pm

Utah’s 2018 Legislative Session came to a close Thursday night with an unexpected compromise on education funding sailing through the House and Senate and headed to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Governor Gary Herbert says he supports the legislation, calling it a “win-win-win-win” for the state’s schools. It’s also better for the economy, Herbert says, because the agreement will end the Our Schools Now ballot initiative that sought to raise both income and sales taxes.

Instead, two bills designed to generate more money for public education passed in the final hours of the 45-day session. The first, HJR20, calls for voters to weigh in on whether Utah should raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents.

The joint resolution reads that “approximately $600 million is taken from the state’s General Fund to subsidize the Transportation Fund each year.” But if Utah’s transportation system was more self-sustaining, “more resources in the General Fund will be available for use by the state public education system.”

The question, which will appear on the November ballot, will be nonbinding, meaning lawmakers will have the final say on raising the gas tax during a future session.

The second piece of legislation, HB293, includes a freeze on Utah’s property tax rate for the next five years.

“This compromise I think shows wisdom on the part of the Ours Schools Now people, saying ‘we’ll compromise,’ and the legislature saying, ‘we hear you,’” Herbert said in an interview with KSL.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the last-minute deal wouldn’t have happened without the pressure from the Our Schools Now initiative, which is backed by prominent business and community leaders.

“I hope Utahns recognize it’s a tax increase,” said Rep. Brian King, (D) House Minority Leader. “Nobody’s excited about paying more taxes but we really need it badly; we have to make sure our kids are taken care of.”

“I will say this, we did take a step forward,” said Senator Gene Davis, (D) Senate Minority Leader. “We put more into the WPU (weighted pupil unit) than we’ve done in the past and we’ve taken care of higher education out of that increased funding as well.”

House Speaker Greg Hughes said lawmakers were already on a trajectory over the past few years to allocate additional funding to education.

“Once we knew we had the right policy, we wanted to see if we could reach out to stakeholders in education and say, ‘Do we want to find overlap? Do we want to find agreement? Do want to do it together?’” the Republican representative said about the negotiation.

The Salt Lake Chamber, Utah’s largest business association also supports the compromise.

“Our support of the Our Schools Now initiative has always come with the hope that a legislative solution could be reached,” Salt Lake Chamber president and CEO Lane Beattie said in a press release. “We are thrilled with the efforts of dozens of stakeholders to find a compromise and now urge members of the legislature to support this comprehensive package.”

Our Schools Now’s campaign manager Austin Cox said the group has always welcomed a legislative solution. Even though the anticipated annual funding increase is only about half of the $700 million the initiative was seeking, Cox says they are on board.

“It’s significant funding for in our students now,” Cox told KSL on Wednesday. “This is an opportunity to not only invest in public schools but also work with the Legislature to fix some of the things in our tax code right now.”

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Utah’s Legislative Session ends with school funding surprise