Dabakis has proposed a bill that would move a number of below-the-line budget items – such as transportation costs, social security and retirement, school supplies and library books – into the definition of growth. He said the intent of the bill is to make sure that everyone is on the same page when discussing the budget and to make sure the needs of schools are met.
"So when we say 'we're funding growth,' we can actually fund growth and not the illusion of growth," he said.
Another bill that addresses school funding is one proposed by Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan. Under the terms of the bill, 10 percent of the gross profit from Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sales would be earmarked for education.
The bill is not Bird's first outside-the-box approach to funding education. In 2011, Bird's bill to allow advertisements on school buses passed and was quickly utilized by the Jordan School District as a way to generate revenue without raising property taxes.
Bird said that if his DABC bill were in place during the current fiscal year, it is estimated that schools would receive just under $40 million additional dollars, all without raising taxes. But it's not without cost; the 10 percent would otherwise go into the state's general fund to be spent on other public programs. Bird said earmarking the money for education will provide a better return on investment.
"This is an economic development issue," he said. "If we don't have an educated workforce our revenue will go down."
The concept of tying alcohol sales to school funding has generated some push back, Bird said. But he compared the proposal to his school bus advertisement bill, which initially drew some raised eyebrows but has proven to be a positive step for the school districts that take advantage of the option.
"We'll just move forward and see where this goes," he said.
Stephenson said he was not yet familiar enough with Bird's bill to state either support or oppose it. But he said he wasn't particularly averse to the concept of tying school funding to alcohol sales, especially considering that school lunch programs are already funded in part by DABC funds.
"We feed our kids on liquor taxes," he said. "I guess we're a little bit tainted already."
But Dabakis said that the state's practice of simply moving funds in the tens of millions from one coffer to another in an effort to increase funding without raising taxes is flawed. Instead, he said, the state should be making regular additions to the education budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the only way to do that is by putting anti-tax ideologues on the defensive and demanding a sincere and necessary look at new revenues.
He said there is not enough sense of alarm amongst his colleagues in the Legislature and amongst Utah parents when it comes to the challenges facing education.
"People in the state need to pay some more income tax to fund education," he said. "I don't see how else this whole thing is going to work out."
Poll: Tax OK for schools
A recent poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and released Wednesday by the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy & Administration shows that a majority of Utahns would support a tax increase to help schools. According to the poll, 55 percent of registered voters somewhat or strongly favor an increase in the state income tax to fund education, compared to 43 percent to somewhat or strongly oppose an increase.
The poll also found that education is the issue voters think is most important for the state to focus on compared to topics like economic development, health care reform, immigration policy and transportation.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said her organization – which historically has had a rocky relationship with the Legislature – has a positive outlook on the upcoming session. She said lawmakers and educators were able to work together to accomplish quality legislation in 2012 and expected this year to be more of the same.
"We were able to do some incredible work last year," she said. "We are really looking forward to continuing that collaborative work."
When asked what issues were of most importance to the UEA, Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she hoped lawmakers would adequately address funding for education, particularly a renewed investment in professional development and educational resources for teachers.
She also said the UEA is hoping for at least a cost of living increase for teacher salaries, something Utah's educators have gone without for the last four years.
"Our sense is that folks want teachers to be given a fair shake," she said. "I think many in the Legislature are recognizing that we have a serious funding issue in education."
Liz Zentner, president-elect of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, also said that she's optimistic for the upcoming Legislative session. She said that in recent years she's noticed a definite increase in the level of interest of state lawmakers to improve education, and their willingness to collaborate and be open to input and dialogue.
"I don't worry," she said. "I trust that our legislators are going to do what's best for our children, because they all want to."
As part of the Deseret News' coverage of the Legislature, we're taking an in-depth look at each of the five issues during the coming week.
Monday: Early childhood education
Tuesday: College and career readiness
Wednesday: Economic development
Thursday: Health care
Friday: Intergenerational poverty
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