Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, when asked what is the biggest issue facing public education on the eve of the legislative session, lawmakers, educators and administrators give a similar answer: funding.
Public education is the state's largest tax expenditure, at 48.9 percent of the budget and another 15.2 percent dedicated to higher education. And it's also at the top of the list of importance for Utah's large families as an ever-growing student population keeps per-pupil spending in the state the lowest in the nation.
Those per-pupil allocations make it challenging for schools and school districts to hire staff, leading to large class sizes and a high student-to-counselor ratio. It also creates a difficulty in investing in targeted interventions like early childhood education, literacy and numeracy, graduation rates and college- and career-preparation.
But two bills this year – one sponsored by a Republican senator and one by a Democratic senator – are seeking to reform Utah's tax code to generate additional, ongoing revenue for schools at the local level. The topic of increased revenue is typically anathema to Utah's conservative Legislature, but both sponsors are optimistic about their bill's chances.
"We are going to pass something," Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said, "something that’s going to generate new money for education and it will most likely be a bill that drives local control over those funds."
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget calls for an additional $261 million in funding for both public and higher education. Elementary and secondary schools make up $157 million of that request, including $64 million for the estimated 10,300 students that will enter the school system next year, $61.6 million to increase per-pupil spending by 2.5 percent and nearly $20 million in targeted investments like all-day kindergarten, classroom supplies and additional school counselors.
Osmond's bill, SB111, would generate an estimated $20 million to $40 million for schools by freezing the state's basic minimum property tax rate.
That rate currently adjusts down when property values increase to remain revenue neutral. But under Osmond's bill the rate would stay fixed, with the ensuing gain in revenue distributed at the local school level on a per-student basis.
"The intent here is to address the funding needs of our high-growth, high-need districts," Osmond said. "As property values increase, we have the benefit of an increase in revenue. That tax rate didn’t change, but because property values increased there is more revenue that comes in."
Another option, presented by Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City — SB118 — would generate hundreds of millions of new dollars for schools by phasing out the state's personal and dependent income tax deductions over a five-year period.
Like Osmond's bill, revenue from Jones' bill would skip school districts and be managed by local school community councils. But Jones' bill would distribute funds on both a per-school and a per-student basis – which would be a boon to small, rural schools – and would generate far greater sums of money.
"It’s the only real, significant, ongoing new money that anybody is talking about," Jones said. "It would be sustained, because as the economy grows this would grow."
But Jones' bill would also disproportionately affect large families accustomed to the dependent tax deductions. Jones said she's aware of that impact but said the the bill encourages personal responsibility and for most people would result in a smaller tax refund as opposed to greater out-of-pocket costs each month.
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