Committee approves two bills to fund schools through tax reform

Published: Monday, Feb. 10 2014 5:37 p.m. MST

Two bills that would charge Utah families more in taxes to fund schools advanced out of a legislative committee Tuesday. The bills seek to freeze the basic property tax rate and remove tax deductions for dependents.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of bills that would increase funding for schools by charging Utah families more in taxes are heading to the Senate after clearing a committee hearing Monday.

SB118 and SB111 are sponsored by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, respectively.

Jones' bill would generate more than $250 million annually by allowing only two personal or dependent income tax deductions per family.

Osmond's bill could raise as much as $100 million over several years while addressing funding inequities between schools and districts by freezing the basic property tax rate.

While presenting her bill, Jones said every dollar offered as a tax deduction shifts the burden of paying for education and erodes the amount of tax revenue available for schools.

"In Utah, the way we pay for public education is backwards," she said. "The more a family takes advantage of public education, the less a family pays."

Jones said the changes in SB118 are estimated to cost the average family of three an additional $143 in income taxes per year, or roughly $12 each month. That tax revenue would be allocated on both a per-school and per-student basis, generating roughly $300,000 for each elementary school, $400,000 for each junior high and middle school, and $700,000 for each high school.

"I believe it’s time that we changed the direction," Jones said. "It’s time that we looked at some new ways to fund our public education system long term."

Jeremy Montague, an Ogden father of two "with a third on the way," said he supports Jones' bill. He said Utah's per-pupil spending, which is the lowest in the nation, has begun to have an effect on his children's education.

"We're not doing more with less anymore, and something needs to happen," Montague said.

When asked about the effect the tax reform would have on his family finances, Montague said the limited number of deductions would likely impact the rebate he gets at the end of the year, rather than his regular paycheck.

"It's something that I don't expect every year," he said of a tax rebate. "I live off of what I bring home."

Alean Hunt, a mother of six, said she's concerned about how the money generated by Jones' bill would be managed at the local level by school community councils. She said that even in the most involved communities, it's hard to get people to serve in those positions, and there's relatively little turnover.

Hunt said she would prefer the bill include some direction for how the money can be used, such as class-size reduction or teacher aides, rather than be potentially subject to pet projects by a local administrator or parent.

"I think we have to have some set of guidelines," she said. "I would like to see that change."

Despite those concerns, Hunt said she supports the bill. With six children, her family is larger than the Utah average and would see a greater increase in their taxes than most as a result of the bill. But Hunt said it's fair for families to contribute to the public education system they benefit from.

"I had those children," she said. "Who did I expect would pay for their education?"

Jones acknowledged the concern that local communities councils are ill-equipped to handle a sudden influx of significant funding. But she said the bill includes training for council members and added that she believes the ability to oversee significant funding would lead to qualified candidates seeking local council seats.

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