SALT LAKE CITY — The president of the Utah Senate says he can list "a dozen ways" to boost revenue for public education "without raising the income tax rate."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, speaking on a panel Thursday during the United Way's annual legislative preview breakfast, said hiking the state income tax rate, as a proposed citizen initiative suggests, "is the worst thing we can do."
"I think it will be a negative for the economy that generates the money we have to spend on our schools," Niederhauser said.
Our Schools Now, a group backing an increase in the income tax rate to raise $750 million for education, is considering putting the issue to Utah voters through the state's initiative process.
Leaders of the group met later in the day with Niederhauser, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and other lawmakers for more than an hour behind closed doors about how to move forward.
"I think they would like to have the Legislature do this," Niederhauser said after the meeting. "They would like to work with us, and we would like to work with them, because we'd like to avoid a citizens initiative also."
He said he believes the group has "some flexibility" about the amount of a funding increase, but "we all agree it's based on what we can show the people as a true need and what they would feel convinced would really be worth investing in."
The meeting, the Senate president said, is "just the beginning of this discussion." Niederhauser said the initiative backers made it clear they will go forward with the 2018 ballot measure if lawmakers don't move quickly enough.
"They're not going to stop just because we want to maybe spend some time on this. They want us to move ahead as expeditiously as possible with them, working together, or they're going to file the initiative," he said.
Initiative backers have said they plan to file the initiative with the state this summer and start gathering voter signatures in the fall to qualify for a spot on the November 2018 general election ballot.
The campaign manager for the initiative, Austin Cox, said after the meeting the group was "grateful for the time the Legislature gave us today and always excited to talk about ways to fund education in Utah."
The group intends to "continue to work to qualify for the ballot in 2018," Cox said, "but as we’ve said all along, we’d be happy to consider a legislative solution."
What that solution could look like was discussed at the United Way breakfast.
"I can't wait to hear those dozen ways," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, whose comment was met by warm applause by people attending the breakfast.
Niederhauser said a gas tax increase might be one option, but before lawmakers do anything and before the public will support any sort of tax hike, there must be a concrete plan how the revenue will be spent, including measurable outcomes.
"What are we going to invest in? What will the outcomes be?" he said.
Nolan Karras, a former Utah House speaker who serves on the Our Schools Now steering committee, told the community and business leaders at the breakfast that there's a plan with performance metrics that ties increased funding to student success.
The Granite School District's efforts prove that early childhood education makes "a huge difference" in education outcomes, he said. Many students statewide do not have access to high-quality preschool education programs. Karras said that could be one option.
But education leaders tell Karras they have more basic needs — improving pay, professional development and other supports to stem high rates of teacher turnover.
"There's a clear choice: Improve teacher compensation," Moss said. "We're in a crisis, folks. It's not just coming. It is here."
At the same time, classrooms have become increasingly complex and challenging, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.
"It's teachers walking into a classroom with a variety of students who are unprepared to learn, who are dealing with mental health issues, who face chronic homelessness," Dickson said.
"When I talk to teachers all over the state and visit classrooms, these are the things they talk to me about. It's not that they went into this profession expecting to become wealthy. They come into the profession expecting to make a difference," she said.
Teachers deserve respect and additional support in the classroom, such as increasing the number of instructional aides, Dickson said.
Hughes said Utah's funding realities mean state lawmakers and other leaders need to find innovative ways to fund education initiatives.
The "pay for success" model that uses private investment to fund quality preschool programs under HB96, passed in the 2014 legislative session, is one such example.
"We have to find these smart ways to do things," the House speaker said.