Utah's school trust lands are a largely unplumbed potential source of income for education, a speaker at a PTA legislative conference said Wednesday.
The lands, now consisting of about 3.7 million acres of surface land and 4.6 million acres of mineral lands, were identified at Utah statehood as a resource for funding education. They have fallen far short of the promise, largely due to a history of mismangement, said Margaret Bird, who has spent several years researching the lands.She addressed PTA leaders meeting for their annual legislative session at Cottonwood High School.
Gov. Norm Bangerter also addressed the group, telling them the state is in pretty good economic shape, but not plush.
The state's relative prosperity has been a double-edged sword, he said. In-migration has increased the pressure on the school system at a time when a stabilizing of enrollment was anticipated. Utahns have to understand the relationship between taxes and services, he said.
Bird said Utah should view its trust lands as a potential source of education revenue and manage them with that end in mind. Instead, Utah receives a fraction of the income from its trust lands that other states do. New Mexico, for instance, finances approximately a fourth of its education program with income from its lands. In Utah, the figure is about 1 percent.
Over the years, "mismanagement, political exploitation and pressure to use the lands for purposes other than generating school financing" have robbed Utah children of millions of dollars, she said.
An opposing viewpoint was presented by Michael Christensen of the state Office of Planning and Budget. He said a "singular focus" on making the lands produce income for education could shortchange other state programs.
For instance, he said, the wildlife values in the Book Cliffs area create significant hunting and fishing income - part of a $500 million industry in the state. To remove the trust lands from these uses would generate an insignificant income for education and would have a great impact on the sports and wildlife values.
Christensen said consideration has been given to sharing the money generated by wildlife resources with the public education system by giving the schools a percentage of sales tax income related to hunting and fishing.
The state should "beware of tradeoffs," he said. "There are some benefits in flexible management." Utah's educational system receives part of its funding from the general fund and land actions that would reduce income to the general fund would affect education as well.
However, Bird recited a litany of instances in which schools not only are deprived of possible income from the trust lands but subsidize other uses of the lands.
She urged the PTA to support several proposals that would increase the education benefit from the lands, including:
- The Cal Black Amendment, a proposal to put half of the interest generated by the trust's permanent fund back into the fund.
- A push to get the federal government to trade lands now captured inside parks, military and Indian reservations for other land that could be made productive.
- A brine shrimp royalty amendment that would set a charge on commercial brine shrimp egg companies.