The new speaker of the Utah House, Nolan Karras, wants to give local school district residents the power to increase their own income taxes to help their children's education.
But even the idea of giving citizens the direct power to tax themselves may find opposition in the tax-limitation atmosphere permeating the state today, Karras believes.The income tax surcharge would go directly and only to the district whose residents approve it by a public vote. If all of the 40-odd districts approved the measure - and it would be up to each school board or its patrons to call for such a vote - more than $55 million would be raised for the struggling public education system.
Karras, a Roy Republican, has prefiled HB2, the Local Option Income Surtax For Public Education Act, for consideration in the 1989 Legislature. He sits on the Interim Education Committee and the bill has been approved by that group already.
Change comes slowly in the education system, and Karras said he knows some education bosses worry about his idea.
Winston Gleave, executive of the State School Boards Association, said his group has taken no position on Karras' proposal, but he has some personal concerns.
"I'm worried about small rural districts that couldn't generate enough additional income, even with more taxing, to provide the same quality education the larger districts could. I think we would not support the bill unless it provided for equalization so all kids would get a better education."
Don Richards, spokesman for the State Society of Superintendents, also said his organization has not taken a formal position but will be talking to Karras about his proposal. Richards agreed that unless the inequities between large vs. small and rich vs. poor districts can be rectified, the education family is likely to oppose the surtax bill.
However, the cornerstone of Karras' plan is that district patrons who want to better their own schools, make them more competitive, could do so. So-called equalization could cut the heart out of that economic competition.
As drafted, the bill would allow, with a majority vote of a school district's patrons, the district to place a surcharge of up to 10 percent of the district's state aid on patrons' state income taxes.
But Karras doesn't like that formula now. "I'll rewrite the bill so that the surcharge is up to 10 percent of an individual's state income tax, not 10 percent of the state's contribution to the district."
The change could be significant. The state, through the Uniform School Fund, gives districts a set amount for each student attending class. Thus, the more students in a district, the greater the state's contribution.
In a district with a greater ratio of students to wage-earning adults, 10 percent of the state's contribution to the district could well be more than 10 percent of a poorer individual's state income tax. While in a district that had fewer students per adults the exact same tax rate could be less than 10 percent of awealthy person's state income tax. Karras wants everyone to contribute the same percentage, and a 10 percent surcharge on a person's state income tax would do that.
Also, the bill doesn't specify when the surcharge election would be held. "Some fear the local school board would call an off election; that is, an election at a time other than a general election. So I'll make the vote in a general election so we get the most voter turnout."
About 80 percent of Utahns voted in the Nov. 8 general election. But in special bond elections, called as needed by cities and counties, sometimes only 15 percent or less of the voters bother to cast ballots.
Karras will consider other changes in the bill, too. His general belief is that parents of school-age children should pay more for their education than an adult who doesn't have children or whose children are grown and no longer in public education.
Yet by placing a surcharge on the income tax, just the opposite is accomplished. Adults with children at home claim a personal exemption on their income tax for each child. That exemption lowers their net taxable income, so they pay lessincome tax than a single person or married couple making the same money but who have no children in school. Since the state Constitution requires that all income tax goes into the Uniform School Fund, those with children actually pay less income tax to support their children's education than those making the same moneyand who don't have children.
"I wouldn't be opposed to working something out there, like the surcharge being based on gross income before personal exemptions or some other method," said Karras. "I don't believe in a head tax (where the parents pay directly for each child's education), but in general those with children should pay more for their education than those without children."