The tail seems to be wagging the dog a lot these days in Utah's Legislature.
Many conversations that allude to money come around eventually to the need for pacifying taxpayers, for "listening to the message of the last election."Maybe I heard wrong. I thought the message of the election, relative to tax reform, was that a hefty majority of Utahns don't want public services hurt in the name of cutting taxes. Two of three voters turned thumbs down on initiatives that would have whacked significant amounts of money out of education budgets.
Surveys taken by major polling entities indicate many Utahns would be willing even to dig a little deeper to ensure a good education for their youngsters.
If, now, the Legislature does so much cutting that services - particularly school services for our children - are hurt, it would seem to me they are responding to the minority of those who elected them, not the majority.
I firmly believe in fiscal integrity and restraint. I also believe education has received short shrift for a number of years and we need to begin restoring some of what was lost.
A 3 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit for 1990-91 is proposed. In simple terms, the weighted pupil unit is the per-student amount the state provides for education. The basic school program is funded from the WPU, including salaries, the one budget item that absorbs the bulk of the money.
You might say that 3 percent more is a good start toward helping the schools out of a tight spot. In some minds, that translates to a 3 percent raise for school personnel. The majority of Utah's teachers and other school workers are going into their fourth year without an across-the-board increase.
However, the reality is that skyrocketing health insurance costs will gobble up a good-sized chunk of the increase. School districts have watched health insurance - a major benefit item - escalate by two-digit percentages in recent years. This year's increase is estimated at 20 to 25 percent.
Administrators are caught on the horns of a dilemma. They can lower health care benefits to increase salaries or hold to the benefits demanded by employees and bypass raises yet again. Not a great choice for school employees no matter how you look at it.
In addition, many school districts are still growing. The number of new students added to rolls in 1990-91 will require approximately a third of the new money generated by a WPU increase.
State employees have been assured raises this year. Educators in both public and higher education should be considered state employees in a technical sense. They should get a slice of whatever pie shows up on the Legislative table this session in the way of increased revenues. They shouldn't have to give up health care benefits or see their workloads increased to do it.
Tax reform is still on the minds of the governor and many legislators. We can only hope that when new formulas are devised, the voice of Utah's majority won't get lost in the debate.
Two out of three of us went to the polls to say we don't want education or other public services decimated by ill-advised tax reductions. In my mind, there is the implication that the majority want strong, viable education systems that can move our children into a more demanding world of work.
That can't be accomplished by further diluting the per-pupil expenditure or by increasing the growing discontent over salaries among those who deliver the service.