Giving part of Utah's tax surplus to education could boomerang in unexpected ways, adding fuel to the arguments of tax initiative proponents that education has already been treated well and can stand cuts, Gov. Norm Bangerter said Thursday.
The governor met informally with education leaders from the State Office of Education and Salt Lake, Granite, Jordan and Davis districts. The districts represent the majority of Utah's students.The informal session ranged over several topics, but began and ended with the state revenue surplus. Some educators believe part of the surplus should be doled out among the districts, many of which are struggling to make budget ends meet.
Some of the districts are dangerously low in their reserves and others have announced significant budget cuts that affect programs at the school level.
Winston Gleave, executive of the State School Boards Association, asked the governor if the state's education family could unitedly convince the public of a need for $6 million to $7 million to shore up local budgets.
He noted that the districts are getting higher bills for insurance and workers' compensation and are faced with such additional budget burdens as the federal demand that they address asbestos problems in their buildings. The latter item alone could amount to $50 million, school board members said.
Parenthetical to the issue of tax surpluses, they asked Bangerter to petition the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a reprieve on the October deadline for meeting the asbestos regulations. He said other governors are also concerned about the issue, and he expected a united appeal to Washington for an extension and possible financial help with clearing asbestos from schools.
The governor did not, however, promise the educators that they would get any of the tax surplus money to meet immediate needs. Their requests will become part of the discussion during a special session of the Legislature to be held this summer, he said.
Some school board members agreed with the governor that adding to this year's school budgets from the tax overage could fuel the flames of tax protesters.
"I'm nervous about going after that money with the attitude out there," said Richard Maxfield of the State Board of Education.
Jane Callister of the Jordan District board, however, said she has had phone calls from constituents indicating that they would prefer having the money go to education rather than paying the costs of providing taxpayers a rebate.
Bangerter said he prefers a credit against next year's taxes, which would cost practically nothing.
The governor suggested the school districts get involved in a grass-roots war against tax reduction proposals that would cut an estimated 15 percent from their budgets. Most districts have already begun preparing to present their side of the tax story as the political year heats up.