Most Utahns know that Utah spends less per pupil on public education than any other state. For many years, governors and legislators have shrugged their shoulders and said they just can't find the money to significantly increase funding. Of course, they can. They just won't.
As I pointed out in an earlier column, governors and the majority of legislators have starved public education by systematically reducing the revenue public education could use. Their efforts were the work of a coalition of anti-tax Republican legislators, who advocate lower taxes regardless of the consequences to education, and the extreme social right, led by the Eagle Forum, who believe that public education is bad.
It is time for a third group of Republicans, joined by Democrats and independents, to take back the issue of public education financing. Without such a move, Utahns will continue to suffer these consequences: failure to compete economically with states that devote more resources to public education, the lack of a skilled work force, and an inability to participate in a global economy.
How can this be done? Frankly, through a willingness to raise the revenue that is essential to adequately fund public education. Where can the money for public education come from? Here are some concrete proposals for consideration:
One idea is to raise the severance tax. Right now, Utah imposes a severance tax rate of 3 percent on the first $13 worth of a barrel of oil. If the price is above $13, then the tax on that additional amount is 5 percent. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, proposed a flat rate of 5 percent, which would still be lower than Wyoming's 6 percent. That revenue would go directly to public education, which would mean an increase of $37 million for public education.
Another proposal, also by King, raises the top rate on income back to its pre-2005 levels. Prior to 2005, the top marginal rate was 7 percent. Under King's proposal, the top rate of 7 percent would apply to incomes over $1 million, while those earning between $250,000 and $1 million would face a rate of 6 percent. Annually, that would net an extra $113 million to public education. Would Utah's economy suffer? Not likely. Nebraska, Vermont and Iowa, for example, all have marginal income tax rates significantly higher than Utah's and yet have unemployment figures that are lower than or equal to Utah's.
Another idea is to remove the caps on how much a school district can raise through property taxes. The Legislature limits local tax rates, even when approved by a vote of the people. That means even if a majority of voters of a school district want to impose a higher property tax rate on themselves, and devote it to their schools, the Legislature won't let them. That isn't right.
A related change, proposed by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, is to set a minimum property tax rate. Right now, the default is that when property assessments go up or down, the rate changes so that the amount of revenue that can be collected by a county remains the same. One proposal would be to put a floor on rates so they cannot go lower than that amount. That guarantees that the rates remain steady rather than go down. It is estimated that this small change would bring in approximately $18 million of new revenue for public education.
Still another proposal, this one by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, is to cap or eliminate the number of state personal exemptions. That means a family could still get a federal income tax exemption, but not a state exemption. However, I believe that proposal would need a threshold that does not penalize the poor or middle class who otherwise would face an increase in income taxes.
Also, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, proposed a partnership between the private sector and government for funding pre-school education that placed a cost on the taxpayers only if the program was successful. It is an innovative way to fund new initiatives in education.
Each of these proposals could boost public education funding. There is no excuse for saying revenue to fund public education just isn't there. No excuse at all.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: [email protected]