SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert supports the proposed deal between state lawmakers and Our Schools Now to provide more money to education and doesn't want to see them "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."
"I'm impressed that they have been able to come together from some disparate points of view and we’re so close, I’d like to see them close the deal," he said Tuesday during a media availability at the Capitol.
The governor said his forceful position on the proposal doesn't stem from concern that some Republicans won't buy off on it.
"I’m weighing in on it because I think this has been a great effort by the Our Schools Now people and by the Legislature to see if we can’t come together," he said.
The deal calls for Our Schools Now to its drop its initiative to increase both income and sales tax rates by 0.45 percent each to raise $700 million for schools in exchange for lawmakers agreeing to ask voters to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon.
The increase, expected to add up to $122 million a year, would be shared with local governments for roads and used to reduce the amount of state general fund revenues that go toward transportation so more could be spent on schools.
The average driver would pay an additional $48 a year in gas tax, according to a letter the Utah Education Association sent to teachers Tuesday.
A bill creating the process for a nonbinding question that would be on the November ballot, HB491, was introduced Tuesday by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, along with a separate joint resolution detailing the gas tax question, HJR20.
"I think legislators really want to know, where do our voters stand on this," Edwards said. She said some lawmakers looked at doing something similar during the debate over Medicaid expansion.
Now, though, Edwards said lawmakers are facing an initiative raising taxes that supporters say has been signed by more than 150,000 Utahns as well as a large surplus, totalling $581 million.
Edwards, who clutched a handful of copies of the new legislation to hand out to her colleagues, said they will be the subject of a committee hearing on Wednesday afternoon. The legislative session is set to end at midnight on Thursday.
House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he's undecided on the deal.
Gibson said while House GOP leadership is letting members make up their own minds, "we'd probably like to find a solution to where Our Schools Now doesn't have to run the initiative."
He said there's concern among lawmakers about trying to stop an initiative after what happened when a compromise known as SB54 was reached in 2014 to stop the Count My Vote initiative that would have established direct primary elections.
The Utah GOP is still fighting that compromise in court and there are dual ballot initiatives circulating about the changes made to the caucus and convention system, including a new version of Count My Vote.
"That didn't turn out that well," Gibson said.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said this is different.
"I don't think this is the same. And I don't think it would turn out the same, either. I think this is something that still lets the voters decide where SB54 didn't," Schultz said.
In the Senate, where Republicans also hold a supermajority, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he doesn't know how well the deal is being received.
"They're just trying to absorb it," Adams said, noting lawmakers have already raised gas taxes in recent years. "It will take a little bit of time for them to think about."
The deal, which Our Schools Now calculations show would add $385 million a year in new spending on top of what lawmakers already would be expected to spend, also calls for freezing property tax rates so more money is collected as home values go up.
Herbert said the state has put a significant amount of money into eduction that past few years, and recognizes it wasn't enough for Our Schools Now backers. He said he didn't have a problem with the group starting a ballot initiative to seek more funding through a voter-approved tax increase.
"I think they used it appropriately as a lever to have the legislative branch take and pay attention. That's very appropriate," he said.4 comments on this story
UEA President Heidi Matthews said in her letter to teachers that schools wouldn't have had legislative backing for the deal without teachers who gathered signatures for the Our Schools Now initiative.
"Our success was a wake-up call. It demonstrated to legislators that there is substantial public support for additional school funding," she wrote.
If the deal falls apart, Matthews wrote that it would be "full steam ahead" with getting the initiative on the November ballot.
"Either way, we’ve made significant progress in rallying the public to the cause of education," she wrote.