SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed deal between lawmakers and backers of the Our Schools Now initiative to raise income and sales taxes to bring in $700 million for education moved forward Wednesday with the passage of last-minute legislation.
The legislation approved by the House Political Subdivisions Committee allows voters to tell lawmakers in November whether they want the state's gas tax increased by 10 cents a gallon, a major part of the deal that would halt the initiative.
That question about raising the gas tax from 29.4 cents would be nonbinding and it would be up to the 2019 Legislature to approve the increase. Three years ago, lawmakers raised the tax for the first time since 1997.
"We applaud your willingness to talk with us and we're glad that we could come forward with this kind of a compromise," Nolan Karras, a member of the Our Schools Now executive committee and a former House speaker, told the committee.
Karras said Our Schools Now has already collected 150,000 voter signatures for the initiative that would increase both income and sales tax rates by 0.45 percent each, well over the number needed to qualify for the November ballot.
But he said the group, which has been negotiating behind the scenes with lawmakers, would prefer the Legislature take action to find more money for public and higher education.
The latest version of the deal shows that in 2020, the first full year the gas tax increase would be in effect, $101 million would go to public schools, $25 million to higher education and $54 million to local road needs.
Other parts of the deal include freezing local property tax rates so more money can be collected as values go up and indexing the state's basic levy for schools, moves expected to bring in another $89 million in 2020.
Overall, the deal would add $238 million to public education funding that year, on top of the $416 million already anticipated from lawmakers for a per-student increase of nearly $623.
The complicated mechanics of the deal, which requires shifting general fund money now going to transportation to schools, raised concerns among some members of the committee.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he wondered if the average voter would make the connection between raising gas taxes and spending more money on schools.11 comments on this story
"That's going to be the challenge," the sponsor of the bill and resolution, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, said. She said Our Schools Now would be "involved in taking the message out to voters to make sure they know what that means."
Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, said the ballot question is a big ask and will take a "big sell" by supporters.
"Voters are not uniformed. They’re intelligent. They need to know what the breakdown is," Potter said. "The public relations effort is going to have to be large."
The committee approved HB491 unanimously and HJR20 was advanced by the committee 12-1.