SALT LAKE CITY — Taxes will go up — and down — and education will see a substantial boost under a complicated deal lawmakers reached with backers of the Our Schools Now initiative in the final hours of the 2018 Legislature.
The deal that halts the initiative also includes a nonbinding question on the November ballot asking voters whether they want to add a dime to the state's 29.4 cent per gallon gas tax.
"It's really staving off a significant tax increase for a minimal tax increase and will put money into education, put money into roads. It's win, win, win all the way around," Gov. Gary Herbert said.
The push came late in the session to stop the Our Schools Now initiative that would have raised both sales and income tax rates by .45 percent, raising $700 million for public schools and higher education.
The compromise, which includes a property tax freeze that passed as part of a GOP leadership tax reform package, also lowers the state's 5 percent income tax rate to 4.95 percent and gives corporations a $28 million tax break.
The end effect will be "a wash" for most Utah families, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, the Senate sponsor of the tax package.
Our Schools Now, which was expected to have more than enough voter signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot, said the Legislature's actions can lead to an $845 increase in per-student spending.
"This is the year of education in Utah," the leaders of the group, Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson and former Questar President and CEO Ron Jibson, said in a joint statement.
House Republicans didn't come to the deal easily, but worked through differences until the session ended at midnight.
"We are injecting record funding into public education at same time we’re delivering tax relief to Utahns," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who isn't seeking re-election. "This was a unique year where we were able to do both, but that is a heavy lift."
Legislators had $581 million in revenue growth and surplus to spend — $10 million of which went into an education reserve account — as part of a $16.7 billion state budget.
But Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the extra funds went quickly.
"Two words that should not be used are extra and surplus. As long as we’re growing as fast as we’re growing, there is no surplus," he said.
Lawmakers went into the session looking to assert more legislative authority after locking horns with the governor over how the handle special elections, prompted by the midterm resignation of former Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The Legislature passed a bill seeking a constitutional amendment to call itself into special session. Only the governor can call the Legislature into session. Lawmakers also granted themselves authority to intervene in court cases using their own legal counsel rather than the attorney general’s office.
Herbert said there is a handful a bills he will consider vetoing, specifically mentioning those regarding separation of powers.
“I’m a little concerned about those areas,” he said.
After multiple revisions that ended up removing a statewide sales tax increase for transit projects, a transportation bill was passed that overhauls how the Utah Transit Authority is run and even proposes changing its name.
The bill from the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force does shift state money to transit projects, raises registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles and allows local option sales tax increases.
The Utah Republican Party State Central Committee caused angst among legislators with a new rule to kick out candidates who gather signatures to get on the primary election ballot.
It sent GOP lawmakers scrambling to pass a law ensuring those who chose that route under the controversial Utah law known as SB54 will appear on the 2018 ballot.
At the same time, the House passed bill to repeal SB54 — leaving only the state’s longstanding caucus/convention system to nominate candidates — if voters reject the Count My Vote initiative to keep the dual-track system in November.
Both bills, however, didn't get a vote in the Senate.
Lawmakers moved toward making medical marijuana available to small segment of Utahns, but not nearly broad enough for a group pushing a ballot initiative to allow use of several types of cannabis products for a variety of illnesses and chronic pain.
The "right-to-try" bill legalizes the use of certain types of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill patients. A companion measure directs the Utah Department of Agriculture to contract with a third party to oversee the growing and processing of full-strength cannabis in the state.
Some proposals fell short, including one to rename a highway connecting Utah's national parks for President Donald Trump that caused a stir late in the session, putting some Republicans a tough spot.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, pulled the bill after it received widespread and sometimes crude criticism.
"I'd have voted for it. Are you kidding me?" Hughes said. "I wanted that highway. I love that road."16 comments on this story
Two bills backed by the speaker didn’t fare well — an effort to repeal the death penalty didn’t get a floor vote and a proposal for emergency restraining orders to temporarily remove guns for people shown to be threat to themselves or others died in committee. The latter bill emerged in response to the Parkland, Florida school shooting.
The governor lauded this session as the best he's seen "in the 12 years I’ve been up here" because of a record amount of money toward public education, good movement on tax reform and extra dollars for transportation.
"If I were to have to grade this session, it would be an A," he said Thursday during the waning hours of the 45-day marathon.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue