Utah lawmakers made education their main focus during the just-completed 2018 regular session, a move that ought to be considered good. But their final package of tax hikes, a voter referendum and potential budget shifts showed dubious governance, leaving questions unanswered and requiring careful scrutiny by the public.
Voters will be asked this fall whether they approve of a 33 percent increase in gasoline taxes, from 29.4 cents a gallon to 39.4 cents. The vote will be nonbinding, which means lawmakers may not necessarily follow the direction from voters.
If voters approve of the tax hike, and if next year’s Legislature enacts it, the money would go toward roads and highways. That would free up millions in general fund money that had been allocated for transportation with the intention of shifting that money toward public schools.
Together with a property tax increase of $200 million or so that lawmakers also approved for schools, this would amount to several hundred million more dollars for public education. That package was enough to get organizers of an initiative known as Our Schools Now to drop efforts to get a sales and income tax increase on November’s ballots.
But what if voters reject the large gas tax hike? That question now looms over the deal.
Voters may have trouble understanding the relationship between gas taxes and schools. They may feel a 33 percent increase is too much. Or perhaps by November, world events will have sparked a sharp increase in oil prices, making a 10-cent increase unpalatable.
Would Our Schools Now see a “no” vote as a deal killer and restart the initiative, the property tax hike notwithstanding?
Ironically, lawmakers also approved a decrease of .05 percentage points in the income tax — a tax that exists solely to fund education.
We understand lawmakers’ feelings about the income tax. It penalizes productivity and can be a disincentive for business and economic development. But to reduce the tax that directly funds schools while at the same time raising other taxes and shifting money seems unnecessarily convoluted. A more direct approach would be better public policy.
Education funding was not the only measure to emerge from this session. Lawmakers pushed their way into the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City, setting up an Inland Port Authority that gives the city only minority representation and that usurps much of the city’s power over its remaining undeveloped land.
The idea of a port is sound, and lawmakers are right to pursue it aggressively. But they should have involved the city more closely in negotiations over its governance.
Lawmakers made some necessary changes to the governance of the beleaguered Utah Transit Authority. But here, too, they went too far. They replaced the agency’s six lawyers with attorneys from the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
That move threatens a nonprosecution agreement with the federal government and its ongoing investigation into possible irregularities at UTA. It also robs the agency of much-needed institutional knowledge on past policies and procedures.7 comments on this story
Lawmakers also approved an eventual name change for UTA, which is unnecessary and expensive. Better to rebuild the brand through excellent performance than by trying to forget the past. Gov. Gary Herbert has indicated his displeasure with the name change and its cost, meaning that it could be reconsidered before going further.
Legislators did do some good things. They expanded Medicaid to reach about 70,000 more of the poorest Utahns. That measure, however, depends on federal approval. They also provided more money for law enforcement and firefighting surrounding three new homeless shelters along the Wasatch Front.
The overall success of this session, however, cannot be determined until its impact on Utahns is fully measured.