Stock image
Coming soon to a television near you, Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller urging Utahns to support a nonbinding ballot question intended to increase education funding through a higher gasoline tax.

SALT LAKE CITY — Coming soon to a television near you, Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller urging Utahns to support a nonbinding ballot question intended to increase education funding through a higher gasoline tax.

With six weeks to go until Election Day, expect to hear more about statewide ballot Question 1, say backers of the nonbinding question that resulted from the compromise between state lawmakers and backers of the former Our Schools Now citizens initiative.

"We've been on the air for the past month and we had billboards up for the past month," said Bob Marquardt, an Our Schools Now steering committee member.

In the coming weeks, Utahns can expect to see even more billboards and campaign commercials on TV urging support of Question 1.

"They'll come back next week in a big way, a lot more (billboards) than we had the first time, twice as many. Starting today, we're on (TV) with the governor's endorsement asking people to vote for Question 1," Marquardt said Monday during a meeting with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

A campaign commercial featuring Miller will roll out in coming weeks, he said.

Fundraising continues to be strong as the campaign heads into the final stretch, Marquardt said.

But the race is tight, according to the latest poll. It shows 50 percent of Utahns support raising the gas tax for education, slightly down from 52 percent in May. Opponents of the increase are up to 47 percent, from 43 percent.

While no one likes to raise taxes, most Utahns strongly support their local schools or their college alma maters, said steering committee member Rich Kendell, former state Commissioner of Higher Education and a school superintendent.

Most Utahns likewise understand that Utah's system of education — K-12 and higher education — is underfunded, he said.

The 2018 Education Week "Quality Counts" report, which grades states on the performance of their respective education systems, ranked Utah 31st among 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Overall, Utah received a C-plus average, with the Beehive State earning a B in the report's "chance for success category."

But in the national report's measure of school finance, Utah earned a D-minus grade, which drove down its overall score, Kendell noted.

"That's just not something that's a good platform for moving ahead given the attractiveness of Utah, given the growth we anticipate. We can do better than that," Kendell said.

One of the appeals of Question 1 is that it envisions education funding flowing directly to schools on a formula based on population, said Marquardt. Each school would develop a teacher and student success plan. Funding would not be taken from schools that don't progress, according to the state report card, but future funding would be less flexible, giving districts more control of how the money is spent.

But the ballot question is non-binding. It was part of a compromise between state lawmakers and the Our Schools Now group that last year launched an initiative to ask voters to raise sales and income taxes to improve school funding.

For its part, the Utah Legislature increased school funding during the 2018 General Session by adjusting property and income taxes, and lawmakers agreed to place the gas tax question on the November ballot.

Increasing the state's gas tax by 10 cents per gallon — on top of the current 29.4 cents-per-gallon tax — would to raise an estimated $180 million in the first full budget year that begins July 1, 2019, according to the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's office.

About $60 million of the increased gas tax revenue would go to local transportation needs, while the rest would be used to offset the general fund revenues now being used for transportation, freeing up more money for education.

15 comments on this story

Heather Williamson, state director for Americans for Prosperity of Utah, said the organization opposes the ballot question, in part because the Utah Legislature has significantly raised education funding the past three years.

"The problem is, we don't know where the money is going," she said.

Williamson questions whether additional school funding will improve outcomes.

"In talking to the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, they've done studies for the Legislature that show increased funding has very little correlation to performance," she said.