SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders are trying to manage expectations amid robust revenues, demands of a growing public education system and a greater insistence by mainstream Utahns that the state do more to support teachers, as a new public opinion poll shows.
There's more than $1 billion in budget surpluses and revenue growth available this year, according to projections by legislative fiscal analysts and Gov. Gary Herbert's office. Many educators have high expectations that state lawmakers devote a goodly share of that windfall to public education to better address issues like school safety, stabilizing and strengthening the teacher workforce and substantially increasing the value of the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of per-pupil education funding.
"We're excited about the revenues that are available. For years all the policymakers, legislators, governors have been, ‘Let’s grow the economy so we can invest in education.’ So it’s happened. We’ve grown the economy. Now we need to invest it in education and not be squabbling over what kind of tax cuts to give," said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.
With the Utah Legislature's 45-day general session set to begin on Monday, legislative leaders and the executive branch are talking about ways to broaden the state's sales tax base. Taxing some services is an option. The possibility of tax cuts is also on the table.
Instead of cutting taxes, UEA is calling on lawmakers to "be courageous" and instead, make a sizable investment in public education.
Utah's largest teachers union wants lawmakers to increase the value of the WPU by 6.5 percent, a full percent above what both Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah State Board of Education have each proposed.
"When it comes down to it, no one likes to pay taxes. I don't like to pay taxes. We do it because we have a responsibility for the education of our citizens in Utah. It takes courage for our lawmakers and it’s time. We’re seeing across the county that when our legislators aren’t courageous, people are rising up and speaking out in job actions and in some states, strikes, anything’s possible. We like to work collaboratively but we need our legislators to be courageous," she said.
Putting the funding in the weighted pupil unit give schools more control over their individual needs instead of line-item funding that means it must be used for a specific purpose, she said.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he understands agencies' and constituents' tendency to aim high when revenue projections are robust.
"I get the strategy. They come in swinging for the fences and hope they get a base hit or an in-the-park homer," he said.
Eliason said there's a windfall this year because of federal tax reform. But lawmakers need to treat it as one-time money because "federal tax reform is an extremely rare event and we can't predict who prepaid taxes to try to get a tax deduction or cast out capital gains to get a bigger deduction. There's all these complex things that nobody knows."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said there is cause for optimism this legislative session because "legislators have proven to be good partners in the past few years and have really focused on education as a priority. We have confirmation from our legislative leaders that education is one of their top priorities so we really appreciate that."
Dickson said she recognizes there are many competing interests given the "decent funding" that's available this year, but she believes that the Utah State Board of Education's funding priorities will resonate with state lawmakers.
Two of the board's tops requests include nearly $30 million in ongoing money for personnel to support the board's school safety initiative, which will enhance students' emotional and physical well-being and establish threat assessment teams in schools. The request also includes $66 million in one-time money for building modifications to make schools safer, such as surveillance cameras, single school entries or fire doors that can seal off an entire wing of a school.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is sponsor of HB120, which would secure funding for the school safety initiative and change law to facilitate it.
The board also seeks $17 million to rebuild its outdated and fragmented information technology infrastructure, which would be spread over three to five years.
"In order to get the best data to inform our decisions, we have to take our 28 systems that are outdated, some broken, and put that into one new system," Dickson said. The new system is needed so the board office can connect with schools and districts for better data analytics," she said.
Some of the systems are so outdated they were built on code that "nobody knows how to write anymore," she said.
Dickson said recent public opinion polling by Envision Utah indicates there is growing urgency from Utahns that the state do more for schools and educators, she said.
Jason Brown, vice president of communications for Envision Utah, said its poll of 400-plus Utahns in early January showed 90 percent of Utahns rated it as "important" or "very important" that we provide better support for teachers. The poll had a 5 percent margin of error.
"Whenever you have nine out of 10 Utahns supporting anything, that’s a big deal and that’s up from about 76 percent in 2016 when we kind of got a baseline on that," Brown said.
The poll also showed a 20-point jump in Utahns definitely or probably willing to pay for increased education funding, 71 percent in 2019 compared to 51 percent in 2016, he said.
Dickson said the State School Board's goals focus on early learning, safe and healthy schools, personalized teaching and learning, and effective educators and leaders.
Dickson said the State Board of Education will roll out a more extensive list of its funding and policy priorities at a press conference at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the Presentation Room of the state Capitol.12 comments on this story
Eliason said the state's funding picture resembles the condition right before the last recession when Utah also had very healthy revenues. The restraint employed at that time is instructive, he said.
"If we had spent all of it in the ongoing bucket we'd be forced to go back and cut it the next year. If we treat it as one time, there are lot of things that are appropriate to fund one time. Then, we don't set ourselves up to the fall next year if there happens to be a recession," he said.