Lawmaker calls income tax hike 'worst thing we can do' to bolster school funding

January 12, 2017
Author: Marjorie Cortez and Lisa Riley Roche
https://www.ksl.com/?sid=42851552&nid=148

SALT LAKE CITY — The president of the Utah Senate says he can list "a dozen ways" to boost revenue for public education "without raising the income tax rate."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, speaking on a panel Thursday during the United Way's annual legislative preview breakfast, said hiking the state income tax rate, as a proposed citizen initiative suggests, "is the worst thing we can do."

"I think it will be a negative for the economy that generates the money we have to spend on our schools," Niederhauser said.

Our Schools Now, a group backing an increase in the income tax rate to raise $750 million for education, is considering putting the issue to Utah voters through the state's initiative process.

Leaders of the group met later in the day with Niederhauser, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and other lawmakers for more than an hour behind closed doors about how to move forward.

"I think they would like to have the Legislature do this," Niederhauser said after the meeting. "They would like to work with us, and we would like to work with them, because we'd like to avoid a citizens initiative also."

He said he believes the group has "some flexibility" about the amount of a funding increase, but "we all agree it's based on what we can show the people as a true need and what they would feel convinced would really be worth investing in."

The meeting, the Senate president said, is "just the beginning of this discussion." Niederhauser said the initiative backers made it clear they will go forward with the 2018 ballot measure if lawmakers don't move quickly enough.

"They're not going to stop just because we want to maybe spend some time on this. They want us to move ahead as expeditiously as possible with them, working together, or they're going to file the initiative," he said.

Initiative backers have said they plan to file the initiative with the state this summer and start gathering voter signatures in the fall to qualify for a spot on the November 2018 general election ballot.

The campaign manager for the initiative, Austin Cox, said after the meeting the group was "grateful for the time the Legislature gave us today and always excited to talk about ways to fund education in Utah."

The group intends to "continue to work to qualify for the ballot in 2018," Cox said, "but as we’ve said all along, we’d be happy to consider a legislative solution."

What that solution could look like was discussed at the United Way breakfast.

"I can't wait to hear those dozen ways," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, whose comment was met by warm applause by people attending the breakfast.

Niederhauser said a gas tax increase might be one option, but before lawmakers do anything and before the public will support any sort of tax hike, there must be a concrete plan how the revenue will be spent, including measurable outcomes.

"What are we going to invest in? What will the outcomes be?" he said.

Nolan Karras, a former Utah House speaker who serves on the Our Schools Now steering committee, told the community and business leaders at the breakfast that there's a plan with performance metrics that ties increased funding to student success.

The Granite School District's efforts prove that early childhood education makes "a huge difference" in education outcomes, he said. Many students statewide do not have access to high-quality preschool education programs. Karras said that could be one option.