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Op-ed: Utahns can’t afford $700 million tax hike

Utah State Capitol.
Utah State Capitol.

The Utah Legislature has allocated $1.2 billion in additional funds to education over the last three years, including roughly $230 million in this year’s budget. But even that is not enough for “Our Schools Now,” a group of Utahns who want to spend hundreds of millions more by raising taxes on working families.

Our Schools Now is beginning to collect signatures for a 2018 ballot initiative to raise the personal income tax and the sales tax by about 9 percent each in 2019. The initiative’s bungled rollout resulted in sparsely attended meetings and an embarrassing report from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget estimating the tax would cost $165 million more than expected. The report sent Our Schools Now scrambling to tweak the language of their proposal, but the tax will still cost Utahns a whopping $700 million per year.

A tax hike of this magnitude is unnecessary and would undermine the pro-growth reforms that have helped Utah prosper over the last decade. And there’s no real evidence it would do anything to improve K-12 education in Utah, already among the best in the nation.

The American Legislative Exchange Council recently named Utah, for the 10th year in a row, the No. 1 state in the nation in terms of economic outlook. “This is largely due to the state’s many responsible fiscal policies, including an efficient and lean state government, a low overall tax burden and the state’s right-to-work status,” said Jonathan Williams, the publication’s chief economist.

Our model of accomplishing more with less tax dollars is clearly working — so well, in fact, that this year the Legislature is anticipating a budget surplus of up to $130 million.

Raising the income and sales taxes would be a step backward for Utah, driving off investment and jobs. It would also cost the poor and middle class more of their hard-earned cash. The median Utah household would pay an estimated $416 in new taxes every year.

Backers of the measure hope that a big infusion of cash will improve student performance. But what a state spends on education often has little to do with how well kids learn.

According to the most recent census data, New York spends more than $21,000 per pupil — more than any other state in the country. Utah spends only about a third of that, and yet U.S. News and World Report named us one of the top 10 best states for education. New York lagged behind at 19th place.

You might assume that the tax measure includes stipulations that the funds be spent in ways that enhance student learning. You would be wrong. In fact, there is no guarantee that the new money won’t simply be squandered by the local school districts on unnecessary programs, rather than support teachers and students in the classroom. The ballot language is vague when it refers to teachers' salaries and does not ensure that Utah teachers will be paid a penny more.

It’s as if the sponsors of the initiative have no ideas how to improve education beyond simply spending more taxpayer money.

In a series of meetings held by Our Schools Now, Utahns largely spoke out against the measure. Even a local Democratic leader voiced his opposition to the tax because of the burdens it would place on families with low and fixed incomes. In the words of Utah County Democratic Party Vice Chairman Justin Anderson, "Good intentions do not make a bad policy a good one.”

There is a reason that people from across the political spectrum are turning against this tax. It would hurt working families and throw a wrench in the economy without providing meaningful improvements to our students’ education. Utahns should reject this misguided initiative before it ever makes it onto the ballot.

Evelyn Everton is the Utah state director of Americans for Prosperity.