As voters review their ballots, some may wonder why the legislature would propose an increase to the gas tax to better fund public education. While Question 1 appears to combine two seemingly unrelated yet critical public services, the relationship between education and transportation funding is more closely connected than would appear at first glance. Ultimately, a vote for Question 1 is a vote for greater investment in each school, student and teacher.
With rapid economic expansion and significant population growth, state leaders are under tremendous pressure to invest general fund (sales taxes) into infrastructure. The gas tax has increased only five cents per gallon since 1997, far less than inflation. Compared to other states, Utah’s gas tax ranks right in the middle — but is nearly 30 cents per gallon less than some.
Over the past decades, gas tax hasn’t kept up with our growing transportation needs. As a result, we take money every year from the general fund to help pay for roads. In 2018, it was $600 million.
Like Congress, we have just been kicking the can down the road. What we are doing is not a sustainable solution, nor is it a fiscally prudent way to invest in our future. The gas tax is intended to be a user fee, meaning those who use (or benefit from) the roads ought to pay for them. But this Band-Aid approach isn’t cutting it, and has siphoned off monies that were traditionally used for education.
As a growing state, Utah will require huge annual expenditures for transportation for the foreseeable future. The money has to come from somewhere, and we have to stop taking it from Utah’s students. Our fiscal analysts calculated that Question 1 will cost the average driver only $4 per month. This money will be dedicated to transportation, thereby freeing up an equal amount of general funds to be invested into education. The legislature placed Question 1 on the ballot for voters to give a thumbs up or down on this proposal.
Should Question 1 pass, 70 percent of the new funding would be directed to students and teachers. But it will be placed into restricted accounts dedicated for the classroom. Those monies cannot be used to fund administration or the construction of new buildings.
The remaining 30 percent will be spent on city and county roads. State law requires 30 percent of the gas tax to be allocated to local projects. While we have increased state funding by using general funds, local roads have been left out of the equation. Neglecting local roads ultimately costs taxpayers more in the long run, as replacing roads is tremendously expensive. Annual maintenance is the most efficient use of our limited resources.
Some have questioned the constitutionality of Question 1 by claiming that the gas tax can only be used to fund transportation. As you can see, the legislature will not directly use proceeds from the gas tax to fund public education. Rather, the gas tax will be used solely for transportation — but will reduce pressure on the general fund. This will allow us to invest more in students and teachers.
For these reasons, Question 1 is a “win-win-win,” as Gov. Herbert stated. Not only will we increase our investment in local communities, but will also address the cause of the structural imbalances in our tax code. We have to stop backwards budgeting.
With your support, Question 1 will provide an unprecedented opportunity to invest in our future. Each year, constituents ask their elected leaders to better fund public education. I am voting for Question 1 to do just that, and invite you to join me.