SALT LAKE CITY — Are Utahns willing to pay more at the pump to help fund education and local roads in Utah?
Backers and opponents of statewide Nonbinding Opinion Question 1 don't agree on much, but both sides expect a close vote on the proposal that could raise more than $100 million annually for Utah classrooms.
The question, placed on the ballot by the Utah Legislature, asks Utahns statewide whether motor fuel tax should be increased the equivalent of 10 cents per gallon "to provide additional funding for public education and local roads."
Austin Cox, campaign manager for Question 1, predicts each of the propositions on the statewide ballot will come down to the wire.
"I think ours is going to be neck and neck, and we won't know until Election Day. We're going to work hard until election night, 8 p.m., to make sure people feel confident voting for Question 1 will actually improve investment in their local schools," Cox said.
Heather Williamson, state director for Americans for Prosperity of Utah, said the significant campaign spending by the backers of Question 1 appears to have created "a little bump up (of support for Question 1) with all the media and all the things they're doing to campaign for it. I still believe a majority of Utahns oppose it and it won't pass."
Spencer Stokes, a member of the Utah State Board of Education who is not seeking re-election, said Question 1 is a tax increase "so it's going to be a battle down to the final day."
"This is something that is going to win or lose based on the people in our society primarily who view it their task to get their children educated, and that's the women voters of this state. If the women voters of this state stay home, it probably loses. If the women voters show up and say they care about the outcome of their children and education and the kinds of jobs of the future, it wins," said Stokes, representing his own views.
The State School Board has taken no formal position on the question.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has come out strongly in favor of Question 1. He and Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller endorse the question in television commercials and he regularly urges Utahns to support the question during public appearances.
Cox describes the political support for Question 1 as "encouraging" and "significant."
"It's nothing short of incredible when you consider the Legislature in a fiscally conservative state, 79 state lawmakers, the majority of which are Republican, voted to put this on the ballot. They believe that education is underfunded. Before they move forward with this, they want to hear from the public," Cox said.
Supporters say the average driver will pay just $4 a month more in fuel tax, which will generate more than $100 million annually for public education, the equivalent of $150 per student. Higher education would receive $25 million annually while local road funding would increase $55 million per year if Question 1 is approved by voters and the Utah Legislature votes to implement its provisions.
An online tool on the supporters' website demonstrates the potential allocations to public schools. The funds will be allocated according to student enrollment, which means the state's largest high schools would receive more than $400,000 each for a schoolwide initiative to improve student achievement.
"When people realize this is funding coming straight to their school to help their kids and their teachers, that's when we see support go up most," Cox said.
Williamson said state spending for Utah schools has increased significantly in the past three years as educators have successfully lobbied lawmakers to provide more funding to recruit and retain teachers.
"Our thing is, we have a $16.8 billion budget in Utah. It's ballooned $2 billion over the last few years," Williamson said, adding "we believe Utah's budget currently has enough funding to adequately pay for K-12 education. Unfortunately sometimes, Utah's budget acts like a leaky sieve. We can continue to raise a variety of taxes but a lot of that revenue will end up in other places."
Most concerning, Williamson said, is that "we're not able to track spending to the classroom, down to the student level.
"Until we figure out where the money's going and prioritize our current funding and figure out ways where we can improve where we may be spending inefficiently, we shouldn't be asking for taxpayers to basically pay for another tax increase to fund education," she said.
Question 1 would invest money directly in classrooms, Cox said. The tax revenue cannot be used for school construction or district administration.
Instead, local boards of education will create districtwide plans and annually assess school improvement. Schools will be required to achieve 1 percent growth year to year under the statewide school accountability system.
Schools that do not reach that benchmark have to revise their teacher and student success plans. Revised plans will require approval of their local school board.
This is an important accountability measure, Stokes said.
"We've just pummeled the school system with accountability and testing. All of that is happening and they're all expected to do that without any more additional resources. This is an opportunity to say 'Yes, we're going to hold you accountable. We're also going to give you some resources so that you can actually do something to raise those test scores and improve those outcomes,' which we've never done before," Stokes said.
Question 1 was a compromise between state lawmakers and backers of the citizen initiative Our Schools Now. The initiative sought to raise income tax and sales tax, resulting in an estimated $700 million for education annually.
In the waning days of the 2018 general session of the Utah Legislature, supporters of Our Schools Now agreed to halt their initiative efforts. Legislative leaders said raising the state's income tax, as the initiative proposed, could imperil Utah's growing economy.
Lawmakers agreed to place Question 1 on the ballot. They also agreed to a five-year freeze in the only property tax levy set by state lawmakers, which allows more education revenue to be captured as property values rise.
According to Question 1 campaign literature, the compromise will increase $845 per student over the next five years.