SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the predictions surrounding the Our Schools Now initiative that once hoped to put a tax increase for education on your ballot in November, one seems to have sticking power.
It goes like this: If voters were to reject it, public schools would be worse off than if the initiative never had been started. Lawmakers might feel emboldened to ignore future calls for increases in school funding. After all, the people would have spoken.
That’s the nature of initiatives, and it’s a central reason why they can be bad for democracies. Somebody sets an arbitrary figure for a tax increase and everyone gets to vote yes or no. Perhaps it fails when an increase half or even three-quarters as large would have passed.
The back and forth of legislative lawmaking — even in a Legislature dominated by one party, such as Utah’s — serves the public’s interest much better.
But if Our Schools Now accepts something like the proposal lawmakers were talking about Monday — drop the initiative in favor of a public vote on a 10-cent gas tax increase and a freeze on property tax rates — the basic risk remains.
If voters reject 10 cents extra for gas, that also could be seen as a rejection of the notion that Utahns want to give lots more money to schools. You might even say the risk of losing such a measure would be higher than voting on a straight tax hike for schools. Tying it to something else Utahns struggle with in their personal budgets — the cost of driving a car — complicates things.
The vote, at least as it stood Monday, would be nonbinding. It might, however, be psychologically binding on all concerned.
But let’s read between the lines. That Our Schools Now would be willing to accept such a compromise seems to indicate the initiative is not getting the traction its organizers had hoped. A recent poll commissioned by Utahpolicy.com showed 54 percent of Utahns favored it, which is not too far statistically from the 50 percent in a poll last November, with a margin of error of 4 percent. That’s tepid support this far from Election Day.
What about freezing the basic property tax rate, which applies to schools?
Property taxes are unpopular, and this would put at risk a system that has kept a downward pressure on those rates for years.
The Utah Foundation reports Utah’s property tax burden is the 34th highest in the nation. The reason it isn’t higher is that lawmakers long ago passed a law known as Truth-in-Taxation.
Under that system, local governments may not collect more in property taxes than they did the previous year, other than to account for growth within their boundaries, without calling it a tax increase and holding hearings. If real estate values appreciate, property tax rates must be lowered to compensate. If the market is bad, rates can go up.
In 1996, lawmakers decided to apply this rule to the basic levy for schools as well. The results have been dramatic.
According to figures provided by the Utah Foundation, in 1995 the rate was about 26 percent. Since then, it has pushed steadily downward to about 15 percent. But freezing it there would mean you would have to pay more as the value of your house increased.
And as complicated as property tax forms are, the average Utahn wouldn’t know whom to blame.
Of course, all of this could change by the time you read this. The last days of the annual legislative session are hectic. But some sort of compromise to diffuse Our Schools Now seems inevitable, as does the idea that schools would receive less of an increase than the initiative asked for.
Why did the initiative fail to generate enthusiastic support? For one thing, it wasn’t specific enough. Organizers never said how the tax hikes they proposed were going to be spent. If the funds were earmarked for at-risk students or underfunded districts, it might have been more palatable than simply spreading it evenly.
Then again, maybe Utahns, ever suspicious of taxes and government spending, don’t see tax hikes alone as the answer. Maybe they would like educators and politicians to be more innovative than that.