The tax increase voucher opponents won’t tell you about, and how to avoid it
The state Supreme Court has cleared up the ambiguities about Citizen’s State Referendum 1 this fall, and the campaign is under way. The first volley came when both sides submitted reasons for the referendum to repeal Utah’s voucher law to the Lt. Governor’s Office. While voucher supporters offered cogent reasons to vote YES on Citizen’s State Referendum 1, the opponents trotted out tired assertions that our elected officials have heard and rejected. More importantly, the opponents ignore the taxpayer reasons every Utahn should say YES to vouchers.
Recognizing the need to better fund Utah’s public schools, the Utah Legislature has more than doubled per pupil spending over the past 15 years. This dramatic increase-today Utah spends just over $7500 per pupil-has been possible because the state’s economy has been red hot, while enrollment growth has been flat. Between 1990 and 2006 Utah’s classrooms grew by only 18%, while the number of Utah jobs grew by a whopping 67%.
Unfortunately, these trends no longer prevail. Between 1990 and 2004, Utah schools never grew by more than 10,000 students in a given year; in 2005, 14,330 new students enrolled, and another 16,075 entered in 2006. The State Office of Education’s most current projections show another 156,345 new students entering Utah classrooms between 2007 and 2016, nearly quadruple the number of new students who entered Utah classrooms in the 1990’s.
More troubling is the reality that Utah’s economy will not always grow so rapidly. Since 1980, Utah has had 2 significant economic slowdowns, in 1986 and again in 2001 to 2003. With student enrollment growing faster than it did in the 1990’s, but not so fast as it is now, the 1986 slowdown forced lawmakers to impose the largest tax increase - $176 million - in Utah history.
The 2001 to 2003 slowdown happened while Utah school enrollment was flat, so no tax increase was necessary. However, it was all the Legislature could do not to cut public education spending. And if the slowdown had lasted just 6 months longer, Legislators would likely have had to raise taxes again.
It is at best folly-at worst irresponsible-to hope that Utah’s hot economy can protect taxpayers from further the tax increases brought on the dramatic increase in public school enrollment. With the largest families in the nation, and per capita income well below the national average, lawmakers must identify policy options that simultaneously reduce the strain on our public school system and increase the amount of money available to educate Utah children.
That is why the Legislature and the Governor adopted HB 148. Vouchers help solve both aspects of Utah’s education-taxpayer dilemma. Each time a student switches from public school to private school because of vouchers (worth between $500 and $3000), Utah’s public schools have one fewer child to educate, and they have between $4500 and $7000 more to spend on the rest of Utah’s children. In other words, vouchers decrease the number of students in Utah classrooms and increase the amount of money available for other students. Utah policy makers rightly see vouchers as one of several tools we need to avoid another tax increase. The lessons of 1986 and 2001 to 2003 are too clear and compelling to avoid any other conclusion.
Utah Taxpayers Association