SALT LAKE CITY — Americans for Prosperity Utah launched a campaign Thursday against the Our Schools Now ballot initiative that would raise taxes by more than $700 million to boost education funding.
"Our kids are getting a great education for the money we're already spending," said Evelyn Everton, state director for the Utah chapter of the main political advocacy group for the Koch brothers, wealthy conservatives who back free market causes.
Flanked by a group that included lawmakers, retirees and parents opposed to the initiative seeking a spot on the 2018 general election ballot, Everton said "blindly throwing money at a supposed problem is never the answer."
She also said the initiative, which would raise the state income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.45 percent and state sales tax rate from 4.7 percent to 5.15 percent, would hurt Utah's standing as a top place to do business.
"There's a reason why this isn't being done in the Legislature. It's because they understand that low taxes is what's important for continuing this great economic growth," Everton said.
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, who serves on the Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he didn't "know of any other organization that measures success by the level of spending."
Fawson said he "strongly supports our teachers and I do feel like we could do more." Still, he said, the state is making strides to improve education funding such as last session's 4 percent increase in weighted, per-pupil spending.
Fawson was joined at the news conference by Reps. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, and Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield. Coleman expressed concern about the initiative providing money for higher education despite "out-of-control" cost increases.
There's a reason why this isn't being done in the Legislature. It's because they understand that low taxes is what's important for continuing this great economic growth.
Retiree Ed Reott said the tax increase, estimated to be about $400 for an average family, would hit Utahns on fixed incomes especially hard.
"My slice of the pie isn't growing," Reott said.
Americans for Prosperity Utah already has a website up opposing the initiative, StopTheUTHike.com, and Everton said the group will also be calling voters and going door-to-door as the election gets closer.
The group fought Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah proposal for Medicaid expansion in 2015, sending mailers in targeted legislative districts thanking lawmakers for opposing the effort to provide health care subsidies to low-income residents.
Our Schools Now, backed by business and community leaders including Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, has raised more than $350,000 and is circulating initiative petitions to gather the signatures needed by next April to qualify for the ballot.
The biggest contributor to the effort so far is the Utah Education Association, which has given $100,000.
"Utahns know better than to let the Koch brothers and other national interest groups tell us how to teach, support and invest in our children and grandchildren," Austin Cox, the initiative's campaign manager, said.
Cox said the initiative would increase per-student spending by $1,000, moving the state from the lowest funded in the nation to 49th. He said he didn't believe "anyone would accuse the state of Utah of throwing more money at it."
Contributing: Ladd Egan