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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers have yet to hold floor debate on a large-scale and costly proposal to fill schools with learning technology, but members of the Utah Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that begins to answer where the funds will come from.
In a close 16-12 vote, senators approved SB111, which ostensibly aims to address funding inequities in the state by freezing the basic property tax rate. The bill is forecast to eventually generate $100 million in new annual education dollars as property values increase, with the intention of distributing those funds back to schools on a per-student basis.
But an amendment introduced Tuesday would stop schools from directly receiving those funds for four years, if ever.
Instead, revenue generated by SB111 would be used to fund HB131, or the Public Education Modernization Act, which seeks to upgrade the state's technology infrastructure and place a personal learning device in the hands of each of Utah's more than 600,000 public education students.
"As you know, colleagues, we are facing tighter budgets than we thought, even though it appeared the economy is turning around," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said while explaining his amendment to the bill. "If we were to (fund technology) to the scale provided in HB131, it would basically require the use of transportation funds and the use of significant other education funds, making it hard to keep some of the programs going that are on the funding list."
SB111 is projected to generate $12 million in its first year and roughly $40 million in its second. Those totals are only a fraction of the $200 million sought for the first year of implementation of the Public Education Modernization Act, which will require significant ongoing funding for maintenance and upgrades to school technology.
Correcting funding inequities has been a pet project of SB111 sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, for several years. On Tuesday, Osmond said he would prefer that funds from his bill be used for the bill's original purpose, but he would support an amendment reallocating funds for technology for the immediate future.
Other lawmakers, however, took issue with an amendment that takes money out of the hands of local control to fund an unproven gambit with technology.
"I think this stinks, if you really want to know," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who is also sponsoring legislation to increase school funding through tax reform. "I don’t see why our citizens should be expected to raise their property taxes over the next several years under the guise of equalization and have it go into one area, one area of technology."
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he had previously voted "with some reluctance" for the original bill but would not be able to support the amended version.
"To take some of this desperately needed $100 million that we’re going to get in a tax increase and spend it on what I fear is a wild experiment on buying iPads, I have to vote no," Dabakis said.
But Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said a tax increase for one area of education is effectively the same as a tax increase for another, since using the money to purchase technology would free up funds that school district officials planned to spend on technology themselves.
"It's the step we need to take," Hillyard said.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the bill presents a "tough decision," but one that is necessary to address the needs of Utah students.
"I’m convinced that if we don’t try some new things occasionally then we’ll never get to where we want to be," Jenkins said. "I view this as something that will empower our teachers, empower our students and empower our programs."
SB111 will now move to the House for consideration, where HB131 has received committee approval but has yet to be brought to the House floor for debate.