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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah business leaders Tuesday said it's time for lawmakers to invest in both education and transportation, even if that means increasing taxes.
But the group, which included Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie, as well as the heads of Prosperity 2020 and the Utah Transportation Coalition, did not offer specific recommendations for raising income taxes or gas taxes.
"The bottom line is we are simply asking them to look at all of the options on the table," Beattie said during a news conference at the state Capitol. He said that could mean boosting one or both taxes.
"We're asking them as any business does to step back, look at both of them, and find out where we get the longest and most solid economic benefit," Beattie said. "If it requires some of both, great."
Proposals to hike the state income tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, as well as the 24.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax that has remained unchanged since 1997, are already being discussed by lawmakers.
While House and Senate GOP leaders have expressed little interest in raising the income tax rate, they have called for action on the gas tax this session along with Gov. Gary Herbert.
But the House and Senate leaders are split over whether to add 5 to 10 cents to the gas tax or turn it into a type of sales tax that would allow collections to increase as gas prices rise.
Herbert has not expressed a preference for how the gas tax should be increased but has asked lawmakers in his budget to remove a sales tax earmark to avail more money for education.
Beattie, a former Senate president, said the state is strong enough economically today to deal with both education and transportation needs.
"This is the Chamber of Commerce. We hate taxes. We don't like them. We would just as soon have less government. But what we are saying as a business community unified across the entire state is now is the time to fund these," he said.
Alan Hall, managing director of Mercato Partners and chairman of Prosperity 2020, a business-led effort to improve innovation, investment and accountability in Utah public education, said schools should not compete with roads for funds.
"For many years, people have tried to pit education against transportation, but not this year," Hall said, promising that business advocates for both areas would work "arm in arm" to secure needed funding.
Hall said Utah no longer can claim to be one of the nation's most highly educated states because of a decline in college completion rates, a trend that will have "a lasting negative effect on our economy" if it is not reversed.
Dave Golden, chairman of the Utah Transportation Coalition, said the state's committment to funding transportation is faltering, with an $11.3 billion gap in funding projected by 2040.
Golden said transportation is a key to Utah's current economic success, and there are critical transportation needs that can't wait to be addressed, including crumbling infrastructure in cities and counties, and deteriorating rural roads.
He called for a "significant investment" this session in both transportation and education.
Beattie said this is the "2015 opportunity for economic leadership" and said schools need a "landmark investment in Utah's future" while the state's competitive advantages in transportation must be maintained.
"We can no longer be robbing from Peter to pay Paul. Let me be clear: It's easy to be an advocate for one of these issues," Beattie said. But, he said, both are vital, and "now is the time to invest and go beyond the political expectancies."