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Utah House, Senate GOP looking at education funding options

Utah House, Senate GOP looking at education funding options

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SALT LAKE CITY — The 2017 Legislature doesn't have to decide whether to raise taxes to bring in more money for education despite a proposed new citizens initiative that would do just that, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said Wednesday.

"It doesn't have to get done this session. We could have some action in the 2018 session," the Sandy Republican said after an all-day Senate GOP caucus at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Both House and Senate Republicans talked in caucus meetings Wednesday about creating a task force to deal with the issues raised by Our Schools Now, a group backing a boost in the income tax rate to raise $750 million for education.

House Republicans didn't take a position on whether to create the task force, though they discussed the possible citizens initiative and how education funding works.

"If we're going to talk about whether we raise taxes or not, understanding what we collect and how we spend it and how all of that works, we need to make sure everybody's up to speed on that," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

One of the proponents of a task force, however, said he wants to just get going on enhancing revenues and setting requirements for increased student performance once the Legislature starts Jan. 23.

"We could make a significant start this session," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said, acknowledging lawmakers are feeling pressure to respond to the 2018 ballot initiative being pushed by Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and other business and community leaders.

"This is very different," Stephenson said. "This is being advocated by the biggest leaders in the business world in Utah. That’s a big part of the reason legislators are paying attention."

Niederhauser, who along with Hughes is scheduled to meet Thursday with leaders of Our Schools Now, said lawmakers are going to need time.

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"I don't think they can expect for us to make these huge decisions on the fly. This is a big one, and a very political one for our Legislature," the Senate president said. He said lawmakers need to start by determining what improvements they expect.

"We're not going to focus as much on how to fund it, because there's not a lot of rocket science to the options we have," he said. "Let's figure out what we want to fund first. We'll figure out the funding later."

Hughes said he expects the meeting will about sharing perspectives, not lawmakers staking a position.

"I think we agree and share concerns. It's just how we get there," he said.

Options Niederhauser and others have already brought up for collecting more revenues for schools include restoring the state sales tax on food, increasing the gas tax and limiting income tax exemptions.

Initiative backers want to increase the state's 5 percent income tax rate by 7/8 of 1 percent, a 17 percent hike, but Niederhauser said that's "at the bottom of the options," although he said any tax increase will be politically difficult.

Nolan Karras, a former Utah House speaker who serve's on initiative group's steering committee, told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday he's hoping lawmakers will take action so an initiative is not needed.

"We'd love to have them trump us. But it's got to be real, and it's got to be significant," Karras said. He said there is no interest in offering to accept a lesser funding increase to "go away."

In addition to education, Hughes said House Republicans at the all-day caucus talked about how specific legislative proposals would figure into longterm plans in the areas of the economy, safety and security, quality of life and individual liberty.

"It wasn’t drilling down and arriving at caucus position on any of these things," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said other issues discussed in the Republican caucus included a proposal to set up a three-digit phone number dedicated to a continuously manned suicide prevention hotline, similar to 911.

Also, Okerlund said, the majority party discussed solutions to a lingering issue related to the controversial compromise in 2014 that gave more candidates access to the primary ballot.

The Utah Republican Party sued over the deal between lawmakers and supporters of the Count My Vote initiative and is now waiting to see how the question of what happens when no primary candidate gets a majority of the vote is resolved.

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Lisa Riley Roche and Dennis Romboy

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