SALT LAKE CITY — Support is slipping slightly for the nonbinding question on the November ballot about raising state gas taxes by 10 cents a gallon to help fund schools, according to a UtahPolicy.com poll.
Results released Wednesday show 50 percent of Utahns say they back raising the gas tax for education, down from 52 percent in May. Opponents of the increase are up to 47 percent, from 43 percent.
The poll of 809 likely Utah voters was conducted Aug. 22-31 for the online political news source by Dan Jones & Associates and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent points.
"It's going to be close," said Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, the group that reached an agreement with lawmakers to drop an initiative that would have raised both sales and income taxes to collect some $700 million.
The non-binding ballot question is part of that agreement, which also included record education spending and a five-year freeze in the state property tax levy that allows additional revenue to be captured as property values rise.
Cox announced Wednesday that Our Schools Now and state leaders have now also agreed on how the additional revenue would be spent. He said a working group has been meeting privately to draft legislation.
The bill, which does not yet have a sponsor, follows much of the formula in the original initiative except for setting aside 5 percent of the new public school funding for teacher retention programs, Cox said.
Eighty percent of the new education funds would go to K-12 schools and the remaining 20 percent of the overall increase in funding would be available to higher education.
A 10-cent hike in the state's 29.4 cents a gallon gas tax is expected to bring in $180 million in the first full budget year that begins July 1, 2019, according to the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's office.
About $60 million of the increased gas tax revenue would go to local transportation needs, while the rest would be used to offset the general fund revenues now being used for transportation, freeing up more money for education.
That somewhat complicated explanation for how the money gets to the classroom may be adding to the decline in support reflected in the poll, said LaVarr Webb, UtahPolicy.com publisher.
"The bottom line is, if you support this, it's more likely education will get more money. But behind that simple statement is some complexity," Webb said. He said voters are also starting to pay more attention as the election gets closer.
"It seems like everyone supports public education and when you ask, 'Does education need more money?' There's a lot of support for that," he said. "When it gets real, like it's actually on the ballot, it becomes more difficult."
Additionally, Webb said, the gas tax is a hard sell and voters are being asked to tell the Legislature they want a tax increase. Plus, there are other issues on the ballot competing for attention, including an initiative to legalize medical marijuana.
But he said there's still time to win over Utahns.
"I think proponents may be able to overcome all this, but they have some work to do," Webb said. "I think it's much needed, but there is a lot on the ballot, so voters are going to have to be educated about a lot of things."
Our Schools Now has been running TV commercials encouraging Utahns to vote for the gas tax increase and Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to appear in a new spot scheduled to begin airing next week.
Heather Williamson, state director for Americans for Prosperity of Utah, said the organization opposes the ballot question. Gas prices are already high in the state, she said, and the question would endorse a 33 percent increase in the tax at the pump.
"This is a significant increase," Williamson said.