Voters reject nonbinding question for gas tax hike to help fund education

Voters reject nonbinding question for gas tax hike to help fund education

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah voters rejected a nonbinding opinion question that asked whether the Utah Legislature should to raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon to provide more funding for education and local roads on Tuesday.

Austin Cox, campaign manager for Question 1, said the ballot question was confusing for voters because it was nonbinding, that revenues would be shared with local roads, and historically, fuel tax has not funded education.

"This has been a very complicated message from Day 1. As soon as we made a compromise with the Legislature, we immediately saw support (for the former citizen's initiative Our Schools Now) decrease and we knew it was going to be a challenge," he said.

Heather Williamson, state director for Americans for Prosperity of Utah, which opposed the question, said the defeat was a vote against higher taxes.

"Utah already has a more than $750 million surplus on the books. We’re pleased Utah voters recognize that our state doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem and voted down this unnecessary tax increase,” said Heather Williamson.

“We don’t need more taxes, we need to make sure existing funds are spent wisely and effectively. Lawmakers must find more efficient ways to allocate resources to essential community needs.”

Cox said hundreds of thousands of Utahns statewide cast ballots to support public education. As late as Tuesday afternoon, backers were calling voters encouraging them to vote in favor of the question.

With the final reports yet to be filed, total contributions to the Question 1 campaign in 2018, year to date - totaled nearly $2 million, according to the latest state campaign contribution disclosure reports.

The campaign spent more than $1.7 million, according to the latest report.

Significant contributions were made by a who’s who of powerful and wealthy Utahns, among them Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller, Robert Marquardt, founder and owner of Management & Training Corp.; philanthropist Karen Huntsman and Khosrow Semnani, philanthropist and former owner of Envirocare.

Miller contributed $250,000 to the campaign in 2018.

Marquardt, his corporation and family members were early contributors to the initiative effort and later the opinion question, giving more than $250,000 to the effort since 2016.

Vivint Inc. contributed $150,000, according to state election reports.

Huntsman contributed $100,000 in 2018, according to state political expenditure reports, as did Alan and Karen Ashton; the Kem Gardner Family Partnership and Zions Management Service Co.

The National Education Association, led by former Utahn Lily Eskelsen García, contributed $100,000 to the campaign as well, the report states.

"We still have a very strong coalition. We're not going anywhere. Our business community will continue to be engaged. We will continue to be engaged. We will continue to work with Governor Herbert, the Legislature and educators to make sure our kids have the opportunities that they need," Cox said.

Supporters of Nonbinding Opinion Question 1 campaigned on the premise that the average driver would pay just $4 a month more in fuel tax, which would generate more than $100 million annually for public education, the equivalent of $150 per student. Higher education would receive $25 million annually while local road funding would increase $55 million per year.

State motor fuel taxes are not dedicated to education. On the state level, income taxes fund education. Education also receives funding from the General Fund, fed by state sales and use taxes, alcohol and tobacco revenues and other sources.

Revenues raised by a motor fuel tax increase would offset general fund earmarks that, in past years, have gone to transportation projects and ostensibly make more General Fund revenue available for education.

Nonbinding Opinion Question 1 was placed on the ballot as part of a compromise between state lawmakers and backers of the citizen initiative Our Schools Now. The initiative sought to raise income tax and sales tax, resulting in an estimated $700 million for education annually.

Legislative leaders said raising the state's income tax would imperil Utah's growing economy, which was one reason Our Schools Now supporters agreed to the compromise.

In the waning days of the 2018 general session of the Utah Legislature, supporters of the citizen initiative campaign Our Schools Now agreed to halt their efforts. At the time, supporters were well on their way to collecting the required number of signatures to place the initiative before voters.

Lawmakers agreed to place Question 1 on the statewide ballot. They also agreed to a five-year freeze in the only property tax levy set by state lawmakers, which allows more education revenue to be captured as property values rise.

School bonds

From Randolph to St. George, local voters were asked to authorize more than $600 million in general obligation bonds to build and renovate schools, which in some cases would mean funding security measures to enhance school safety.

A bond question posed by the Nebo School District Board of Education asked voters to approve issuance of $298 million in school building bonds to rebuild Springville, Spanish Fork and Payson high schools.

Early returns showed 54 percent of voters supported the bond while 45 percent opposed.

Rapidly growing Washington County School District asked voter approval of $125 million in general obligation bonds to build schools, renovate existing schools and purchase land and school furnishings.

Early returns showed the question was too close to call.

In Iron County, a $91.5 million bond issue would fund security updates to 15 schools, including surveillance systems and security doors.

According to early results, the bond appeared headed for passage with 59 percent voting in support and 40 percent opposed.

Ogden School District asked voters to approve an $87 million bond to replace Horace Mann and T.O. Smith elementary schools, build an addition to Wasatch Elementary School, and renovate Polk Elementary School, which opened in 1927.

In early returns, 53 percent voted in support of the bond and 47 percent against.

The tiny Rich School District, which has just over 500 students, proposed a $8.5 million bond to voters to finance construction of a science lab, arts facilities including a stage on its North Campus and a safety corridor between Rich High School and the elementary to help prevent slips and falls in winter months when high schoolers used shared facilities such as the lunch room, auditorium and library, among other improvements.

Early returns indicated support for the bond issue's passage with 57 percent of voters supporting it and 42 percent voting against.

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Marjorie Cortez


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