Utahns' top priority for budget surplus? Spend it on education, poll says

Weber High School theater teacher Mark Daniels laughs as he teaches a beginning theater class at the school in Pleasant View, Weber County, on Sept. 3. Daniels has been named 2022 Utah Teacher of the Year.

Weber High School theater teacher Mark Daniels laughs as he teaches a beginning theater class at the school in Pleasant View, Weber County, on Sept. 3. Daniels has been named 2022 Utah Teacher of the Year. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — More than one-third of Utahns say education should be the Utah Legislature's top priority for an anticipated budget surplus, a new poll conducted for the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics shows.

Support for education was strongest among people ages 25 to 56, presumably because they are more likely to have school-age children.

Meanwhile, 27% of those polled identified a tax cut as a priority, according to the results of the survey of 746 registered voters conducted Oct. 14-21 by the public polling firm Dan Jones & Associates. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.54 percentage points for the full sample.

A tax cut had higher support among people ages 18-24 and those ages 57 and up, according to the poll results.

Utahns' top priority for budget surplus? Spend it on education, poll says
Photo: Deseret News

Moe Hickey, CEO of the child advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children, said it was good news that slightly more than one-third of the people polled favored more investment in education above other priorities.

"We believe that continued investment in education including pre-K and optional enhanced kindergarten are a wise use of surplus funds. We are opposed to a tax cut at a time when we as a state have so many unmet needs. Recently the Utah State Tax Commission and the Utah Foundation both published research showing that taxes in Utah are the lowest that they have been in 30 to 50 years following repeated rounds of tax cutting," Hickey said.

Lawmakers need to appropriate sufficient resources to ensure Utah children get "world-class education and health care as well as special support for children most in need. If we need to use tax policy, we advocate that we look at vehicles such as the child tax credit and earned income tax credit to help those most in need," he said.

The poll results suggest allocating funds to infrastructure ranked above appropriating more to social services. Seventeen percent of those polled selected infrastructure funding while just 12% identified social services.

Julie Stewart, associate professor in Westminster College's Honor College, said levels of education funding go hand-in-hand with the well-being of a population.

"Whether it's early childhood education spending, or spending in the K-6 system, in my mind, we're really shortchanging ourselves when we don't prioritize those expenses," she said.

Education spending is "investing literally in people who will then be your citizens, your workers and your caregivers in future generations," said Stewart.

As for tax liability, Utahns do not shoulder the same tax burden as residents of many other states, she said.

"Our overall tax rates, relative to other states, are extremely low," Stewart said.

"Anyone who feels like their tax liability is too heavy living in this state should definitely get around more."

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People who identified education, social services and infrastructure as areas that could use more funding "maybe have a better sense of what our needs are," she said.

Along partisan lines, support for a tax cut was substantially higher among Republicans at 31% than Democrats at 3%.

The converse was true for allocating more funding to education, with 47% of respondents identifying as Democrats supporting more education funding compared to 33% among Republicans.

Among people who identified as "very conservative," 47% supported a tax cut, and among people self described as "very liberal," 60% supported spending the surplus on education.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she was disappointed that social services was perceived as a lower priority than infrastructure, particularly given the challenges of so many Utahns that were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

People who need to work and want to work have been sidelined by a lack of quality, affordable child care, she said. Child care workers' wages have historically lagged behind other jobs. It has become increasingly difficult to staff child care centers as other businesses have started to offer workers $15-$17 an hour as a starting wage to help address labor shortages.

Moss said she's "at the other end of the spectrum in my life," with a 96-year-old mother in memory care at an assisted living facility.

Many of the workers at the facility are young, some of them trained as certified nursing assistants while they were still in high school.

"There's a big turnover there. It's absolutely critical for them (facilities) to have those aides. I mean my mother can't walk or take care of herself. They do hard work and they're really nice to those older people," Moss said.

Moss, a retired school teacher, said she was pleased that more than one-third of the respondents identified more funding for education as a priority, although she wished support was higher.

"I'm happy about that. That's really good," Moss said.

"I wish it was more like 40%."

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Marjorie Cortez

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