Utah lawmaker: Help schools, end tax breaks for dependents
Funding • Some equate idea, which has been proposed before, with a tax increase.
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A Utah lawmaker wants to send more money to schools by ending state income tax exemptions for dependents.

But some opponents are likening the idea to a tax increase on families.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, explained her proposal to the state school board Friday, saying it could generate about $400 million, most of which would go to Utah schools as an investment in kids, communities and new jobs.

"We have some great objectives," Jones said referring to achievement goals set by the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, such as making sure that 66 percent of Utah adults have postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020. "There's no way we're going to achieve that unless we invest, and we have to invest in our neighborhood schools, and I believe this is the way to do it."

Under Jones' proposal, the money would bypass the state education budget, instead going directly to schools. It would then be up to school community councils to recommend uses for the cash, and local school district boards would approve those recommendations. Also, Jones said she'd like to see about $48 million of the $400 million go toward creating an earned income tax credit for low-income Utahns.

"Let's broaden the base," Jones said, referring to those who pay taxes toward schools. "We all share a responsibility in educating our kids and our grandkids."

Jones said she hopes to run legislation proposing the changes this session, though she's still getting input and shaping how it would work. Jones has run similar bills in the past.

Several state school board members reacted warmly to the idea Friday, decrying the state's current school funding situation. Utah has long had the lowest base per-pupil spending in the nation.

"For years and years I've sat on this board, and we've talked about how important it is that we look for new funding sources to support our public education system, and I think Sen. Jones has brilliantly come up with an option for us that would do some really terrific things," said board member Janet Cannon.

Others, however, said that while they liked the concept, they had questions and concerns with some of the specifics. Some board members said they worry about sending the money directly to individual schools, when there might be other ways to spend it that would benefit education more. Still others wondered whether lawmakers might simply use the extra money to supplant state dollars.

Jones said part of the money could be used to train the councils, and she said her bill would prohibit local education leaders from using the money to replace other dollars already going to schools, though it would not address the question of what lawmakers might do in the future.

Under Jones' proposal, each year schools stand to gain anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million each.

Critics say such a change would be tantamount to a tax increase. Jones said she could not give figures indicating how much her proposal might impact Utah families.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he believes eliminating deductions for dependents would amount to a tax increase, and in the current economic climate any type of proposed tax increase would essentially be "DOA."

"You're going to have people who maybe will not qualify for an earned income credit who are already at the edge who suddenly are going to have a big tax increase because they can't claim these children," Hillyard said.

And Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said she likes the idea of giving schools more local control but also views the idea as a tax increase.

"One of the funding challenges we have in our state is the number of children we have in our families, which means it [would impact] most Utahns," Clark said of eliminating deductions for dependents.

But Jones said she's been meeting with groups and individuals to get input on the bill and has had interest from a number of places, including some Republicans, though she declined to name them. Kory Holdaway, Utah Education Association (UEA) government relations director, also spoke to the board Friday, calling the proposal a "positive direction."

Vicki Varela, a spokeswoman for Prosperity 2020, an education project launched by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said Jones' idea was generally well received by the initiative's founding council.

She said group members believed "it was a thoughtful idea that may have a lot of merit" though more discussion will be needed.

Rosemary Winters contributed to this report.