Sen. Ben McAdams' bill to change the funding mechanisms for public education is a proposal with good ideas, of both substance and whimsy.
First, the whimsy. McAdams, a Democrat, has included a provision that he surely knows will never pass. SB54 would dedicate 30 percent of future increases in sales tax revenue to public education. If that sounds familiar, it's because the Republican super majority in the Legislature last year overrode a veto to earmark the same percentage of sales tax growth to transportation.
Providing education the same earmark, only fair for a public service at least as important as transportation, would tie the hands of future legislatures. The transportation earmark was misguided and never should have become law. If McAdams is serious in trying to convince Republican legislators that public education is as deserving of such an earmark, he is fantasizing.
Another of SB54's doomed provisions would require disclosure of any negative impact on education funding of all future state or local legislation. While this would provide needed protection for public-education funding, it will never fly.
Now to the substance. McAdams' bill would establish or re-establish a realistic "funding floor," or basic amount the state must allocate per-student to public education. He's right that a constitutional amendment to allow income tax revenue to be used, not only for public education as first established in the Utah Constitution, but also for higher education, has eroded the education fund.
The current flat income tax rate of 5 percent, a drop from the former 7 percent rate, has also drained public schools.
To maintain the funding floor set at $750 per student beyond the current Weighted Pupil Unit, McAdams offers two more reforms, both of which are likely to be proclaimed unconscionable tax increases at the Republican Legislature. Nevertheless, they deserve consideration.
The first would freeze the basic property tax levy if education funding dropped below the funding floor. If gross property tax revenue rose, as it probably will as the Great Recession gradually fades, the levy would not be adjusted as it now is to keep property tax receipts stable. The net effect would be more dollars for education.
McAdams' best idea would freeze the value of the income tax personal exemption at a current dollar amount, ending inflation adjustments. Eventually, large families would pay more for their children's education, instead of putting the largest burden on the system and paying the least.
McAdams' bill is a serious attempt to protect public education funding. It deserves to be heard.