Lawmaker's bill could add $10-$15 million to Utah schools each year
Schools • Proposal would put a freeze on property tax rate and exemption amount.
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In a state that has long lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to school spending, one Utah lawmaker plans to run a bill this year to boost funding by adding dollars to education over time — though some see it as little more than a tax increase.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring HB55, which would do two main things to increase school funding. For one, it would freeze one property tax rate, called the basic levy. At present, that rate decreases as values rise, because the state doesn't need the rate to be as high to collect the cash needed.

The bill would also freeze certain state tax exemptions at a specific dollar amount. Currently, Utah taxpayers are allowed to claim exemptions for each person in a family, up to 75 percent of the federal income tax exemption. Briscoe's bill would change that rate from a percentage to a fixed amount: $2,850 per person.

By setting an amount instead of a percentage, more taxes could be collected over time as incomes increased, he said.

The changes could mean $10 million to $15 million of additional cash for schools a year.

"It wouldn't give them a windfall this year," Briscoe said, "but it would give them a more stable funding base many years into the future."

Utah has long had the lowest per pupil spending in the country — a status many attribute to the state's high proportion of children to adults and large swaths of publicly owned land.

Jay Blain, Utah Education Association (UEA) director of policy and research, said the UEA has not yet taken official positions on bills, but HB55 could be promising.

"We have to look at all the avenues possible to find good ways to increase revenue into education," Blain said, "and if this is a good way, it needs to be explored as well."

It's a bill, however, that's sure to encounter critics as well. Last year, former Democratic Salt Lake City Sen. Ben McAdams, who is now Salt Lake County mayor, ran a similar bill, SB54. It stalled in the Senate Education Committee.

Though a number of groups, including the UEA, supported the bill last year, others criticized it as a tax increase — an issue Briscoe's bill may also face.

Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said his group hasn't taken positions yet on bills this year, but he has concerns about HB55.

"We have serious concerns about the massive tax hike that this would lead to," Van Tassell said. "As we look around the country it becomes more and more apparent to us that how the dollars are spent has far more to do with educational achievement than how much is spent."

Briscoe said if people want to think of his bill as leading to a tax increase, he doesn't see a problem with that. But he said he thinks of it as an investment, and it's about time the state invested more in education.

"You cannot get to have a quality education system by taking a perverse pleasure in being the lowest funded system in the country," Briscoe said. "I'm simply trying to reinvest in our kids."

Last year, McAdams' bill also included a provision to direct 30 percent of sales tax revenue growth each year to education until the state was able to reach a new minimum level of funding per student. Briscoe, however, did not include that proposal in his bill, saying he didn't believe shifting money from one place to another within the state budget would ultimately help schools.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker