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Saying Utah's Legislature has "danced around the issue" for too long, a Republican lawmaker on Tuesday presented his proposal to increase education funding by raising taxes.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, told members of the Education Task Force that he intends to sponsor a bill lifting the personal income tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent.
The bill would take effect in 2016 and is estimated to raise $585 million for schools in its first year.
"To a large extent, we are, frankly, spinning our wheels when it comes to education funding in the state," Draxler said. "We are able to maintain the status quo and not much else."
Draxler said that times have changed since the Legislature lowered the income tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent in 2007. At the time, he said, lawmakers were looking at years of surplus revenues and chose to give some of that money back to taxpayers.
"We had no idea at that time that in a very short time we would enter into the great recession," Draxler said.
During and after the recession, millions of dollars were cut from the general and education funds. The economy has improved in recent years, providing some additional funding for schools, but Draxler said those gains have done little to incentivize new teachers and to fund investments in learning technology.
Draxler, a former educator, pointed to recent accolades Utah has received as a top state for business while the state's education program has lagged behind the rest of the country.
"We have to raise the level of the teaching profession," he said. "We must pay higher salaries, substantially higher."
Under the bill, revenue generated by the tax increase would be directed toward funding performance-based pay incentives for teachers and for investments in digital learning technology.
Funding would largely be distributed on a per-student basis, Draxler said, but 10 percent of the new revenues would be distributed to schools at a uniform rate to assist low population areas.
Based on median incomes, the tax increase is estimated to cost an additional $575 each year for a home-owning family of four, $660 for a home-owning family of 6 and $280 for single adults.
Taxes for businesses would not be affected by the bill.
"It does not touch the corporate rate so we maintain our place as a state for business," Draxler said.
Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, described Draxler's proposal as "brave." Jones sponsored a bill last year that would have increased school funding by limiting income tax exemptions and she has long advocated for greater investment in schools.
"It's time for us to say the emperor has no clothes," she said. "It's time for us to say we really need to look at other options for investing in our future, in our children."
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said Draxler's bill would generate a "lively" debate but it's a discussion worth having.
He said teaching in Utah is not a sought after profession and he suggested that low base salaries have led the state's best educators to leave the classroom for other opportunities.
"I get frustrated that the good ones feel like they have to go to the administration to make enough money," he said.
But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, questioned whether there were other ways to invest in schools. He said that taxing income could lead to a change in behavior that negatively impacts the state.
"Is the income tax the right way to do that?" he asked. "It's a tax on productivity."
Draxler agreed that tax increases should not be made lightly and that higher tax burdens can affect productivity. But he added that a one percent increase would not reach the level of impact that Niederhauser alluded to.
"Six percent isn't even close to that threshold, in my opinion," Draxler said.