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A new poll shows the Our Schools Now ballot initiative is maintaining and possibly expanding its base of support as organizers prepare to gather signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.
A majority of registered Utah voters 57 percent said they either "somewhat" or "strongly" support a proposal to raise roughly $700 million for public education through a combination of income and sales tax hikes. Forty percent opposed the initiative to some degree, with 3 percent undecided.
That's a gain of 2 percentage points compared to a January poll that similarly found majority support for a tax increase to bolster schools.
"It shows that the narrative about needing to increase funding for public education is one that is resonating well," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, which co-commissioned both polls with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Bob Marquardt, Our Schools Now committee member and chairman of Education First, said the results were encouraging with more than a year to go before voters cast their ballots.
Organizers announced the initiative in November and held a series of legally required town hall meetings this month. But Marquardt said many Utahns still may not know the specifics of how the proposed tax increases will benefit education.
"Our campaign really won't ramp up in a big way until next year," he said. "Once people learn more about how the money would be used and the details of this, we think that we will continue to rise."
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the new poll July 18 through 20. It surveyed 614 registered Utah voters. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95 percentage points.
Participants were asked a different question than the one used in January, due to changes in the size and structure of the tax hikes sought by Our Schools Now.
At that time, 55 percent of respondents backed the initiative which originally planned to raise only Utah's income tax rate with 41 percent against it.
The initiative was opposed in January by a majority of male voters, who now support Our Schools Now by a margin of 52 percent to 46 percent in the new poll. Among women, 62 percent support the tax increases in the latest survey.
The results also show majority or plurality support for Our Schools Now among all age levels, and majority backing from Republicans (52 percent), Democrats (77 percent) and unaffiliated voters (60 percent).
Perry said initiatives are difficult to poll. Voters may voice support to pollsters before experiencing a "gut check" in the ballot box when faced with raising their own taxes.
But he noted that the new poll's low number of respondents who answered "don't know" at 3 percent and evidence of majority support among both Republicans and Democrats bode well for Our Schools Now.
"People seem to have drawn their lines already," Perry said. "The support of this crosses party lines."
Steve Bartlett, a Cottonwood Heights resident, said he leans toward supporting the initiative. He said he'd prefer to see it place a limit on tax exemptions, but is more concerned with boosting education than waiting for an ideal proposal.
"The whole tax system in the state is skewed weird anyway," Bartlett said.
Orem resident Linda Johnson, meanwhile, opposes Our Schools Now. She said government waste should be reduced before taxpayers are asked for more money.
"They're always looking for new ways to fund things that we should already have money for," she said.
In its current form, Our Schools Now's Teacher and Student Success Act would raise both the state income tax rate and sales tax rate by 0.5 percentage point, to 5.5 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.
Marquardt pointed out that some alterations may be made to add technical clarifications and to minimize discrepancies over how much money its passage would muster for schools.
While the campaign estimates a $700 million annual lift to public education, an analysis by the Governor's Office of Management and Budget sets the price tag at $825 million. The gap, Marquardt said, is due to the budget office adjusting for continued economic growth between now and 2022, when the Teacher and Student Success Act would be fully implemented.
"They built in a growth factor of between 4 and 5 percent, which is pretty aggressive," Marquardt said. "It's confusing. We're not really looking forward to starting the campaign on a confusing note."
After the final version of the initiative is determined, Marquardt said the campaign will begin gathering signatures in mid-August. To qualify for the ballot, the campaign must secure more than 113,000 signatures from registered Utah voters in at least 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts.
The campaign will have to overcome the hesitation Utah voters feel about giving more of their money to a government system many see as inefficient, according to Evelyn Everton, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Utah.
"It's very easy, when you dump an extra 865 million tax dollars into a system, that some of that money could absolutely be wasted," she said.
Rather than raise taxes, Everton said, schools need to better prioritize the resources they already receive. She pointed to the recent trend of Utah school district salary increase as evidence that money is already available to public education.
"There's certainly the money there to be able to pay teachers higher salaries without raising taxes," she said.
Officials in several school districts have said they plan to raise taxes now or in the future to maintain those higher compensation levels.
Utah perennially ranks last in the nation for the money it spends per student on public education. And per-student spending forms the backbone of school budgeting, corresponding directly to teacher pay and class sizes.
But Everton said Utah students manage to compete with their national peers despite these low funding levels, including earning best-in-the-nation scores for eighth-grade science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. "We're doing a really good job," she said, "with the money that is there."