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The clinking of glasses and background whispers stopped abruptly when Sen. Aaron Osmond mentioned two magic words he says are needed for the future of Utah education and transportation: Raise taxes.
"Hmm, deathly silence," Osmond then noted during a Utah Foundation luncheon Thursday about how to handle future education and transportation needs without pitting one against the other, or hurting both.
"Does the Legislature have the political will to increase tax revenue for public education?" the South Jordan Republican asked. "I don't know. But this is one legislator who believes the time has come for us to find a new method to generate new money for public education."
And it's time to also find new money for transportation, he and others said including suggesting such things as raising fuel taxes now and allowing automatic future raises tied to inflation, restoring the full sales tax on food, and perhaps creating automatic hikes for education taxes also tied to inflation.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams told the luncheon that the population of his county is expected to double in the next 20 to 30 years.
Foundation President Stephen Kroes said challenges from that growth too often pit transportation vs. education in battles for scarce state revenue.
So several panelists suggested the answer is to get a bigger pot of money while ensuring that any new funds are spent wisely and achieve targeted results.
Osmond noted that the state still ranks last in per-pupil spending because of large family sizes. Natalie Gochnour, economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said Utah test scores and graduation rates are dropping with just a 65 percent four-year graduation rate now in Salt Lake City. She said more diversity means fewer kids speak English at home, making education more expensive.
On the transportation side of competing needs, a Utah Foundation study last week said the state faces an $11 billion shortfall over 30 years for high-priority transportation projects.
"I think we are at a point where there is acceptance of the problem" among state leaders, "and recognition that we need to do something," Osmond said. "We just need to step up and do our job."
Gochnour said if the Legislature does not act, it may be wise to go directly to the people, even in a referendum such as when voters approved sales tax hikes that have funded much of the new TRAX and FrontRunner lines built by the Utah Transit Authority.
She said no better way exists to push raising taxes than to give the public a direct say in the decision, and show them data outlining problems.
Among ideas floated by panelists was Osmond's to allow automatic increases in education taxes tied to inflation; Gochnour's push to raise fuel taxes that have not risen since 1997 and restore sales tax on food; and McAdams' idea to also allow automatic fuel tax increases tied to inflation.
About state fuel tax, Gochnour said it has been 24.5 cents a gallon since 1997. Because of inflation, it is now worth 14.7 cents a gallon in 1997 dollars. "So we have a bigger population and a bigger system, and we're taking in in real terms 40 percent less. We can't have the nation's fastest-growing economy and third-fastest-growing population and not ask highway users to pay their fair share."
Osmond says that in talks with constituents, he finds voters would endorse education tax increases on three conditions: the money gets to the classroom and not administration, accountability can show the money is used wisely, and the state measures to ensure it gets results designed for the money.