Op-ed: Make the wealthy pay more to improve Utah education

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah’s education system is in crisis. Our education outcomes for each demographic group lag far behind our peers across the nation. Our student-to-teacher ratio is second worst in the country. Our per-pupil funding is dead last. Our massive teacher shortage is completely understandable. Would you want to be a teacher in Utah under these conditions?

There is a simple reason for this crisis. Our past two Republican governors have decided that cutting taxes for wealthy Utahns is more important than adequately funding education.

It is important to note that no system of taxation is perfectly equal. “Progressive taxation” means that those who have more pay a higher percentage of their income to taxes, while regressive taxation means that those who have less are hit harder by their tax rate. Utah’s single 5 percent rate for all income brackets is regressive: a wealthy family can get by without 5 percent of its income much easier than can a less fortunate family. Now, a single flat rate for all income brackets works well in scenarios where the primary goal is to express religious devotion (e.g. tithing), but taxes (fortunately) do not have that primary goal.

Utah’s current tax situation can be traced back to 2007, when Gov. Jon Huntsman and the Republicans in the state Legislature abandoned all attempts at a progressive tax rate and adopted our current regressive system. This was the driving force behind an annual loss of $1.2 billion from our education system.

It turns out that such a huge reduction wasn’t sustainable. Our ballooning education crisis — a direct result of the priorities of the Republican majority in this state — is ironically now even threatening the competitiveness of Utah’s most wealthy.

In his 2017 budget, Gov. Gary Herbert proposes that we double down on our current regressive tax system and cobble together money from here and there to marginally increase education funding. He wants to rely on sales tax — recognized by economists as a deeply regressive solution, as it burdens the poor far more than the rich — in order to add (at most) $200 million dollars to education. This regressive increase adds up to a mere fraction of the $1.2 billion taken, yearly, from the education fund.

The alternative, proposed by Our Schools Now, is to raise our regressive tax rates across the board, from 5 percent to 5.875 percent. Again, this is a regressive solution to a problem the Republicans created when they gave up on a progressive system in 2007.

So, what it boils down to is simple: Huntsman/Herbert joined forces with Utah Republicans to give the wealthiest Utahns — whose fortunes are built with help from a well-educated workforce — a big break when it gave up on progressive taxation. Now that our education system has fallen deep into crisis, two solutions have been proposed: make the taxes even more regressive (by bringing in more sales tax) or increase the already-regressive tax system (by raising the flat rate for everyone).

Either way, the wealthiest in Utah win again and the rest of us are left to pick up the tab. If this doesn’t sit right with you, make sure your elected representative hear about it. Tell them it’s time for a progressive tax system that is fairer to all Utahns and will finally provide our kids the reliably high-quality education they deserve.

Jeff Swift, Ph.D., is policy director for LDS Dems and lives in South Jordan with his wife and children.

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