Raising the gas tax to fund Utah schools doesn’t have majority support — but it’s a close call, new poll says

This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. Read it in its entirety here

A ballot question asking voters whether the state’s gas tax should be increased by 10 cents — which would free up more funds for education — has gained support in recent months, but it appears poised to fall short, according to a new poll that comes less than a month before Election Day.

The nonbinding question, which is part of a comprise approved by Utah lawmakers in March, is opposed by 51 percent of registered voters in the state; 45 percent indicated support for the proposed increase. Those backing the plan say its approval will come down to residents returning their ballots or showing up at the polls.

Among respondents, support tended to increase with education levels. Forty percent of those who reported having an associate or technical degree were in favor; 46 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and 56 percent of those with a graduate or other professional degree.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Alliance for a Better Utah and the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, have all backed the question.

UEA President Heidi Matthews appreciates that the money freed up by the compromise, if passed, would support individual schools and classrooms. It cannot be used on administration, according to a draft of the bill, or for construction.

Matthews would like to see at least some of it spent to boost teacher salaries, which she hopes might improve retention rates in the state during a somewhat dire educator shortage. In Utah, 47 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years in the classroom, according to a joint study from the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Education Policy Center.

“So much is at stake with Question 1 in terms of the citizens of Utah weighing in on the value we place on public education,” she said. “The consequences are great for our students.”

She calls the question “a collaborative effort” between supporters and state leaders. Cox says it’s “the right way to put our kids first.” The governor’s spokesman, Paul Edwards, notes it’s “not an easy sale” to increase taxes but believes “voters will recognize that we have a real need to secure better funding for our schools.”

Increasing the gas tax, he said, puts it better in line with inflation and curtails big cuts from the general fund for transportation. “It’s kind of a complicated way,” he acknowledged, “to go about a rebalancing of taxation.”

But Edwards is glad to see poll numbers so close and says the ballot question “is probably going to be a bit of a toss-up.”

This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. Read it in its entirety here

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