As tax referendum deadline looms, lawmakers say overhaul won't impact education funding

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As tax referendum deadline looms, lawmakers say overhaul won't impact education funding (Photo: KUTV)

There is less than a week left for the tax referendum effort to get the required number of signatures that could bring the Utah tax bill to a vote.

The referendum effort has until Jan. 21 to get nearly 116,000 petition signatures. As of Tuesday, the election office said they have verified more than 19,000 signatures.

That is a major increase since the start of the month, when they had approximately 500 verified signatures, but still a long way to go in just a week.

RELATED: Where you can still sign the tax referendum by county around Utah

The man spearheading the tax referendum effort, former legislator Fred Cox, said he is confident they will hit the mark.

"Last time I looked, we had around 38,000 that they're on packets, that they've either been submitted or ready to submit. We have a number of other signatures on packets that are not yet ready,” Cox said.

Not only do they have to get more than 96,000 more verified signatures, they must be spread out throughout the state.

Cox said five or six counties are already over the amount needed, and another five are over halfway there. He said some larger counties, like Salt Lake County, still have a way to go.

He says if the number of signatures they've been getting daily keep up through the week, they will hit 116,000 mark.

A major focus of criticism of the tax overhaul, passed by lawmakers in a special legislative session in December, has been the increases in sales tax, but there are also cuts to income taxes. In Utah, income taxes are used to fund education.

The 2019 tax reform bill cuts income taxes by approximately $639 million in total. While that may sound like a good thing, it has teachers worried.

Some teachers say they want to know how education will be funded after the tax cuts.

"The income tax funds the education fund; a cut to income tax is a cut to the education fund,” said Michael McDonough, a teacher and president of the Granite Education Association.

He said Utah already has a teacher shortage and cannot afford a cut to funding without impacts in the classroom.

"The kind of choices they have are to increase class size or, yeah, cut positions, cut programs,” McDonough said.

For their part, the lawmakers who've defended the tax overhaul plan maintain that a cut to education spending is simply a misconception.

Regardless, Fred Cox said moving tax funds around will have long-term impacts.

"Is tuition going to go up? Are property taxes going to go up? Are they counting on changing the Utah constitution so they can use the money the way they want?” Cox said.

Senator Dan Hemmert, Utah's Senate Majority Whip, supports the tax reform bill and said there will be no money taken from education spending.

Before the tax reform bill, Hemmert said, income tax funded K-12 and higher education. The tax bill changes it so higher education is funded through the general fund, which will see more money from increased sales tax. That leaves the income tax funds just for K-12.

RELATED: Gov. Herbert proposes extra $300 million for education in state budget

"The education fund will still be better off than it has been in prior years, to the tune of about $200 million,” Hemmert said.

While that may be the case, teachers will be waiting to see how the budget shapes up once the legislature meets at the end of this month.

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