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Where the Money Is - Legislative post by UEA Policy Ambassador Warren Brodhead

2/5/2019

Legislative report submitted by UEA Policy Ambassador Warren Brodhead, retired Salt Lake City School District social studies teacher

UEA Policy Ambassador Warren Brodhead (right) joined
about 60 teachers at Educator Day on the Hill Feb. 1
When notorious 1920s bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he liked to rob banks, he famously replied, "Because that's where the money is." When it comes to funding for public schools, Utah educators, perhaps inspired by Willy's keen insight, know perfectly well where the money is. It's in the tax code, and income taxes are, constitutionally, our bread-and-butter.

I am a retired educator and taught Social Studies in the Salt Lake City School District. Although in my teaching I stressed economics, my math skills are rather truncated. The thickets of the tax code therefore represent a daunting obstacle for someone like me, requiring access to an actual expert, perhaps a funding wizard. Luckily, UEA has such a person in Jay Blain, our Association's point man on funding and taxes. So, the first stop on my ascent of the learning curve was a meeting with Jay.

Politely overlooking my neophyte status regarding funding and taxes, Jay gave me a helpful head start. The key to adequate funding is the Weighted Pupil Uni (WPU), he emphasized, which is primarily derived from the income tax. The legislature often likes to steer money elsewhere, in one-time allotments to specific line items. This can have the unfortunate consequence of depriving local school districts of the flexibility required to fund in adequate fashion their particular needs.

My next stop was the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. From the audience I gazed in wonder as the Legislative Fiscal Analyst presented his short course on public school funding. Numbers blinked on and off the screen like subatomic particles in the quantum realm. But I got the gist: there's ongoing money and one-time money. Since 1997, public ed has had to share a good chunk of income tax revenues with higher ed, which in turn siphons off some of its sales tax funding stream to the general fund.

But like a blaze of sunshine came the report that income tax revenues for 2018 had exceeded expectations by $1 billion! The funding calf had been nicely fattened!

The next Friday, I attended UEA Educator Day on the Hill. A consultation with Jay firmed up my understanding that, thanks to the surplus, $488 million of ongoing money was now available for public ed, hence making UEA's goal of a 6.5 percent increase in the WPU quite doable. I rushed over to relay the happy news to my state senator, Derek Kitchen. Since each 1 percent of the WPU represents about $32 million, I told him, and that figure times 6.5 equals $208 million, then our goal of 6.5 percent is well within reach.

However, the next Monday the skies darkened. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that our $1 billion cushion was in jeopardy. Sales tax revenues had dried up, so higher ed was now totally reliant on income taxes, meaning that public ed might suffer as a result. And now monkish chants of "Tax Cuts" began to resound from the legislative cloister. I had naively envisioned that money's passage from the tax code to the classroom would seem stately and serene, like that of a cruise liner or the California Zephyr on its run over to Denver. But suddenly it appeared it would be more like a mishmash of bumper cars.

It's a work in progress. It's politics, inchoate and uncertain. And that's, for now, where the money is.

About UEA Policy Ambassadors

In 2019, seven teachers volunteered to become UEA Policy Ambassadors. These teachers received training from the UEA Legislative Team and have agreed to participate in UEA Educator Day on the Hill, engage with their legislators and share their experiences with UEA members.

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