State lawmakers unveiled a funding compromise Tuesday that could sidestep a ballot initiative to raise money for schools.
Backers of the Our Schools Now initiative have been collecting signatures to put a question before voters this fall to increase sales and income taxes for education. They had hoped to pump close to $700 million more into Utah schools, which consistently rank near the bottom nationally in per pupil spending.
Republican lawmakers had been dreading the prospect of a tax hike, so instead came up with an alternative way to raise money for education.
Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, debuted a bill late Tuesday afternoon that would put an optional ballot question before voters this November asking to raise the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. Part of that money would go to transportation and the other part to education.
If voters support the tax hike, it will be up to the Legislature to implement it.
Lawmakers are also planning a five-year freeze on the property tax, with that money also earmarked for schools.
Stuart Adams, the Senate Majority Whip, said he thinks it's a better option for increasing school funding.
“[We] were doing that for equalization," he said of fixing property taxes. "That brings in a dedicated revenue to the school districts.”
Gov. Gary Herbert signaled his support for the deal.
"I'm impressed that they are pretty close to an agreement," he said. "I think some good things that will come out of this is one, we will have a lot more money being put into education."
A spokesman for Our Schools Now confirmed they were engaged in discussions with lawmakers and were hoping for a quick fix.
“We recognize it is late in the session to accomplish this,” said Austin Cox, a spokesman for the ballot initiative. “We are confident this will be a very good year for public education in Utah and hope to do so with the support of the Governor, the House and the Senate.”
Lawmakers have just a couple of days left to hammer out the deal before the end of the session.
This story was updated on March 6 to add comments from the governor and details of the proposed gas tax ballot question.