United Utah party backs $715 million-a-year school funding initiative, but state’s Democrats and GOP aren’t choosing sides

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank speaks in support of Our Schools Now as its formally launched its tax increase initiative in June. The newly formed United Utah Party has endorsed the $715 million-a-year tax initiative, while the state’s Republican and Democratic parties are not taking a position.

A new Utah political party has come out in support of a proposed ballot initiative to raise taxes and increase education funding, but the state’s largest political organizations are staying mum on the issue.

The Our Schools Now initiative proposes boost yearly education funding by $715 million through a combination of sales and income tax hikes.

If it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters in November, the initiative would raise Utah’s income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.45 percent, while the sales tax rate would climb from 4.7 percent to 5.15 percent.

The United Utah Party launched in 2017 as a centrist alternative to the state’s Republican and Democrat parties, with stated hopes of drawing supporters from both traditional parties’ camps.

Its executive director, Jim Bennett — son and campaign manager of the late three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett — ran as the party’s nominee in November’s special election for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, winning just under 9 percent of the vote.

A total of 234 Utah voters are currently affiliated with the United Utah Party, according to the latest numbers from the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office, compared to roughly 178,000 Democrats and 716,000 Republicans.

Polling by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics shows Our Schools Now holding a narrow majority of public support. The initiative is most popular among self-described Democrats, with a small majority of independents and a plurality of Republicans also supporting Our Schools Now.

“We are all increasingly concerned that Utah’s investment in education is insufficient to prepare Utah kids for the opportunities of the 21st century and sustain Utah’s economy,” Cox said. “Our Schools Now gives Utahns the chance to make the critical investments necessary for future individual, community and statewide prosperity.”

“The Legislature has done what they can to essentially squeeze blood out of the turnip,” Anderson said. “Obviously education is the highest priority.”

On a per-student basis — a primary budgeting metric for public education — Utah’s schools receive the lowest funding among U.S. states. Those spending levels are partly a function of tax revenue and demographics, as the state’s population has a high proportion of school-age children.

Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, declined to state a party position on Our Schools Now, but he commended the level of grassroots political activity in the state.

“We’re focused on the election of great Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in 2018,” Cragun said. “We’re confident the voters will give each ballot initiative proper consideration, and we are excited to see so many people engaged on issues where the Republican Legislature has dropped the ball.”

“Even with this increase, we’re not going to be anywhere near the high-tax states,” Davis said. “There’s a balance here. You don’t want to have such a low tax situation that you starve public education.”

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