Congratulations, Utah: at 8 PM on Election Night, we successfully killed any chance of meaningful increases to public education funding for at least the next decade. Yes, when the citizens of Utah were asked “are you willing to pay $4 more a month to help fund schools?” we said by a 2 to 1 margin in a loud and resounding voice “NO!”
By voting no, we have now given the legislature the political cover they have been craving for years in order to avoid biting the bullet and actually committing the cardinal sin of raising taxes for the public welfare. For years, lawmakers have hidden behind phrases such as “2/3rds of our budget goes towards education” in a smoke and mirrors attempt to somehow ignore the fact that we still have the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation and that the legislature has always had the tool of taxation in its toolbox to fix the situation.
With the defeat of Question 1, lawmakers can now say that voters put their money where their mouth is and that it is only rabble-rousers who complain about education funding being too low. This, despite the somewhat ironic fact that polls have consistently shown that, by a 2 to 1 margin, Utahns support the idea of their taxes being raised to support public education.
Of course, this was the plan all along. Question 1 was purposefully written to be confusing and upsetting to the voter. The gas tax is highly visible and tactile, there is a friendly sticker placed on every gas pump telling you just how much money the government wants to take out of your pocket. (Heck, they had to update those stickers not long ago when they upped the gas tax back in January). Adding to the anger towards the tax is that the cost of gasoline itself is highly volatile, and the complexities of oil in the economy are tough to wrap your head around – much easier just to blame the greedy taxman for your woes and dig your feet into the sand when Uncle Sam comes asking for more. Income tax (the primary source of public education in Utah) is less so. Yes, you may notice it on your paystub, but most of us just simply accept it as a fact of life that money is going to be taken out long before we are able to do anything with it. What is another $4 per month if you know it is going towards education?
Lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they made an odd and confusing funding mechanism for education a personal question. Having elected representatives raise taxes inherently implies that the entire community is affected by the change; by asking Bob, Joe, or Susan on a case by case basis if they want their taxes increased, they are going to say no because the sense of community is lost when isolated in the ballot box. In short, lawmakers used human nature to make us vote against our own interests and it worked spectacularly well.
And so the people of Utah balked and the legislature got exactly what it wanted. But don’t worry, the only thing that will suffer is our kids and economy.