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Gas tax increase fails; schools group drives on

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SALT LAKE CITY — The backers of “Our Schools Now,” a Utah ballot initiative aimed at increasing funding for education by upping the state’s gas tax, say they are down, but not out, after voters rejected the proposal.

Non-binding Opinion Question 1 would have increased Utah’s gas tax slightly in an effort to shore up funding for transportation in the state. The idea behind the agreement was that if transportation did not need as much money from the state’s General Fund, there would be more money available for education.

“We will still be committed and advocates for public education, and the business community, the political leaders that are supporting this, the education community will still be committed to improving public education in Utah,” said Austin Cox, the campaign manager for the ballot initiative.

Question 1 had the support of people like Gov. Gary Herbert, but not the voters — possibly because of the complex nature of the question, Cox believes.

Even if it had been approved, a gas tax would not have been a coup d’etat for the supporters of Question 1. As a non-binding question, it was intended mainly to gauge support for an increase in the gas tax, rather than to take immediate action. The legislature would still have had to address increasing the gas tax in the next legislative session.

What the question did not guarantee, which may have been a sticking point for voters, was that the money would, in fact, reach schools. The language read:

“WHEREAS, approximately $600 million is taken from the state’s General Fund to subsidize the Transportation Fund each year,” going on to state, “if the state’s Transportation Fund is more self-sustaining, more resources in the General Fund will be available for use by the state public education system.”

In other words, this measure would have specifically raised funds for transportation. While lawmakers indicated their intent was to then put more General Fund money toward education once the Transportation Fund was more stable, there was no guarantee schools would always get more money, or exactly how much more money schools would get.

The increase in the gas tax, 10 cents, was expected to impact drivers about $4 per month on average in Utah.

Cox says his group is not going to give up, instead looking for other assistance from the legislature than a gas tax increase.

“Our goal is to increase funding for public education by $1,000 per student,” Cox says. “We’re still committed to that goal and we look forward to working with the legislature.”