In a surprising move, the Utah Legislature is considering a bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, that would negate the Our Schools Now initiative before voters even have a chance to vote on it.
The Our Schools Now petition proposes less than a half-percent increase to the income and sales taxes to better fund Utah’s education system. Funds would go directly to local schools to fund local needs, with proper oversight, accountability and transparency. The initiative will be on the ballot for Utahns to vote on in November.
But if the voters pass Our Schools Now later this year, Schultz’s legislation would negate the initiative, overturning the will of the people.
This unprecedented and ill-advised piece of legislation threatens to undermine our most basic democratic institutions — the sanctity of public elections and the right to petition our government. This cause is no longer just about needed funding for education, as acknowledged by the vast majority of Utahns. Schultz is actually saying he knows better than his constituents and all Utah residents. If the people vote to invest more in local schools to improve the learning of their children, he unilaterally proposes to take it away.
Schultz believes that “The public will like this.” It’s hard to imagine how the public would like having their decision at the ballot box overruled by those who are supposed to be representing them. This is not the Utah way.
We have worked with the Legislature for many years and still prefer to see it work out a plan to significantly increase funding for our public schools and universities. We encourage legislators in this session to come up with a funding plan that not only fully funds growth in Utah’s student population and increases in inflation, but also invests in proven academic programs that improve student achievement.
However, if they are not able to do this, the people deserve the right to vote on what they are willing to do to fund schools in Utah.
Schultz’s predecessors in the Legislature established a democratic process for the people to create law through a ballot initiative. It is not an easy process. It takes 10 percent of the voters from the most recent presidential election in 26 of the 29 counties to sign a petition to qualify for the ballot and then over 50 percent of voters to support it at the polls to become law. This is as rigorous a standard as exists in any of the 50 states.
If voters this fall pass the Our Schools Now initiative, it will send a loud and strong message that they believe Utah schools have been underfunded for far too long. The Legislature’s tax policy decisions over the past 20 years have resulted in more than $1.2 billion being taken from Utah schools every year. Utah has been last in the nation in student spending for over 30 years. And now more than 50 percent of our children are not proficient in reading, math or science at any grade level.
Polls have shown that 89 percent of Utah voters believe education is underfunded. The time for action on behalf of our schools is now. To suggest that the clear will of the people at the ballot box would be reversed is contrary to the longstanding ideals of America.
President Abraham Lincoln rightly characterized our government as of the people, for the people and by the people. For some reason, Schultz wants to add, “unless the Utah Legislature thinks otherwise.” We, the people, deserve better.
Gail Miller, Scott Anderson and Ron Jibson serve as co-chairs of the Our Schools Now ballot initiative.