At times necessity dictates that we come together as a state to make a tough decision — a generational decision that will have lasting consequences, potentially changing the trajectory of Utah’s future. Today is one of these moments.
Let’s look at some of these moments in our past.
In 1989, the Utah Legislature asked voters to weigh in on public investment that would position Utah as a winter sports capital and help the state secure the Olympic Winter Games. Voters approved and we invested in a speed-skating oval, ski-jumping facilities, and a luge and bobsled track even before we were selected as the U.S. Olympic bid city. It was a bold decision that continues to pay dividends today. We are now home to the largest ski resort in the United States, international exports are soaring, and Utah’s reputation in the world continues to climb.
In 2006, voters approved a sales tax increase for transportation investment. This investment brought us TRAX light rail and FrontRunner commuter rail, as well as improved roads. The greater Salt Lake metropolitan area now has one of the best rail systems for any area of its size in North America. Utah commuters spend less time stuck in traffic, and we took an important step to improve air quality.
In both cases the Legislature wisely turned to the public and invited them to weigh in on a major public decision. It is now time to invite voters to make a generational decision about education.
A group of business and community leaders is asking the Utah Legislature to place a seven-eighths of one percentage point income tax increase on the ballot. The increase would yield about $550 million in additional education investment each year that would be used to improve educational outcomes. Importantly, the ballot decision will inspire a statewide discussion about investment in our children and grandchildren and a prosperous economy.
As the leader of Utah’s largest business association I believe we need to have this discussion.
Let me be clear. An increase in taxes would require a significant sacrifice. We need to evaluate how it would affect our economic competitiveness as a state. We also need to assess what would happen if we don’t make this investment in our future workforce. This decision is about our economic future. That’s why I think it’s appropriate for legislators to place the decision on the ballot and let the public decide.
By doing so we will give voters the choice to invest their hard-earned money in local schools. The funding will attract and retain high-quality teachers. It will pay for more counselors and mentors. It will support more academic coaches and student advocates to touch the lives of students. It will help more students reach grade-level proficiency for reading and math. And it will send more high school and college graduates into our workforce. These are serious benefits.
I hear frequently from business leaders who express concern that they cannot find enough qualified employees for job openings. These leaders speak of education warning signs that give them pause — test scores, completion rates and skill mismatches. They consistently express the need for a highly qualified workforce. We need to listen to their concerns.
As president of the Salt Lake Chamber, I wish to commend Gov. Gary Herbert and legislators for their commitment to education. I know they share my view that a high-quality workforce is the surest path to economic prosperity. I applaud them for their willingness to tackle difficult issues and lead this state in a positive direction.
This year I ask them to invite a statewide, generational discussion about education investment in our state. I ask them to give Utah voters the chance to give an up or down vote to enhanced educational outcomes and funding. We did it for the Olympics. We did it for roads and transit. It’s time to do it for education.