A Watchdog Lobbyist or a Charter School Advocate? Stephenson Fails to Sway Committee with Mixed Message

Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican -  Draper)
Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper)

To anyone attending the Utah Senate Education Committee hearing, a clear head and a keen understanding of the players was required to decipher what was trying to happen and the eventual outcome of the Senate Education Committee action on SB 284 – Charter School Funding Revisions.

The bill, originating with Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper), the President of the Utah Taxpayers Association, had only been birthed with a file number the day before and was still too new for an assigned floor sponsor. The bill attempts to redefine the manner and amount of funding, through tax assessments on real property, for charter schools.

In 2007, Stephenson, as Utah Taxpayers Association president, wrote about and defended a law enacted thirty years ago and is still known as the “Truth in Taxation” law. At that time, he described it as a fiscal restriction on the rise of taxes, a necessary tool for keeping property taxes in line with inflation and population growth.

Surprisingly, this week Stephenson seemed to many in the room and on the committee to be reversing that previous endorsement of what was heralded in years past as “Utah’s most taxpayer-friendly law.” The bill describes the substantial shift in philosophy required for a taxpayer watchdog to become an advocate for less transparency and reporting.

The result would then be applied to taxation earmarked for charter schools. Under SB 284, the per-pupil tax increase from between 25 percent to 50 percent is money taken from public school budgets in a specific district and diverted to the charter campus that the child attends. Stephenson describes this is a small amount of money.

“You may ask, why would I, as a tax [opponent] in my day job, want to allow this school board to avoid going through Truth in Taxation? The reason for that is, my fear is that local school boards being compelled to go through Truth in Taxation for such a small amount will just say, ‘as long as we’re taking the grief through a public notice and through having to do this public hearing for a tax increase, we might as well make it worth our while.’ So I believe,” continued Stephenson, “that by not exempting this from Truth in Taxation, we’ll actually have bigger tax increases than are necessary to just replace the lost money.”

At this, the committee and many in the audience seemed to shift in their seats.

Restated, this bill presentation was from a lobbyist for taxpayers interests who was advocating that less transparency be applied to a corner of the property tax law. Stephenson said he was doing it so that local authorities would not be tempted to tax more while administering the recovery of funds shuttled to charter schools.

In response to inquiry by Senator Steve Urquhart, (Republican – St. George) Stephenson described an area of the bill which actually provides for more transparency where the county tax authority would disclose (via a line on the tax notice) the exact percentage of monies going to the charter school within the county.

Urquhart said that he liked that provision of the bill “a lot.” Urquhart also asked about local accountability to the taxpayers and to that, Stephenson replied that the charter school had an obligation to the students and community to remain popular or lose their per-student funding when students and parents “voted with their feet.”

Stephenson told the committee that he would like to proceed with the other provisions of the bill, even if the percentage of taxes (from 25 percent to 50 percent per student) given to the charter school budgets was still an area for debate. Committee chair Ann Milner (Republican – Ogden) agreed with Senator Aaron Osmond (Republican – South Jordan) about further study and the presentation lost any momentum it might have had.

Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) noted that Utah has only approximately 100 charter schools in existence and that the topic has been charged with funding concerns for years. Dabakis said, “I don’t feel the same love for our public schools. I’m not excited about shifting money around and having tax increases to benefit 10 percent of our state’s students.” Dabakis also called for greater study on the entire idea of charter school funding.

In the end, the committee was pressed by Senator Osmond’s response to constituent concerns for more study on “replacement funds.” The Senate Education Committee decided to hold SB 284 for further discussion and clarification and did so with Senator Stephenson’s agreement.

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