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Schools 'Disaster' Seen in Utah Tax Revolt

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Education officials in Utah are predicting that new proposals to limit taxes in the state, coming at a time of unprecedented public sentiment against increased taxes, could prove "disastrous" for public schools.

The predictions are based on a new analysis by the state office of education of the fiscal impact of three tax-limitation petitions now circulating.

The petitions were filed this year by leaders of a grassroots tax-protest movement and must be signed by 10 percent of Utah voters to be included on the November 1988 ballot. State officials predict that all three will receive the requisite number of signatures.

The study, which was presented to lawmakers late last month, estimates that the education budget stands to lose amounts ranging from $3.25 million to more than $108 million if voters approve any of the proposals.

If all three proposals are adopted, the impact on public schooling would be "really drastic," said Arthur Bishop, the author of the study and director of finance for the office of education.

Proposals' Effects

One of the more popular petitions, called "the people's tax act," seeks to repeal the record $163-million tax increase approved by the legislature earlier this year. Public education's share of that cut would amount to $62 million--representing a 9.3 percent decrease in spending, according to Mr. Bishop.

He said lawmakers might be forced to meet the loss by eliminating various expenditures from the education budget, possibly including $29 million for kindergarten programs, $17 million for educational materials, $9 million for new textbooks, $6 million for substitute teachers, and $1 million for health services.

The "Utah family choice act," another petition proposal, would grant tuition tax credits for families with children in private schools. If it is approved, public schools would lose $3.25 million in revenues, Mr. Bishop estimated.

The third and most sweeping option, known as "the people's tax and spending limitation amendments," would restrict residential property assessments to three-quarters of market value. Mr. Bishop has estimated that $108 million of the $200- million property-tax cut expected to result from that measure would come from public-education funds.

Big Families, Shrinking Funds

"The tax protesters are unwilling to tie revenue to services," said James Moss, state superintendent of public instruction. "If we cut revenue, we will have to cut services."

Utah's education budget has been reduced by $67 million since 1986, state officials say, because of lower-than-expected revenues each year.

And in the state with the nation's highest birthrate, the growing number of school-age children threatens to strain state and local school budgets through the mid-1990's.

"We are the first state in the nation in terms of the percentage of our population made up of children" under age 18, Mr. Moss said. "And we're last in the nation in terms of the percentage of our population between the ages of 18 and 64."

"We hope the people of Utah realize that by choosing to have large families, they're the ones who caused this burden of higher taxation," he said. "And we hope they accept the responsibility that that entails."

But the tax protesters, spurred to action by this year's record tax increase, are taking their petitions to shopping centers and going door-to-door in search of signatures. If 5 percent of Utah's voters sign the petitions, the legislature will be required to take up the proposals when it convenes in January; a 10-percent share would secure a place on the statewide ballot.

Former State Senator Warren Pugh, who has chaired both the Senate appropriations and public-education committees, said anti-tax sentiment is higher than ever--especially in regions whose economies are dependent on agriculture and energy development.

"Almost everyone concedes that the proposals will get sufficient signatures to put them on the ballot," he said.

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