By Elizabeth Hill
Utah schools are under funded and Utah Legislators now know why: the taxes on Utah”s federal government land goes directly to the national government, leaving hardly any funding for Utah public schools.
According to a study headed by Utah Speaker of the House Marty Stephens, the federal government owns 64.5 percent of Utah”s land, while no more than 14 percent of an eastern state”s land is owned federally. Federal land cannot be taxed, and nearly half of the profits accrued from natural resources extracted from the federal land must be paid to the federal government. This means Eastern states make money on 64 percent more of their land than Utah does. This tax money, legislators claim, partially goes toward education.
State Rep. Tom Urquhart, R-St. George, said this is why he, Stephens and State Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, proposed the Action Plan for Public Lands and Education initiative, which passed through the Utah Legislature during the 2003 general session. Eight other Western state legislatures have already passed similar legislation.
The APPLE initiative calls for Western states to form a coalition that will petition Congress to compensate Western states for money lost on federally owned land.
“We don”t have a ton of votes in the House or the Senate,” Urquhart said. “We Western states have to lock arms and make this an issue.”
In 1976, the federal government said it would sell off federally owned land and each state would receive 5 percent of the proceeds, Urquhart said.
“Once they decided not to sell the land, we got 5 percent of nothing,” he said.
According to the study, 5 percent of the money made from federal land sales would have meant $836 million for the state.
“Originally, the frontier states wanted the government to sell off federally owned lands,” Urquhart said. “That ship has already sailed.”
The states now want payment for what they could have made, Urquhart said.
Ray Scott, a sociology teacher at Timpview High School, said the under funding for education has a domino effect on Utah schools and his classroom.
“We keep having the demand to reduce staff, which in turn reduces class options and increases class size,” he said.
According to the Utah Legislature Web site, schools in the Western states, on average, have three more students per classroom than eastern states. Averages show Utah has 22.1 students per teacher while Virginia has 13.8 students per teacher.
Scott said since there are some classes with 35 t0 40 students, children do not get the specialized one on one attention they need, and some kids “slip through the cracks.”
Adam Elggren, a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the initiative was presented to Congress recently, and now the federal government is looking for an agency to further study the issue.
“We need to find an agency that will be objective and perform a well-done and thorough study,” Elggren said. But, he adds that it is a pressing issue that affects “a lot of states and a lot of people.”