Written by Association President Howard Stephenson
Published on December 6, 2016

On November 29, 2016 education advocacy organizations Prosperity 2020 and Education First announced their intention to seek voter approval of a $750 million permanent increase in Utah’s individual and corporate income taxes.

If approved by voters, the tax hike would raise the current rate from 5% to 5.875%, which translates to an increase of 17.5% over the current rate. The “Our Schools Now” initiative organizers say they will begin collecting signatures next summer to place the question of an income tax increase on the 2018 ballot.

I believe that if the measure makes it to the ballot it will fail to receive voter approval by a very wide margin, creating ill will from classroom teachers across the state.

One of the reasons I am so certain the measure will be defeated is that current political polling practices overstate support for “motherhood and apple pie” issues and understate support for candidates who are disliked by the media.

The recent presidential election has again illustrated the reasons we should be skeptical about public opinion polling. While it was predicted by nearly every polling firm that Hillary Clinton would win the election, Donald Trump came out as the winner.

If we look at the history of polling, this isn’t very surprising.  One thing we can assume from wildly inaccurate political polling is that often people lie to the pollster to save face when they voted against a popular ballot issue. In the case of the Presidential race it wasn’t popular to say you were voting for Trump. So those who were polled would give a different answer than the truth to the pollster.

One polling organization that did predict the Trump victory accurately shows how voters are often not honest when answering questions with a pollster. The Trafalgar Group, a Republican consulting firm that conducted surveys using automated phone calls in battleground states, asked a different question rather than the traditional “who do you support for president” question.

This group asked the responders who they think most of their neighbors are voting for. This gave the responders an opportunity to say how they will vote without losing face to the live pollster. Because of this question and other techniques, the Trafalgar group was able to accurately predict that Trump would win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina.

We’ve also seen this on a local level. In 2013, the Jordan School District proposed a half billion-dollar bond and early polling showed that 77% supported the bond. However when it was time for the individuals to vote on the bond in November, it failed 67% to 32%.

Understanding this truth about polling is relevant to the Our Schools Now initiative.

As this campaign moves forward the proponents of the tax increase will cite a number of polls that show the public supports this dangerous change to Utah’s income tax. But based on what we have learned from the recent election and elections in the past, I question if the support is really there.

In September of 2015 a Dan Jones and Associates poll showed that 68% of those polled would support a 1% increase to the income tax if the money was used for targeted, specific programs to improve public education. The issue with this poll is the question. How could anyone say they wouldn’t support giving more money to improve public education especially when it is targeted and used for specific programs? The problem is that the question does not give the perspective to the taxpayer that this is nearly a 20% increase in the income tax rate and equals out to be an $830 increase per household in the state. Responders may think otherwise about supporting the proposal if they understand the impact they are facing by supporting the initiative.

Another poll in October of 2016, again by Dan Jones and Associates, asked the question, “How important is it to you for Utah to increase its per-pupil spending so that we are no longer last in the nation?” Just over 70 percent said that was important. This is the equivalent to asking if you support motherhood and apple pie. Of course the public is going to say they support education and don’t want Utah to be last in any ranking. However, when it comes to actually letting the money go from their family checkbook, they will vote differently in the privacy of the voting booth.

Proof of this is described in the front-page article of this newsletter which shows that in 2014, when given an opportunity to voluntarily support education by donating a portion of their income tax refunds, Utahns only donated $8,083 via the donation option on the state’s income tax return. The “Invest More for Education” line item was placed on the income tax return when several education groups claimed citizens are willing to pay more for public education. Utahns have had the option to give more to the education system through this avenue and it is has only generated $8,000 annually. This is a clear signal that polls may say one thing but reality is something different.

As this effort to raise the income tax moves forward I expect that additional polls will be released that attempt to show that Utahns think that giving the government nearly three quarters of a billion dollars in new money is a good idea. While these polls are giving the result those paying for the poll want you to hear, the legislature needs to take the initiative petition seriously.  Those representing Prosperity 2020 and Education First have said they hope the legislature will respond with a better plan.  Let’s hope they do.

Read more in December’s edition of The Utah Taxpayer.