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Tuesday, February 6, 2007
David's Plan for Utah's $1.6 Billion Surplus

There's something for everyone. One-fourth goes back to the taxpayer, and half goes to education, but not precisely how you might think.

If you have any contact at all with the news media in Utah, you must know by now that the Utah Legislature is laboring diligently to figure out how to spend this year's $1.6 billion budget surplus. Naturally, the public education industry thinks it should get every last buck -- "for the children," of course, though a surprising percentage of the money never actually gets to the rooms where children study. And a lot of folks who know where the money comes from -- we'll call them "taxpayers" -- think that when the government forcibly takes from us more money than it needs (though "need" is a problematic concept), it should give the money back. And every lobby that is anybody wants its own piece of the pie. Let's face it: There's a lot of pie here.

I would think myself a truly irresponsible blogger if I did not offer my own plan for the surplus. We'll call it "David's Plan." It has something for everyone, which will only offend the folks who think they should get it all, to the exclusion of all others.

Are you ready?

David's Plan for Spending $1.6 Billion is pretty simple in its broad outlines. We will cut the surplus into four equal parts and give two of them to education. (We'll work with round numbers here, for the sake of simplifying the explanation.)

The first $400 million goes back to taxpayers. I suggest refunding it on a per capita basis, which gives something to everyone, but also is a bit "progressive," in the sense that I'll get the same refund as some rich guy who paid a lot more in taxes. We'll go by everyone's 2006 tax return. This gets us taxpayers specifically. It excludes illegals who don't pay taxes and kooky resident rebels who don't pay taxes, either. (If they're serious, people who don't think this is fair can give their own rebates to people they know who get none.)

The population of Utah is about 2.5 million. Divide that into $400 million, and you get -- at least I get -- $160 per person. Multiply that by six people (myself, my spouse, and our four children) in my family, and I'll be expecting my family's check for about $960 in the mail sometime in the next two months, thank you very much.

If you think I deserve an extra reward for being the one who puts the "David" in "David's Plan," I suggest somewhere between a flat $6 extra, so I can go out for a good hamburger, and a barely-noticeable one-tenth of one percent of everyone else's rebate, or approximately $400,000.

The second $400 million gets passed around to state agencies, except education. I recommend that much of it go to transportation, including mass transit. Much of that, in turn, should probably be saved to pay for the best attorneys money can buy, because the Sierra Club, Mayor Rocky, and like-minded folks are going to fight very hard to obstruct the Mountain View Corridor Highway, which is much needed and hardly an environmental atrocity.

The third $400 million goes to public education, in the hope that some few additional dollars will trickle down to the classroom. One may hope that $400 million will be enough money to cut the legs out from under the industry lobby when it tries to complain that it didn't get its share of the surplus. (Some of them think their share is every dollar, but the reasonable ones might actually be satisfied with 25 percent, especially when that means $400,000,000.) In any case, I suggest that they might want to set a few dollars aside to fund the therapy they'll need, because . . .

The fourth $400 million goes to fund a system of vouchers or tax credits for children currently stuck in (relatively) failing public schools. We have to be careful not to spend a one-time surplus in a way that will make ongoing funding difficult, so let's confine our vision for the present to a really big pilot program. We'll make the entire $400 million an endowment and spend only the interest. If we assume a conservative yield of 5.0 percent annually, we'll have $20 million annually to put into the vouchers or credits. Assume a generous average credit of $2500 per child, and we can rescue 8000 students. If the average credit is lower, of course, the number of students goes higher.

There will be a lot of details to work out. Are subsequent years in (or out of) the same school automatic for a given student? Will there be a need-based component? (That's fine, within reason.) What about new move-ins to a failing school's area? And so forth.

Meanwhile, even this $400 million will help the public schools. It will reduce the average class size. It will encourage the public schools' improvement and increase teacher salaries through competition. And it will hone the industry's math skills year after year, as the industry labors mightily to massage the inevitable statistics in a mostly fruitless effort to support the wishful conclusion that the program isn't actually helping any students after all.

For the future, I suggest that any increase in the annual state budget for public education budget be paired with an equal expansion of the endowment.

So there's my plan. I'd love to see it happen. In fact, I'd love to see it attempted. But I won't hold my breath.

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