Public and higher education officials are lobbying the House to reject a proposed constitutional amendment to cap state expenditures, arguing it would hamstring efforts to accommodate an ever-growing number of students.
If it became law, House Joint Resolution 37 could make it impossible for the state to dramatically increase higher education attainment levels envisioned in a recently adopted plan, according to Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg. The HigherEd Utah 2020 plan calls for growing college enrollments by more than 100,000 over the next decade.
"In order to achieve 66 percent of our future work force with some sort of post-secondary credential or degree by the year 2020, it is essential for our institutions to grow at a faster rate than the state funding allowed in the resolution," Sederburg said in a joint news release with the Utah Office of Education. "To pass an amendment like this would greatly limit the ability of Utah to achieve economic prosperity."
Sponsored by Rep. Carl Wimmer, HJR37 barely cleared the House Government Operations Committee last week in the face of bipartisan opposition.
"We can all agree that we under fund education. If we put artificial caps on these essential programs, we will never be able to fully fund them," Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, told Wimmer. "You're handicapping our ability to manage the state properly."
HJR37 calls for amending the state constitution so that expenditures cannot exceed what the state spent the year before, after making adjustments for inflation and population growth. Spending beyond this limit would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and the governor's approval. It would also divert surplus revenues to a reserve fund.
The resolution is awaiting action in the House Rules Committee. If passed, it would still require voter approval to become law.
Although Utah is regarded as the nation's best managed state, resolution backers say such an amendment is needed because, since 1990, state spending has grown at twice the rate of the population.
"This is completely unsustainable," said Wimmer, a Herriman Republican. "We are setting ourselves up for a potential disaster."
Joining Wimmer was the Sutherland Institute's Derek Monson, who argued that government expansion is potentially corrosive.
"When citizens who are dependent on these nonessential programs and services lose them due to necessary budget cuts, they become alienated and distrustful of government leaders," Monson said.
But education leaders say Utah has controlled spending and that few states spend less per student than Utah.
"Our schools and institutions of higher education have faced budget cuts consistently over the past few years, and this amendment would add another cut on top of those cuts," said Larry Shumway, superintendent of public instruction.