Voters across the state tore into their ballots last week as giddy as kids on Christmas morning, only to get to the end and then there’s the big record scratch: What’s with all these amendments to the Utah Constitution?
There are seven amendments — the most in at least four decades — that voters are being asked to approve. It’s a lot to digest.
Most of them aren’t particularly controversial. Removing references to slavery from the Constitution and making clear that the state’s founding document applies equally to men and women are kind of no-brainers.
But then there’s Amendment G.
It’s a complicated proposal that makes significant changes to how some of the most vital programs in state government — education and services for children and disabled individuals — get funded. So stick with me here while I lay the groundwork.
Beginning in 1946, Utah’s Constitution earmarked all of the income tax revenue to K-12 education. In 1996, a constitutional amendment added higher education to that pot of money. Sales tax and gas tax pays for every other state government program.
While income tax collection has been seeing robust growth, sales tax and gas tax have generally not, and that’s squeezing the ability to pay for things like roads and social services and highway patrol and the like.
That’s why we saw the Legislature’s ill-fated attempt at tax reform — you remember, the one that blew up like the Death Star after voters outraged at a food tax increase forced lawmakers to repeal the measure.
Amendment G is, at its core, another attempt by lawmakers to relax the rules on how they spend money and ease the squeeze.
It proposes taking social service programs for children and Utahns with disabilities — about $600 million total — and funding them with money meant for education instead of sales tax dollars. State Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored the change, said the idea is to “focus on the whole kid,” that mental health services and the like are part of a quality education, so it makes sense to fund them out of the Education Fund.
To get educators on board, lawmakers passed HB357, which guarantees that, at a minimum, schools will get funding to cover rising student populations and inflation, and a percentage of new money will be put into savings to act as a buffer against future recessions.
Those are not small concessions, and it was enough to get the Utah Education Association on board. If the amendment fails, those guarantees go away — and it’s why I really went back and forth on whether to support Amendment G or not.
In the end, I cannot.
Years ago, Joe Biden put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”
This is no exception. The Legislature wants more flexibility in how they slice up the budgetary pie and, so long as the pie stays the same size, one program will win and one program will lose. What’s concerning is that education generally and higher education in particular seem destined to be the losers.
Think about it this way: If lawmakers wanted to keep education spending on the same trajectory or to increase spending, they don’t need Amendment G to do that. The only reason to pass it is so they can spend less than they otherwise would on schools, diverting the money to other programs.
Lawmakers are eager to point out that over the past five years there has been more than $1 billion in new education spending.
That is good, and perhaps you are of the opinion that we spend plenty on schools and it’s time to spread the money around. If you share that view, Amendment G is a win.
I don’t see it that way and neither do the Utahns who routinely put education among their top issues.
Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending. It wasn’t until last year that we got back to the level of investment (adjusted for inflation) that we had before the Great Recession.
Now is not the time to start carving up education’s revenue stream and I fear that that is exactly what will happen if we pit K-12 education against higher education and important social services.
Passing Amendment G gives lawmakers flexibility, but doesn’t solve the foundational problem: If Utahns value the services the government provides, we need to pay for them. Nobody loves paying taxes — ask Donald Trump — but shuffling money around doesn’t accomplish anything.
Not to mention, according to the Utah Tax Commission, Utahns’ tax burden is lower than it has been at any point since the early 1960s.
“What we’d love to see if we had a magic wand is: What are our needs as a state? What resources do we have? … and then come up with a plan,” said Moe Hickey, director of Voices for Utah Children, which opposes Amendment G. “If we don’t value children, let’s just say that. But if we do, we’re going to have to look at other sources of revenue.”
I’m not betting that the Legislature will do that. It’s hard. Amendment G is easy.
And the sad truth is that it probably doesn’t matter if Amendment G passes. Republican lawmakers have already identified hundreds of millions of dollars they can pull out of education funding if Amendment G fails — it’s the threat they used to get the education community on board.
So no matter the outcome, they’re going to try to carve up education revenues. But that doesn’t mean we should make it easy for them, and we certainly shouldn’t be complicit in that effort by supporting Amendment G.