Lawmakers rename Utah’s Education Fund while looking for ‘flexibility’ in budget

The Senate bill, which lawmakers have approved in both chambers, will rename the Education Fund to the Income Tax Fund.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Highway Patrol posts the colors for the start of the 2022 legislative session in the Senate chamber at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Pursuant to the governor’s approval, Utah will no longer have an “Education Fund.” Instead, the state’s income tax dollars will be kept in a newly christened “Income Tax Fund” after lawmakers voted to approve SB211 on Friday.

The measure will not change how the fund is spent.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the name change is appropriate because of a recent amendment to the Utah Constitution. In 2020, the earmark for the state’s income tax, which had solely funded public and higher education, was broadened to include select social services.

“With the recent changes permitting income tax to fund children and individuals with disabilities, while still protecting, growing and stabilizing public education funding, we felt it necessary to update the name to accurately reflect the changes,” Stevenson said to The Salt Lake Tribune in a text message in February.

Tribune journalist Bryan Schott reported that renaming the fund to where the money comes from, rather than how the money is spent, could make budgeting decisions easier for lawmakers.

And the Utah Constitution could see further changes soon.

During a news conference Friday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, discussed the possibility of making amendments relating to the budget in the future, saying the state needed to find a better balance between funds from sales and income taxes.

“We’ve got a constitutional restriction on the income tax fund. And that’s probably not going to work for our state’s needs in the future,” he said. “... We’re going to get a bunch of smart people in a room and start talking through ideas on how to give the state the flexibility it needs to manage its budget but at the same time continuing to invest heavily in education,” Wilson said, adding that lawmakers want to find a way to manage all of the state’s interests.

While SB211 may seem straightforward, some worry it could obfuscate the purpose of the fund and thus decrease spending for schools. During this year’s general session, lawmakers passed a nearly $200 million income tax cut, money that would otherwise have funneled into the education fund.

“I have a friend who might describe this bill as a ‘nothingburger,’” Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said on the House floor Friday.

“But for teachers, the last two years have been pretty horrific ... I am really, really happy I have not been in a classroom the last two years [after] listening to my sister and other people I know who are working in the classroom. And to take the fund that has been known for a long, long time as the Education Fund and now to say, ‘It’s OK. It’s just the Income Tax Fund’ ... For me, it just doesn’t feel right,” said Brisco.

Without being heard by a House standing committee, SB211 skipped from the House Rules Committee straight to the House floor. The bill passed the full House on a 56-16 vote on Friday.

Once Senate President Stuart Adams formally signs the bill, it will be sent to Gov. Spencer Cox for approval.

— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.