Most Utahns oppose changing how education is funded, poll shows

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers Cherise Bateman, left, and Harmony Kryger attend the tax reform task force at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, where teachers turned out in large numbers to oppose any weakening of guarantee for public education funding.

Now that Utah leaders have backed down from a huge and hugely controversial tax reform plan, there’s more certainty on how education will be funded and more cash available for classrooms — at least for this year.

But state lawmakers have clearly signaled that they dislike how schools are currently bankrolled and they want to push a constitutional amendment to radically change it. With the general session starting Monday, will they have the stomach to give that a try so soon after flopping? Or will they retreat on that front, too?

A new poll from The Salt Lake Tribune shows that most Utahns would urge them to hold off.

The state has a requirement in its constitution guaranteeing that all income tax money will be spent on classrooms and students. And a majority of Utahns — 52% — say they oppose the Legislature changing that setup, while about 33% say they support removing the guarantee and 14.8% don’t know how they feel about it.

The poll, conducted in conjunction with Suffolk University, surveyed 500 Utah residents from Jan. 18 to 22.

Of those who don’t want to see that guarantee removed, the disapproval is fairly solid. More than 36% say they strongly oppose the idea while nearly 16% somewhat oppose it. There’s consistent opposition across genders and political parties, as well, with Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters all registering a majority against the idea.

“The income tax is not broken,” said Michael McDonough, a special education teacher at Woodstock Elementary, “and they don’t need to fix it.”

Some Republican lawmakers disagree with that. They want to remove the earmark to be able to shift money to other state priorities.

The Legislature approved the tax reform plan as a first step. As part of that, lawmakers offered an income tax cut to Utahns, effectively reducing the available money for education. Under the law, there would be roughly $640 million less in the pot this year, but lawmakers said they intended to mitigate that by funding higher education with revenue from a series of sales tax increases.

There was no guarantee, though, how much they would allocate — which made many educators fearful. And that was the point.

The idea was to force education stakeholders to negotiate and work on the second step of the plan: removing the earmark and replacing it with an entirely new funding model. Doing so would require a constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and also a majority vote during a general election.

But with the governor and lawmakers planning to rescind the tax plan, the leverage is gone and millions more in funding is designated for classrooms. It’s also now increasingly unlikely that legislators will try to change how education is funded this year, especially since, as the poll shows, it was an unpopular idea from the start.

“I definitely think things are less likely, given recent events,” acknowledged Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, the House chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Those who opposed the tax reform plan, according to The Tribune/Suffolk poll, were also — unsurprisingly — more likely to oppose changing education funding as well. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Suffolk conducted the poll during the same weekend that a bipartisan grassroots movement was facing a deadline to gather signatures from those upset with the tax plan. Organizers say they gathered enough to legally halt the new tax law and let voters decide in November if it should go forward. Their success is what spurred lawmakers and the governor to announce that they’d move to repeal their tax plan. The two big complaints about it was that it increased the sales tax on food and it impacted education, including fears that it would lead to the removal of the guaranteed funding from the income tax.

Teachers have been the most vocal group against removing the earmark. Many say their classrooms are already underfunded and they worry removing the income tax guarantee would mean even less money for schools. They packed rooms during the tax reform discussions, wearing red T-shirts and waving posters with math equations, to make their point.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers in red with buttons that read #red for ed, wave their hands in support of comments made for education at the tax reform task force has what may be its final meeting at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, with teachers turning out in large numbers to oppose any weakening of guarantee for public ed funding.

The Utah Education Association, the largest teacher union in the state, separately polled its members and reported that 90% opposed stripping the funding guarantee from the Utah Constitution. Most said the only way they’d be on board is if the Legislature created some other equitable funding setup for schools — but, they say, it also would have to be included in the state constitution to gain their support.

“What we aren’t open to is removing a constitutional guarantee for our students that’s replaced with nothing,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews. “We need to invest in each and every kid in our state. That is something that has been severely lacking in our budgeting process.”

The governor’s budget blueprint included an additional $400 million for public education and higher education. That was when he thought the tax reform plan would remain law. Now there will be significantly more money available for schools, though it is hard to put an exact dollar amount on it this early in the budget process.

Matthews believes it’s time to invest in reducing class sizes and addressing the teacher shortage. She’d also like to see Utah move out of last place in the nation for per pupil spending, a ranking it has held for decades.

“Now that the tax restructure has been repealed, we know that that revenue does exist,” she added. “This money is absolutely needed in our schools."

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also said it’s likely that the earmark discussion will be postponed this session, along with tax reform, but he suggested every option is still on the table in the years to come.

“I just don’t know if there’s support for it right now,” Adams added. “But the polling is very helpful to give us an idea on what the sentiment is on the issue.”

Some Republican lawmakers have floated the idea of having local school districts get more funding from property taxes instead of through the income tax.

Eliason added: “It’s political hell to raise taxes,” and school districts would become the enemy for having to do so. He doesn’t want to see that happen. He voted against the tax reform plan.

Deborah Gatrell, who teaches at Hunter High School, said the income tax earmark works for now. The problem, she suggested, stems from when lawmakers have either lowered the rate or tried to divert the funds from education.

Recently, there was a bill to allow the state Health Department to get a cut of the income tax. Another suggested pulling some of the funds for Medicaid. Neither passed. The income tax, though, was split years ago to also allow higher education to get part of the money instead of only K-12 public schools.

“Stop diverting and cutting it," Gatrell said, “and it would fund it just fine.”

Even with the pushback, there is still one resolution on changing the earmark that is expected to come before lawmakers. It is sponsored by Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful.

He said he created it before the tax reform plan passed and intended for it to serve as an alternative. It would remove the earmark. But the resolution says little about another setup to replace it. Instead, it would amend the Utah Constitution to promise “sufficient funding” for “an adequate system of public education.”

“The constitution is a statement of our values," he said, “and one thing we could do is just verbally strengthen our commitment to education.”

Ward believes it’s an important conversation to have — and thinks it could still happen this session despite the tax reform fail. “It will reinvigorate the discussion,” he added.

Eliason believes Ward’s plan lacks detail. He suggested that lawmakers hold off and allow all sides time to rethink what they’d like to see in education funding.