Plan to loosen Utah’s education funding earmark emerges

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Feb. 28, 2020, file photo shows teachers in the Salt Lake City School District during a walkout and march from downtown Salt Lake City to the state Capitol to protest teacher pay in an effort to pressure the Utah State Legislature as it decides how much money it will allocate to the state’s education system. A bill scheduled for public hearing Thursday would change the state constitution's earmark to allow income tax revenue to be spent on noneducation programs.

A pair of bills that would significantly change the way Utah funds public education are scheduled to be debated by lawmakers on Thursday.

The first piece of legislation, SJR9, would amend the state Constitution — subject to a vote of the public — and broaden the requirement that income tax revenue be spent only on education to also include spending to “support children and to support individuals with a disability.”

The second proposal, a substitute version of HB357, would ease restrictions on the use of local taxes collected by school districts, commit the state to annual funding increases tied to enrollment growth and inflation, and establish a reserve account to supplement education dollars in the event of an economic downturn.

Legislative leaders acknowledged Wednesday that a deal to alter education funding was coming together after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. But high-ranking senators were reluctant to comment on the proposal, describing the talks as preliminary and saying the proposal had not yet been discussed in their caucus meetings.

“The worst place you can negotiate anything is in the press,” said Layton Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the Senate budget chairman.

Legislative leaders say that sluggish growth in the state’s sales tax has led to a structural imbalance in the state budget, as the more robust income tax is walled off by constitutional language reserving its use for public schools.

A reform package approved by lawmakers last year was intended to partially address the imbalance by cutting income taxes and boosting sales taxes in the state, with lawmakers saying additional legislation would follow to reconsider the state’s approach to education funding. The Legislature was pressed to repeal its tax changes in January in the face of a referendum campaign.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said that adding the language on children and individuals with disabilities to the state constitution would open the income tax up as a potential supplement for programs around health and social services, which are currently funded with sales taxes along with most government programs.

“A lot of people have commented that it’s pretty hard for a child to do well in school if they don’t have good health care,” Adams said.

Before their December special session where the now-defunct tax reforms were adopted, lawmakers were given an early look at potential tweaks to education funding in the event the income tax restrictions were lifted. That plan contained many of the elements included in the new versions of SJR9 and HB357, as well as a system of automatic property tax increases tied to inflation that would not be subject to the state’s Truth in Taxation laws.

Adams confirmed that the new proposal does not include any inflationary adjustments to tax rates, but would establish a requirement in law for the state to increase its annual funding levels. That spending would ostensibly be drawn from growth in income tax receipts — as it is now — or from the new savings account, but would be subject to legislative amendment and lack the binding nature of constitutional language.

“There’s no change to the truth in taxation,” Adams said. “This is simply allowing [school districts] to use money they’re already collecting for operations.”

On Wednesday, Utah Education Association president Heidi Matthews responded to a request for comment on the proposal by thanking lawmakers for hearing the UEA’s concerns and working to address the needs of students and teachers. She also reiterated that that the teacher’s association is pressing for a 6% increase in per-student spending this year, higher than the 4% bump recommended by a legislative committee that oversees public education spending.

“The Utah Education Association continues to work with legislators in order to secure the long-term resources our students need to succeed," Matthews said. “Public education must have sustainable and growing revenue sources such as provided by the Utah constitutional guarantee directing income tax to education.”

SJR9 is scheduled to be heard Thursday by the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, while that committee’s House counterpart will consider HB357. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to be placed on the ballot for public ratification.