Utah House passes ‘monumental solution’ for education funding

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Feb. 28, 2020, photo, teachers from the Salt Lake City School District are shown during a rally at the Utah State Capitol. Income tax money can only be used for education in Utah, but lawmakers are now backing a complex proposal to change that in hopes of shoring up the state's shrinking sales-tax base.

A new model for funding public education in Utah earned the approval of the House on Friday, with lawmakers saying it would provide stability to schools while addressing lopsided tax revenue streams that have frustrated the budgeting process for years.

HB357 would enact a statutory requirement that the Legislature meet a funding floor for education each year tied to enrollment growth and inflation. It also creates a new reserve account and eases restrictions on local school district property taxes to protect schools in the event of an economic downturn.

The bill would not take effect in state code until and unless members of the public vote to ratify a proposed constitutional amendment, SJR9, which was approved by the Senate on Friday in a party-line vote.

If successful, the amendment would broaden the permissible uses of the state’s income tax revenue beyond public education to also include services for children and individuals with disabilities. Republican legislative leaders have argued that the current earmark for education spending deprives lawmakers of necessary flexibility to balance the state’s account, particularly as growth in the income tax has outpaced sales tax receipts in recent years.

“This is a monumental solution to one of the largest problems that we face in our state,” said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the sponsor of HB357.

But House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said that while the education funding plan has laudable elements, he was concerned about approving such significant legislation on short notice.

The content of both HB357 and SJR9 was negotiated behind closed doors and not made public until Wednesday, and King said he was not aware of the proposal until this week.

Lawmakers will end their 2020 legislative session on March 12.

“It’s hard for me to vote in favor of a proposal that has the potential, at least, for taking over a half-billion dollars out of the Education Fund,” King said.

King also said the give-and-take of a constitutional guarantee for statutory promises is not a fair trade to schools, in that state laws require only a simple majority of lawmakers to adjust them, compared to the two-thirds majorities and ratifying public vote required of constitutional language.

“It is not easy to change the state constitution,” King said. “It is relatively easy to change statute.”

Ten Democrats voted against the bill while five joined all of the Republicans present in approving HB357 in a 62-10 vote. The bill has the backing of the Utah Board of Education and the state’s associations of local district school boards and superintendents.

Several lawmakers noted that after the dramatic failure of the Legislature’s tax reform effort earlier this year, a proposal requiring public consideration is an appropriate way to move forward.

“I’m happy to ask the voters of this state to weigh in on this issue every day of the week,” said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield.

And Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said it should be the people of Utah who determine how to solve the state’s revenue imbalance.

“We’ve had our chance,” Brammer said. “We tried to do it, they did not like it, and so we are giving them a chance.”

In the Senate, the proposed constitutional amendment secured the necessary two-thirds majority, but without a single vote from the minority party.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said her constituents want any available income tax dollars to flow towards education rather than being diverted to other priorities.

But Sen. Dan McCay, the sponsor of SJR9, waved off these comments as evidence that the Democratic caucus is impossible to please.

“The minority party is inspired by Santa Claus,” McCay, R-Riverton, said. “Instead of ho-ho-ho, it’s no, no, no.”

McCay noted that Democrats also opposed the tax reform package that lawmakers approved in December’s special session. Legislators weeks later repealed the tax plan — which would’ve increased taxes on groceries while cutting income tax rates — under pressure from an upstart citizen referendum effort.

Following Friday’s votes, both bills will now move to the opposite chambers for further consideration.