Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says deal is close on school funding shift

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert answers questions from reporters on a number of topics at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, March 5, 2020, as the Legislative session enters its last week.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that he’s optimistic consensus will be reached on a new model for education funding that includes a public vote in November.

Representatives of the executive and legislative branches had been meeting with education stakeholders earlier in the day, Herbert said, and the governor teased a potential deal in the final days of the 2020 legislative session.

“At least when I left, they were pretty darn close,” Herbert said. “I’m very optimistic and hopeful we may have something to announce later today or first thing [Wednesday] morning.”

Lawmakers are close to approving a pair of bills that would amend the state constitution and allow the income tax — which is currently restricted to public and higher education spending — to be used to fund services for children and individuals with disabilities.

That change would be coupled with new legislation that commits the Legislature to annual education funding increases tied to enrollment growth and inflation, and creates new budget reserves and rules for the use of local school district dollars to buffer schools from the effects of an economic downturn.

The new funding model would take effect only if voters approve the proposed constitutional amendment, which legislative leaders say is needed to provide flexibility between the state’s revenue sources.

Many of the groups that work in or advocate for education — including the Utah Board of Education, the Utah Parent Teacher Association and the state’s associations of school board members and superintendents — have already signed off on the proposal.

But the largest and most influential holdout is the Utah Education Association, which so far has praised elements of the plan while withholding its formal support overall. The teachers union has also reiterated its position that lawmakers should boost per-student funding by at least 6% this year, which would be an increase from the 5% currently recommended in the Legislature’s budget plan.

A January poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University found that a majority of Utahns are opposed to removing the constitution’s education earmark. But the approval of the UEA would boost the chances of the constitutional amendment passing in November, as it would leave little potential for an organized opposition campaign taking shape in the lead-up to Election Day.

On Tuesday, UEA President Heidi Matthews declined to respond to Herbert’s comment, but said the union’s membership would be contacted ahead of any public announcement of a deal.

“Still working on details,” Matthews said.

The Salt Lake Tribune will update this story.