Utah’s biggest teachers union signs on to compromise plan for schools funding

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linking arms for a photograph, the governor, Utah Education Association members, state representatives and others gather in the Gold Room at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, following an announcement on a compromise changing rules about funding for education that will be put before voters on the November ballot.

Utah’s governor and legislative leaders linked arms — literally — with the state’s largest teachers union on Wednesday, announcing unified support for compromise legislation that could significantly alter the funding model for public education if voters approve it.

The Utah Education Association had become a notable holdout on the plan after several education-related organizations formally endorsed it. But Wednesday’s announcement included a major concession by lawmakers, who agreed to increase per-student spending by 6% — or more than $200 million — matching the UEA’s primary budget request for the 2020 legislative session.

“I believe this is the proverbial win-win-win,” said Gov. Gary Herbert.

Other components of the compromise include $200,000 for teaching scholarships, and a statutory requirement that Utah boost education funding each year by at least the cost of enrollment growth and inflation.

In exchange, lawmakers will set aside money each year — starting with $75 million and capping out at roughly $400 million — in a new reserve account for use during an economic downturn. And the voters of Utah will be asked to ratify an amendment to the state’s constitution, broadening the permissible uses of the state’s income tax beyond education to include services for children and individuals with disabilities.

“This is something new,” said Hooper Republican Mike Schultz, who represented the House in negotiations on the proposal. “This is something that has never been done before.”

But Heidi Matthews, president of the UEA, deflected when asked if the teachers union believes voters should approve the constitutional amendment, alluding to ongoing talks on the resolution language. She also declined to say how she, personally, planned to vote in November.

“I’m saying what we have here today is a step toward progress that we should be celebrating,” Matthews said, “and not looking for ways to poke holes in it or back anyone into a corner.”

The UEA is often at odds with leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature. But Matthews said it was important for the association to be included in and contributing to discussions around schools legislation.

“We know what our students need,” she said. “We know how the policies play out for our kids.”

Schultz said that while he doesn’t anticipate additional legislation or a special session to tweak the amendment, changes could come forward if there is consensus on improvements.

“We’re committed to seeing if there’s better language as we move forward,” he said. “We’ll just see where it goes.”

Announcement of the compromise came just one week after the first details of the funding proposal became publicly known. Lawmakers spent the last year discussing ways to reform the state’s tax code, saying the constitution’s restriction on income tax revenue had hamstrung the budget as growth in the sales tax slowed.

A bill to expand the taxes on service-based business failed last year, followed by a special session in December to cut the income tax and boost the sales tax, largely through a hike in the levies on groceries. But overwhelming public opposition to that approach led lawmakers to repeal their reform legislation in the opening days of the 2020 session.

With the education funding compromise — contained in the bills SJR9 and HB357 — lawmakers would have greater access to income tax funds through the constitutional amendment while schools would be assured a minimum inflationary boost to their budgets each year.

“Stability in education is essential,” said Mark Huntsman, president of the Utah Board of Education. “We can’t afford to cut education services in an economic downturn, because each year of our students’ educational experience is critical.”

Excluded from Wednesday’s announcement were representatives of Utah’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed the new funding model this week but did not take a position on the corresponding constitutional amendment.

“As a union, we are committed to the protection of employees’ rights and the welfare of working families,” AFT Utah President Brad Asay said in a prepared statement. “We believe that this bill has merit in many aspects and is a start to ensure that funding for our systems of education will continue well into the future."

Shortly after the news conference, the House passed SJR9, the bill that would put the proposed constitutional change before Utah voters. The only votes in opposition to the measure came from Democrats, who said they remained uncomfortable with diverting education funding to other priorities, no matter how deserving.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison said the proposal presented lawmakers with a “false choice” that pitted support for schools against aid for children and individuals with disabilities.

“Now is not the time to raid the education piggybank for other needs,” the Draper Democrat said. “Now is the time to address our underlying structural imbalance.”

A couple Democrats also worried about trading the constitutional safeguards around education dollars for a statutory funding guarantee that the Legislature could easily rescind. The 67-5 vote on the resolution split the House Democratic caucus, with eight joining Republicans to support the measure and eight opposed or not voting.

Members of the Senate also voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday for HB357, which creates the new funding model for public education. The lone vote in opposition was cast by Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla.

HB357 will now move to the governor for his signature or veto. SJR9 will be placed on the November ballot after securing two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story.