League of Women Voters opposes change to Utah Constitution as possible $600M hit to schools

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Carson Adams prepares primary election ballots for counting at the Salt Lake County Government Center on July 1, 2020. The League of Women Voters of Utah is coming out in opposition to Amendment G on the November ballot, saying it would be bad for public schools.

The League of Women Voters of Utah is calling on Utahns to reject a constitutional amendment that will appear on their ballots this November.

Amendment G, which would allow the Legislature to use income tax “to support children and to support individuals with a disability” seems “harmless enough,” said Dixie Huefner, professor emerita in the University of Utah’s Department of Special Education.

But, if approved, she said the ballot measure could remove up to $600 million a year from funds currently available for public and higher education in a state that’s already the lowest in the nation for per-pupil funding. And she and other opponents worry its passage would ultimately pit state support for schools against aid for children and individuals with disabilities.

“These groups are worthy of support,” Huefner said during a virtual news conference organized by the women’s voting group on Friday. “But the proposed amendment is not harmless.”

If approved by voters this fall, adding the language on children and individuals with disabilities to the state’s 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.

The effort comes as 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.

However, the tally of Utah revenues from the State Tax Commission shows that for the most recent budget year, sales tax collections grew 9.7% while individual income tax receipts declined 7.6%.

Economists believe the drop in income tax collections is due, at least in part, to delayed due dates for income tax payments, which would push those payments into the budget year that started July 1.

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 abruptly repealed its tax changes in January in the face of a popular referendum campaign.

The League of Women Voters of Utah said it sees Amendment G as a way for lawmakers to enact tax reform while avoiding the real problem of underfunded schools and social services.

“Shuffling income tax monies from constitutionally protected education funding and allocating them to social programs now funded by sales tax revenues is a way of enacting tax reform without informing the public,” argued Catherine Weller, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, during the news conference.

Approval of Amendment G would trigger the implementation of HB357, a bill that would provide for ongoing education funding and additional money tied to growth in student enrollment and inflation. That statutory obligation is one of the main reasons the Utah Education Association (UEA) says it’s supporting Amendment G.

“This guaranteed funding in code” — including that a minimum of 10% of all new revenue go toward increasing the weighted pupil unit for the next few years — “is better than a guaranteed revenue source that has never delivered sufficient funding to keep pace with growing demands,” the association states on its website.

Constitutional Amendment G is not a solution to the state’s long-term public education funding problems, the association notes. But the UEA says the “pros outweigh the cons” and that the change would put the state in a better position for the future than the status quo would.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay and a retired teacher, said she voted for the bill that put Amendment G on the ballot and agreed with UEA’s position at that time. But she said the landscape for education funding is not the same as it was in March, before the coronavirus pandemic came to Utah.

During the 2020 general session, the Utah Legislature approved a 6% increase in the weighted per pupil unit. But because of the pandemic, lawmakers reduced that commitment to 1.8% until the economy is restored.

While it’s difficult to amend the constitution, those changes show that statute can easily be altered, Moss said. And she warned that future legislators may feel differently about the commitments that present lawmakers have made to the education community.

Plus, she argued, the needs schools have as the pandemic wears on are immediate and should not be diluted.

“I think it will be a long time before we’re completely back to normal, if ever,” Moss said. “I think that there will continue to be online education and we need the broadband. We need increased investment now.”

As the election draws nearer, former state Rep. Sheryl Allen said it will likely be an “uphill battle” to convince Utahns not to vote for the ballot measure, since opponents don’t have “tens of thousands of dollars to buy TV ads” and because she believes its language does not make it clear that it could reduce funding for education.

“But we have to try,” she said at the news conference.

Amendment G is one of several constitutional changes up for consideration by Utah voters this year. Also on the ballot is Amendment C, a provision to remove old wording in the state constitution that opponents say still allows slavery as a punishment for crime. Another proposal, Amendment A, would change the constitution to use gender-neutral language.