All 7 of Utah’s constitutional amendments passing — including one to change how education is funded

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The empty playground at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City. Voters this year were asked whether they'd support amending the state constitution to expand education funding to also include programs for those with disabilities.

A controversial amendment to expand how the state’s Education Fund is used — diverting millions to social services not directly related to schools — has commanded surprising support from voters with unofficial results Tuesday.

Based on the preliminary counts, Amendment G was succeeding by 8 percentage points. Roughly 54% voted in favor and 46% against.

“This will be a fundamental change to how we pay for schools,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “It’s really a big deal.”

The education proposal is the highest profile of seven constitutional amendments that appeared on a crowded ballot this year. While it appears that it will pass, it had the lowest support of them all. By 10 p.m., it was ahead by the smallest margin, about 66,000 votes, though not all counties in the state had reported their tallies.

Meanwhile, an amendment to remove references to slavery from the Utah Constitution had 82% support. And another to make hunting and fishing protected by the state’s founding document saw 74% voting “yes.”

But Amendment G has been slightly more contentious from its inception.

The education proposal came out of a failed effort by Utah lawmakers to reform taxes, which blew up earlier this year. In pushing the amendment as a way forward, proponents have said it will give the state more financial flexibility.

Currently, Utah’s Constitution requires that all income tax revenue, about $5 billion annually, go to K-12 and higher education. That income tax has been seeing fast growth in recent years while sales tax and gas tax — which fund every other state government program — have not.

To correct the imbalance, Amendment G proposes opening up the guaranteed pot of income tax money to be spent on services “to support children and to support individuals with a disability.” Those programs currently cost about $600 million a year and would free up that amount from the sales tax to then be allocated to other needs instead.

State Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored the change, has said it makes sense for the Education Fund to “focus on the whole kid.” On Tuesday, he added, “This will make the budget healthy for the whole state."

To get educators on board, lawmakers passed HB357, which promises that if the amendment passes, at a minimum, schools will get enough funding to cover rising student populations and inflation. And they pledged that a percentage of new money — up to $400 million — will be put into a rainy-day fund for a recession, like the current impact COVID-19 is having on the economy.

The effort has been supported by Republican lawmakers, the governor and reluctantly by the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, which has said the “pros outweigh the cons.”

But opponents fear the promises are nonbinding — unlike a constitutional amendment. And they worry that state leaders could also choose to fund the social services portion at a higher rate, pitting programs for those with disabilities against putting money into the classroom.

As such, they’ve painted Amendment G as an attempt to steal money from students when the state is consistently ranked last the nation for per pupil spending and the proposed increase for education this year was already cut because of the pandemic.

“When times get bad, the first thing we go to trim the budget on is education," said Moe Hickey, CEO of Voices for Utah Children, on Tuesday night.

Voices for Utah Children, the Utah Citizens' Counsel and the Utah League of Women Voters have spoken out strongly against the measure — as have a number of educators, including the state’s 2018 Teacher of the Year.

“I’m disappointed,” Hickey added. “We knew it was a bit of an uphill fight given the way the amendment was written.”

The vote totals won’t be certified for at least two weeks. If the amendment is approved, it will take effect in January.

Here’s a look at how the early results for the other six amendments on the ballot:

Amendment A

This changes Utah’s Constitution so the document is not limited to a single gender, such as changing “men” to “person." It had 58% in favor in unofficial results.

Amendment B

The state Constitution states that a legislator must be at least 25 years old, be a qualified voter and live in the district they represent. The amendment clarifies that someone must be all those things on the day he or she is sworn into office. It had 80.3% support, after little opposition during the election season.

Amendment C

This amendment deletes a clause that allows slavery as a punishment for a crime. It was favored 80.8%.

The slavery language, said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, “does not reflect who we are as a state. It no longer reflects our values.” Hollins, who proposed the amendment, is Utah’s first female Black lawmaker and hopes other states will now follow suit.

Amendment D

Under this amendment, municipalities would have more control over their water rights — such as being allowed to supply water to individuals and others outside its boundaries. It saw 61% support.

Amendment E

The proposal establishes a constitutional right to hunting and fishing, also making them the preferred method of managing and controlling wildlife. It had 74% voting in favor.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, said Tuesday that the amendment, which he sponsored, won’t lead to any changes to outdoor recreation now, but will “shore up support for activities that have been a big part of who we are here.”

Amendment F

This amendment allows the Legislature to pick its own start date for the annual 45-day session. An accompanying bill would set it for right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Roughly 67% of voters supported it.

—Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.

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