For the time being, Utah legislative leaders have scrapped a proposed constitutional change to remove the funding earmark for education. But they promised to keep working on the issue.
For the past week, a group of House and Senate Republicans had been negotiating with education stakeholders on potentially removing the constitutional provision that requires income tax to exclusively fund public and higher education along with a few social services.
Those negotiations abruptly ended Thursday morning. Legislative leaders informed education representatives they didn’t have the votes to approve the proposal, and there wasn’t enough time remaining in the session to marshal the needed support.
Constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to be placed on the ballot for voter approval.
Utah is at or near the bottom in per-pupil funding in public education. Convincing lawmakers to vote to remove a guaranteed source of funding for education was likely a tough sell politically.
Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who was part of the negotiating team for the proposal, explained the idea was perhaps a bit premature this session.
“We ran into a place where we needed to do some significant modeling to try to get this right and found that trying to do the budget and the kind of modeling we needed to do at the same time just wasn’t possible,” Millner said.
The constitutional requirement to use income tax revenue for education funding has been in place since 1930. Voters added higher education to the mix in 1996 and approved including social services for children and the disabled in 2020.
Those spending restrictions have resulted in a funding imbalance in recent years. Income tax revenue grew at an astronomical rate, while other sources of income did not keep pace. Last week lawmakers announced an additional $800 million of extra revenue to spend, but about 70% was in the Education Fund. Legally, they can’t shift that money to pay for other state needs.
Even the existence of the Education Fund might be the source of some political heartburn. The $200 million tax cut package lawmakers rushed through the first part of the 2022 session is paid for from future income tax revenue that should go to schools. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, has floated the idea of changing the name to the Income Tax Fund, which might help deflect the perception that the state is shortchanging schools for a tax cut.
Eliminating the education earmark would give them the flexibility to use those funds for the entire budget.
Thursday’s roadblock did not signal the death knell for the idea. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the plan is to continue refining the concept after the session ends next week.
“We need to get those that don’t live, eat, drink and sleep this budget aware that this is a growing problem, and we’re not going to give up working on it,” Adams said.