Lawmakers will ask voters to change Utah’s constitutional earmark for education funding

The Utah Legislature passed a resolution asking voters to amend the constitution to expand how income tax funds are spent.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

The proposal to put a change to Utah’s constitutional earmark for education funding is headed to the voters’ 2024 ballot. The Utah House approved the resolution by a 57-17 margin, with the Senate following shortly with a 22-6 concurrence on Friday afternoon.

Legislative leaders say behind-the-scenes negotiations with the education community advanced far enough for them to move ahead with SJR10 on Friday. But, that won’t bring the matter to an end, as talks with educators will continue through the post-session interim.

Utah’s Constitution requires that income tax revenues can only fund public and higher education and some social services. The negotiated language approved on Friday does not eliminate that earmark but expands it for other budgetary purposes after lawmakers meet certain goals for public education funding. The Legislature would be required to “maintain a statutory public education funding framework” that uses revenue growth to cover increased costs from inflation and student enrollment growth.

Critics of changing the constitutional earmark for education funding point out that Utah spends less than nearly every other state on public education. Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, says that’s the very reason it needs to be changed.

“That says to me we shouldn’t keep doing the same thing that we have been doing. It’s time to do something different. The earmark is not resulting in increased education spending. If we care about increased education spending, we should put it in the Constitution,” Peterson said.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the proposed constitutional guarantee is so vague it’s really no guarantee at all.

“It’s pretty meaningless. There’s no commitment in the language of this constitutional change that obligates the legislature to fund in meaningful levels. That is an inadequate safeguard to ensure that the children of the state of Utah are going to receive the benefit that they currently receive from our income taxes,” King said.

The Utah State Board of Education voted to endorse the proposed constitutional change last week.

On Thursday, the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said they were taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposal.

“UEA is waiting to take a position on the substitute version of SJR10. If it passes out of the legislature, we will seek member input during our annual delegate assembly in April. Our goal has always been to ensure education funding in Utah is prioritized, protected and adequate through constitutional language and guarantees,” the organization said in an email statement.

That neutrality from the UEA gave the green light for lawmakers to bring the updated proposal to the floor on Friday, where both chambers passed the resolution on the final day of the annual legislative session.

Last year, lawmakers passed SB211, which changed the name of Utah’s Education Fund to the Income Tax Fund.

However, a successful vote to add the constitutional change to the 2024 ballot does mark the conclusion of the debate on the issue. Lawmakers have offered to boost school funding, but they won’t be able to settle on the size of that increase by the end of this session, which means talks will continue and aim toward a legislative package next year.

“We won’t put that forward until we get everybody’s support. We could do something this year if everybody got on board. We have created the flexibility in the budget so that when people agree, money will be there,” Schultz said.

On Friday, lawmakers moved to make good on their promise for more funding for education, approving HB394, which freezes funding for student enrollment at current levels through 2029.

Enrollment levels are projected to fall starting next year, leaving extra money in the budget that will be shifted to increase per-pupil enrollment. The additional funding mechanism goes into effect if the constitutional change is approved by voters in 2024.

Opening up the earmark and allowing lawmakers to shift income tax revenue to other state needs would be a seismic shift in how the Legislature sets the budget. That’s why, lawmakers say, they’ve made removing the state portion of the sales tax on food contingent on successfully passing the constitutional change on the 2024 ballot.