Commentary: Utah tax reform should not cut education funds

Utah House of Representatives are shown on the floor at the Utah State Capitol Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are expected to dig in to tax reform, Medicaid and more starting Monday when the state Legislature meets for a whirlwind annual session that wraps up the second week of March. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

As a child, I was expected to have a glass of milk at every meal before I could have anything else to drink. The rare moment I poured Kool-Aid into my milk was disastrous: I still had to drink it.

Some things just shouldn’t be mixed. There’s an analogy for tax reform here, so hold that thought.

The years 1930 and 1931 were notable for the ferocity of the tax reform debate. Editorial and public debates raged in fall 1930 leading up to the vote on constitutional amendments creating the income tax, allocating 75% to the Education Fund and 25% to the General Fund. Wealthy businessmen and miners aggressively opposed the amendments, but Utahns approved these changes.

In 1930, nearly half of Utah’s state revenue came from statewide property taxes. Most of that property tax revenue went toward schools. These taxes were reduced when the Legislature adopted the income tax in 1931 to catch wealthy deadbeats who weren’t paying their fair share. The Utah House and Senate fought over details of the tax plan into the last night of the legislative session, but got it done.

Fast forward to 1946. We survived the Great Depression and won World War II. Utahns were concerned that every child, rural and urban, should receive an appropriate education. The State Tax Commission worked for two years on a tax reform plan that would provide equalization funding for classrooms statewide in a 75/25 split. The state would provide 75% of basic classroom funding. Local districts would use their local property tax levy to raise the other 25% and any extra money they wanted to spend on schools. The plan also required that 100% of Utah’s income tax revenue be dedicated to Utah’s Education Fund. The Legislature approved this plan in an August special session and sent it to the people in the November election.

Rural districts heartily supported these measures. Wealthier urban districts didn’t complain. The 1946 constitutional amendments passed handily, without dueling opinion pieces or high drama.

Now, we undertake the difficult work of major tax reform again.

Utah tax reform efforts since 1985 have consistently cut future education funding with the promise that tax changes would generate growth and revenue to make up the difference. This missing money has yet to materialize, at a cost to Utah education of up to $1.2 billion annually. Education may get the biggest slice of the budget pie, but the pie got too small because promised tax revenue growth simply didn’t happen.

Now, some legislators and businessmen are openly targeting Utah’s dedicated Education Fund, the income tax. We’ve already seen one recent attempt at diluting this dedicated funding. There will be more efforts to pit Utah’s school children against every other public service provided by our state government. This is so ridiculous it’s laughable. We’re already 51st in the nation in per-pupil spending and that’s not changing any time soon.

It’s true that the Legislature picks winners and losers every time they adjust the tax structure. Some groups will have to sacrifice a little more for the good of the state. The question is who? Will extraction industries agree to pay a bit more so we can clean the air and educate tomorrow’s workers and innovators? Will those businesses currently benefiting from unnecessary tax abatements and exemptions decide to pay their fair share? Will Utah’s vulnerable populations foot the bill through reduced services for the poor and elderly? Or will kids and their teachers suffer?

Everything is on the table, they tell us. But if we want healthy, educated kids to grow up and build a better Utah, we should give them their milk first. Mixing income tax with the rest of the state revenues would eliminate dedicated Education Fund money, creating an even worse appropriations fight every year.

Some things shouldn’t be mixed. That’s not what’s best for kids.

Let’s maintain our income tax support for Utah’s Education Fund to consistently invest in our youth and broaden the tax base a bit more to meet our other needs.

Let Tax Reform task force members know your thoughts on tax restructuring at their Town Hall meetings, now through 30 July.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a National Board certified teacher in the Granite School District and a Utah Teacher Fellow alumni. The Utah Teacher Fellows are actively working to increase educator voice in education policy. You can follow Deborah on Twitter at @DeborahGatrell1 and the fellows at @HSG_UT. Learn more on their blog, The Utah Teacher.