Haven J. Barlow: Commitment to pay for education is the Utah way

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Maia Rudd, right, use colored shapes to learn fractions in a geometry class at Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake in 2016.

Our strong economy is generating revenue surpluses, and some believe the income tax is producing more money than Utah schools need. They would like voters to end Utah’s 90-year-old constitutional guarantee that all of our income taxes fund education. I think that would be a mistake with far-reaching consequences.

One of Utah’s great assets is our commitment to family. With the largest families in the country, and more children per taxpayer than any other state, we have tremendous educational needs. It can be a struggle to muster the resources needed for our large and growing student population, but 90 years ago, state legislators had a brilliant idea.

When the 1930 Legislature asked Utah voters to approve the state’s first income tax, they placed language in the Utah Constitution that this revenue would fund schools. Even at the beginning of the Great Depression, Utah voters recognized the imperative of educating our children, and approved the new tax.

Think about that. The nation was plunging into economic uncertainty, and Utahns voted for a new tax specifically to fund our schools. That’s the Utah way. We pull together to collectively make great things happen, even when it’s very difficult.

As our state has gotten more complex, the need for a reliable source of funding for schools is even greater today than in 1930. I know from experience that legislators face constant pressure from public and private interests to spend more on other programs or to provide tax breaks, but the school funding guarantee is an undeniable force that protects the budgets of all of our great education investments, from kindergarten through high school, and community and technical colleges to research universities.

I understand the pressures legislators face when balancing the budget. I had the privilege of serving on the House Appropriations Committee from the beginning of my legislative service in 1953. One of the reforms we enacted was to create appropriations subcommittees with assignments for each and every legislator to take part in crafting some portion of the state budget.

Sharing that responsibility with all fellow legislators helps each to see how difficult the tradeoffs can be in responding to the needs of our state with the revenues we have available. It’s another example of the Utah way – sharing the burden to collectively make great things happen.

From almost the time that I began serving in the Legislature until I retired, I worked on matters pertaining to education. My signature achievement was prioritizing and equalizing education funding, resulting in Utah’s educational outcomes ranking in the top ten in the nation.

Through all of my 42 years in the Legislature, we honored the state’s commitment to fund schools with our income taxes. We had good years and bad, booms and recessions, and we constantly recognized the importance of funding our schools. Why would we do anything now to diminish that priority?

Our 90-year commitment of all income tax funds to schools is remarkable and unique. And we’re a remarkable and unique state that needs this kind of commitment to see our kids thrive in the modern world. The guarantee in the Constitution is the only way to bind one Legislature to another. Without the constitutional language, any future Legislature could walk away from a deal made today.

The bottom line is this: Does anybody believe that removing the constitutional funding guarantee will result in more funding for our students and schools? More money for education is exactly what most Utahns want, not less.

Let’s keep the constitutional guarantee of income taxes for education and let our growing economy provide increased funding for our students.

Haven J. Barlow

Haven J. Barlow served in the Utah Legislature from 1953 to 1995, including four years in the House, 38 in the Senate, serving with six governors and holding the office of Senate president for three terms.