Moe Hickey: Amendment G is not the answer to Utah’s budget problems

Do you like election year promises? If so, then Constitutional Amendment G is for you.

That probably sounds quite cynical, but the unfortunate reality is that it does not take an overabundance of political skepticism (or basic math) to see that Amendment G doesn’t add up.

What is Amendment G anyway?

At the tail end of the ballot you will receive in the mail are a series of Utah constitutional amendments, and at the very end of the series you will find Amendment G. It is truly an innocuously worded question that at first blush sounds very hard to oppose:

“Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to expand the uses of money the state receives from income taxes and intangible property taxes to include supporting children and supporting people with a disability?”

It’s hard to tell from that wording, but this question is the culmination of a years-long effort to end the Utah Constitution’s dedication of all income tax revenue to education. Legislators have chafed at the restriction, passed by voters in 1946, and sought ways to escape the requirement.

Last year, they sought to solve the “problem” by passing an ill-fated tax restructuring law to shift over $500 million of revenue from the income tax to the sales tax. When voters revolted, they repealed it a month later. Now they are aiming to win our approval for Constitutional Amendment G to allow essentially the same thing — transfer up to $600 million of income tax revenue away from education and into services currently funded by the sales tax.

But setting aside the less-than-transparent wording and the lack of specific details, there is a much larger problem with Amendment G. It does nothing to address the true problem, which is that we need increased revenues to meet the needs of our children and families.

[Read more: Commentary: Vote no on Constitutional Amendment G]

The promise being made by proponents is that if we vote for Amendment G, we will see greater investment in education — and greater investment in social services for children and Utahns with disabilities.

But where will the new revenues come from to keep these promises? Does Amendment G undo any of the billions in tax cuts that legislators have passed in recent years? Those cuts have reduced our overall tax level to the lowest point in 50 years and left us with chronic revenue shortages. Does Amendment G identify a new source of revenue to address the revenue shortages?

It does not. Therefore, we ask you to vote no on Amendment G. Zero new revenue divided by two election-year funding promises still equals zero. It’s just basic math.

Voices for Utah Children opposes constitutional Amendment G because the proposal not only won’t solve Utah’s state budget woes, but it is actually likely to delay the real fiscal policy changes that are needed.

Once legislators get the increased flexibility they have long sought, they will have full discretion as to which entity receives funding. There are no actual guarantees that establish a funding stream for any of the crucial services that we need for our children.

The biggest promise they’ve made is to always fund inflation and student growth, even in a recession. That’s what didn’t happen after the last recession — but for an entirely reasonable reason — because they faced the life-and-death choice between funding health and social services or underfunding education for a few years. Why would that choice be any different in future recessions?

Keep in mind, this promise is not written into Amendment G. Rather, it is in a separate bill — just an ordinary bill — that can be repealed or changed by a future Legislature at any time.

Proponents may reply that we’ve misunderstood that bill — HB357 — which establishes a “Public Education Economic Stabilization Restricted Account” to save money during good times for the next recession. Again, basic math: If money that was going to go to the schools during good times is instead saved for recession years, how does that make schools better off over the course of the full economic cycle if the total they receive overall is the same? One plus one still does not equal three. (And if this is a budgeting change that makes sense, it does not require a constitutional amendment to implement.)

If you want to send a message that Utah voters are smart enough to know that the math does not add up, vote no on Amendment G.

Moe Hickey

Moe Hickey is the CEO of Voices for Utah Children.