Though the public discourse around it suggests a lack of clarity regarding what is actually on the ballot, the issue before voters is a rather simple constitutional amendment. It would widen the named uses of income tax revenue to support the systems of public education and higher education so that it could also be used “to support children and to support individuals with a disability.” Looking at the proposed constitutional language alone, this simply expands the pool of potential items that may be funded from income tax revenue.
Some look to minimize the change by pointing out that current constitutional language already defines public education (for these revenue dedication purposes) broadly. It includes all public elementary and secondary schools “and such other schools and programs as the Legislature may designate.” This last phrase could be interpreted — albeit subject to lawsuit — as allowing the uses of income tax revenues beyond education. But the constitutional amendment leaves this language intact and opens the field further to additional named categories of potential expenditure.
That said, the amendment is designed to provide the state with greater budgetary flexibility, allowing a broader use of income taxes. This means that the constitutional revenue dedication can be diluted with uses outside of education. Indeed, if this were not the case, one would wonder why voters are being asked to consider this amendment at all.
Much more can be written about the amendment itself. However, a lot of the discussion around it pertains not to the amendment, but to related legislation. It is not unusual for a constitutional amendment to come with companion legislation, and that is the case here. Passage of the amendment would put into effect legislation that statutorily commits legislators to invest in the growth of public education and provide a safety net to protect this funding. The legislation provides base-level funding; it helps ensure funding increases that reflect student enrollment growth and inflation, in addition to providing money for an education stabilization rainy-day fund; and it statutorily calls for a 6% increase in education funding in the coming years. The notion is that voters would exchange a constitutional revenue dedication for a statutory funding dedication.
There are a couple of important points to consider about this legislation. First, similar legislation could be passed without the constitutional amendment. In other words, it is this legislation — not the constitutional amendment itself — that provides a layer of protection to education funding. Second, the legislation would be subject to change by a future vote of the Legislature. But then, that’s the advantage of statutory change versus a constitutional amendment: You can respond to shifting conditions in a timely manner. Amending the constitution requires not only legislative approval, but also the consent of voters, a much higher hurdle.
And that brings us back to the question at hand: Whether the level of protection the current constitutional language provides for education is worth the trade-off in state budgetary constraints. The Utah Foundation takes no position on the amendment, but we do believe voters should get clear on what the amendment does and does not do.