Utah lawmakers, education leaders, at odds over education funding and tax reform


Utah Capitol 30

While encouraging individual teacher/members to be active politically as they see fit, the Utah Education Association — the main teacher union in the state with 18,000 members — is not formally in the referendum fight to repeal the recently-passed tax reform package, UEA president Heidi Matthews told UtahPolicy.com on Monday.

UtahPolicy.com published last week a story quoting Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, telling the UEA to get involved in tax reform, especially in changing the Utah Constitution’s current income tax revenue earmark for public and higher education.

Matthews, who has spoken against the tax reform/earmark repeal ideas in the 2019 Tax Reform Task Force, which came up with the basic tax reform package passed in a December special session, said the union has been involved in discussions with Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, and others over possible compromises over a constitutional change.

However, it is clear there is a long way to go before such a compromise can be reached.

Matthews said they stand behind an increase of $900 million into public schools, while GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s new budget recommendation is a $300 million increase.

Matthews said she realizes that perhaps $900 million can’t found in one year — fiscal 2021, whose budget will be set by lawmakers before an early March adjournment.

But significant steps could be taken to put Utah on a road of steady funding increases, which she calls “investments” in students, facilities and programs.

Wilson said the UEA and other groups weren’t satisfied with Millner’s ideas, which UtahPolicy.com has written about previously, that would, if adopted 20 years ago (when the Utah Constitution was last amended concerning income tax earmarking), have brought 15-20 percent more to schools, or $2 billion more.

Matthews said when one considers the tax reform’s changes to income tax exemptions, breaks given on Social Security payments to seniors, and other modifications, around $650 million is being taken away from the Education Fund.

That includes the $160 million cut in the income tax rate, a vital part of the Republican legislators’ and Herbert’s tax reform package.

Wilson told UtahPolicy.com that unless the UEA and other pro-education groups get on board with changing the state Constitution — with strong guarantees of funding student growth and inflation — then he is sure that within a decade lawmakers will cut income tax rates again, as more changes are made to broaden the state sales tax base.

This is all complicated, of course.

But Matthews made it clear that the UEA is not backing away from firmly advocating for more “investment” in schools.

Yes, Herbert and the Republican-controlled Legislature have almost doubled education funding over the last decade, she admits.

But, while certainly welcomed, those increase just this year bring school funding “into the black” over the cuts to funding made after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, she pointed out.

A chart of public school funding by the state “looks like smile,” she noted — high at the left-hand side before the recession, dropping badly, then turning back upwards toward the right side. But only now is the smile not lopsided.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was real friction between the UEA and GOP lawmakers — even turning to distrust and anger.

The union did heavy political fundraising, and often challenged GOP incumbents with their own PAC-funded candidates — often will little success but a lot of bad blood.

The UEA political activity rose to a successful confrontation after the 2007 Legislature passed a much-hated private school funding voucher program. The union got teachers and others organized and in a short time frame gather enough signatures to get repeal of the voucher law on the ballot, where it was dumped by voters.

Over the last decade the UEA political thinking has evolved, said Matthews, and in 2018 around 80 percent of the “champions” of education candidates the UEA backed won — meaning a number of GOP incumbents with their own evolved support of public schools won.

A 2007-like public political fight between the GOP Legislature and the UEA wouldn’t be welcomed by anyone — and we haven’t seen a renewed voucher effort since.

But it is also true that lawmakers changed the PAC funding law — stopping UEA dues from going into a PAC, and that has harmed the union’s political fundraising.

Each election cycle the union rises around $50,000 in separate, member fundraising, Matthews said. But the new 2019 year’s end UEA PAC report shows the PAC is $28,479 in the red, or in negative territory. So, more fund-raising clearly must take place in this 2020 election year.

Matthews points out that four years ago, after Herbert finished second in the Republican convention to GOP challenger Jonathan Johnson, the UEA backed Herbert with money and support, including National Education Association contributions. Herbert beat Johnson for the GOP nomination and coasted to a general election victory, the UEA being only a part of that success.

Matthews said there are three main articles the UEA seeks in any constitutional change/amendment:

— Full funding for the growth in student numbers each year.

— Full funding for inflation, so students and teachers don’t fall behind in real spending power.

— And, perhaps most importantly, some kind of major steps in guaranteed funding so Utah public schools stop being the lowest-per-student funded operations among the states, and real, measurable progress is made to move Utah schools toward funding goals set by plan after plan that have been adopted by various Utah groups — but never really progressed in any credible manner.

All this points to legislative leaders not being on the same education page with the UEA and other groups who oppose the tax reform package, and any kind of compromise that would allow for an earmark decoupling amendment to the state Constitution in 2020.