Poll: Voters are not yet sold on constitutional amendment to change school funding

Utah Capitol 41

Utah voters support changing the state Constitution to allow income tax revenues to be spent on programs for the disabled and children, in addition to higher and public education, which are already earmarked in the basic state law.

A recent survey by UtahPolicy.com and KUTV 2News finds that 46 percent of voters favor such a constitutional amendment, which will be on the November ballot for approval or rejection.

Thirty-five percent oppose the change, while 19 percent don’t know.

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The amendment is key to state bosses being able to balance out future budgets. Although it must be said that how hard the coronavirus pandemic has hit state tax revenues, it is now unclear exactly how near-future budgets will be impacted whether the amendment passes or fails before voters.

As reported first by UtahPolicy.com, the proposed amendment, and other public education funding promises, passed the 2020 Legislature in large part because the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union, agreed NOT to oppose the amendment at the ballot box.

Utah public schools were set, under the budget, to get some of the largest percentage funding increases in years.

But even before lawmakers adjourned the middle of March, it was clear the virus’ impact on state tax collections would be severe, and perhaps long-lasting.

Lawmakers last week concluded a special session that moved billions of dollars around between the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, and the new fiscal year, as well as accepting $4 billion in federal coronavirus spending next year and the year after.

Unfortunately, none of that federal money can go into state budgets directly. And while Congress and President Donald Trump promise new funding coming to the states themselves, that is not yet agreed upon.

Without such aid, Utah’s state budget — and thus school spending — will certainly be harmed, with hundreds of millions of dollars in lost personal and corporate income taxes on the horizon, as well as downturns in sales tax take because folks aren’t spending like they were before the virus put tens of thousands out of work and hunkered most Utahns down in their homes.

The Y2 Analytics poll was conducted at the end of March before lockdowns greatly changed Utahns’ lives and pocketbooks.

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But the results show the GOP state leaders — Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican majorities in the House and Senate — need to do some public relations work on selling the constitutional change to their own political supporters:

  • Those who told Y2 they are “very strong” Republicans are split over the constitutional change, 40 percent favor it, 40 percent oppose it, the rest undecided.
  • Those who said they are “strong conservatives” actually oppose the amendment, 46 percent to 36 percent.
  • “Strong Democrats” favor extending the income tax to disabled and children’s programs, 59-28 percent.
  • While those who said they are political independents — don’t belong to any political party — are split, 41-41 percent.
  • “Moderates” favor the amendment, 48-34 percent.
  • While those who said they are “strong liberals” favor it, 56-29 percent.

So it’s the hard-core base of the Utah Republican Party — the most faithful members and archconservatives who are not yet on board with the amendment.

Finally, those who said they are “very active” in the LDS faith favor the amendment, 49 percent to 32 percent.

Until the coronavirus hit Utah, the state personal and corporate income taxes were growing significantly every year — by tens of millions of dollars.

Since the state Constitution says such taxes can only go to higher and public education, non-education state programs (funded mainly by the state sales tax) were lagging behind financially.

Part of last December’s huge tax reform package included a talk of a straight repeal of the earmarking — which UtahPolicy.com polling found was unpopular.

When the tax reform package was repealed early in the 2020 Legislature, it was believed changing the constitutional earmark was dead.

But GOP legislative leaders kept talking to pro-education groups, including the UEA. And combined with substantial statute changes in favor of school funding as part of a package deal, the pro-education groups also agreed to add into the income tax earmark now-sales-tax-funded programs for the disabled and children.

While not ideal — a straight repeal of the income tax education earmarks was the best budget solution — the disability and child additions to income tax spending was hoped to delay budgetary crises for a decade or so.

But now with the virus’ impacts scrambling state financial projections so much, it’s unclear how the amendment — if approved — will impact state spending in the near and long term.

Utah Policy.com is partnering with KUTV 2News and Y2 Analytics and will be providing polling results on a regular basis throughout the election season. You can sign up for UtahPolicy.com’s daily email newsletter here.