In a few short weeks citizens across the state will go to the polls to vote their consciences. In addition to selecting their favorite candidates, Utah voters will also have the opportunity to answer this ballot question:
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?
This is Constitutional Amendment G, and if the majority of voters say “Yes” it will expand the allowable uses of monies the state receives from income taxes or from a tax on intangible property in order to support two populaces: children, and people with disabilities. The state does not currently tax intangible property, which includes property such as stocks, bonds, patents, and copyrights.
Utah receives about $5 billion annually from income taxes. By constitutional decree, this money must be used to support public education and higher education. In addition, the state spends about $600 million annually of non-income tax money on programs for children and programs that benefit people with disabilities.
The graphic above displays public education funding from FY 2000 to 2021. The FY 2021 Reduction Scenario line estimates the impact of a 1.7% reduction, which is the average budget reduction taken across the state in the Legislature’s fifth special session. The dotted orange line represents the funding reduction for education had the legislature implemented a 1.7% reduction. The dotted blue line represents the actual MSP funding. The swing between the two is about $184 million. Sen. Ann Millner says to maintain the intent of H.B. 357 the Legislature cut all other budgets, but was still able to put more money in education, even in a pandemic year. The graph was created by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst
Proponents of Amendment G say the current status quo is not sufficient to bring Utah out of its dead-last position in per pupil spending. Rather, the proponents are focused on guaranteeing and prioritizing education funding, meeting the basic needs of the whole child, and meeting the basic needs of people with disabilities.
The amendment wording is vague, but purposeful. “We wanted to limit it to focus on two populations: children and people with disabilities,” says State Sen. Ann Millner (R, District 18).
If approved, Amendment G would take effect Jan. 1, 2021 and trigger H.B. 357, titled Public Education Funding Stabilization. H.B. 357 does the following:
* Moves the Minimum School Program (MSP) funding to a constitutionally protected account for K-12 education. The MSP is the primary funding source for school districts and charter schools in Utah. In fiscal year 2019 the total budget was $4.4 billion, including state and local dollars. MSP funds are distributed according to formulas provided by state law, and state school board rules.
* Ensures education funding adjusts automatically based on enrollment growth and inflation. Under current Utah law, there is no requirement to factor student enrollment growth or inflation into state education funding.
* Establishes a reserve account to stabilize public education funding during turbulent economic years.
House Majority Whip Mike Schultz (R, District 12) says Amendment G and H.B. 357 create a stable funding mechanism for education. “Education funds were cut deeply during the Great Recession and it has taken years to recover. Just because we have a down economy doesn’t mean the needs aren’t there. This is a better way to fund education going forward,” he adds.
Rep. Schultz and Sen. Daniel McCay (R, District 11) wrote the argument in favor of Amendment G on the ballot. They wrote that income tax is the least stable source of education funding. Coupled together, Amendment G and H.B. 357 stabilize education funding and create safeguards to ensure Utah is prepared to fund future growth and adjust for inflation. Amendment G continues the dedicated revenue source to fund education and expands the services funded through income tax.
The expansion, they noted, acknowledges the increasing importance of physical and mental health for academic success and gives Utah more flexibility to support children’s learning outcomes. It’s a safety net specifically designed to deal with economic uncertainty when income tax revenues shrink and ensures education funding will automatically grow by tying it to enrollment growth and inflation, thus providing K-12 education greater funding security and stability.
Sen. Luz Escamilla (D, District 1) and Rep. LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff (D, District 10) wrote the ballot rebuttal for Amendment G. They wrote that the proponents of Amendment G selectively choose to discuss what the amendment “hopes to accomplish,” not what it does. Further, they argued that the amendment’s wording doesn’t reflect any effort to stabilize education funding.
“Amendment G takes away the current constitutional guarantee that Utah income tax revenues are dedicated to education, and it proposes to also pay for vital social services programs with those guaranteed funds. Amendment G will pit our public education system, including charter schools, against all other programs for children and people with disabilities,” they added.
Opponents of the Amendment argue that H.B. 357 is not a guarantee of future funding and that it opens the door for tax dollars to be misused for vouchers to send students with disabilities to non-public schools. Others say it is a way of enacting tax reform without informing the public. Opponents ask: “If the current constitutional earmark for education has failed to help Utah invest more in education, how will getting rid of that earmark improve funding?”
Despite such concerns, a host of organizations have lined up behind the amendment and the objectives of H.B. 357. They include the:
* Utah Education Association * Utah PTA * Utah State Board of Education * Utah School Boards Association * Utah School Superintendents Association * Utah Association of Public Charter Schools * Utah Public Employees Association * Utah Taxpayers Association
Organizations opposed to Amendment G include:
* Voices for Utah Children * Utah Citizens’ Counsel
In expressing favor for the proposed amendment and H.B. 357, Utah State Board of Education Chair Mark Huntsman wrote: “We have an opportunity with this proposal to ensure stability with education funding, which currently relies on historically unstable income tax revenues that lack any sort of safeguards. Additionally, it allows Utah voters to decide.”
Allowing Utah voters to decide is also a point emphasized by Sen. Millner. “Let’s put a funding mechanism in place that meets the needs, focuses on the whole child, and makes them the first priority,” she adds.