Guest opinion: Amendment G is sleight of hand

I would like to propose a different interpretation of the purposes  commonly suggested by Constitutional Amendment G proponents.

The amendment language says that education money can be spent for children and people with disabilities.  Currently the state uses approximately $600 million of general revenue funds for programs that fall into the category of children and the disabled.  With Amendment G, the Legislature can pay the same $600 million for children and the disabled by simply switching funding sources. In brief, general fund revenue is replaced by education fund revenue.

This frees up $600 million of funding to be used by the Legislature for other state priorities.  This is exactly what happened when the Constitution was amended in 1995-96.  The Legislature used money from the education fund to fund higher education programs and facilities.  This freed up money from the general fund which was used to build roads and highways.  This little shuffle game allowed the Legislature to build roads without raising the gas tax, nor incurring additional bonding. Higher education did not receive a boost in operating income per se but did receive hundreds of millions of dollars to construct buildings, again with only minimal contributions  for state bonding.

It is a nice trick, but public education received nothing under the terms of the 95-96 amendment.  Jonathan Ball (legislative staff) prepared a spreadsheet of per student funding for the last 20 years.  After allowing for growth and inflation the expenditure per student has been flat—flat for the last 20 years.  Little wonder that Utah is last in the nation when it comes to funding schools on a per pupil basis.

Amendment G would make more sense if public schools were better funded.  Clearly there is money in the education fund that could be spent on much needed education programs and purposes.  But the Legislature and the governor have chosen to do otherwise.

Amendment G is an interesting sleight of hand which will not result in additional funds for schools, nor for children and the disabled.  Indeed, promises of better funding ( at least the stabilization of funding) are contained in HB 357 and HB 5011.  But these are statutory provisions that can be changed from year to year, especially as circumstances and leadership change.  And as legislators are so fond of saying, ”One legislature cannot bind the actions and priorities of another.”

I am often asked that if Amendment G is not a good idea why did the entire education community support it?  I am reminded of that great quote from Winston Churchill.  ”You cannot negotiate with a tiger when the tiger has your head in its mouth!”

Dr. Richard Kendell is a former commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, former Southern Utah University’s interim president, former Davis County schools superintendent, and former education deputy to former Gov. Mike Leavitt.