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Politics & Government
Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

A Deeper Dive Into Amendment G: What It Does And Who's Behind It

A photo of the inside of the Utah State Capitol.
Lee Hale
/
KUER
Supporters of Amendment G argue it’s needed to help balance the state’s budget, while opponents say it could stretch an already thin education budget.

Amendment G is one of seven state constitutional changes voters can decide on this November. But it is perhaps the most controversial and could have some of the most far-reaching impacts. While few, if any, openly voice that public education should receive less funding, many disagree on the best way to pay for it, especially in a state that pays the lowest amount per student in the country.

What Does Amendment G Do?

The amendment proposes a change to what state income tax can pay for. As the constitution states now, income tax revenue can only be used to fund public K-12 education. That was adjusted in 1996 to include funding for Utah’s technical schools, colleges and universities. If passed, the amendment would allow income tax to also cover services for children and people with disabilities.

The phrasing would provide lawmakers flexibility in determining which services qualify and how to pay for them. An estimate from the Lt. Gov’s office found current services for children and people with disabilities add up to around $600 million, currently paid for using the state’s General Fund.

A rough analysis from the Utah State Board of Education found the process would likely be a slow one, similar to what happened when higher education was added to the earmark in 1996. Fiscal Policy Analyst Dale Frost said it took about a decade for higher education services to migrate to the income tax fund, though sometimes the funding source fluctuated. He said that suggested lawmakers have tried to protect public education funding.

“We’re likely to see that same kind of trend continue,” Frost said. “There is a funding amount that would be reallocated, but it will be a slow process. And it doesn't mean it would be taken from the education fund.”

Support Of The Amendment

Advocates of Amendment G have said the change is needed in part to help stabilize the state’s budget, by placing less burden on the General Fund, which they say is shrinking. If the amendment doesn’t pass, lawmakers argue they’ll need to revisit tax reform, which they tried but ultimately failed to accomplish after voters mounted a referendum against it.

“Assuming amendment G passes, I don't think there will be a need for reform,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said. “But if not, we're going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

A graphic that shows how higher education funding sources have shifted over time.
Courtesy of Utah State Board of Education
Graph shows how higher education funding sources have shifted over time. They are supported both by the general fund and education fund, though dedicated credits like tuition have traditionally made up the majority.

Along with the Utah Taxpayers Association and Utah Public Employees Association, several major education organizations support Amendment G, including the Utah Education Association — the state’s largest teacher’s union — and the Utah Association of School Boards. The Utah State Board of Education also officially endorsed the proposal in March by an 11-4 margin.

Groups in opposition to the amendment include advocacy groups like Voices for Utah Children, the League of Women Voters, Alliance for a Better Utah and the Utah Citizens’ Council.

McKay Jensen, president of the UASB, said he supports the amendment in large part because income taxes have proven an unreliable funding source. And while it might sound nice to reserve all income tax for public education, in practice it’s not a great deal.

Income tax is not only highly volatile — fluctuating significantly as the economy ebbs and flows — Jensen said it’s also prone to complicated credits and maneuvers that allow people to pay less in taxes and, by extension, reduce the public education fund.

A graph that shows income taxes fall with economic downturns, as it did after 9/11 and the 2008 recession.
Courtesy of the Utah State Tax Commission
An analysis from the Utah Tax Commission shows income taxes fall with economic downturns, as it did after 9/11 and the 2008 recession. Education funding dropped so significantly after the recession, it took about a decade to return to pre-recession levels.

He said higher education is often blamed for taking away public education funding, but the tax overhaul process revealed how significant those income tax breaks can be, adding up to more than $1 billion a year.

“Here we thought we had a little hole in our bucket, when actually we had thousands of ways that the Legislature could stop money from ever getting into the bucket,” Jensen said. “Even people like me who are at the capitol all the time, I wasn't fully conscious that I should pay attention to every tax credit, every tweak to the tax policy.”
It’s one of the main reasons, he said, Utah can spend the lowest in the country on education even with constitutional protection.

And while he said he doesn’t think Amendment G is a good solution on its own, the fact that it will trigger another bill — H.B. 357 — convinced him it is worthwhile. The statute requires the Legislature to increase education funding to match student enrollment growth and inflation each year, as well as set money aside in an education-specific rainy-day fund. It only becomes law if Amendment G passes.

“No education group would have signed on to support [the amendment] without that piece of legislation,” he said. “It just says ‘this is your obligation’ [to increase the education budget each year]. And that's why I firmly believe that statute will do more to stabilize spending in education than the constitutional amendment has.”

Opposition To Amendment G

But others aren’t convinced the bill can stand the test of time. It’s not constitutionally protected so lawmakers could make future changes without asking for voter approval.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said it’s already happened this year, when the Legislature passed a major increase in education funding, only to reduce it after the COVID-19-induced recession hit. She said she initially voted for the bill that placed Amendment G on the ballot, but has since changed her mind.

“Promises were made. Promises are not going to be able to be kept,” Moss said in a panel discussion in September. “I understand revenues are down, but this is not the time to make that shift.”

Longtime education advocate Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she sees Amendment G as another attempt by the Legislature to relax the rules and slice the education pie even further, pitting the state’s public education system against programs for children and people with disabilities in the process.

That, in turn, will exacerbate issues educators are already facing — like an ongoing teacher shortage and large class sizes. She added that legislators already have the power to increase educational spending without constitutional change.

“They can do that right now, but they choose not to,” she said. “The fact that we're looking at H.B. 357 to fund student growth is ridiculous. That should be absolutely the basic minimum program. That should not even be a question.”

She said ultimately the problems education faces cannot be solved by shifting money around, and it may require raising taxes if people want to adequately fund not only education but social programs. A Utah Foundation poll found a majority of Utah voters would be willing to pay more in taxes for public schools, though there were notable divisions along party lines.

A majority of voters need to approve the amendment for it to pass. If approved, Amendment G would take effect next year.

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