State Legislature Advances Constitutional Amendment To Broaden How Education Money Can Be Spent
In an attempt to address the state’s “structural imbalance” of tax revenue, a state Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment Thursday that would allow money earmarked for education to be spent to “support children and to support individuals with a disability.”
Last month, the state Legislature reported more than $900 million in additional revenue, but almost all of that was in the education fund, which comes from income tax revenue. Republican leadership has said there is a “structural imbalance” in the budget, where income tax revenue is growing and sales tax revenue, which feeds the general fund, has slowed in recent years as Utah shifts to a more service-based economy.
“In our constant effort at trying to work with our fiscal and budgetary constraints, we have in front of us a proposal to amend the Utah Constitution to allow for a limited purpose, the inclusion of a couple of additional items so that we can better balance our budget,” said Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the amendment’s sponsor.
The Utah Education Association, however, argued that the Legislature needs more time to consider the amendment and suggested they take it up in a special session.
“We are concerned that a generational change in education funding, which is what this resolution really presents, is being decided with one week left in this session,” said UEA Executive Director Brad Bartels. “These are very important issues and they really deserve more careful deliberation to make sure we get the details right.”
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, pushed back on that notion, appearing to be frustrated that the UEA had opposed the Legislature’s last attempt to fix the imbalance through tax reform in 2019.
“I did hear clearly in every public meeting that we had members of your association opposing the tax reform effort, because it was going to a special session,” he said. “I believe I just heard you now say we shouldn't do this in a general session … When in the world would you think we ought to to address this problem?”
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, agreed with Bartels, and voted no on the amendment.
“It needs more discussion,” Davis said.
If passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the amendment would still have to be approved by voters in November.
McCay said the Legislature could have chosen to make the same changes by altering definitions referenced in the constitution, but legislators chose a constitutional amendment instead because they want the public’s input.
“I would love to take this issue through the front door in a very public process,” McCay said. “Let's have a debate about the budget and about the conversation through the constitutional amendment process, and do it with the public's blessing, as opposed to the Legislature just redefining what counts as education.”
Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Thursday that any change to education funding would need to have the backing of all stakeholders.
“The people of Utah will not support a change in the constitutional earmark unless everybody, meaning the Legislature and the stakeholders of education, come together and say ‘Let’s hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and say we all agree this is a better way to go forward,’” Herbert said. “If that doesn’t happen I think they’re gonna say ‘Let’s just keep the status quo and keep the pressure on.’”
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson