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Utah’s amendment G is a costly, and unnecessary, investment

John Arthur, Utah’s Teacher of the Year, walks with a few of his sixth grade students after they grabbed their lunches at Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

It is critically important for voters to understand what they will be voting on when they confront Constitutional Amendment G on the November ballot. It asks voters whether to approve a constitutional change that would allow money previously reserved only for public and higher education to be spent “to support children and to support people with a disability.” This is a vague and wide-open invitation to undo the 74-year-old tradition of protecting income tax revenues for public education (and since 1996, higher education as well). Nowhere is this explained in the ballot question. In fact, education isn’t even mentioned.

It sounds good to help children and people with a disability; who wouldn’t want to? But what is not revealed is that this is simply shifting their funding source from sales tax revenues to income tax revenues — forcing them and school students to compete for the same dollars without any indication that services for children and people with a disability will receive any more state money than they do now.

“Now,” according to the lieutenant governor’s office, is currently about $600 million a year — money that can be removed from education reserves at a time of pandemic, economic upheaval and pressing, long-term needs for more money for education. Money to increase teacher salaries, to cut class sizes, to increase the availability of school nurses, school social workers and school counselors. Money to reduce the achievement gap between Utah’s middle-class white students and its at-risk ethnic minority students, English learners and children from low-income families. Money for statewide, high-quality preschool to enable preschoolers to enter school kindergarten ready — the best predictor of long-term success in school and employment.

Such investments cost far more than the $600 million per year that would be lost to public education under Amendment G. For many years, the state has underfunded education and underfunded health and human services for children and people with disabilities. Forcing these groups to compete for the same dollars is not likely to improve the situation. Yet this would be the result if Amendment G is passed.

What is driving Amendment G is the legislature’s inability to produce a tax reform plan that better balances revenues from sales tax, income tax and gas tax and road-user fees. Recall last year’s tax reform failure with its unpopular increase in the state sales tax on food. That failure is now being placed on the backs of public and higher education.

The support for Amendment G from UEA and the school superintendents’ association is based on legislation that will take effect only if Amendment G passes. This conditional legislation offers more money to cover annual enrollment growth and inflation, build a more accessible education “rainy-day” fund and give 10% of new income tax revenues to public education. This legislation may work for a few years, assuming the economy recovers, but it is a changeable and uncertain fix that comes at the expense of long-term protection in the state constitution.

Support for the amendment does not reflect the views of former superintendents and former legislators who, from long experience, know better than to change the constitutional protection for education. Support does not reflect the views of nonpartisan groups who have studied both the health needs and the education needs of children, including the Utah League of Women Voters, Voices for Utah Children, the Utah Citizens’ Counsel and the United Utah Party (representing voters independent of both major political parties). Then, too, the Utah State Board of Education has not been able to reach consensus to support this amendment, disability organizations have remained silent, and uninsured and underinsured children are not in a position to have a voice in this debate.

Legislative promises of new money to public education from what was, pre-pandemic, a growing economy, have already been compromised by the pandemic and economic downturn. It took a decade after the prior recession of 2008-2009 for public education funding to return to pre-recession levels per student. This uncertain time is no time for voters to be co-opted into approving what the legislature has failed to explain clearly to the public.

Dixie Huefner is a member of the steering committee, Utah Citizens’ Counsel, and retired special education professor at the University of Utah. Richard Kendell is the former Utah Commissioner of Higher Education and a former superintendent of Davis School District. Catherine Weller is the co-president of the Utah League of Women Voters.