Utahns chose to dramatically change education funding. What comes next?
The only sure answer at the moment is that Amendment G is a step toward rebalancing tax funds. Also, it is a step toward providing education a more stable funding source
Lost in all the attention surrounding the vote-counting for president is the fact that Utahns decided last Tuesday to dramatically change the way they fund public education.
Amendment G, the proposal to remove the constitutional provision requiring all income tax funds in the state be dedicated to public and higher education, is passing easily, according to official ballot counts posted Thursday. That means another bill lawmakers passed earlier this year will take effect, which sets up a rainy day fund for education and promises to provide money for enrollment growth and inflation each year. Another bill calls for lawmakers to fund a 6% growth in school funding over the coming years.
Income tax funds still will provide money for education, but they also will fund programs that support children and people with disabilities. The lieutenant governor’s office has estimated that $600 million will be taken for that purpose, but no one really knows for sure.
As a Utah Foundation pre-election analysis said, the amendment’s wording is vague and hard to define. What constitutes a program for children or for people with disabilities?
A bigger question is, what happens next? The only answer is to wait and see. Education funding now is in the hands of the state lawmakers voters choose every few years. A constitutional guarantee has been replaced by statutes that could be altered by future legislatures without a vote of the people. Education funding will have to compete for funding each year with other state needs.
Short-changing schools is not the intent, of course. We don’t doubt the sincerity of the lawmakers who drafted and passed the laws that set up this new funding mechanism, nor of the many education stakeholders who supported Amendment G and urged its passage.
We also understand the argument that the income tax earmark did not guarantee a level of funding for education. It merely dedicated a revenue stream. In bad times, as income tax collections fell, less money was available. The new scheme seeks instead to ensure a level of funding. And yet that funding level will depend not only on lawmakers keeping the new dedicated fund intact, but on their decisions as to how much income tax money to budget yearly for other programs.
Parents, educators and other interested parties will need to closely monitor and lobby lawmakers each year to maintain the original intent of this change,
A second and equally important question is whether this change satisfies the need for tax reform, an issue that has dominated much of the last two years on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
Legislative leaders have tried various ways to reform taxes, which they say is necessary because income tax receipts are growing faster than sales tax receipts. Their first two efforts — various combinations of increased taxes and a broadening of the tax base by extending sales taxes to services — failed. The second try, which would have increased the sales tax on groceries, passed but was subsequently repealed in the face of a petition drive against it.
Amendment G gives lawmakers some of what tax reform would accomplish. It frees up income tax funds for programs that used to rely on sales taxes. But is this enough to fix the imbalance, or are further reform measures necessary?
The only sure answer at the moment is that Amendment G is a step toward rebalancing tax funds. Also, it is a step toward providing education a more stable funding source.
The rest of the steps are up to state lawmakers, and those who elect them.