SALT LAKE CITY — Just 30% of Utah voters support amending the state constitution to remove the requirement that all income tax revenues be spent only on education, a key component of the Legislature’s tax reform efforts, according to a new poll.
At the same time, 50% oppose removing the language in the Utah Constitution designating all personal and corporate income taxes be used for public and higher education, the poll for UtahPolicy.com found, with 20% saying they neither support nor oppose the proposal.
The question was included in the Utah Political Trends poll, conducted for the online political news source by Y2 Analytics July 21-Aug. 6, of 1,017 registered Utah voters. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Constitutional amendments require voter approval, so the results raise questions about how removing the earmark fits into the tax reform recommendations coming from a legislative task force charged with finding a way to address lagging growth in sales tax revenues.
Members of the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force are expected to discuss the proposed constitutional amendment at their next meeting on Sept. 5, the second in what is likely to be a total of five sessions to review options that also include restoring the full sales tax on food and adding new taxes on services.
“We are considering everything,” including the amendment, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, the tax force’s co-chairman, said, taking issue with the poll question because it didn’t ask about freeing funding for other state needs.
“It mostly focused on the possibility of removing education money. Almost no one will react positively to that. That’s the problem with polls,” Gibson said. “Do you think people should have health care? Duh. Yes. Do you want to take away education funding? Duh. No.”
He said the task force has “to seriously look at how we can have the most budget flexibility while still funding education, transportation, water, law enforcement, National Guard, social services” and other state needs, and called himself one of the “biggest cheerleaders” for education funding.
But, the majority leader said, “revenue has to work for everyone in every sector.”
Asked if he believed voters would support the amendment, he said the public wants to see schools funded along with other state needs and “are tired of government taking their money also.”
Rep. Joel Briscoe, a former educator who serves on the task force, said he’s not surprised at the poll numbers because Utahns have long said they’d support an increased investment in public education. Lifting the constitutional earmark, he said, is seen as heading in the opposite direction.
“I think most people would interpret that as reducing support for public education,” the Salt Lake Democrat said. And although Briscoe isn’t sure himself whether that’s a fair assessment at this point, he said that “one of the rules of politics is perception is reality.”
A resolution that surfaced in the final days of the 2019 Legislature advancing a constitutional amendment to allow income tax revenue to also be used for social service programs was called “absurd” by the head of the Utah Education Association. SJR3 passed the Senate but never got a hearing in the House.
Briscoe said the amendment proposed last session may be a sign of things to come. He is also concerned about reducing the state income tax rate, an option under consideration to offset additional sales taxes that would come in if the full state sales tax is restored on food and/or new services are taxed.
Lawmakers set aside $75 million last session for an unspecified tax cut, setting up the task force after scrapping a House tax reform bill that would have imposed sales taxes on a wide range of services, ranging from hair cuts to legal advice amid protests from the business community.
LaVarr Webb, publisher of UtahPolicy.com, said the poll results show “pretty strong opposition” to the constitutional change and underscore the political dilemma facing lawmakers as they attempt to rebalance state revenues, particularly as the state continues to report budget surpluses.
The additional $97 million forecast for the recently ended budget year comes from a unexpectedly big jump in income tax collections that was offset by a shortfall in revenue growth for sales taxes that fund the bulk of state spending outside of education.
Next year is also an election year for every member of the state House and half of the state Senate, making it even tougher to talk about. Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert had proposed dealing with tax reform in a special session this fall, but it’s not clear the task force will be ready with recommendations.
Voters “have come to understand the income tax goes to education and they don’t support taking away that earmark. I think politically it would be very, very difficult,” Webb said. “I think the education community would mount a fierce campaign against it. The message would be, you’re taking away money from education.”