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Bills that ‘fundamentally change’ Utah’s public education funding clear House, Senate

The bills will be considered for final passage next week

SHARE Bills that ‘fundamentally change’ Utah’s public education funding clear House, Senate

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers passed legislation Friday that “fundamentally changes” how Utah will handle education funding moving forward, but only if voters approve a state constitutional amendment passed in the Senate without Democratic support following a tense debate.

The sponsor of SJR9, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he’s heard “constant complaints” from the minority party about being excluded. McCay said lawmakers are “restoring faith and giving voters a say in the process” by advancing the proposed constitutional amendment to the November ballot.

He said he is hopeful that voters “will be grateful that we have included them” and said lawmakers have the option to themselves redefine the constitutional provision that now restricts spending income tax dollars on education rather than going through the amendment process to add child and disabled services.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to place the issue on the ballot in November. A majority of voters would need to approve the amendment for it to take effect.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said “pejorative language” was being used to describe Democrats and Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and said it was difficult to explain a “massive move on policy” to constituents after learning about it only 48 hours before the vote.

Even a Republican, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, of Logan, raised questions about the language in the proposed amendment and how late it was being considered in the 45-day session, set to end Thursday. The resolution passed 23-6 in a party-line vote and now goes to the House.

In the House, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, sponsor of HB357, said the legislation is a “generational opportunity” to protect, grow and stabilize public school funding.

The House voted 62-10 to approve the bill, but it would not take effect unless voters approve the constitutional amendment in the general election. The vote was split on partisan lines with Democrats voting in opposition.

HB357 and SJR9 are supported by the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. The Utah PTA has yet to take a position.

The Utah Education Association opposes both.

HB357 calls for a constitutionally protected account for K-12 education, automatic adjustments to education funding for enrollment growth and inflation, and reserving revenues in a “public education stabilization fund.”

The latest budget plan released by legislative leaders Friday includes $100 million for the reserve account, which is intended to sustain public education in the event of a 24-month economic downturn.

HB357 would allow local school districts, in a “low-revenue year,” to use property tax revenue generated by their capital levies for school operations within certain limits. It is now limited for building projects or technology programs.

The bill “provides a floor for public education funding, not a ceiling,” said Spendlove.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, urged the House’s support of HB357.

“I can’t think of a time I’ve been able to cast a vote that will fundamentally change for this state, in a positive way, how we take care of the next generation,” he said.

But House Minority Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned whether the Legislature should rush into such significant changes to the use of income tax revenues and other structural changes to the public education funding process.

“I just found out about this proposal literally three days ago,” he said.

Others argued the bill had gone through the customary process and it leaves the decision to voters after the Legislature’s attempts at tax reform were soundly rebuffed by the public.

“This has been a winding road to get here,” said Wilson, adding that lawmakers probably wished they didn’t have to go through the “pain” of tax reform over the last year.

“But things happen for a reason,” Wilson said.

Correction: An earlier version misidentified House Minority Brian King as Brad King.