SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utahns want this year’s extra revenue in the state’s coffers to be pumped into education, while an across-the-board income tax cut comes in as a close second.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 34% of residents want the Utah Legislature to spend the budget surplus in education, while 28% said they want an income tax cut for all wage earners.
A smaller number of Utahns want the money spent in other ways, with 11% wanting a more targeted income tax cut for senior citizens, 10% wanting the money to go toward infrastructure investments, 9% for economic development and 2% for an income tax cut rate for military personnel.
About 6% said they want the money to go toward other priorities.
The poll comes as lawmakers enter the final two weeks of the 2021 legislative session and begin to drill down on how tax dollars will be spent. State leaders released new revenue estimates Friday that show lawmakers have an extra $1.5 billion to spend this year. Legislative leaders said the extra revenue was thanks to Utah’s strong economic standing despite the pandemic, but they still warn there isn’t enough money to fund all requests, which have totaled nearly $2 billion for one-time projects and $400 million for ongoing proposals.
It also came after lawmakers made what they called “historic” early commitments to education, funding early in the session a 6% increase in the weighted pupil unit, inflation, student growth and $1,500 teacher bonuses. Those boosts to education totaled about $400 million.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen conducted the survey of 1,000 Utah registered voters from Feb. 10-16, before Friday’s revenue estimates were announced. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Typically negotiations over education funding stretch for weeks in the session, but after voters approved Amendment G last year, which expanded flexibility of how income tax money can be used for children and people with disabilities to help address a budgetary structural imbalance, legislative leaders sought to show they intended to keep their promises to prioritize education by earmarking a big boost early on.
That most Utahns put education above other priorities — including a tax cut — wasn’t surprising to Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute.
“It’s been historically true, and true in this case, that (Utahns say) that money should be spent on education,” Perry said.
Lawmakers’ early actions on education mean they’ve already “taken care of education funding to a large extent,” Perry said. “They promised it, 34% of Utahns want it, and they got it. That is something that’s already been a priority for our Legislature.”
By and large, the poll showed that desire to put education on the top of the list spans across most demographics, though an income tax cut was favored more by more Republicans
More than half — 52% — of Democrats said they wanted the money spent on education while 27% of Republicans chose schools compared to 33% saying they wanted an income tax cut rate for all wage earners.
“There’s still an appetite in Utah for some kind of tax cut,” Perry said. “And our Legislature has been talking about that. It’s something they want to do, and it’s something that Utahns want them to do.”
Legislative leaders all session have been promising some sort of tax relief this year, with already $80 million set aside for that purpose. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has called 2021 “the year of the tax cut.”
Although it’s been floated as an idea, legislative leaders have said an income tax cut for all wage-earning Utahns isn’t likely, especially citing tight revenues for ongoing money.
Instead, legislative leaders announced on Monday they’ve agreed on three bills with price tags totaling roughly $100 million. Those bills focus on targeted tax cuts for senior citizens on Social Security, retired veterans and families with dependents who saw a tax increase with federal tax reform several years ago.
Sen. Wayne Harper’s SB11, in its latest iteration, would use $23.8 million in ongoing money to eliminate income taxes for Utahns on military retirement pay. Another bill, Rep. Walt Brooks’ HB86, would use $18.3 million in ongoing money to enact a tax credit for retirement and Social Security income.
And there’s also Sen. Lincoln Fillmore’s SB153, which would use nearly $55 million in ongoing money to restore the dependent exemption that was lost in federal tax changes several years ago.
With those bills, lawmakers could collectively appease what some other Utahns thought should be prioritized, according to the poll — just not with one big income tax rate cut.
If an income tax rate cut doesn’t happen this year, Perry predicted the proposal will return next year.
“I am certain that is a conversation that is not going to go away,” Perry said.
Next on Utahns’ priority list, according to the poll, is infrastructure — something that is also already on legislators’ own list as a big priority this year. Infrastructure requests alone total more than $1 billion, with legislative leaders considering bonding to help pay for some big-ticket items. Those could include $350 million to double track FrontRunner, or $50 million to maybe go toward a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“There is an appetite in our Legislature to put a significant amount of money in infrastructure,” Perry said. “What they believe will happen from that is once we start building structures in the state, putting up buildings, putting the construction workforce back in action, that will further stimulate the economy for coming years.”
Lawmakers view infrastructure as an “investment that pays off,” Perry said, “and that is a reason why we will see a good amount of money go into infrastructure.”