Out of their roughly $25 billion budget finalized just before midnight on Friday, Utah lawmakers could have and should have done better for teachers and classrooms rather than cutting taxes, Utah Democratic legislative leaders said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Utah’s legislative leaders continue to chip away at public education tax revenue, said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, leaving a smaller and smaller share of future dollars available for education.
But Republican leaders including House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, defended the tax cut and pointed to a still significant increase for education funds while also giving taxpayer money back to Utahns.
The debate isn’t likely to fade away after this year’s session. Republican legislative leaders have proposed a constitutional amendment at some point in Utah’s future, perhaps next year, to create more flexibility for income tax dollars to correct what they call a “structural imbalance” in Utah’s budget. Income tax revenue has been outpacing sales tax revenue, which fuels the general fund, or a fund that supports many programs other than education.
The conversation played out Tuesday during a panel discussion hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in partnership with the Deseret News and Utah Policy at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City. The Deseret News’ executive editor, Doug Wilks, moderated the conversation.
The Utah Legislature did some “good things,” including a “significant” $55 million for deeply affordable housing, $40 million for the Great Salt Lake and over $200 million for secondary water metering, King acknowledged. But he said his biggest gripe is with the Legislature’s approach to education funding, noting only $12 million was funded for all-day kindergarten.
“We’re a little schizophrenic at the Utah legislature on education funding,” King said.
Utah ‘must do better’ for education
Under the Utah Constitution, income tax revenue is specifically earmarked for public education. But over the past 25 years, King said that’s been “intentionally” chipped away, and that’s a “problem.”
“We have consistently and intentionally diverted funds from our income tax revenue for other uses,” King said.
He pointed to two constitutional amendments over the years, including in 1996, when lawmakers “diluted” public education funding while adding higher education eligibility for income tax revenue. He also pointed to 2020, when Utah voters approved Amendment G, which allowed income tax revenue to fund programs for children and people with disabilities.
King also pointed to 2018, when lawmakers cut the state’s income tax rate from 5% to 4.95%, and this year, when lawmakers cut the income tax rate down to 4.85%.
“The impact of that is to reduce available funding for K-12 and for higher education,” King said. “And that is something that is concerning me in light of the fact that we still are near the bottom if not at the bottom in per-pupil education.”
King acknowledged the Legislature funded a 6% increase to the weighted pupil unit, along with an overall 9% budget increase for public education. But he noted Utah continues to be among the lowest in the nation for per-pupil spending and in the “middle of the pack” for student performance.
“We need to and must do better,” King said. “And some of the things that we do up at the Legislature are inconsistent with that goal, that worthy ideal, that from my perspective is the greatest investment we can make as a state.”
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers “failed” public education this year. “We could have done more, and we should do more.”
“We’re losing teachers because we’re not adequately compensating teachers,” Davis said.
“I think it was a nice little gesture on the part of the Legislature to give families $100 (a year),” he said, but he argued against the tax cut this year because he thought the money would be better spent in classrooms and on state employee wages.
Wilson said he found the sentiment that the Utah Legislature had better uses for the $193 million in taxpayer money “very troubling.” He noted that for some Utahns, especially those on fixed incomes from Social Security and those eligible for the nonrefundable earned income tax credit, they’ll receive more “targeted” tax cuts that, for some, could total “hundreds of dollars more” a year.
“One of the things that frustrates me at the Capitol,” Wilson said, laughing, “is when lawmakers act like it’s their money. This is not lawmakers’ money. This is the money of the people of Utah that they send to us to decide how to invest and what we should spend it on.”
The “principle” behind this year’s $193 million tax cut and last year’s $80 million tax cut, Wilson said, is “maybe we should make Utah a little bit more affordable for Utahns and take less of their money.”
If Adams and Wilson “have our way,” Wilson said, “we’d like to cut taxes again next year, a little bit, in a way that’s responsible and sustainable.”
Wilson said there will always be needs in government, but lawmakers “did the best we could to balance all the needs across the state.”
“I will never apologize for letting Utahns keep a little bit more of their own money,” Wilson said, especially when inflation is up 7% across the nation and in the West, over 9%. “It’s their money to choose how to spend.”
Adams said tax policy “drives the economy,” noting Utah competes with states like Wyoming that don’t have income taxes. It’s a balancing act, he said, acknowledging that some Utahns thought this year’s tax cut wasn’t enough and some thought it wasn’t necessary.
“I think we got it right,” Adams said.
But King disagreed. He said if there are people in Utah who would move to another state for lower income taxes, he welcomes them to leave.
“You know what I say about those folks? Go to those states. Because I don’t want that attitude in the state of Utah, in the residents here,” King said. “I want someone who is more willing to say it’s not about me and every last dollar I can get.”