A new public opinion poll shows a slim majority of Utahns oppose using state income tax revenue for purposes other than education, higher education and services for children and people with disabilities as established in the Utah Constitution.
According to the poll, conducted for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, 51% opposed such a change while 34% supported it. Fifteen percent responded “don’t know.”
The survey of 804 registered voters in Utah was conducted March 9-21 by Dan Jones & Associates. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the poll reflects Utahns’ desire not to dilute education funding.
In recent years, the Utah Legislature has made a concerted effort to boost education funding, start to address important initiatives and abide by HB357, a 2020 statute requiring lawmakers to fund enrollment growth and inflation and provide a safety net to protect education funding during economic downturns and other unforeseen circumstances.
“It’s a great trajectory but we’re still the second to lowest in per pupil funding. Now is not the time to continue to open that up when we have not seen the results of the trajectory that we’re on. It’s just beginning,” Matthews said.
Midway through the just-completed legislative session, GOP leaders met with several education organizations and the Utah State Board of Education to discuss a proposed change to the Utah Constitution that would effectively eliminate the earmark that ensures income tax can only be used to fund public and higher education and services for children and people with disabilities.
In 2020, Utah voters agreed to amend the Utah Constitution to allow state income tax to be used for services for children and people with disabilities.
Two years later, Republican leaders said more flexibility is needed to aid the Legislature’s budget process.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the state school board, “We don’t really have a revenue problem in the state of Utah, but we do have a budget problem. We don’t have really the flexibility as policymakers up here on Capitol Hill, at times, to address statewide needs in the way that we feel we should be.”
Matthews said the overarching concern is whether Utah schools “have the necessary funding. We’ve seen a lot of progress but we’re not there. Until we are there in a very protected and incremental way. But I don’t think people are going to be interested in looking for ways to provide for more flexibility.”
Ultimately, lawmakers took no action to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot but on the final day of their 45-day legislative session, they approved SB211, which renamed the Education Fund to the Income Tax Fund. The bill had no committee hearing.
Most demographic groups said they opposed using income tax for other portions of the state budget with the strongest opposition from people who self-identified as very active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thirty percent said they were strongly opposed and 27% said they were somewhat opposed.
Poll respondents with college and postgraduate college degrees were opposed as well, with a combined 56% of people with bachelor’s degrees either strongly or somewhat opposed. That figure rose to a combined 59% among people with postgraduate education.
The highest opposition was among people who described themselves as somewhat liberal, with a combined 62% saying they are either strongly or somewhat opposed to the change in income tax use.
According to the poll results, the least opposed were people ages 18-24, people who described themselves as very conservative, people with high school educations and those who said they are somewhat active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
France Barral, education commissioner of the Utah PTA, had no comment about the poll results but she is confident the issue will resurface.
“I am looking forward to being part of the coalition to discuss this in transparent ways,” said Barral, who is a certified public accountant by training.
“Show me the trends, so I really understand what we’re trying to do.”
Barral said she hesitates to speak for or against a proposed constitutional amendment until she can see the language but a constitutional guarantee tied to certain benchmarks would be preferable to a state law, which can be altered by legislative vote.
Yet, she gives lawmakers credit for adhering to HB357, which was companion legislation to the resolution that placed constitutional Amendment G on the 2020 general ballot. Fifty-four percent of Utahns voted for Amendment G, which expanded the use of income tax for services for children and those with disabilities. Voters also approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 that allows income tax revenue to be used for higher education.
The Legislature appropriated record spending for education for the coming school year. “We’ve never seen such a budget increase in Utah, and I think we need to acknowledge that,” Barral said.
While Utah PTA has had a long history of support for the education earmark, Barral said she expects lawmakers to work collaboratively when the issue resurfaces.
“For me, it’s more like you’re asking me to get rid of something that’s protecting us pretty well in exchange for what?” she said.