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Is this the end of Utah’s income tax earmark for education?

Senate committee votes 5-1 to send proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the education earmark from income tax to the full Senate. Critics say there needs to be more statutes that ensure public education will receive the resources it needs

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A student takes notes during an English class at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

A student takes notes during an English class at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. A Senate committee has sent a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the education earmark from income tax to the full Senate.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Will this be the year that Utah lawmakers act to eliminate the decades-old education earmark on income tax revenue?

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 5-1 Wednesday to support SJR10, which would place a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide November 2024 ballot asking to eliminate the earmark.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the resolution’s sponsor, said lawmakers had similar conversations in the 1990s.

“Their question was, whether they should deal with it then or wait? The political will always seems to be to wait,” he said.

In subsequent years, lawmakers “tried to nip at different ways to take the earmark off,” he said.

In 1996, Utahns approved a constitutional amendment that expanded the earmark to also include higher education. 

In 2020, voters approved another constitutional amendment to expand the constitutional earmark on income tax to also include programs for children and Utahns with disabilities.

Now, McCay seeks another amendment, this time to do away with the constitutional earmarks altogether, which legislative leaders say would give them more flexibility in budgeting.

“I’m committed, and I know my colleagues are, to come together in the future to make sure that this earmark and its removal does not become a detriment to our public education,” McCay said.

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

If voters approve the constitutional amendment, state lawmakers will repeal the state portion of food tax starting in 2025, which is a separate bill under consideration by lawmakers. That bill, HB101, was passed by the House on Wednesday afternoon on a 57-15 vote, largely along party lines.

The House rejected an amendment that would have severed the food tax repeal from the constitutional amendment.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said passing the proposed amendment “would be the most irresponsible thing that this body would ever do and we’ve done some irresponsible things before. But it would be. We have to balance our budget. We don’t get to just throw darts at the dartboard and hope it works.”

House Minority Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, argued that “holding voters hostage over something that is highly controversial and should be considered on its own merits is a policy mistake.”

She urged support of the amendment “based on the policy issue and not political gamesmanship and tying the two issues.”

While McCay said conversations are ongoing with the public education community, a representative of the the Utah Education Association urged the committee, at this juncture, to oppose the resolution,

“UEA has participated in these discussions to see if it is possible to create better guarantees for education funding. At this point, there is no final proposal to consider,” said Jay Blain, UEA’s director of policy and research.

“Our goal is to ensure that education funding is prioritized, protected and adequate through both constitutional language and statutory guarantees. Therefore, we think at this time, it’s premature for SJR10, and therefore we oppose it in its current form,” he said.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said that in his 23 years of legislative service, every public opinion poll he’s ever seen says education is Utahns’ top priority.

“Every poll, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, rural, urban, education is the No. 1 issue on the minds of citizens. When we poll the Legislature, education is the No. 1 issue for legislators. So this red herring argument ‘Well, if there’s not a constitutional guarantee there won’t be funding for education,’ that’s union speak,” Bramble said.

Bramble said there are no constitutional mandates to build roads or fund public safety or other state agencies and yet, lawmakers do it.

“Yet we represent the public, and the public demands it,” he said.

GOP leaders have said a change is needed to address the “structural imbalance” between sales tax and income tax revenue in the state budget. 

Mark Clement, vice president of the Utah School Boards Association and an Alpine School Board member, said educators have been negotiating with lawmakers for the past year about replacing the earmark “and I don’t see any of that language in this bill, and I would say I would oppose it until we have some legislative work to actually ensure education funding.”

Clement said simply removing the earmark is “going to significantly damage education and the morale of teachers.” He urged lawmakers to partner with educators to create the nation’s best public education system.

Utah Taxpayer Association President Rusty Cannon said conversations about the earmark have been ongoing for decades.

Utah is the only state that has the earmark “and it has held us back. We do believe it is time for change and would support you moving this forward,” Cannon said.