Utah voters will decide whether to remove restrictions on the uses of income tax under a resolution passed by state lawmakers on Friday.

Currently, the Utah Constitution limits using income tax revenue to public education, state-supported colleges and universities, and programs for children and people with disabilities.

SJR10, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, will place a constitutional amendment on the November 2024 ballot asking to “remove” those limitations, which legislative leaders say impede their ability to budget since growth in income tax revenue far outstrips sales tax.

If it passes, lawmakers would eliminate the state’s portion of the sales tax on food.

McCay said the amended bill is intended “to protect and provide continued constitutional protections but then allow for ... revenue in the income tax fund to be used for other state purposes once we fulfilled our responsibilities for growth, and for student enrollment and long-term inflation.”

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During a lively debate in the Utah House of Representatives Friday, one lawmaker said lifting the constitutional earmark would be a “nail in the coffin” to education in Utah.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, called the assurances meaningless.

“That is an inadequate safeguard to ensure that the children of the state of Utah are going to receive the benefit that they currently receive from our income taxes,” King said.

But others argued it would provide a much-needed path forward.

Times have changed, said House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, noting voters instituted the earmark nearly 100 years ago.

“It’s time for us as a state to come together and figure out another way forward and how to balance our state’s budget. We have a constitutional duty to balance our state’s budget,” said Schultz.

Ultimately, voters get to decide, he said.

“We don’t get to make this decision. We can’t make this decision. This bill allows the citizens of the state to make the decision and I think that’s what we need to do,” Schultz said.

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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But others urged voting against the resolution because the constitutional earmark has worked well.

Rep. Neil Walter, R-St. George, said he opposed the resolution “because I believe that the constitutional earmark has not actually failed, but in large measure, we’re here because of its success. By definition, the earmark restricts access to certain types of state resources, revenue in this case, and it acts as a constraint that limits the size of state government and the growth of state government.”

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, a retired school administrator, said the Legislature in recent years has provided more funding for education “that’s ever been done,” he said, which reflects its priorities.

SJR10 “identifies a way for that to continue into the future. I think it’s really important that I make this statement. Things have changed. I am embracing that change,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, addressing reporters Friday, the final day of the legislative session, said the companion bill, HB394, to hold public education harmless financially in times of declining enrollment, will take effect if Utahns vote to change the constitution. Removal of the food tax also hinges on voter approval of the amendment.

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Millner said local school superintendents, local school boards and the Utah State Board of Education agreed to support the latest version of SJR10 and the companion bill, HB394.

For a long time, the constitutional earmark was akin to a Minky Couture blanket.

“If you think about it, sometimes we just hold on to something we’ve always had. It’s like holding on to a blanket that you feel like is a comfort blanket, a security blanket,” Millner said.

The Utah Education Association has not yet established a position on the legislation.

“UEA is waiting to take a position on the substitute version of SJR10. If it passes out of the Legislature, we will seek member input during our annual delegate assembly in April. Our goal has always been to ensure education funding in Utah is prioritized, protected and adequate through constitutional language and guarantees,” a statement by the association said.

Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, sponsor of HB394, said education funding is a top priority for both Utahns and lawmakers.

“We recognize the value of a constitutionally dedicated revenue source to fund education. As such, this proposal leaves that in place and prioritizes education by putting constitutional safeguards to fund enrollment growth and adjust for inflation before using income tax revenue to fund other state needs,” Peterson said in a statement.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said this year’s record spending for public education, on top of the previous record last year, demonstrates that K-12 schools are a high priority.

Even during the pandemic, Utah lawmakers raised the value of the weighted pupil unit and gave teachers bonuses.

“If you look at the last four or five years, education has been a big winner in the state and it hasn’t been because of the constitutional amendment. It is because of the legislative effort to try to fund education and that won’t stop no matter what happens with the constitutional amendment,” Adams said.

Lawmakers say they’ll repeal Utah’s food tax — if constitutional earmark for education is removed

House Democrats issued this statement following the bill’s passage saying, “We cannot support these measures to remove the constitutional earmark on public education funding because education funding is essential to our state’s future and should never be used as a bargaining chip.”

House Democrats questioned why SJR10 needed to be passed on Friday when “we have another year before the 2024 election to continue to work and find a good solution for all.”

In the bill’s present form, House Democrats called on voters to reject the constitutional amendment.

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