Seventeen years ago, millions of dollars poured into the state when the Utah Education Association decided to take on a sweeping school voucher program passed by lawmakers by launching their own referendum. The nationally watched election saw Utah voters overwhelmingly reject the new law.

Now, the teachers’ union has come out against another action by the Utah Legislature set to appear on the ballot in November, a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the earmark that limits the use of state income tax collections to only public and higher education, along with some social services needs.

So will the UEA’s opposition have the same impact on this November’s election as it did in 2007?

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“There are just a lot of unknowns right now. We just need to get all the pieces in place for us to really be able to respond,” UEA President Renée Pinkney told the Deseret News, including what role the National Education Association — that reportedly contributed around $3 million to the 2007 campaign — will play in this year’s election.

What’s going to be different about this election

Topping the list of unknowns is how the constitutional amendment will be explained to voters on the ballot and in the state’s voter guide. New legislation this year put Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, in charge of what voters will see about the amendment, a job previously handled by the Legislature’s nonpartisan staff.

And under a 2022 change to the law, the ballot also will include a summary of legislation that “will become effective upon the voters’ adoption of the proposed constitutional amendment.” In this case, that’s removing the state sales tax on food along with holding the line on education funding over five years even if enrollment drops.

Last year, lawmakers agreed the state would stop charging tax on food as of Jan. 1, 2025 — but only if voters pass the constitutional amendment lifting the earmark on income taxes, introduced the same session. The state collects 1.75% of the 3% total tax charged throughout Utah on food since 2008, some $200 million annually.

The unusual move to tie the enactment of a new law to voter action on a ballot issue was seen as making the change more palatable to voters. Taxing food is so unpopular in Utah that a proposed increase fueled a citizen revolt against a tax reform package ultimately repealed by lawmakers.

The promise of paying less in food tax, along with replacing what used to be labeled an “impartial analysis” that “fairly describes” a constitutional amendment with language crafted by the leaders of the Utah Legislature’s Republican supermajority, complicates any campaign against the constitutional amendment.

“It will take some education for not only our members, but also for their families and friends to be able to explain what the question is asking and what the implications are,” Pinkney said of the “For” or “Against” choice that voters will be asked to make on the amendment in this year’s general election.

She said that schooling will likely start at the UEA’s annual summer leadership academy in June, where hundreds of teachers are expected to gather in Salt Lake City and online to learn about getting involved in the political process. Getting all of the union’s more than 18,000 members ready to spread the message “is a big lift,” Pinkney acknowledged.

Where the UEA goes from there, she said, will depend on what additional resources are available. The National Education Association generally supports its affiliates in their advocacy efforts but declined to comment on any specifics about what that might look like in Utah.

How lawmakers may counter UEA’s opposition

The UEA announced its opposition to the constitutional amendment two weeks after the 2024 Legislature ended, saying the union “has been protecting the promise of public education for over 150 years, and we don’t intend to compromise our values now,” while raising concerns about increased funding for the state’s new private school scholarships that are viewed as vouchers.

Lawmakers were surprised by the UEA’s decision and, like the union, are looking at what they can do to ensure voters understand their position on the amendment. That could mean turning to a political issues committee to fund a campaign, state Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said.

“I think we’re going to need to think about how we educate the public about this and develop a strategy,” Millner said, calling the formation of a fundraising committee possible. “We can’t use state dollars,” she said. “But some of us feel strongly this is the right thing for public education.”

Millner said she anticipates advocates for other state needs, such as water development or public safety, will back the constitutional change.

“This is about meeting needs in our state in a way that we are going forward. We need some flexibility to be able to do that,” she said, describing lifting the earmark as “an extension of tax reform that can meet the needs in a better way.” Millner said the amendment still prioritizes funding for schools because it also adds legislative guarantees to the Utah Constitution.

There’s clearly concern among lawmakers about how the amendment will be received.

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Another proposed constitutional amendment, to raise the threshold for passing some citizens initiatives, was approved in the House during the 2024 session but failed to get a Senate vote after Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, publicly warned about what he called ballot “clutter.”

There were already three constitutional amendments slated for November, all passed with the required two-thirds majority in the House and Senate during the 2023 Legislature. In addition to the earmark amendment, there’s one about electing county sheriffs and another about the proceeds from school trust lands.

Vickers had told reporters he was worried that putting “too many” amendments on the ballot “really muddies the field when a voter goes to the polls. So we’re concerned about that, and potentially them just automatically saying no to everything.”

Why legislative leaders are writing ballot language

Behind the scenes. lawmakers were talking about doing something else to help the earmark amendment along: taking the power to determine what the state tells voters about any proposed constitutional amendment away from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel and giving it to the Senate president and House speaker.

The provision was added to what ended up being described as an election “clean-up” bill passed just over a week before the end of the 45-day legislative session. Although the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, told a committee the addition to SB37 was a “substantive policy change,” it attracted little interest.

Both a Democrat, Sen. Nate Blouin of Salt Lake City, and a Republican, Rep. Jason Kyle of Huntsville, asked about the provision during floor debate.

Fillmore said in the Senate the requirement for an impartial analysis meant the Legislature’s attorneys felt “directed not to speak to their client when drafting language to put on the ballot.” The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, told representatives it’s lawmakers who put the amendments on the ballot so they should choose who writes the description for voters.

The legislative attorneys’ office declined to comment on the need for the change in the law but Senate Chief of Staff Mark Thomas said they’ve long been in the “awkward position” of feeling like they couldn’t talk to lawmakers and remain impartial. This year, Thomas said, as this session went on, lawmakers “realized this was something they wanted to do.”

Rather than run a separate bill, the new provision was added to SB37, he said, and the words “impartial” and “fairly” removed from the section of code detailing what information must be provided to voters about constitutional amendments to help avoid accusations that legislative leaders couldn’t meet those standards.

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That shouldn’t be seen as a power grab, Thomas said.

“The presiding officers are given a lot of power. They’re voted on by the bodies of each chamber and they’re accountable to them as well,” the chief of staff said. “Whatever power they’re given, they have to be cautious.”

It remains to be seen how the legislative leaders exercise their new authority.

“How ballot language is framed can matter for a variety of reasons,” Brigham Young University political science professor Chris Karpowitz said, noting it can “matter a great deal for voters, many of whom may not pay close attention to the legislative debates and are trying to understand what’s at stake.”

Karpowitz said the way the ballot is worded “can emphasize some considerations and downplay others. So, if the presiding officers use that power to push voters toward a preferred outcome, that could be very important. The question is how the speaker and president are using that power.”

That’s what the UEA is waiting to see, too.

Pinkney referred a question on the potential impact of the change to a spokesman who said, “UEA won’t be able to comment on the language until we see it.”