Utah has 7 constitutional amendments on the ballot this year. The one that’s attracting the most pushback is Amendment G, which would change the way that education is funded in Utah.
The Better Utah position: We’re opposed… but it’s complicated.
Let’s break it down.
Utah’s constitution requires that income tax can only be used to fund education. Originally, it was restricted solely to K-12 education. It was expanded to include higher education in a constitutional amendment that passed in 1996. If Amendment G passes, it would be the second expansion of the income tax fund in Utah’s history.
The effort to expand the education earmark was coupled in the legislature with H.B. 357, a bill guaranteeing increased funding for schools. H.B. 357 passed into law and would go into effect only if Amendment G passes, but is not included as part of the constitutional amendment. It requires the Legislature to provide funding for education based on growth and inflation each year, creates a new reserve account for education funding, and eases restrictions on local school district property taxes to protect schools in the event of an economic downturn.
Because this guarantee of education funding exists as a statute, rather than part of Utah’s constitution, it could technically be overturned by the legislature at any point. Current lawmakers as well as candidate for Governor Spencer Cox have promised to protect this education funding. What is more unclear is how opening up the education earmark will be able to result in increased funding for schools, children, and individuals with disabilities, if there is insufficient funding for education in the first place.
Ultimately, whether the earmark stays or goes isn’t the real issue. If Utah votes no on Amendment G, we’re back to square one. If Utah votes yes, education will gradually get increased funding, but still remain last in the nation for per-pupil funding. The answer to education funding isn’t who wins the fight over income tax funding; pitting education against kids and people with disabilities was always a false choice. Instead, Utah needs progressive tax reform that will bring in more money so that there is enough for education AND social services.
In 2018, Utah lowered its income tax rate from 5% to 4.95%, choosing an election year tax cut over education funding. Tax policies like these are detrimental to the state overall. Analysis shows that the top 1% of Utahns, those making about half a million dollars and up each year, only pay 6.7% of their share of family income in state and local taxes. Meanwhile, everyone else making less money is paying a higher share of their income in taxes. This leaves us with a regressive system where the richest people in Utah aren’t paying their fair share of the taxes that help public services like education and social services. No individual wealthy person is to blame for this, and it’s not something that can be fixed with individual charitable giving. We just need a more equitable tax system.
Some politicians tend to shrug their shoulders about education funding. They imply that because Utah has a lot of kids, our education system is going to be inherently burdened– class sizes will always be large, schools will always be underfunded, teachers will always be at their limit. I strongly disagree. It is wonderful that Utah has the most children of any state in the US! This means we should have the best education system in the country. Our children are not to blame for our overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers– it is our miserly attitude toward education. This is the real problem that needs solving.
There is a world in which voting for Amendment G makes sense, just not the world we are currently living in. If the Legislature had a track record of supporting education, rather than continually trying to chip away at education funding, opening up the earmark could be a positive step toward progressive tax reform. But for now, we shouldn’t expand the education earmark to also cover some social services. Instead, it’s time to focus on making Utah’s pie bigger so there’s enough to go around to adequately fund all these important programs.