Would Amendment G help fix school funding? It depends on who you ask.
Constitutional Amendment G
Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to expand the uses of money the state receives from income taxes and intangible property taxes to include supporting children and supporting people with a disability?
At first reading, Amendment G on the November ballot seems like a no-brainer: Support children and people with disabilities? That doesn’t seem controversial.
But looking closer at what the amendment would mean for state education funding reveals unexpected proponents, several layers of nuance and a “grand compromise” between education groups and the Legislature that includes legislation passed in March that would only be enacted if the amendment passes. The debate dates back to a constitutional amendment from the mid-1990s and attempts to fix issues laid bare by the Great Recession a decade ago.
Many of those who support Amendment G are more enthusiastic about items that don’t appear on the ballot, the two accompanying pieces of legislation that would only go into effect if the amendment is approved. Those bills commit the Legislature to three points that education groups have sought for years: automatic adjustments to year-over-year funding for both inflation and increased student enrollment, and creating a rainy-day fund to pay for education even during economic downturns. The latter attempts to prevent the funding cuts the Legislature imposed in the wake of the Great Recession.
Taken together, education officials say, those concessions are a win for education funding and outweigh the greater demand on the education funding source that will come if Amendment G passes and money that had been earmarked for schools can be spent in other ways.
Opponents, however, are concerned about another draw on the source for state education funding, which they say is already too low.
The whole issue centers around how the state funds education. The Utah Constitution has for half a century mandated that income tax revenue be spent on education and nothing else. In 1996, voters amended the Constitution to broaden that mandate to include higher education funding in addition to K-12 schools.
A certain percentage of every Utahns’ paycheck, then, is funneled into the income tax revenue fund, and then dispersed by the Legislature to local school districts.
Now, the Legislature is asking voters to allow income tax revenue to be spent to support children and people with disabilities in addition to funding education and higher education.
Opponents of Amendment G say the move would put more demand on a pool of money that already inadequately supports education.
“(You’d have) three needy groups funded out of something that used to fund two,” said Utah Board of Education member Carol Lear, who represents Salt Lake City and Park City. “… I think it’s a very serious threat to public school funding. Now, I say that because public school funding is abysmal anyway. Somebody might ask, ‘How much worse will it get? When it’s terrible already, could this be worse?’”
Lear is referencing Utah’s rank as dead last in the nation for per-pupil spending. Proponents of state funding efforts, meanwhile, point to recent investment increases and education attainment levels that are line with states that spend more money on education.
While Lear contends that Amendment G would further dilute public education’s funding source, the state teacher’s union supports the measure.
Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, said her group was heavily involved in crafting the compromise during the general session in March, and that what the union really supports is the passage of the legislation that is contingent on the amendment’s passage.
She acknowledges the amendment may put more demand on the income tax revenue that funds education. But she says that there is nothing now that compels legislators to use all of income tax revenue on schools, or to fund them at any particular level. While the money cannot be spent on roads, the Legislature is free to use what it deems as excess income tax revenue for tax refunds or tax credits, or to lower the income tax rate across the board.
“Our constitutional guarantee guarantees a revenue source, it does not guarantee a distribution,” said Matthews, a former educator in the Park City School District. “That is the issue that we have had. The income tax that is raised, it goes to education. But it doesn’t say how much of it or to what level. Regardless of the wording in the constitution, there is nothing compelling our Legislature to fund education.”
As Park City School District Business Administrator Todd Hauber puts it, “There’s no guarantee that just because we collected an income tax dollar it’ll go to public ed.”
Hauber has previously worked on the state level and, while he said he is not in a position to tell voters how to vote, he touted the overall improvements to education funding that would come if Amendment G passes.
“I would say the amendment and its accompanying pieces of legislation do have a beneficial impact for public ed,” he said.
In addition to the automatic funding changes for inflation and enrollment growth and the implementation of a rainy-day fund, Hauber said the legislative compromise also appropriates the money that was promised to school districts earlier this year but was cut when the pandemic hit.
Hauber and Matthews both said the compromise was a meaningful step toward consistent state funding for education and represented progress.
Lear and Matthews both acknowledge that the education groups are abandoning a constitutional protection — that income tax revenue can only be spent on public education and higher education — for reforms in state statute, which can be changed more easily than the Constitution can be amended.
Lear compared the situation with the Legislature and education funding to Lucy and the football in the Peanuts cartoons.
“I feel like, essentially, we’re giving up a constitutional guarantee for legislative promises,” Lear said.
Matthews estimated the demand on the income tax revenue source could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the changes the amendment is asking.
Sen. Allen Christensen, who represents parts of Summit County at the Statehouse, said he supports Amendment G. He touted the compromise efforts and said education funding has been a mess for years.
“I hate to put it this way, but if you trust the Legislature, you will vote for G. If you just don’t trust them, and you think they’re out to get you like so many people do, then G isn’t a good idea,” he said.
Constitutional amendments requires a simple majority of voters to pass. Amendment G is one of seven such questions on November’s ballot.
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There was a common theme in every address delivered during the Park City High School Class of 2021 graduation ceremony Thursday: gratitude.