A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
If I were to ask if you would support expanding the use of income tax revenue to support children and people with a disability, what would be your first reaction? For many Utahns, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”
What if I asked if you support draining the state’s education fund by $600 million and dissolving the only guaranteed source of funding for education? What would you say to that? For many Utahns, the answer would be a resounding “No!”
And therein lies the problem of Amendment G.
The question before us in this election in Amendment G is whether we want to make already under-funded social services (for children and people with disabilities) compete head-to-head for funding with education. Right now, every penny of the state’s revenue from income tax is constitutionally earmarked for education funding. This establishes a floor, or bare minimum requirement, for education funding in Utah. There is no ceiling—the state legislature has always had the power to fund education using any money they want to from that fund AND the general fund, but they cannot use money from that fund for anything else.
Historically, the Utah Legislature has made funding decisions for decades that hobble education, notoriously under-funding it in favor of things like road construction and other pet projects. Our education system in Utah is in dire need not because all of a sudden there’s an emergency, but because the legislature has consistently put education funding on the back-burner. The emergency exists because the legislature has been uninterested in stepping up and funding education in any meaningful way for so long that now we’re in a critical teacher shortage and our classrooms are (still) bursting at the seams. Under-funding education is a feature for them, not a bug.
What this amendment does is take away any guarantee of education funding in the future. The legislature is pinky-promising that they will fully fund education this year and for all years to come by passing laws doing just that, but they have attached a huge string: dissolving their constitutional guarantee to do so. They understand that changing the Utah Constitution is far more difficult than changing any of their legislation (and requires broad public support), so they’re willing to promise us the world to get this amendment passed. But once we amend the constitution, legislators can freely and very easily change their minds and repeal any laws funding education on the very first day of the next legislative session. And if this amendment passes, they will be unrestrained with even an education funding minimum. As a good example of just how effortless they can change their minds, they have already, in special session, changed their promise of a 6 percent increase in basic appropriations for schools to 1.8 percent. See how easy that was?
Given their track record, do you really trust the Utah State Legislature to adequately fund education if there are zero limits on how little they can spend?
Here’s a good peek into how much we can trust the legislature right now with this amendment: they can’t even be honest with the wording on the ballot. This amendment fundamentally changes the way education is funded in this state, and yet there is no mention of that in the wording. Here is the actual wording: “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?” This is misdirection at best, straight-up deceit at worst. You tell me if you trust the Utah State Legislature to keep its word on education funding when they can’t even be honest with us from the get-go.
If that doesn’t cause you concern, consider that we’ve been down this road before. In 1996, Utahns amended the constitution to share the K-12 income tax revenue with higher education, ostensibly to free up funding for social services (sound familiar?). The result was that road construction was fully funded, but not social services or education. Another result was that we went from 23rd in the nation in the percent of Utah’s GDP spent on K-12 education to 40th. And we are dead last in per-pupil spending.
Make no mistake, the Utah Legislature can fund programs for children and people with disabilities already. They’ve always had the power to do that from the general fund. They’ve also always had the power to fully fund education, and they have refused year after year after year to do so. The Utah State Legislature does not need an amendment to the Utah Constitution to adequately fund children, people with disabilities, and education. They simply choose not to.
We don’t need an amendment; we need to elect state legislators who are courageous and honest enough to adequately fund education without all the smoke and mirrors and excuses. I can do that.