As a member and sometimes chair of the Public Education Appropriations Committee during my 26 years in the Utah Senate, without question, the most difficult challenge we faced was the task of cutting school district and charter school spending during economic downturns. Following the 9/11 recession we had to cut $110 million from public education funding and it took three years before we were able to restore funding to its previous level. But the Great Recession triggered by the 2008 collapse in the housing market, forced our committee to cut a whopping $787 million from public education. It took nine years to restore funding to the 2008 level of $3.6 billion.
Constitutional Amendment G, if approved by voters will ensure that these types of funding cuts will never happen again.
The measure, along with its implementing legislation, HB 357 (2020), would move education funding (about $3.4 billion initially) into a constitutionally protected account which can be used only for K-12 education. It also guarantees that education funding will automatically be increased to cover the costs of enrollment growth and inflation. No other state would have such guarantees for future funding of their children’s education.
These guarantees would be made possible by reserving a portion of ongoing revenues to meet future education needs. The measures would also allow school districts the flexibility of using school construction capital outlay property taxes for operational expenses during economic downturns.
Amendment G would also expand the uses of Utah’s income taxes to be expanded to include spending for children and people with disabilities. As an example, medical research has shown that if young children on the autism spectrum receive treatment services early, the costs of these taxpayer provided services can be significantly reduced later on as the child grows older.
Opponents of Amendment G argue that expanding the uses of Utah’s income taxes would reduce education spending, in spite of the guarantees for growing funding for student growth and inflation regardless of economic declines.
To understand why opponents are wrong about this we need only look at what happened since the Constitution was amended in 1996. At that time voters expanded the use of the income tax to include higher education in addition to public education. Opponents of the 1996 amendment claimed that general fund transfers to public and higher education would be decimated as higher education took more and more income tax funding that had previously been guaranteed solely for public education. The facts prove this did not happen.
In the 24 years since 1996, the Utah Legislature has spent $9.55 billion of general fund revenues for public education and higher education or an average of $382 million annually. The fears about the 1996 Constitutional amendment were unfounded just as are fears over Constitutional Amendment G.
Utah voters can ensure better, more stable funding for our school children’s education, especially during economic hard times by voting YES on Amendment G.