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New bill proposes to shift services for children and the disabled under education funding in Utah

Posted at 3:37 PM, Mar 05, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate committee has advanced a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to shift services for children and the disabled to fall under the income tax -- which has been exclusively earmarked for education funding.

Senate Joint Resolution 9, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, passed out of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Thursday on a 6-2 vote.

"It highlights the 'Hungry, Hungry, Hippos' nature of what goes on with the budget. The haves are always happy with what they have and the have-nots are always trying to find more," he said.

Lawmakers are trying to address budget issues in the aftermath of a tax reform bill that imploded in the face of a citizen referendum earlier this year. The proposed constitutional amendment would have voters decide whether to shift the services.

"I would love to take this issue through the front door in a very public process. Let’s have a debate about the budget and about the conversation through the constitutional amendment process and do it with the public’s blessing as opposed to the legislature just redefining what counts as education," Sen. McCay said.

The bill had support from groups like the Utah Taxpayers Association and charter school backers. However, it faced opposition from the Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. Dr. Brian Bartells, the executive director of the UEA, said they don't know how much could be taken from public ed to fund these other things.

"We really don’t know the extent of what that means. That could be tens of millions of dollars in funding. That could be hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. It’s not really clear," he said.

The UEA was negotiating with House and Senate leadership.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said they are trying to address real issues with the budget. Income tax is constitutionally protected to fund education. General sales tax revenues pay for other essential government services.

"Either way, we are in a position where we have to be responsible not only to the public education, the great teachers and the system we have in Utah, but also to every other agency in the state of Utah," he said.

But Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, opposed the idea.

"I think we need to address this, but I can see where this bill is going," he said. "It’s going to be up to the electorate coming up in november to be able to defend this. This ballot initiative, if it ends up as a constitutional amendment change, i believe the public will vote it down."

Governor Gary Herbert said Thursday he was watching the bill. He was hoping for an agreement between education advocates and state leaders.

"Clearly we need to see how it plays with the education stakeholders," he told reporters. "We need to find a way to bring everybody together, build some consensus on this issue. Which actually, I think we can."

Lawmakers were introducing other funding bills. Sen. Kathleen Reibe, D-Cottonwood Heights, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the weighted pupil unit to no less than 20% of the national average.