In 1996 Utahns made a mistake.
Recently Representative Stephen Handy wrote an editorial on “How We Might Prove That Education Funding Is Our Top Priority.” He proposes a tax shift of 10% from the state’s General Fund to the Education Fund. This would be done through the state’s SUCCESS program which aims to lower government spending. I applaud his out of the box thinking as well as his desire to truly make education a top priority.
But here’s the problem: education funding in Utah is a shell game.
In 1996, Utahns passed a constitutional amendment whereby higher education could be funded through both the state’s General Fund as well as the Education Fund. Prior to that, the Education Fund solely supported K-12 public education. This amendment has resulted in less funding invested in our public schools.
All state income tax is placed in the Education Fund, and lawmakers frequently tout this fact. They state if we want to fund education at higher levels, than we must pay more income tax. This holds only a kernel of the truth. If taxpayers agreed to pay higher income tax, it would indeed go to the Education Fund. But that would not necessarily result in more money for schools. With higher education taking from both the General and Education Funds, the amounts simply shift around at the will of the Legislature. This year 10% of income tax may go to higher education from the Education Fund, and next year it may be 20%. All the while public education flounders.
In last year’s budget 11% of the Education Fund went to higher education or $363 million dollars. As most Utahns know, Utah is the 51st in per pupil spending. To move up one place and become 50th, beating out our neighborhood Idaho, it would take $365 million dollars. Almost exactly what higher education is siphoning out of the Education Fund.
To correct this mistake will take a groundswell of support. The General Fund pays for essential services and has many strong advocates (as it should). But it is time to consider capping the amount higher education can take from the Education Fund. If higher education was given a fixed percentage, for example 10% of the Education Fund, each year there becomes more truth in our tax policy. It may also make Legislators take a long look at severance tax rates and tax credits. In an ideal world, it would also stop the bickering between the higher education and public education lobbies, as they could align their interests instead of jousting with one another over an insufficient pot of money.
A mistake is a mistake. Any conversation on income tax or additional revenue for education with the current shell game being played is not truly honest. Instead of living with it in perpetuity – let’s move toward a fix. Until we do so, education funding in Utah will remain fundamentally flawed.
This post originally appeared on Utah Moms Care.