SALT LAKE CITY — Introducing a proposed constitutional amendment in the final days of the legislative session to also use state income tax to fund some social services programs is "absurd," Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said Tuesday.
SJR3, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, seeks to amend the Utah Constitution to expand the use of income tax revenue for "services for the poor, disabled and elderly."
In Utah, income tax revenue is earmarked for the state's Education Fund. A 1996 voter-approved constitutional amendment clarified that income tax can also be used to fund higher education.
Matthews said the proposal represents "a significant fundamental shift in the way we fund public education and public assistance in Utah. Such a sweeping change requires careful consideration, study and stakeholder input before being placed on a public ballot. Initiating something this big with barely two days left in the session, when there’s no time whatsoever for a committee hearing or public input, is absurd and certainly not good lawmaking practice."
House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said the constitutional amendment has been talked about as part of the solution to the budget imbalance but now may not be the right time.
"Obviously, we’re going to have a big fight with education if we do that and rightly so. I’m not sure if that’s something we want to take on at this point in the session or if we just want to get out of here without killing each other," Last said.
It is unclear whether the resolution will be considered by the House or it will become part of the study list for a proposed task force.
Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, opened a bill Tuesday morning intended to create a task force "to study and come up with recommendations to fix our budget and tax structure problems." Later in the day, the bill passed unanimously in the House and awaits Senate consideration.
In Senate debate late Monday, McCay said the resolution was introduced because lawmakers "need a lot of options on the table," he said. "What this does, it adds potential for some of our social services program to be funded out of income tax."
The Senate passed SJR3 Monday night by a vote of 21-8.
Placing a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot requires two-thirds approval of each legislative house and a majority of Utah voters approving the change.
Matthews said the proposal "would do nothing to address the structural imbalance" of Utah's tax system.
"This is akin to the 1996 constitutional change, when higher education funding was added to the Education Fund. It didn’t solve the structural problem then and it won’t solve the problem now," she said.
Lawmakers have the ability to fix the state's "broken sales tax structure without cutting public education. This proposal is simply a diversion from the real crises: a broken sales tax structure and the chronic underfunding of public education."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche