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SALT LAKE CITY — An effort to get the Utah Education Association to back a change in how public schools are funded that includes asking voters to amend the state constitution in November is close to succeeding, Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday.
“I think we’re pretty close. We’ve met here in the last few hours again. That’s an ongoing discussion,” the governor told reporters about negotiations between Republican legislative leaders and the UEA. “At least when I left, they were pretty darn close so I’m very optimistic and hopeful.”
Herbert said he hoped there would be a deal to announce by Wednesday morning. The 45-day legislative session ends at midnight on Thursday. The teachers association is the only major education stakeholder that has not supported a package of education funding bills seen as the latest version of tax reform.
UEA’s support is considered key because the teachers association has the resources to oppose the constitutional amendment when it goes before voters.
SJR9, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would amend the Utah Constitution — if voters agree in November — to expand the earmark on income taxes for education to programs for children and people with disabilities.
The companion bill, HB357, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, provides guarantees that school enrollment growth and adjustments for inflation will be covered in the state budget along with automatic increases in an ongoing rainy day fund — but only if voters amend the constitution.
House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said he’s been “extremely impressed with UEA and their willingness to work with the Legislature to come up with something that’s better for education funding. They are obviously working very hard to get a couple things and we’re still in that process of trying to come together.”
There are reports that UEA wants to see an even larger increase in the state’s per-pupil funding, from the higher than anticipated 5% now in the budget to the 6% originally sought by the teachers association, as well as other concessions from lawmakers.
Schultz, who negotiated on behalf of the House majority, declined to discuss specifics.
“I think we have all the education community on board with where we’re at except for the UEA. Our goal is to try to work something out to get them on board,” the majority whip said. “I was hoping to have something this morning. We’re still working.”
The meeting between the governor and UEA leaders earlier in the day “went really well,” Schultz said. “The governor’s obviously really interested in it. We’re trying.”
Chase Clyde, UEA’s director of government relations, said, “We feel very positive about the negotiations. We’re still having really positive conversations.”
The Utah PTA announced its support of the education legislation, but raised concerns about the definition of “children and individuals with a disability” in the constitutional amendment and promised to “advocate for more specificity to be added to this statement before it goes before a vote of the people in November.”
The discussions are underway as lawmakers wrap up the $20 billion budget. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate continue to be split over whether to give Utah taxpayers a $16 million break on their Social Security benefits.
The bill with the tax cut, HB181, has passed the House but is not yet on the list of bills being considered in the Senate.
The governor expressed the same concerns as Senate leaders about the economic impact of the new coronavirus on the state budget, but said if there is a tax cut this session, limiting the number of Utahns who have to pay income taxes on their Social Security benefits is the place to do it.