SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah legislative leaders and members of the state’s education community joined together Wednesday — literally linking arms for a photograph — to celebrate a deal over legislation that would fundamentally change how Utah schools are funded, pending voter approval in November.
Utah House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, who along with Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Millner negotiated the deal with leaders of the Utah Education Association and other education constituencies, described the agreement as “a historic event.”
Schultz, R-Hooper, said the parties “moved heaven and earth to get to this point. Everyone has truly come to the table to be part of the conversation.”
“This is something new. This is something that has never been done before,” said Schultz.
Earlier in the session, the Utah State Board of Education, Utah PTA and the associations that represent local school boards and district superintendents agreed to support the two pieces of legislation central to the agreement. The UEA, which represents the state’s teachers, was the lone holdout until Tuesday evening.
After meeting multiple times behind closed doors with legislative leaders, the association agreed to support the legislation, too, although it wants more clarity on the proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution, SJR9, which would expand the earmark on income taxes for education to include services for children and people with disabilities.
“There’s still some that have concerns around the language on the constitutional earmark. That would have to be done in a special session,” Schultz said earlier in the day.
A separate bill that is part of the education funding package, HB357, would provide guaranteed money for student growth and an inflationary adjustment in public education, along with creating a new ongoing education rainy day fund, but is contingent on voters passing the constitutional amendment in the November election.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said educators recognize the solution “is not perfect, but we did not let perfect get in the way of progress.”
Matthews said UEA looks forward to “building a consensus on including constitutional language on the ballot box.”
The governor described the agreement as “the proverbial win-win-win.”
Elected officials and Utah’s education community helped shape what he considers a “great pathway forward,” Herbert said, calling the deal a “grand agreement to work together and provide consistent and increasing funding for education.”
The House immediately took up SJR9, which had already cleared the Utah Senate.
After robust debate, the House voted 67-5 to approve the resolution, well beyond the requirement that two-thirds of the members of each legislative house approve proposed constitutional amendments.
The Senate later concurred with the House amendments, so the resolution has passed the Legislature.
During House debate, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, argued that changes to the education earmark for income tax would be akin to a “raid (of) the education piggy bank for other needs.”
But others, like House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, pushed back.
”The insinuation that this is somehow going to rob the (education) piggy bank ... couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said, noting that he spent the last nine months attempting to remedy Utah’s structural imbalance between income and sales tax collection revenues.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, also spoke in support of SJR9. Eliason said funding services for children and people with disabilities “hits close to home.”
There’s a long waiting list for funding for people with disabilities — and a waiting list for “medically complex children.”
“My daughter has been on this list for quite some time,” he said.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he “struggles” with the proposal to change the Utah Constitution, which currently ensures that income tax revenues can only be used for public education and the state’s higher education system.
“I can’t bring myself to exchange the constitutional language for statutory language,” King said. “I won’t do it.”
King voted no, joined by four other Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Utah Senate considered HB357, and approved it on a vote of 27-1, with Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, voting in opposition. It, too, was amended, returned to the House, where it was approved for final passage by a vote of 70-2.
In Senate debate, Millner, R-Ogden, said HB357 would guarantee student growth and inflation are funded, but lawmakers could still consider additional spending on education “just as we always do.”
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, attempted to amend HB357 to make its changes effective immediately rather than only if Utah voters approve changes to the Utah Constitution under SJR9.
“I think this bill has a lot of strength to it. All of our education friends have said they would appreciate the stability. It should start right away,” Riebe said, expressing concern about “losing all this work we have done if this constitutional amendment does not pass.”
Millner resisted the amendment, which died on a voice vote.
The Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee quickly approved changes to the budget in a late afternoon meeting to reflect the deal.
The agreement includes a 1% increase, about $34 million, to the value of the weighted pupil unit, bringing the total increase to 6% for the coming year, totaling more than $200 million in new funding. Earlier this week, lawmakers approved a public education budget that included a 5% increase to the per-pupil funding.
The deal also includes an additional $200,000 in ongoing funding for the T.H. Bell Teaching Scholarship, which is intended to attract more college students into the teaching profession.
Under the deal, $75 million would be placed in an education funding stabilization account and ensure a portion of new revenue will be deposited in the account “when available,” according to a document provided at the news conference.
The fund will help ensure stability during economic downturns, Schultz said.
Asked what happens if voters reject the constitutional change, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said lawmakers would start over, just as they did by repealing the December tax reform package.
“We’re used to that,” Adams told reporters. “I hate to say that. We’ll come back and we’ll keep working.”
The constitutional amendment would help solve the same budget issue the tax reform package was supposed to, the lagging growth in Utah’s sales tax revenues compared to income tax collections that’s straining much of the rest of the state budget.
Adams also said a special session of the Legislature will be needed to deal with the wording of the constitutional change.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved SJR16, which allows lawmakers to meet electronically in emergencies, so they won’t have to gather at the Capitol in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or a future natural disaster or other crisis. The resolution still needs to be approved by the House.
Contributing: Katie McKellar