Tax policy is a key driver of public education quality in Utah. Education funding relies heavily on state income tax and local property tax revenues, with a small share coming from the federal government. Utah’s income tax has been earmarked (i.e., reserved) for public education for 75 years.[1] Even so, education spending has lagged for decades, and has been inadequate to meet varied student needs, teacher recruitment and retention, auxiliary personnel like counselors, social workers, and nurses. Utah’s per pupil spending has remained at or near the bottom of the 50 states.[2]

Despite underfunding public education, the Utah Legislature has been cutting income tax rates and reducing the earmark for the past 25 years. Twice, voters approved constitutional amendments to shift some income tax revenues (1) to higher education (1996, freeing up sales tax revenue later used for transportation) and (2) to “children” and to “individuals with a disability” (2020). The 2020 ballot language did not explain that this would reduce the earmark for public and higher education and allow social services for children and for disabilities to shift from sales tax to income tax sources.

Now, the Legislature seeks voter approval to amend Utah’s Constitution a third time to allow income tax revenue to pay for state budget needs well beyond those stated above. To appeal to educators, a companion statute would keep enrollment funding steady for five years, even if enrollment declines.[3] Another statute, meant to entice voters, would remove the state sales tax on food.[4] Both are contingent on the amendment’s approval.

Although earmarks interfere with flexibility to spend money where the Legislature thinks it is most needed, many important educational programming priorities will now be competing with other state funding needs for a share of the same income-tax pool. One cannot rely on legislative promises in statutes that can be changed at any time by a subsequent legislature–without majority approval by voters. Also, although the legislature says earmarks deny flexibility, it has not chosen to remove a sizable number of other earmarks of its own making.[5]

Underlined wording below is what voters will be asked to approve on the 2024 ballot:      Art.XIII, Section 5, subsection (5): “All revenue from taxes on intangible property or from a tax on income shall be used:

  1. to support the systems of public education and higher education as          defined. . .;
  2. to maintain a statutory public education funding framework that:
    1. uses a portion of revenue growth for expenditures from the Uniform School Fund for changes in student enrollment and long-term inflation; and
    2. provides a budgetary stabilization account;
  3. to support children and to support individuals with a disability; and
  4. to support other state needs after the fulfillment of the requirements in Subsection (5)(b).

This ballot language is ambiguous. What is a “a portion” of revenue “growth” for enrollment “changes” and “long-term inflation”? For instance, does long-term inflation allow inflationary increases to be averaged over, say, a 5- or even a 10-year period, rather than being allocated annually? What is a “budgetary stabilization account,” and what size must it be to have enough for a “rainy day” of revenue declines?

We remind voters that consistent polling, including a recent one by the Deseret News/ Hinckley Institute of Politics, reveals strong support for increased spending on public education.[6] In recent years, civic groups have even called for an income tax increase.[7] Instead, the Legislature has cut income taxes steadily, contributing to a loss of more than a billion dollars annually for public education from the mid-1990s until the past few years,[8] when higher tax revenues did result in increased funding for public education.

Legislative leaders have expressed their desire to cut the income tax rate again, down to 4.55% (about $160 million in tax reductions) in 2024.[9] When the legislature reduces the income tax rate, it tends to benefit higher earners more than lower income earners.[10] True, income tax revenue has increased faster than sales tax revenue, but the Legislature has not successfully dealt with larger-scale property tax and sales tax reforms. Utah now is a service economy, in which purchase of services has surpassed purchase of material goods.[11] Taxing more services would be a significant source of sales tax revenue to support social services and other state needs.

We doubt that providing more legislative discretion to free up income tax revenues would deliver a growing long-term investment in public education. Many educators already worry that the 2023 law providing K-12 private-school tuition stipends of $8,000 per student[12] will continue to take money away from public education. That $8,000 is getting close to Utah’s average per pupil expenditure and notably more than the $6000 salary & benefits increase given to teachers to extract support for the voucher program.

The income-tax earmark is a long-standing commitment to public education. The Utah Education Association (UEA), caught between a rock and a hard place, has taken no position on the proposed amendment. Nonetheless, it has asserted that “Changing the constitution would require ‘trusting the legislature.’” How true! The proposed maintenance of a statutory “framework” for enrollment, long-term inflation, and budget stabilization is unclear and will not capture funding designed to increase student proficiency in basic subjects, upgrade preschool programs, improve services for at-risk students, reduce class sizes, increase auxiliary personnel, elevate the teaching profession, keep up with technology, and meet unanticipated future needs.

If the Utah Legislature has not invested in educational excellence for decades and did not spend as much in normal times as Utah could have afforded, why should voters trust future legislatures to fund education quality based on limited, ambiguous wording in the proposed amendment?

Future legislatures can more easily undo their statutory promises than can a constitutional amendment be undone, once approved. In sum, voter approval of the ballot amendment is likely to harm public education in the long run.


[1] The earmark in the Utah Constitution was approved by voters in 1948. For an interesting history of Utah’s public school financing, see National Center for Education Statistics, “Public School Finance Programs of the United States and Canada, 1998-1999”: Utah chapter by P.F. Galvin and H.B. Robins.

[2] National Center for Education Statistics data for 2019-2020, , and U.S. Census data for 2021 , both show Idaho had replaced Utah in last place for per pupil expenditures in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. National Education Statistics for 2021-2022 show Utah at $9618 and Idaho at $9046 and the U.S. average at $15,0368, Average per pupil expenditures have been going up all across the country during the past three fiscal years.

[3]  House Bill 394 (2023) stipulates that public education funding would not decrease in the event of public education enrollment declines from 2025-2029. If SJR 10 (the proposed constitution amendment) passes, HB394 would take effect on January 1, 2025.

[4] House Bill 54 (2023), . The state tax rate is currently 1.75% on food and food ingredients. Local tax rates on food and food ingredients (1.25%) would remain unaffected.

[5] Utah State Tax Commission Economic and Statistics Unit, “History of Utah Tax Structure,” (2023 report) states that “Significant amounts of revenue from this tax [sales and use tax] are earmarked for purposes including water, transportation, natural resources, Medicaid expansion, infrastructure and other uses. The majority of earmarked sales and use taxes are disbursed to the Transportation Investment Fund. The remaining non-earmarked sales tax revenue is deposited in the state’s General Fund.” [p.7].

[6] Envision Utah poll rated public education as the most important issue to respondents. See M. Harris, “Education: Still a priority in Utah?”, Salt Lake Tribune, March 22, 2023, A2.  See also A summary of 2023 public education increases is also found in Deseret News editorial, “What Utah lawmakers did—and didn’t do—for the Great Salt Lake and controversial issues,” March 8, 2023.

[7]  Among groups supportive of an income tax increase in recent years have been Civic Utah, SL Chamber of Commerce, Our Schools Now, and Voices for Utah Children.

[8] See Benjamin Wood, “Tax Policies Shortchange Utah Schools $1.2B a year”, Salt Lake Tribune, November 2, 2016, A1. As the Utah Foundation reported, Utah’s funding effort “was ranked seventh in the nation in the mid-1990s” but had dropped to 37th by 2016. Ibid. A4.

[9] B. Schott, “Utah could cut taxes for the fourth straight year”, Salt Lake Tribune, December 5, 2023.

[10] B. Schott, “Higher-income earners will mostly benefit from Republican leaders’ proposed tax cut,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 16, 2023, updated February 18. 2023,

[11] Gardner Policy Institute, “Guide to Tax Modernization in Utah, Part One: Sales and Use Taxes, November 14, 2018,

[12] House Bill 215(2023), .