SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Legislature has referred a near-record seven constitutional amendments to the ballot in the upcoming general election, but only Amendment G is drawing much attention from political candidates.
During a gubernatorial candidate forum jointly hosted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Center on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Democratic challenger Chris Peterson both expressed mixed emotions about the proposed change to the Utah Constitution.
“I’m just not comfortable with that amendment …” Peterson said in response to a question from forum moderator Jason Perry. “I believe it’s a step in the wrong direction.”
Cox also admitted to initial reservations about the proposed constitutional change, but now supports the measure.
Amendment G would allow lawmakers to spend state income tax revenue on programs to benefit children and disabled Utahns. The Utah Constitution has traditionally reserved those funds exclusively for public and higher education.
According to polling by UtahPolicy.com for KUTV 2News, about 46 percent of Utah voters favor Amendment G, while 35 percent oppose the measure and 19 percent are undecided.
“I’m certainly not opposed to increasing funding for disability services …” Peterson emphasized, noting that his own mother was disabled. “If we take care of our disable neighbors, they give back more to our community than they take away, so we need to support them.”
But the University of Utah law professor added that Amendment G is just a part of a complex budget deal negotiated with education advocates during the 2020 general session of the Legislature.
As enacted in the 1940s, revenues from the state income tax were originally earmarked strictly to fund public education. Over the years, the state Constitution was amended to allow income taxes to also fund some higher education expenses. Gradually, the Legislature began to play what Cox called “a shell game” by covering a larger portion of higher education expenses with income tax revenues whenever they needed more money in the state’s general fund for other projects.
During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers negotiated with stakeholders in the education community (e.g. the State Board of Education, the Utah Education Association, the Parent Teachers Association and school district administrators) to obtain their agreement to also fund services for children and disabled persons from income tax revenues in exchange for promises of increased funding for public education in the future.
“I guess that I’m likely to vote against the constitutional amendment because I don’t feel like that deal was honored,” Peterson said Tuesday. “I want more funding for our kids … That’s something that Utah’s one-party system and the current (gubernatorial) administration has failed to get done.”
But Cox argues that, despite the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus, the Legislature demonstrated its commitment to public education during its most recent budget-balancing special session.
“During that special session,” the lieutenant governor explained, “we were able to maintain all of our planned funding for education and actually increase funding by 2 percent for the year to come.
“Doing that during this pandemic is remarkable … It’s why I’m supporting Amendment G.”
The other amendments on the November ballot include Amendment A (making the language of the state Constitution gender neutral), Amendment B (specifying the qualifications of a legislator), Amendment C (repealing a constitutional exception that allowed involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime), Amendment D (specifying circumstances under which a municipality may commit water rights or supply water outside its boundaries), Amendment E (creating a constitutional right to hunt and fish) and Amendment F (giving lawmakers authority to set the start date for legislative sessions).
Cox and Peterson will compete to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert in the November general election.