State Policy

Voices for Utah Children Calls on Governor Cox to Veto Three Tax Cut Bills Due To New Federal Law

 Salt Lake City -- Voices for Utah Children, the state's leading child research and advocacy organization, issued a call today (Friday, March 12, 2021) for Governor Spencer Cox to veto three recently passed tax cut bills, HB 86, SB 11, and SB 153. The organization cited this week's enactment of new federal legislation, H.R. 1319, The American Rescue Plan Act, signed yesterday by President Biden, which cuts federal COVID relief aid to states by $1 for each $1 of tax cuts enacted on or after March 3, 2021. The three tax cut bills in question have yet to be signed by Governor Cox. 

 Voices for Utah Children's Fiscal Policy Director Matthew Weinstein said, "The three bills in question are tax cuts that almost completely exclude the lowest income 30-40% of Utah taxpayers and mostly benefit the highest-income 30-40% of filers. They permanently reduce by $100 million annually our ability to invest in our urgent unmet needs such as education, public health, poverty prevention, closing majority-minority gaps, infrastructure, clean air, and so on. Now we learned this week that their price has just doubled. Because the new federal COVID relief law penalizes states for tax cuts on a dollar-for-dollar basis, they will actually cost Utah $200 million of revenue next year, not just $100 million."

 Voices for Utah Children CEO Moe Hickey said, "This year we've launched our new #InvestInUtahKids campaign to raise awareness of the urgency of making investments today that will bear fruit for our children tomorrow. We applaud the Legislature for adding funds this year for pre-K and Optional Enhanced Kindergarten. At the same time, tremendous unmet needs remain and we cannot lose Federal Funds at this time. We urge Gov. Cox to consider whether it may be best to save these tax cuts for future consideration now that their price tag has doubled." 

 The federal legislation reads as follows: 

A State or territory shall not use the funds provided under this section or transferred pursuant to section 603(c)(4) to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.

COVERED PERIOD.—The term ‘covered period’ means, with respect to a State, territory, or Tribal government, the period that— (A) begins on March 3, 2021; and (B) ends on the last day of the fiscal year of such State, territory, or Tribal government in which all funds received by the State, territory, or Tribal government from a payment made under this section or a transfer made under section 603(c)(4) have been expended or returned to, or recovered by, the Secretary.

Published in Press Releases
February 24, 2021

The High Price of Lower Taxes

Legislative leaders have said that 2021 should be “the year of the tax cut.” Numerous public opinion surveys show that Utahns disagree. This may come as a surprise to policymakers, who have been in the habit of handing out tax break after tax break for decades.

But there seems to be an increasing public awareness that Utah is now paying a price for decades of tax cutting that have left us with the lowest overall tax level in 50 years relative to Utah personal income.

UTAH'S URGENT UNMET NEEDS

We all like being able to pay less in taxes. But there is a growing understanding that tax cuts are leaving us unable to address the long list of urgent unmet needs in education, infrastructure, social services, air quality, public health, and many other areas that affect our standard of living and quality of life. All of these issues will shape the Utah that our children will one day inherit. 

Outlined below are some examples of the urgent unmet needs in Utah. 

Early Care and Education

Amount

Unmet Need

$500-600 Million/Year

Envision Utah estimates that we need to invest an additional $500-600 million each year just to reduce teacher turnover, where we rank among the worst in the nation. 

Our leaders’ unwillingness to solve our education underinvestment problem is why our high school graduation rate is below the national average (after adjusting for demographics) and our younger generation of adults (age 25-34) have fallen behind their counterparts nationally for educational attainment at the college level (BA/BS+).

$52.5 Million/Year Voices for Utah Children estimates that it will cost $52.5 million to make full-day Kindergarten available to all Utah families who would choose to opt in to it.
$1 Billion Well over $1 billion is one estimate for a much needed comprehensive system of early childhood care and education (pre-k) in Utah.

 

Health

Amount

Unmet Need

$59 Million/Year

It would cost Utah about $59 million each year to cover all of our 82,000 uninsured children.

The longstanding preference for tax cuts over covering all kids is why we rank last in the nation for covering the one-in-six Utah kids who are Latinx and why the state as a whole ranks in the bottom 10 nationally for uninsured children.

 

Human Services

Area 

Unmet Need

Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment

Utah ranks last in the nation for mental health treatment access, according to a 2019 report from the Gardner Policy Institute.

A 2020 report from the Legislative Auditor General found that Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative had failed to achieve its goal to reduce recidivism -- and actually saw recidivism rise -- in part because “both the availability and the quality of the drug addiction and mental health treatment are still inadequate.” (pg 51)

Disability Services

The DSPD disability services waiting list has doubled in the last decade from 1,953 people with disabilities in 2010 to 3,911 in 2020.

The FY20 $1 million one-time appropriation made it possible to provide services to 143 people from the waiting list.  

Domestic Violence The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition 2017 Needs Assessment identified insufficient funding for shelters, affordable housing, child care, legal representation, and mental health and substance abuse treatment services as major obstacles to protecting women from domestic violence. 
Seniors

The official poverty measure undercounts senior poverty by about a third because it does not consider the impact of out-of-pocket medical expenses.

2018 study found that seniors spent $5,503 per person on out-of-pocket medical expenses in 2013, making up 41% of their Social Security income. (For most seniors, Social Security is the majority of their income, and it makes up 90% or more of income for 21% of married couples and about 45% of unmarried seniors.)  

 

Infrastructure, Environment, and Housing

 Area

Unmet Need

Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives Utah a C+ grade for infrastructure in its December 2020 report

The Utah Transportation Coalition has identified a funding shortfall of nearly $8 billion over the next two decades.

Air Quality  The Wasatch Front ranks as the 11th worst air quality in the nation for ozone and 7th worst for short-term particle pollution
Housing

Affordable housing units fall 41,266 units short of meeting the need for the 64,797 households earning less than $24,600. Among extremely low-income renter households, 71% pay more than 50% of their income for housing, which is considered a severe housing burden.

The FY21 affordable housing appropriation request for $35 million from Sen. Anderegg, which was already just a small step in the right direction, was reduced to just $5 million.

 

WHY TAX CUTS ARE A BIG DEAL

Some legislators have said to us, "What's the big deal with $100 million of tax cuts out of a $22 billion budget?".

The big deal is that we’ve been cutting, on average, about $100 million every single year for the last 25 years.

Voices for Utah Children’s research has found that tax cuts from the last 25 years has left us short $2.4 billion each year, amounting to an 18% cut to public revenues.

One could even call us a “slow-motion Kansas” because in 2012 they cut taxes overnight by 15%, leading to an economic slump and political backlash that saw the Republican legislature reverse the cuts in 2017 and the public elect a Democratic governor in 2018.

But here in Utah, we’re like the proverbial frog in the pot of water heating on the stove. The devastating impacts of these revenue reductions have been slow and incremental, so we’ve come to accept as normal a state of affairs that Kansans quickly reversed.

Instead of figuring out the fairest way to restore some of those lost revenues so we can address our most urgent challenges, Utah’s political leadership continues to pass new tax cuts every year, generally skewed toward the top of the income scale.

For example, Voices for Utah Children analyzed two of the tax cuts proposed this year and found that they excluded lower-income Utahns completely and mostly went to the highest-income households – even though their supporters said publicly that they are intended to help low- and middle-income Utahns.

Public opinion surveys conducted last year by the Deseret News and Hinckley Institute, by the Utah Foundation, and by Envision Utah all found a strong popular preference for public investment over tax cuts.

Same thing with surveys this month by the Deseret News-Hinckley Institute and by Voices for Utah Children.

Breaking old habits can be hard. As is often the case, the public appears to be ahead of our political leaders. But let's hope that they too will eventually come to appreciate the wisdom of their constituents, who are increasingly aware of the high price Utah is paying for lower taxes.


Utah has been fortunate in weathering the current recession. This gives us a unique opportunity to be able to make smart long-term investments at a time when other states are cutting budgets. As a State we need to take advantage of this situation and invest in Utah kids, not tax cuts.

THIS OP-ED APPEARED IN THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE ON MARCH 1, 2021

Published in News & Blog

With Amendment G winning 54% of the vote this month, many of our partners and supporters have been asking us: What’s going to happen next?

What changes will result from this Constitutional amendment going into effect January 1, 2021, along with the legislation triggered by it (HB 357)?

The short answer is, “Probably not a lot, at least not immediately, but possibly quite a bit over the long term.”

As a result of the passage of Amendment G, the Utah Constitution Article XIII, Section 5, paragraph 5 changes from

“All revenue from taxes on intangible property or from a tax on income shall be used to support the systems of public education and higher education as defined in Article X, Section 2.”

to the following:

“All revenue from taxes on intangible property or from a tax on income shall be used:

(a) to support the systems of public education and higher education as defined in Article X, Section 2; and

(b) to support children and to support individuals with a disability.”

The state’s budget leaders sought this change because they expect the long-term trend to continue of Utah’s higher education budget shifting from the General Fund (which is financed mainly by the sales tax) to the Education Fund (which is financed mainly by the income tax). This shift has made it possible to make more of the General Fund available for social and healthcare services. But once higher ed has shifted completely out of the General Fund, something expected to happen in the coming years, then budget writers will no longer have a mechanism to free up additional funds to meet the state’s obligations for healthcare and social services. This concern is what drove the decision to place on the ballot a Constitutional amendment to allow budget writers to begin to shift additional items (services for children and for Utahns with disabilities) out of the General Fund and have them financed by the income tax.

In the FY21 budget passed by the Legislature in March and then adjusted in June (the FY21 budget year runs from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021), just 4% of the higher education budget came from the General Fund and the remaining 96% from the Education Fund. The chart below shows how the higher education budget has been divided between the two funds in recent fiscal years:

Higher ed GF EF 2014 2021

Source: Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst annual publication “Budget of the State of Utah” at https://le.utah.gov/asp/lfa/lfareports.asp?src=LFAAR

While the trend has not been a straight line, the general direction has been to shift the higher education budget out of the General Fund and into the Education Fund. And, indeed, two of the last three budgets have seen 96% of the higher education budget come out of the Education Fund.

This trend has also been facilitated by the fact that income tax revenue has been growing faster than sales tax revenue.

Assuming these trends continue, we can expect to see the FY22 and future year budgets begin to make gradually increasing use of income tax revenue to finance social and healthcare services for children and Utahns with disabilities, two items that until now were only funded from sales tax revenue (through the General Fund).

What will be the impact of Amendment G on education funding?

As part of the political deal that produced Amendment G, the Legislature passed HB 357, with implementation contingent on voter approval of Amendment G. HB 357 contains three main provisions intended to provide education advocates with compensation for losing the Constitutional earmark of the income tax for education:

  • It requires that “when preparing the Public Education Base Budget, the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst shall include appropriations to the Minimum School Program from the Uniform School Fund… in an amount that is greater than or equal to:

(a) the ongoing appropriations to the Minimum School Program in the current fiscal year; and

(b) … enrollment growth and inflation estimates…”

This is intended to avoid what happened in the Great Recession a decade ago, when annual appropriations were not sufficient to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth, and it took almost a decade to restore real per-student education appropriations.

  • It requires that 15% of education revenue growth go into a new “Public Education Economic Stabilization Restricted Account” to be saved for recessions until it reaches 11% of the full Uniform School Fund. This is intended to build up a new reserve fund of about $400 million to finance the first commitment mentioned above, the commitment that education funding will always increase by enough to cover enrollment growth and inflation, even in times of recession. This new annual 15% savings requirement will mean smaller education funding increases in good times and larger ones in bad times, in effect smoothing out the annual changes in education funding. It does not change the overall amount available for education budgets over the full course of each economic cycle.
  • HB 357 allows local districts to reallocate capital funds to cover operating expenses in recession years. This is something that was allowed on a one-time basis in the Great Recession a decade ago. Now it will be allowed in any year when the Legislature makes use of the new Public Education Economic Stabilization Restricted Account.

What impact will Amendment G and HB 357 have on funding for social and healthcare services for children?

On the positive side, budget writers will now have increased flexibility to use income tax revenues that are now going to education for social and healthcare services for children and Utahns with disabilities. On the negative side, there are no new revenue streams and no rolling back of past tax breaks, and HB 357 does promise an increased commitment to education in recession years (presumably including the current one), so that seems to imply that there will be less available for everything other than education, at least in the short term.

What impact will this have in the coming year?

This depends on how much revenue there is. Will there be enough new education revenue to cover inflation and enrollment growth? And if not, how will the state budget cover that commitment supposedly contained in HB 357 since the new Public Education Economic Stabilization Restricted Account does not yet have any money in it? The Legislature may face the same difficult choices as in the last recession a decade ago between funding enrollment growth and inflation in the education budget or funding life-saving social and healthcare services. And if they choose to keep their promise to fund enrollment growth and inflation in the education budget in the absence of sufficient education revenues, then that commitment will come at the expense of other areas of the state budget, such as social and healthcare services for children.

One wild card here is the question of how the calculations will be impacted by the unprecedented drop in student enrollment that was reported this fall. Student enrollment had been projected to grow by 7,000; instead it fell by over 2,000. This drop is probably a temporary blip due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Legislature may see it as an opportunity to go with a low-ball estimate of enrollment for FY22 when it meets to pass that year’s budget this coming winter. Doing so would certainly make it easier to keep its commitment to fund enrollment growth and inflation even in the current downturn.

What impact will this new arrangement have in the longer term?

On the negative side, the fact that Amendment G and HB 357 provide for no new revenue streams to roll back any of what now amounts to $2.4 billion every year in tax breaks enacted since 1995 (18% of public revenues) does not bode well for education, for social and healthcare services for Utahns in need, or for any of the many areas of state responsibility that suffer from chronic revenue shortages because of these revenue losses.

On the positive side, the promise made by the state’s leaders to always at least fund inflation and enrollment growth could potentially lead to an increased commitment of existing state resources to education than might have otherwise taken place. If that happens, and since the need for resources in other areas is not going to change, there is the possibility that members of the state’s budget leadership might move closer to public opinion, which has expressed consistent -- and growing -- willingness to pay more to achieve improvements in areas of state responsibility like education, transportation, and air quality, as evidenced by the results of the following public opinion surveys this year:

If that happens, then we will be able to say that Amendment G led to positive changes in state fiscal policy for the benefit of all of Utah’s children. But if not, then we may well be in for many years of budget writers using their newfound flexibility to grant substantial increases to one area of the budget one year and another the next, making different areas of the budget compete with each other to be that year’s “favored child,” but leaving none better off in the long run.

THIS PAPER IS ALSO DOWNLOADABLE AS A PDF HERE.

WE ALSO PRESENTED THIS PAPER AS A SLIDESHOW ON A FACEBOOK LIVE EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=380455343223086&ref=watch_permalink 

Published in News & Blog