Health

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

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Salt Lake City - Voices for Utah Children released publicly today (January 6, 2021)  "#InvestInUtahKids: An Agenda for Utah's New Governor and Legislature," the first major publication of our new #InvestInUtahKids initiative. 

Utah begins a new era in this first week of January, with the swearing in of a new Governor and Lt. Governor and a new Legislature. The arrival of 2021 marks the first time in over a decade that the state has seen this kind of leadership transition. Last month Voices for Utah Children began sharing with the Governor-elect and his transition teams the new publication, and on Wednesday morning Voices will share it with the public as well.

The new publication raises concerns about the growing gaps among Utah's different racial, ethnic, and economic groups and lays out the most urgent and effective policies to close those gaps and help all Utah children achieve their full potential in the years to come in five policy areas: 

  • Early education 
  • K-12 education 
  • Healthcare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Immigrant family justice

The report, which was initially created in December and distributed to the incoming Governor and his transition teams, closes with a discussion of how to pay for the proposed #InvestInUtahKids policy agenda. The pdf of the report can be downloaded here

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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 

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Amendment G one pager 10 5 20(view this as a pdf here)

The state's leading child research and advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children announced its opposition to Constitutional Amendment G in an online press conference today (Monday, October 5, 2020).  

Constitutional Amendment G is the proposal to amend the Utah State Constitution to end the Constitutional earmark of all income tax revenues for education.  Since 1946 Utah has dedicated 100% of income tax revenues to education, initially defined only as K-12 education and, since 1996, including also higher education.  The State Legislature voted in March to place on the ballot the question of also allowing these funds to be used for other purposes -- specifically for programs for children and for Utahns with disabilities.  

The arguments made by proponents and opponents are summarized in an online document prepared by the state election administrators in the Lt Governor's office. According to that document, "the state spends about $600 million annually of non-income tax money on programs for children and programs that benefit people with a disability."

Voices for Utah Children CEO Maurice "Moe" Hickey explained the organization's decision to oppose the Amendment: "We believe that the proposed Amendment not only won’t solve Utah’s state budget woes, it is likely to delay the real fiscal policy changes that are needed. Over the past decade we have been continuously ranked last in the country for per pupil spending. This is a caused by our growth in number of students, combined with a lowered tax burden in the past decade. A major question we have to ask is “if the current Constitutional earmark has failed to help Utah invest more in education, how will getting rid of it improve matters?” The unfortunate reality is that getting rid of the Constitutional earmark of income tax for education does nothing to solve the real problem, which is the fact that nearly every area of state responsibility where children are impacted – education, social services, public health, and many others – is dangerously underfunded."

Health Policy Analyst Ciriac Alvarez Valle said, "Utah has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country at 8% or 82,000 children, and we have an even higher rate of uninsured Latino children at almost 20%. It is alarming that even during this pandemic, children and families are going without health insurance. There are so many ways to reverse this negative trend that began in 2016. Some of the solutions include investing in our kid’s healthcare. By investing in outreach and enrollment efforts especially those that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for our communities of color, we can ensure they are being reached. We also have to invest in policies that keep kids covered all year round and ensures they have no gaps in coverage. and lastly, we have to invest in covering all children regardless of their immigration status. By doing these things we can ensure that kids have a foundation for their long term health and needs. It's vital that we keep children’s health at the forefront of this issue, knowing that kids can only come to school ready to learn if they are able to get the resources they need to be healthy."

Health Policy Analyst Jessie Mandle added, "All kids need to have care and coverage in order to succeed in school. We are no strangers to the funding challenges and the many competing demands of social services funding. Without greater clarity, more detail, and planning, we are left to ask, are we simply moving the funding of children’s health services into another pool, competing with education funding, instead of prioritizing and investing in both critical areas? Sufficient funding for critical children’s services including school nurse, home visiting and early intervention, and school-based preventive care remains a challenge for our state. We have made important strides in recent years for children’s health, recognizing that kids cannot be optimal learners without optimal health. Let’s keep investing, keep moving forward together so that kids can get the education, health and wraparound services they need."

Education Policy Analyst Anna Thomas: "We often hear that UT is dead last in the nation in per pupil funding. We have also heard from such leaders as Envision Utah that millions of dollars are needed to avert an urgent and growing teacher shortage. What we talk about less is the fact that these typical conservative calculations of our state’s underfunding of education don’t include the amount the state should be paying for the full-day kindergarten programming most Utah families want, nor does it include the tens of millions our state has never bothered to spend on preschool programs to ensure all Utah children can start school with the same opportunities to succeed. Utah currently masks this underfunding with dollars from various federal programs, but this federal funding is not equitably available to meet the needs of all Utah children who deserve these critical early interventions. The state also increasingly relies on local communities to make up the difference through growing local tax burdens - which creates an impossible situation for some of our rural school districts, where local property tax will never be able to properly fund early interventions like preschool and full-day kindergarten along with everything else they are responsible for. Our lack of investment in early education is something we pay for, much less efficiently and much less wisely, later down the road, when children drop out of school, experience mental and physical health issues, and get pulled into bad decisions and misconduct. If kids aren’t able to hit certain learning benchmarks in literacy and math by third grade, their struggles in school - and often by extension outside of school - multiply. We should be investing as much as possible in our children to help ensure they have real access to future success - and can contribute to our state's future success. You don’t have to be a math whiz - third grade math is probably plenty - to see that the general arithmetic of Amendment G, and the attendant promises of somehow more investment in everything that helps kids - just doesn’t add up. We have multiple unmet early education investment obligations right now. Beyond that, we have many more needs, for children and for people with disabilities, that we must be sensitive to as a state especially during a global pandemic. How we will ensure we are investing responsibly in our children and our future, by having MORE expenses come out of the same pot of money - which the legislature tells us every year is too small to help all the Utah families we advocate for - is still very unclear to me. Until that math is made transparent to the public, we have to judge Amendment G to be, at best, half-baked in its current incarnation."

Fiscal Policy Analyst Matthew Weinstein shared information from the Tax Commission (see slide #8) showing that Utah's overall level of taxation is now at its lowest level in 50 years relative to Utahns' incomes, following multiple rounds of tax cutting. He also shared recent survey data from the Utah Foundation showing that three-fourths of Utahns oppose cutting taxes further and are ready and willing to contribute more if necessary to help solve the state's current challenges in areas like education, air quality, and transportation. He also contrasted the public's understanding that there's no "free lunch" with the unrealistic election-year promises made by our political leadership -- more money for both education and social services if the public votes for Amendment G -- even though Amendment G does nothing to reverse any past tax cuts and address the state's chronic revenue shortages.

The organization shared a one-page summary of the arguments (available here in pdf format) for and against the proposed Constitutional Amendment: 

Amendment G one pager 10 5 20

Voices for Utah Children has also published a full five-page position paper that is available in pdf format

This press conference was broadcast live at

Media coverage: 

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