Summit County residents among those pushing for tax reform referendum
One recent afternoon at the Sheldon Richins Building in Kimball Junction, two volunteers sat behind a table in rolling chairs and helped a steady stream of voters sign a petition aiming to reverse the tax reform law legislators passed last month.
The referendum push has been picking up momentum around the state recently and Summit County is no exception. The 40-day window to collect the nearly 116,000 necessary signatures closes Jan. 21, and organizers admit it’s an uphill battle.
But they say they’re encountering overwhelming support from taxpayers because, as volunteer Rosie Moore said, “there’s something in (the bill) for everybody to hate.”
The Legislature amended the tax code during a special session Dec. 12. The law includes provisions to lower the income tax and make up the shortfall by taxing some services for the first time, like video streaming services and dog groomers, and by expanding taxes on food and fuel.
The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget estimates about 85% of Utah residents will pay less in taxes under the new law than the previous system.
But many Utahns oppose the law, with reasons ranging from displeasure with the new taxes on services to frustration with the food tax, which some claim is a regressive tax on the poor.
A December Utah Policy poll found that 68% of Utahns somewhat or strongly oppose the primary elements of the tax reform bill.
But it’s the way the bill was passed that has rankled many of those who oppose the law.
“They rammed it through, (seeming to say) ‘Let’s impose it on our subjects,’” Moore said. “That’s a little dramatic, but it felt like something a dictator would do.”
Bob McEntee is helping to organize the referendum push in Weber County and also is on the Republican State Central Committee. He called the effort “transpartisan” and said it has been unifying for those involved.
“People are fed up with the Legislature being tone deaf,” McEntee said.
He traces some of the discontent to how elected officials handled 2018’s Proposition 1, in which voters rejected a 10-cent gas tax increase. A fuel tax increase was included in the tax reform bill.
Tom Horton, who is helping to organize the Summit County effort, says he’s hearing frustration from voters that they’re not being listened to.
“There’s also a strong undercurrent about just general hostility to the Legislature that goes back to the way Proposition 2 and Proposition 3 were handled, the inland port controversy,” he said, referencing two voter-approved statewide ballot measures that lawmakers later modified. “A lot of people are just fed up with politics in this state.”
Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croyden, said he supported the bill because it lowers taxes. Wilde’s district covers eastern Summit County and parts of the Snyderville Basin.
“As people move away from purchasing goods, they’re purchasing services. With this, we’re seeing an erosion of who’s paying taxes into our general fund,” Wilde said. “Overall, what we took is we looked at the overall tax burden of the average resident of Utah and we lowered it.”
The food tax has come up repeatedly in discussions with those who oppose the tax reform measure. It would increase that state tax rate from 1.75% to 4.85% on unprepared food and is expected to bring in $250 million annually, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Wilde said the food tax broadens the tax base, which would protect the state in case of an economic downturn.
The bill includes $135 million in tax credits intended to offset the burden on low- and middle-income families and Wilde said the tax credit system would have to be studied carefully to make sure the credits go to the families that need them.
Opponents say the food tax’s regressive nature disproportionately affects lower-income families who will feel the hit the most and likely not be able to afford a tax professional to help them take advantage of the credits.
Referendum organizers have 40 days to collect 115,869 signatures from registered voters statewide, with at least 8% of active voters signing in 15 of Utah’s 29 counties. In Summit County, that’s 2,063 signatures.
Volunteers have been holding signing events at local libraries and coffee shops and standing outside of businesses. Moore estimates about 80% of people she’s approached have signed the petition.
The state effort is largely attributed to former Republican state legislator Fred Cox, who set about fundraising and getting the necessary materials printed. Cox said the group has raised nearly $30,000 from approximately 800 people across the state, mostly in small donations. The vast majority of that money, $28,000, was spent on printing the signature packets, which can contain 49 signatures apiece.
Volunteers have undergone training on how to collect valid signatures, and seem conscious of likely legal pushback if the effort is successful.
In the Sheldon Richins Building on a recent afternoon, those reasons ranged from a man who joked his wife wouldn’t give him dinner if he didn’t sign to a woman who was so angered she underwent training to learn how to gather signatures herself to a dog groomer who didn’t want another tax on her business.
There after picking up library books, the woman told volunteer Kris Campbell she just wanted the chance to vote on the measure herself in November.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more accurate fundraising numbers.
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