High Desert Hoofbeats: Jan. 30, 2020

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and his pals in the legislature might have saved themselves some time and respect if they had listened to folks’ concerns about tax reform before they plunged headlong into a plan of action that was created in a vacuum.

The Utah Legislature meets every winter to mess with state policies and budgets, sometimes doing more harm than good. Their right leaning Wasatch Front-centrist views often are out of sync with not just rural Utahns, but those of us whose towns are often peopled with more bodies who live in other states and countries than our own.

Tax reform should have goals that aim to cut the tax burden in places that shouldn’t be subsidized, and to create a more fair distribution of the tax load. It should be done with full discussion of voters, not craftily designed and fast-tracked with hubris.

There was substantial pushback from Utahns last fall when state leaders’ tax reform talks gained speed. As the calendar neared the holidays – a busy time of year when even eagle-eyed political watchdogs have other priorities than lobbying lawmakers – the governor called a one-day special session to seal the deal. It wasn’t popular with the populace, but the legislature did it anyway.

The governor, who called the special session just weeks before the annual January/February regular session of the state house and senate, justified the chain of events by saying the tax reform plan would help lawmakers create new budgets during the regular session based on new tax revenue-flow projections. What the governor didn’t foresee was the amazing bipartisan rebuff by Utahns across the state to overthrow the plan.

Utahns demonstrated that they don’t have to accept actions on Utah’s Capitol Hill if they don’t seem right. As the signatures were being added to petitions on a referendum effort, the governor began to see that perhaps things should have been done differently.

Petitioners last week said they gathered enough signatures to put the controversial tax package on the ballot, which would have let every registered voter have a say in how lawmakers reformed ways to glean and use state taxes. Within a day of that pronouncement, the governor and legislative leaders retreated. The time and determination of a vote on the matter could have been fairly shameful for Herbert, who is overseeing his last session of the legislature before retiring from Utah’s top post at the end of this year. The state electorate said they would withdraw their special session efforts before voters repealed it for them via a potential ballot measure.

Herbert, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson laid out a plan late last week to repeal their ill-fated tax bill in the first week of the state’s legislative session that began Monday, Jan. 27.

Moab residents were key in the voters’ efforts to block the tax plan. Hats off to our local folks who organized events and gathered signatures that were added to a statewide total of about 152,000 signatures that would have put the measure on the ballot for potential repeal. Although our community is more than 230 miles away from the capitol, Moab is gaining a strong reputation for progressive thought and a strong voice.

Tax reform should be an always-evolving effort, with its various facets fully discussed between lawmakers and voters. The plan shouldn’t have been hurried along during the holidays. And it shouldn’t have happened when it could have been dealt with just a few weeks later at the general session. The cost to taxpayers of holding the special session is a bit maddening, but not as much as the disregard that leaders showed when they turned a deaf ear on substantial concerns leading up to the ill-fated measure.

The legislature is at work now. House Speaker Wilson, sounding bitter Monday about the tax issue, said the referendum proponents had been “short on facts.” He said the effort was divisive. That is true. But it was lawmakers who caused the division between their governing body and an untrusting public. They rushed an unpopular plan into being when they could have waited for a general session to more thoroughly discuss and develop the best kind of tax reform that our state needs.