Ron Van Otten is camped out in a conference room at the Davis County Library. For several hours a day this month, he’s been greeting people who come to sign a petition against a controversial tax reform measure approved by lawmakers in a December special session.
The law would raise the sales tax on food, gas and services while cutting the overall income tax rate. It also includes tax credits for low- and middle-income Utahns and increases the dependent exemption to $2,500 per child.
It’s the tax on fuel that pushed Van Otten to spend his time gathering signatures in protest of the law.
“That raises the cost of all goods,” the Farmington resident said. “Everything comes in on a truck or a train and (distributors) are going to have to recoup those costs.” He said lawmakers pitched the bill as a tax cut, but didn’t account for the possibility of increased prices as a result of higher taxes.
Opponents like Van Otten need to gather nearly 116,000 signatures from across the state by Jan. 21. If they’re successful, the tax reform measure would go before Utah voters in November.
According to the Lt. Governor’s website, only about 8,000 signatures have been verified.
After more than an hour in the conference room, Van Otten starts to get some visitors who went online to find where they could sign the petition.
Jorge Limb works as a custodian for Davis School District and says he opposes any cuts to the income tax, which funds education.
“It’s ruining the future of the state instead of making it better,” Limb said.
Sisters Julia Carper and Janna DeVore also stopped by to sign their names. Carper, who also picked up a packet to gather signatures from her neighbors, believes last month’s special session was another example of lawmakers overruling the will of their constituents.
“I feel like our legislators do whatever they want. It doesn’t matter what people want,” she said. She pointed to the Legislature’s rollback of a medical marijuana law approved by voters in 2018 and the inland port, which has been the subject of protests by environmentalists and residents of western Salt Lake City.
“I feel like (lawmakers) are in their own little bubble. They do what they want and they don’t really represent us anymore,” she said.
DeVore said she opposes the increased sales tax on food, which would increase from 1.75% to the full sales tax rate of 4.85% under the new law.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s that much when you just look at the raw numbers but I think over time, for someone who’s struggling, that it really would add up,” DeVore said.
With less than two weeks until the Jan. 21 deadline, the number of verified signatures is far below the required threshold. But Fred Cox, a former state lawmaker who is organizing the effort, isn’t too worried. He said volunteers have gathered many more signatures, they just haven’t been turned in yet.
“I’ve been tracking that (signature) number over the last week and it’s growing very fast. In some counties, it will double, triple, go up by sixfold, in just a day or two,” he said. “Most areas of the state, we’ve been pretty successful.”
Cox said getting a referendum off the ground is a massive effort, especially during the holidays, but said his “army of volunteers” has shown just how unpopular the tax reform bill is.
The West Valley architect, who served two terms as a Republican member of the Utah House, said some of the rules governing voter referenda are “impossible” to adhere to and should be changed.
“Sure, if you’re going to override the governor and the Legislature, I understand that it shouldn't be easy to do that,” he said, before adding, “I do believe that there are things that should be done on the referendum process to fix it so it’s more fair.”
A New Ally
On Thursday afternoon, a Utah grocery store chain announced it will open its doors to opponents of the new tax law. In a statement, Harmons Grocery said beginning Saturday it will allow signature gathering for the tax referendum at all of its 19 Utah locations.
“Food is essential and should be affordable,” said Harmons chairman Bob Harmon. “Increasing the tax on food hurts everyone, but especially those in our community who are already struggling. As a company, we do not believe groceries should be taxed. We feel strongly that Utahns should have an opportunity to vote on the issue before the tax goes into effect.”