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House Speaker Takes Shot At Tax Referendum As Annual Legislative Session Opens

Photo looking down at the House floor where Brad Wilson addresses representatives.
Nicole Nixon
House Speaker Brad Wilson opened the 2020 Utah Legislative session by taking a shot at a referendum challenging a new tax reform law passed in a December special session.

It didn’t take long for House Speaker Brad Wilson to address what he called “the elephant, or to be bipartisan, donkey in the room.” 

In a speech Monday to mark the opening of Utah’s 2020 legislative session, the first-term speaker, R-Kaysville, acknowledged last week’s decision to repeal a controversial tax reform measure as the threat of a referendum loomed. But he came out swinging against that referendum.

“Legislation by referendum, while part of the political process, can be divisive and at many times be short of facts,” he said. “It has proven ruinous for many states that have turned down that path and have turned away from the basic principles of a democratic republic.”

“Our neighbors elected us to immerse ourselves in the details of each policy,” he said. Wilson, Gov. Gary Herbert and other lawmakers have argued that supporters of the referendum did not understand key tenets of the tax reform bill.

The controversial measure, which was passed in a December special session, raised sales taxes on groceries, gasoline and some services like Netflix and ridesharing, while cutting the overall income tax rate and creating new tax breaks for low- and middle-income Utahns.

Opponents fought the measure for a range of reasons including the tax hikes on food and gas, the cut to the income tax, which funds Utah schools, and lingering discontent with lawmakers for significantly changing two voter-approved initiatives in the months following the November 2018 election.

As signatures for the referendum began to pile up, Herbert and legislative leaders announced they would repeal the tax package during the first week of the legislative session.

The repeal bill was made public on Friday and leaders say it will be debated in both chambers on Tuesday. It will not have a public hearing.

Wilson said constituents “play an important role in shaping the policy decisions that we make and their voice is important. We must find new ways of both listening and explaining to our constituents the issues that we face and the decisions we make to address them.”

“As I’ve said before, we are not foes on a political battlefield. We are all Utahns committed to getting public policy right,” he said.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the possibility of a referendum threw a wrench into lawmakers’ ability to craft the state budget.

“We pretty much heard from the people, we listened to them,” he said, adding “in order for us to budget, we have to do the repeal.”

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the tax reform process needs to be “rethought.” 

Mayne, who sat on the task force which created the proposal, said the tax bill included some positive things for her, but those didn’t outweigh the unpopular portions like the increased food tax.

“Hopefully we can have those pieces that are good put in place, but I think we need to rethink this because the people have spoken to us,” she said. 

The tax bill was meant to address slowing sales tax revenue, which pays for state services like roads, public safety and social services.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who chairs the committee which puts together the state budget, said without the tax code changes, lawmakers have to deal with a stagnant general fund for another year. “We’ll be okay this year, but it will be a problem very soon,” he said.

Adams has suggested lawmakers return to tax reform in 2021, when a new governor will be sworn in. Herbert is not seeking re-election. 

Nicole Nixon covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @_Nixo

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