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Proponents Of Failed Tax Reform Face Election Challenges Over Their Support Of The Bill

Photo of large assembly room with rows of desks with people.
Sonja Hutson
Utah lawmakers passed sweeping tax reform in December, but repealed it after a referendum to overturn it gained enough signatures to get on the ballot. Now, many supporters of the tax bill are being challenged based on their votes in the upcoming election

Chris Wilson owns a car dealership in Logan and has never run for elected office before. Now, he’s looking to unseat the sponsor of a controversial tax reform bill passed during a special session in December. State lawmakers eventually repealed it, but only after a referendum to overturn the law gained enough signatures to get on the ballot. 

“I just felt like the voters’ feelings were dismissed and they weren't listened to,” Wilson said. “It's one of the reasons why I decided to run for state Senate.”

The tax reform package cut the income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.66% and imposed new sales taxes on food, gas and some services like ride sharing. That added up to a roughly $160 million overall tax cut, with further one-time cuts. The idea was to fix the state’s budget “structural imbalance.” 

Republican leadership has said income tax revenue, which is earmarked for education, has grown in recent years, and sales tax revenue, which feeds the general fund, has slowed as Utah shifts to a more service-based economy. 

Wilson is running against Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who argued that he and other proponents of the bill did listen to the public. He pointed out the Legislature’s Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force held town halls throughout the state last summer and solicited comments online. 

“I've been involved in the Legislature for many years — I've never seen anything to that extent,” Hillyard said. “I think the problem was we lost control of the message.”

Hillyard added that because of the coronavirus pandemic, tax reform won’t be as big an issue during this year’s election as it might have been under normal circumstances. He said that will help his campaign. 

Hillyard is one of several supporters of the bill facing challengers that are campaigning on the issue within the Republican party. For example, businessman Mike Petersen, who volunteered to gather signatures for the referendum, is running against Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan. Marci Campbell, a referendum organizer, is seeking to unseat Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who voted for the bill.

Sponsors of the referendum are working to make sure that it stays part of the conversation. They have launched a website where candidates can answer a series of questions based on issues raised by the 2019 bill, which the group will then publicize. 

Judy Weeks Rohner, one of the organizers of the referendum, is also focusing her efforts on unseating Hillyard. She’s been working with referendum volunteers from his district.

“Since Lyle Hillyard wrote that terrible bill … I said if they found a good candidate in Cache County, I would support that person,” Rohner said. “They found Chris [Wilson]. And I went up and met Chris. I looked at his qualifications. And I understood that, you know, it was his first time in politics, but he was an honest man, and he had given back to his community.”

Rohner said she has endorsed him and has been offering campaign advice.

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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