Herbert said raising the tax on food may make sense because Utah's tax base — the range of income and items subject to tax — has been shrinking.
He said the state's gross domestic product (GDP) "is not being taxed to the level that it was in the past. We used to get about 72 percent of our GDP or economic growth being taxed, now it's closer to 40 percent. So we really have narrowed the base. That creates pressure to raise the rates."
The governor said, "Putting the sales tax back on food and lowering the overall rate [for all items] is a possibility. If we do that, I think we need to make sure those who are impoverished … those most vulnerable among us need to be protected from any harm and additional costs."
When asked if discussing raising the food tax instead of removing other tax exemptions rewards big political contributors at the cost of the poor, Herbert said, "No, this is a case of let's see what's the best tax policy to help the people of Utah."
He added, "You need a tax policy that does not inhibit the growth of the economy. The best thing you can do for a poor person is give them a job" — something he said is made more possible with lower tax rates and a broader tax base.
Legislative leaders have said steps they are considering to help the poor if the food tax is raised include creating an earned income tax credit for them, changing income tax to charge the poor less and the rich more, and a proposal to retain a lower tax rate on healthy staple foods while raising the tax on "junk foods."
About that latter proposal, Herbert said trying to tax healthy food and junk food at different levels could be too complex to administer easily. Also, "I'm a little reluctant to have government step in and tell you what to eat, and how to eat."
Because time is short, Herbert also said he's willing to work with the Legislature through the coming year to develop tax reforms that make sense.
Democrats have serious concerns about the way Republicans seem to be rushing forward with no public input and zero consultation with the minority party. They also have problems with the prospect of raising the food tax.
"We are struggling," said Sen. Luz Escamillia, D-Salt Lake City, with a tax that could hurt the poor, who pay a disproportionate share of their income for food.
She said Democrats have "serious concerns with the food tax," but "We haven't seen their proposals, so it's hard for us to say anything."
Escamilla said "We are waiting to understand" how Republicans hope to lessen impacts on low-income residents.
Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature with supermajorities in both chambers, have said they want to enact tax reform to smooth out the volatility of the current structure. But it happens to come at a time when the group Our Schools Now is trying to get a measure on the 2018 ballot to raise the income tax rate from the current 5 percent to 5.875 percent.