Tribune editorial: Bring Utah’s tax reform into the sunshine

(Bethany Rodgers | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Herbert (at podium) is joined by Senate President Stuart Adams (right of governor) and House Speaker Brad Wilson (left). to announce there will be no tax reform plan this legislative session, Thursday, March 7. Instead, Republican leaders will work with business, education and community interests over the next few months to come up with an overhaul that tries to address the many concerns raised. The news conference was held in the state Capitol Gold Room.

It was an absurd ask from the beginning: A tax overhaul that touches every pocketbook in the state, and a two-week window for Utahns to digest it.

The death of House Bill 441 last week was preordained. The challenge now is to prevent more of the same.

Gov. Gary Herbert tried to imply at a Thursday press conference that this has somehow been a heroic effort that only Utah’s leaders could pull off.

"It would have been easy to kick it down the road as we see too often on tough issues around the country. ... That’s not how we do it in Utah.”

Actually, that’s exactly how we’ve done it in Utah, and Herbert admitted as much when he pointed out that the issue has been kicked down the road at least since Olene Walker was governor in 2004.

And the reason that Utah’s politicians have never gotten to the breach is that they won’t embrace a truly public process. Instead, they work the backrooms and get surprised when it backfires.

In the aftermath of HB441’s death, the governor and legislators are vowing to work with "stakeholders" to get a better bill. That's essentially what they've been doing all session. And it's not public.

Here's a likely scenario:

After a couple of months of meeting privately with “stakeholders” (meaning lobbyists and industry reps), legislative leaders unveil a new and improved bill ... two weeks before an interim session. We’ll get a couple of jam-packed hearings at interim, and then a quick vote, followed by pronunciations that the public was heard.


This will be a bill that touches everyone in significant ways … in their jobs, their homes and their schools. Take this plan to the people with a robust process. Hold hearings around the state. Dream up an Envision Utah-type online portal where citizens can study options. Find every way to maximize public involvement. This is that big.

And if state officials have the courage for such a process, they should get ready for the public to push back. For starters, they’ll question why income tax — the key revenue source for Utah’s underfunded schools — is the tax getting slashed when it’s sales taxes that are flagging.

Utah leaders have often referred to the “three-legged stool” of taxation: sales tax, property tax and income tax. By drawing from all three, we can smooth out the variability in any one of those revenue sources. This reform is supposed to be about shoring up tax revenue, not further denying schoolchildren.

Instead of trying to limit the rancor, state leaders should bathe in it. They need to look into their constituents’ eyes before they change their lives.