In a year when a booming economy and past tax hikes brought in half a billion dollars more to spend than expected, lawmakers voted to give tax cuts to companies in the hope of continuing rapid economic growth.
The state will take in an additional $80 million that’s expected to result from recent tax changes by Congress and has dedicated about a third of it to cover a tax cut for businesses. The remainder paid the way for lowering the income tax rate that corporations and individuals pay, from 5 percent to 4.95 percent.
Some families will still see their state tax bills climb next year, according to state estimates, as the federal tax cuts eliminated some exemptions that Utah’s tax code uses to determine state taxes.
“Your income taxes are going to go down,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “Your property taxes are going to go up slightly.”
The Republican-led Legislature brokered a last-minute compromise to boost school spending, which will lead to higher property taxes when home values rise over the next five years. Voters will also weigh in on the ballot in November whether they want to raise the state tax they pay for gas by a dime a gallon to inject money into schools.
Lawmakers said they prioritized measures that will bring more businesses to the state, with the goal of creating more jobs and fueling the economy.
Advocates say the Legislature forgot about the poor because they rejected bills to eliminate the state sales tax on food and create a tax credit for the working poor. Those bills would have narrowed the tax base, lawmakers said. But Matthew Weinstein, fiscal policy director for Voices for Utah Children, said lawmakers prioritized businesses over people.
“There are plenty of exceptions [to narrowing the tax base] that our Legislature has been ready to embrace,” Weinstein said, “when we believe that it promotes economic development.”
Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, tried to cut the tax on food and raise the statewide sales tax. The bill made it through the House to the Senate, where leaders joined Gov. Gary Herbert in saying the bill would harm decades of Utah tax policy for broadening the list of goods that are taxed at as low a rate as possible. It failed a committee vote.
“In this case it would be making an exception for the sake of equity and helping the poor,” Weinstein said.
There were no bills that added items to the list of goods and services that are taxed despite talk early on about looking at a sales tax on streaming services like Netflix and Spotify. And lawmakers passed a bill that promises a large tax break to manufacturing companies if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a case that could lead to a spike in taxes collected from online sales.
In the quest to keep off the ballot an initiative to raise sales and income taxes for education, legislators dived into negotiations with the Our Schools Now group to come up with a compromise.
“That would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history,” Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said of the initiative’s proposed tax hikes of more than $700 million.
The compromise bill that passed on the final day of the session will freeze the property tax rate for five years, leading to about $125 million more in education spending. It also will put a non-binding question on the ballot about a gas-tax increase.
But the bill also included perks for businesses and a slight tax cut for residents.
Large companies with interstate sales will pay taxes only on sales they make in Utah, rather than on payroll, property and total sales. Lawmakers hope the break will to attract large employers to the state.
“We will be much more attractive to companies that would like to locate somewhere where they’re not penalized for having a plant or an office and having employees,” Niederhauser said. “That’s the beauty of that tax policy.”
Quinn sought to give tax cuts to moderate-income families with several children, who state estimates show will face higher state income tax liability as a result of the federal tax changes. Quinn said he wanted to make sure no one would pay more in state taxes as a result of the federal changes.
Lawmakers instead lowered the rate across the board, allowing them to claim an overall tax cut. In an election year for most legislators, that’s a plus.