Another group launches referendum to dump Utah’s new tax reform

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In front of TV cameras, Steve Maxfield, chairman of The People's Right, files papers in the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office for a referendum to repeal new tax reform legislation on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

A second group launched a referendum Tuesday hoping to give voters a chance to repeal controversial Utah tax reform legislation that passed in a special session last week — saying the first group that filed separately is doomed to fail because it refuses to use paid signature gatherers.

The new group is called The People’s Right (TPR) and is led by Steve Maxfield — a former independent candidate for lieutenant governor. His group also sued unsuccessfully when the Legislature repealed and replaced a voter-passed initiative legalizing medical marijuana.

“It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but the only way for citizens to participate [in referendums] … is to beg special interests for the estimated $5 million required to gather the signatures successfully in the time, manner and in the number provided by statute,” Maxfield said at a Capitol news conference.

[Read more: Bipartisan Utah group starts voter referendum to repeal new tax reform package]

He said his group will seek such big money, but has no deep-pocket donors identified.

How will it raise money?

“I don’t know. ‘Available Jones’ [a reference to Gov. Gary Herbert telling lobbyists and donors he was ‘Available Jones’ to listen to them] had big dinners and million-dollar galas. We’re open for business. We have a PIC [political issues committee] set up” to accept donations, Maxfield said.

Utah law allows citizens to try to overturn newly passed legislation — but makes it difficult. Groups must gather a minimum of 115,689 signatures by Jan. 21 (40 days after the special session last week). Other initiatives that successfully raised that many signatures recently often required about a year to do so, and with the use of paid signature gatherers.

Those rules are so tough, that it is virtually impossible without paying signature gatherers, Maxfield said.

But the first bipartisan group that filed papers to start a referendum this week — led by former conservative Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City — told the state it would use only volunteers. Cox said it did that, in part, because the group could not afford to pay signature gatherers, and because paid workers in the past were accused of deception to gain signatures and increase their fees.

Cox said he is willing to work with the new group to try to combine efforts if possible, but his group has no interest in using paid gatherers — and the issue may keep them separate. Both Maxfield and Cox said they expect that their two groups will work separately.

Justin Lee, state elections director for the lieutenant governor’s office, said the state code is silent about how to handle two groups filing referendums seeking to reject the same newly enacted law.

So the state has attorneys looking into whether two groups can file, and whether both referendums would appear on the ballot if both gathered sufficient signatures. In the meantime, Lee said he is accepting paperwork from both groups and allowing them to proceed.

If either group obtains enough signatures, it would put the new legislation on hold until after voters decide whether to reject it in next November’s general election.

Without a referendum meeting the required threshold, the tax reform law kicks in in mid-February, although the hike in food taxes wouldn’t be implemented until April. Senate President Stuart Adams has said that because the new law deals with budget and tax matters, its practical effective date is Jan. 1.

Lee said Cox’s group may be able to amend a statement his group filed pledging to use only volunteer signature gatherers. He said that’s because no such statement is legally required on referendums to overturn legislation, but is required on citizen initiatives to create new laws.

Cox said he’s not interested in changing, however.

“I don’t think the new group will have an impact on us at all,” Cox said.

He is still optimistic that his all-volunteer group can gather the 116,000 or so signatures needed (including 8% of the registered voters in 15 of Utah’s 29 counties).

“If we have 2,500 people gather 50 signatures each, we’re there if we gather them in the right places,” he said. He notes that a Facebook group his organization set up now has more than 7,000 members. “That’s up from about 1,500 when we filed [Monday].”

Cox said even using volunteers to pass petitions will be expensive. For example, signature packets must include all the language of the 200-plus page bill and have sequential numbering approved by the state. He estimates these packets will cost $5 to $15 each, and that he will need a minimum of about 2,500 — for a cost of perhaps $37,500. He said his group will set up a political issues committee to help raise money.

Maxfield has much higher estimates, saying just the printing of all needed packets may cost $1.5 million.

The groups are upset that the new tax package would raise sales tax on food and gasoline and shift funding for education.

Maxfield called the Legislature “pompous” and “arrogant” and asserted it “has set its pen at the destruction of liberty under the ruse of extraordinary circumstance.”

Cox has complained that “legislators are not listening to the people,” and said the tax changes hurt people who are poor or in the lower middle class.

Republican legislative leaders, however, say the package brings tax cuts of $160 million overall, which they say most Utahns will want and support — so they see the referendums having little effect.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say the tax reform legislation is bad and wish supporters of referendums well — but also say that gathering enough signatures is next to impossible under the rules set by the GOP-controlled Legislature.