Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that he has signed legislation reforming the state’s tax code that was recently approved by lawmakers in a special session.
The bill cuts overall taxes by roughly $160 million net through a combination of decreased income taxes and increased sales taxes. Several groups opposed the legislation — and efforts have begun to overturn the bill through a referendum — particularly for its inclusion of a higher sales tax on groceries.
Herbert said he understands the anxieties of those who oppose the bill and that his office plans to publish a list of answers to frequently asked questions on the state government website.
“We want people to understand,” Herbert said, "to be able to separate fact from fiction.”
The governor’s comments came during his monthly televised news conference at PBS Utah. He highlighted four common complaints against the tax bill — that it was rushed, hurts the poor, benefits the wealthy and decreases public education funding — and rebutted them.
The process that led to the bill was lengthy, he said, the legislation includes targeted tax breaks for low-income Utahns, higher-income earners already pay the most taxes and justifiably will receive relief, and his upcoming budget recommendations will include “robust” increases to education spending through a combination of income and sales tax revenue.
“I’d remind everybody that sales tax dollars spend every bit as well as income tax dollars,” he said.
Opponents to the food tax hike and other changes — and to their enactment in a one-day special session — include every announced Republican candidate for governor, including Herbert’s lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox.
Asked about the potential for a referendum, Herbert said it would be unfortunate for the tax cut benefits of the bill to be delayed if the referendum qualifies for the November ballot, which would put the changes on hold.
He said the Legislature had engaged in an “exercise in excellence” by taking on the task of updating the state’s tax laws.
“I applaud their effort,” Herbert said. “I’m sure they’d rather take a beating than have to go through this process, but they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Fred Cox, a former lawmaker and one of the organizers of the referendum campaign, said that with or without the referendum the bill won’t take legal effect for 60 days and that voters will ultimately reject the changes.
“Signing [the bill] before Christmas?” he said. “Is he expecting a lump of coal in his stocking?”
Herbert repeated his criticism that the debate in Washington over impeachment and removal of President Donald Trump has been like a circus with “a lot of clowning going on.”
On Wednesday, the House approved articles of impeachment against Trump for abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress, making him the third president in U.S. history to face a Senate trial. Utah’s Republican representatives opposed the articles, while the state’s lone Democratic congressman, Ben McAdams, joined the House majority in voting to impeach.
Herbert said he understands some of the concerns that people feel toward Trump and that the president’s behavior is not what he would emulate or want his children to emulate.
“But you can be a jerk,” Herbert said, “but that doesn’t mean you should be impeached.”
Herbert said impeachment is serious business, and that the upcoming Senate trial should be conducted fairly and equitably, but that he’s disheartened by the hyperpartisanship he’s seen so far.
Herbert said he’s encouraged by the state’s progress on homelessness, comparing it to the adage of teaching people to fish — rather than giving them a fish — to feed them for a lifetime.
He was optimistic about the three new resource centers that recently opened in the Salt Lake City area, saying it combines sheltering with workforce training, substance abuse programs and other interventions.
“I like the trend,” he said. “We’re in a transition period; it’s certainly not perfect. There’s little hiccups in the get-along as we go there, but we’re doing very well.”
The opening of the new resource centers was delayed for several months, and advocates say many in the homeless population are not yet familiar with the new locations, the services they provide or that there are additional beds available.
In a recent op-ed for the Deseret News, former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate David Ibarra and former House Speaker and likely gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes wrote that Utah needs to “recapture” lost momentum on homelessness, and that doing so requires “top-level leadership talent.”
“Our homeless resource centers must be safe places for people to sleep and connect with resources that will put them on a pathway toward self-sufficiency," Ibarra and Hughes wrote. “It is inhumane to have people sleeping in makeshift tents and it is not good for our communities to have people living on our streets.”