United Utah Party drops term limits initiative to join fight against tax overhaul

The United Utah Party is joining the effort to overturn recent changes to the state’s tax code, setting aside for now a ballot initiative campaign that sought to impose term limits on state lawmakers and officeholders.

The party announced in July that it would seek public support to impose a limit of three terms on state senators, six terms on state representatives and two terms each for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and auditor.

But on Friday, the United Utah Party announced it would put that campaign on hold and redirect its energies toward helping with signature gathering for a referendum seeking to repeal a package of income tax cuts and sales tax hikes approved by lawmakers earlier this month and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday.

“The fact that it was done in a special session in December demonstrates that the legislators and the governor did not want public input,” United Utah Party chairman Richard Davis said in a prepared statement. “Nor did they pay attention to the input they got.”

Among the controversial elements of the tax reform package are an increase to the sales tax on groceries, increases in taxes on gasoline sales and a decrease to the potential funding for public education, which under the state Constitution is supported by income tax revenue.

The bill also significantly expands the per-child dependent exemption, and creates new tax credits for low- and middle-income earners. But critics argue the annual benefit of those tax credits do not mitigate the immediate burden of higher grocery and fuel costs.

“Public opinion surveys showed the public did not want a tax cut that hurt public education, nor did they want a food tax,” Davis said. “The Legislature and the governor ignored us. The United Utah Party feels their act of betrayal to the public will need to be overturned.”

On Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised the work of lawmakers, saying they had taken on a difficult task in updating the state’s tax laws and had produced legislation that would benefit the state’s residents.

“I applaud their effort,” he 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.”

Two different groups filed paperwork to launch tax referendums, but one was rejected by the state elections office. The surviving referendum is headed by Fred Cox, a conservative former state lawmaker, in partnership with a bipartisan group of tax opponents.

State law imposes a tight 40-day window for referendum organizers to collect and submit more than 115,000 signatures, with proportional representation in at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties. And Cox’s group has stated that they intend to rely on volunteers, rather than paid signature gatherers.

On Thursday, Cox expressed optimism about the referendum’s prospects to The Tribune, citing the broad opposition to the tax reform bill by Utahns on all points along the political spectrum.

“We have actively gone and invited the most liberal people and the most conservative people,” Cox said, “and everyone in between.”