All Utah’s declared candidates for governor — but one — endorse referendum to dump tax reform package

All but one of the declared candidates for Utah governor so far — both Republican and Democrat — endorsed on Monday a referendum that seeks to allow voters to veto the new tax reform package passed earlier this month.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is the lone holdout. His campaign said he is unable to endorse the referendum because the election process is overseen by Cox’s office — but noted that he opposed raising the sales tax on food before the special session of the Legislature earlier this month approved that.

“This referendum is, in essence, a vote of no confidence in our Legislature and in our governor,” said Brett Hastings, director of Utah Legislative Watch. “The Legislature passed a radical and risky tax measure through a one-day special session over the overwhelming objection of Utah citizens.”

He organized a Capitol news conference to show support that spans the political spectrum.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is running for his old office, did not attend because of scheduling conflicts, but sent a statement in support.

“I initiated tax reform that reduced the sales tax on food when I was governor, which has now been reinstated,” he said. “I fully support democracy in action with the referendum effort. If elected, I will make it a priority to eliminate sales tax on food.”

Making it a bipartisan event was Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zachary Moss.

“This is terrible,” he said about the bill. “This is a robbery of wealth from the lower classes to the upper classes.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zachary Moses makes remarks at a press conference in opposition to the recently-passed tax reform bill and support for a ballot referendum repealing the bill at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Newton Winder, a Republican running for governor, said she supports the referendum because people in poverty with whom she has talked say raising sales tax on food will hurt them, despite other tax credits being offered.

“They helped me realize how dire their situation is,” she said. “I wish that our state leaders had that opportunity to sit down and talk with these people and understand sometimes what looks good on paper isn't always what's best for real Utahns.”

She said that feeling is widespread. “We have thousands of Utahns who are ready to use their veto pen” through the referendum.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Councilwoman and gubernatorial candidate Aimee Winder Newton signs a ballot referendum to repeal the recently-passed tax reform bill at a press conference at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

Businessman Jeff Burningham, another GOP candidate for governor, said, “We have a spending problem. We do not have a revenue problem,” and complained that state spending is rising.

He said his family struggled when he was young, and drank bad-tasting powdered milk to save money — and that made him wonder what was wrong with his family.

“This tax on food is ensuring … that more children in Utah in 2020 will be drinking powdered milk, more children will feel ‘less than,’” he said. “The tax on food does not fit with the ethos of who we are here in Utah.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham makes remarks at a press conference in opposition to the recently-passed tax reform bill and support for a ballot referendum repealing the bill at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

Jason Christensen, another GOP gubernatorial candidate said the tax package is “drastic, it’s insane.”

Hastings also announced support for the referendum by several citizen groups including the Republican Women’s Liberty Caucus, Citizens for Tax Fairness, the United Women’s Forum and the United Tax Reform Coalition.

Also over the weekend, the United Utah Party announced it is putting its own term limits referendum on hold temporarily to help gather signatures to dump the new tax bill.

Last week, a group led by former state Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, filed the referendum petition. It faces high hurdles to qualify for the ballot.

By Jan. 21, it must gather nearly 116,000 signatures, including at least 8% of registered voters in 15 of the state’s 29 counties. Other referendums that managed that recently required a year or so to do it and used paid signature gatherers.

“Right now, we are moving faster than our printers,” Cox said, saying that his group has more requests from people who want to gather signatures than it has been able to provide. He said his group recently hired a second printer to help. The packets are thick — including by law all of the 200-plus page bill.

Fred Cox said he is happy with support he is seeing from both liberals and conservatives.

“This is not a Republican revolt. This is a Utah revolt,” he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Rep. Fred Cox gives remarks at a press conference in opposition to the recently-passed tax reform bill and support for a ballot referendum repealing the bill at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

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 income tax cuts that decrease the potential funding pool for public education.

The bill also significantly expands the per-child dependent exemption and creates new tax credits for low-and middle-income earners.

GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert have said they are confident Utah voters will support the package as they learn more about it — including its overall tax cut of $160 million.

Fred Cox said sprinkling in a few attractive items does not make up for a bad bill.

“I don’t care how many rainbow sprinkles you put on the doughnut,” Cox said, “if the doughnut is full of crap, the doughnut is still crap.”

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, publisher and owner of The Salt Lake Tribune.