Gov. Gary Herbert criticizes Harmons grocery stores move to join tax referendum effort

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Harmons opened a new grocery store in Holladay, Feb 21, 2018. The Utah-based grocery chain announced Thursday that its locations would host signature gathering for a referendum campaign aimed at overturning recent changes to the state's tax laws.

Gov. Gary Herbert is criticizing Harmons, the Utah-based chain of grocery stores, for joining a citizen campaign aimed at overturning recent changes to the state’s tax laws.

The grocer announced Jan. 9 that its 19 Utah locations would host signature gathering that weekend for the referendum effort, which launched after lawmakers approved a package of reforms in December that cut the state’s income tax while raising the sales tax on food.

“Food is essential and should be affordable,” Bob Harmon, the company’s chairman, said in a prepared statement. “Increasing the tax on food hurts everyone, but especially those in our community who are already struggling.”

The Governor’s Office issued a statement saying it was “disappointed in Harmon’s actions.… As a corporate citizen in the state, they have a right to engage in the political process, but they also have the responsibility to do so in a way that elevates the public’s discourse and is based on facts and not emotion."

Herbert’s Office then went on to suggest that Harmons’ opposition, like that of other tax reform critics, was based on lack of understanding.

“Harmon’s has not contacted the governor to express their concerns. If they took the time to meet with the governor and/or legislative leadership, they would understand both the need for tax reform, and the viability of the policy enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor,” the statement said.

"The consequences of repealing the tax bill would severely impact the employees of Harmon’s as well as their low and middle-income customers.

“We urge them to rethink their ill-advised decision,” the Governor’s Office said. "Our office would hope that everyone studying this issue would look at the entire tax reform proposal and not just one aspect of it. Taken as a whole, 85 percent of all Utahns are better off under the new tax system than they are under the current one. It’s worth noting that a majority of those who benefit from the new tax law are low income.”

Bob Harmon said that the company feels strongly that Utahns should vote on the tax changes before they take effect. Utah’s referendum law requires that supporters collect more than 115,000 signatures by January 21, including 8% of registered voters in at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties, in order to qualify for the ballot.

Lawmakers convened in special session last month to approve the tax changes, which combine to an overall cut of roughly $160 million in state revenue. In addition to the increase in grocery taxes, the reform package expands the services-based businesses that will be subject to sales taxes while increasing the per-child dependent exemption and creating new tax credits for low-income residents.

Critics argue those annual tax credits do little to mitigate the ongoing and short-term pressures of higher grocery bills.

A bipartisan group of individuals and advocacy organizations have endorsed the referendum effort. But organizers have committed to relying on volunteers to collect signatures, rather than the professional firms employed in recent years by successful ballot initiative campaigns.

11:05 Friday. This story has been updated from the original version to include the statement of the Governor’s Office.