Utah PTA joins anti-tax reform campaign

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Concerned citizens gather to sign the Tax referendum, during an event to meet the legislators that represent the west side of Salt Lake City, and sign the Utah Tax Referendum petition at West High School, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

The Utah PTA and its army of volunteer parents are ready to collect signatures as part of a bipartisan grassroots effort to block the recently passed tax reform from going into effect.

After a late night vote Friday, the PTA board released a statement supporting the referendum, which would let voters decide this November if the mix of tax cuts and tax increases passed in a special session should become law.

The group focused on the tax implications on schools, but also on low-income people.

The PTA called the tax reform “a threat to the long-term funding of education in Utah.”

“It cuts Utah’s funding sources for education and places an untenable burden on Utah’s most vulnerable populations, including families with children who are already going hungry without adequate means to purchase food," the statement reads.

The Utah PTA’s support came just days after Harmons, the grocery store chain, announced that it supported the referendum and would gather signatures in its stores. Associated Foods also told Fox 13 that it would allow petitions to be gathered in some of its stores, if asked, but took no stand on tax reform.

Harmons specifically opposes the increase in the sales tax on food.

“Food is essential and should be affordable,” Bob Harmon, the company’s chairman, said in announcing signature gathering in its 19 Utah stores.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office criticized Harmons for the move, 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."

Former state Rep. Fred Cox, who is one of the leaders of the referendum effort, helped collect signatures at a Harmons on Saturday.

“I am thrilled that we’ve got some of these groups that are willing to take some of this flak,” he said. “I can’t believe the flak that Harmons took from our governor.”

The support of the grocery chain and the PTA is a huge boost for the supporters of the referendum, which include nearly all of the Republican candidates for governor, the Democrats in the Legislature and a broad mix of advocates. The group hasn’t been highly organized or well funded and that makes meeting the referendum requirements difficult.

To stop the tax reform from going into effect and put it on the ballot, supporters have to collect more than 115,000 signatures by Jan. 21. And that total must include 8% of registered voters in at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties. So far, state election officials have certified 11,128 signatures and the supporters have met the threshold in two counties.

Cox said those figures are deceiving. He says they have a total of 20,000 signatures turned in or ready to turn in. That count includes the signatures verified by the state. And he says there are thousands of packets in the hands of volunteers that have signatures in them, but are not yet full.

“I think people are underestimating where we are at,” he said.

Lawmakers passed the tax package in late December, which overall is a cut of about $160 million in state revenue. It includes an income tax cut, with the rate dropping from 4.95% to 4.66%, and raises the per-child dependent exemption people can claim on their taxes. It also offers new tax credits for low-income residents. The package adds the sales tax to some service-based businesses and raises the sales tax on food and gas.

The PTA is concerned because any cut in the income tax is a cut in money dedicated to education. Even more alarming to the group is that lawmakers are expected to debate in January an effort to remove the guarantee in the Utah Constitution that income tax money be spent on education.

Lawmakers believe that the education guarantee is tying their hands when it comes to the state’s overall budget and they are developing a new formula to fund Utah’s schools. Legislative leaders say the reforms were needed because of imbalances between the income tax and sales tax growth that have made it hard to fund areas of the government.

“One of the biggest threats that we had was in fact our ability to pay our bills,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Tuesday at the Utah Taxpayers Association breakfast. “And we have fixed it.”