Utah tax reform attracts opposites to referendum campaign

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron Mortensen volunteers at the City Creek Harmons grocery store in Salt Lake City to help Utah residents sign the tax referendum, Jan 15, 2020.

A conservative Trump nominee and a liberal Salt Lake County councilwoman walk into a grocery store.

That sentence has the trappings of a lazy political joke, but the scene also played out Sunday at the City Creek Harmons, where Ronald Mortensen and Shireen Ghorbani volunteered side-by-side encouraging customers to add their names to a referendum that could overturn recent changes to the state’s tax laws.

Mortensen told The Salt Lake Tribune that he introduced himself to Ghorbani by disclosing that he had voted against her — and for incumbent Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah — during Ghorbani’s 2018 congressional campaign, and that he had been nominated by President Donald Trump to a top position at the State Department (his appointment is pending before the U.S. Senate).

The two have polar views on refugees and immigration and Mortensen said he joked to Ghorbani that she might not want to sit next to him, but that they went on to have a friendly conversation on a variety of topics while helping voters sign referendum petitions.

“It wasn’t necessarily surprising, it was just refreshing,” Mortensen said. “We could get together on neutral territory, on something we agreed on, and then get to know one another."

Ghorbani described her time volunteering alongside Mortensen as a “really interesting and delightful experience.”

She said it was informative to hear why he and other conservatives are opposed to the tax changes, and that they both felt that members of the state Legislature were not adequately listening to their constituents in the state.

“There’s a feeling that the public is in a different place than our representatives in some really big ways,” she said.

Since the Legislature convened in a special session in December and approved a sweeping package of tax reforms — which include cuts to income taxes and hikes to the sales taxes on food, services, gasoline and other transactions — an atypical and bipartisan alliance of individuals and organizations has formed to push back on those changes.

‘Something for everyone to hate’

The referendum campaign was launched by Republican Fred Cox, a former state lawmaker, and Gina Cornia, executive director of the anti-poverty advocacy group Utahns Against Hunger.

It was later endorsed by effectively all of the declared candidates for Utah governor, the Utah Parent Teacher Association and the Utah-based Harmons grocery chain, which made its 19 locations available to referendum organizers as staging grounds for signature collection.

Mortensen described Harmons’ support as a “game changer.” He said he is now mildly optimistic that the referendum could qualify for the November ballot, after originally believing the chances to be slim-to-none.

“Without that, this would have been dead,” he said.

But despite his optimism, the referendum campaign faces a steep climb to reach the ballot. State law requires organizers to collect and submit more than 115,000 signatures statewide by Jan. 21, as well as hit numerical thresholds in at least 15 of the state’s 29 counties.

Updates from the state elections office showed the campaign with just under 33,000 signatures on Thursday, which translates to roughly one-fourth of the campaign’s target with less than a week of signature collection remaining.

But Mortensen said that even falling short of the ballot, tax reform and the referendum campaign could have a lasting impact on Utah politics and bring new blood into Utah’s political parties.

While much of the discussion around the tax reform bill has focused on its increase to grocery taxes, Mortensen highlighted the new taxes on streaming media, shipping and handling, and pet grooming as driving angst among residents.

“There’s something in the [tax] bill for everyone to hate,” he said.

Democrats and education advocates are worried about cuts to the education fund adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Mortensen said he was personally disappointed that lawmakers did not combine tax reform with cuts to government spending, and that the bill appears to “rearrange the chairs on the Titanic” rather than consider new approaches to taxation.

“They just seem to be intent upon taking care of state government without any concern for the people who are going to pay for it,” Mortensen said.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert, though, point to the net $160 million tax cut resulting from the tax changes. They and other reform supporters say that most Utahns will come to appreciate the package as they begin to see the benefits.

Who’s being represented?

Ghorbani said the bill illustrates how Utah would benefit from a stronger two-party system, rather than the Republican supermajority that dominates state politics. She pointed to the Legislature’s actions on Medicaid and medical marijuana — in which lawmakers rejected and replaced laws approved by a public vote — and said greater balance in state politics would result in more robust conversations and fewer residents feeling unheard.

“I talked to a lot of Republicans who told me to my face that they don’t feel represented,” Ghorbani said, “which as a Utah Democrat is kind of a shocking thing to hear.”

Quin Monson, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and partner in the polling firm Y2 Analytics, similarly saw connective tissue between the tax debate and the Legislature’s actions on Medicaid and medical marijuana.

He said there’s a pattern where lawmakers and the state’s political establishment push in one direction on an issue and encounter pushback in the opposite direction from the public.

“You wonder how many times they can do that before it has consequences for who actually gets elected,” Monson said.

He said the referendum organizers are facing a tight timeline to collect and submit signatures, but that it also appears the Legislature’s efforts to persuade the public on their approach to tax reform — through a series of town hall meetings and hearings on Capitol Hill — were unsuccessful.

“It’s not clear that [the referendum] will make it,” Monson said. “But it is clear that there’s a significant opposition to this and it goes across the [political] spectrum in a way that should concern the folks who are leading the state.”

But Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said the involvement of both conservative and liberal individuals in the referendum effort does not necessarily prove widespread opposition to the new tax law.

“We often think of taxation as a left-right issue,” he said. “But the way we tax affects so many different people in such different ways that you can have a really unique set of players come together in support of or in opposition to a new package for how taxation will work in a state.”

Cann called it “a coin toss" whether the referendum will make it on the ballot.

Even if it does, he said he expects pro-tax reform groups to lobby the public in support of the changes.

“Those voices aren’t coming out yet because their interests aren’t threatened,” he said. "Their interests are in a privileged position because they were just enshrined in legislation."

University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank said the referendum has benefited from an interesting dynamic of political motivations, and that it’s illustrative of one of the old rules of lobbying.

“You have interests, but you should never have permanent friends or enemies,” Burbank said, “because you never know who you might need to work with.”