Speaker Brad Wilson criticizes referendums fresh off of the Legislature’s tax reform collapse

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, is applauded following his opening remarks alongside his wife Jeni at the start of the 2020 legislative session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 26.

Days after an underdog grassroots group thwarted the state Legislature’s unpopular tax overhaul effort, House Speaker Brad Wilson opened the 45-day general session Monday by blasting such referendum efforts as “divisive” and often “short of facts.”

A preliminary order of business for the Legislature this week will be to repeal the tax package they passed last month during a special session, an about-face compelled by a referendum effort that managed to collect tens of thousands of signatures in a matter of weeks. Wilson, a driving force behind the attempt to update the state’s tax code, was silent on the future of tax reform during his introductory speech but expressed frustration with the idea of using citizen referendums to subvert the Legislature.

“It has proven ruinous for many states that have turned down that path and turned away from the basic principles of a democratic republic," he said.

The Kaysville Republican held up the traditional lawmaking process — in which voters elect legislators to immerse themselves in state policy, consider issues from all sides and use their judgment to arrive at the best decisions. Still, in the wake of tax reform’s defeat, he stressed the importance of connecting with constituents on complex issues, especially in the age of social media.

“We must find new ways of both listening and explaining to our constituents the issues that we face and the decisions we make to address them,” he said. “We are not foes on a political battlefield. We are all Utahns committed to getting public policy right.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, on the other hand, made no mention during his opening speech of the failed tax reform proposal that legislators plan to repeal this week — instead praising the state’s growth and economic prosperity.

“If it were a car race, no one would be in our rearview mirror,” the Layton Republican said. “If it were a football or basketball game, it would be a blowout.”

Adams told reporters that he expects the repeal of the tax bill to be completed Tuesday, but he added that debate in either chamber could delay a final vote until later in the week.

A new Salt Lake Tribune poll shows that 60% of Utahns opposed the tax plan, which would’ve hiked taxes on food and imposed the sales tax on gasoline purchases and a variety of other transactions, while cutting income taxes. About 25% supported the tax package.

Gov. Gary Herbert and leaders of both legislative chambers last week announced they were scrapping the bill after organizers said they’d succeeded in collecting enough signatures to put the legislation on the ballot in November.

Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, tweeted that Wilson sounded “more than a little mad” about the referendum effort during his opening speech Monday.

“It’s always a little surprising to hear an elected official say something that sounds like a rebuke of voters,” he said in an interview.

But Brown does recognize the tension underlying Wilson’s comment: On the one hand, voters expect lawmakers to reflect their views. On the other, legislators are supposed to spend hours listening and learning about a topic so they can make the best decision, even if it deviates from popular opinion.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, who co-chaired a special legislative task force that worked for months on the tax reform plan, surmised that popular opinion was shaped by misinformation about the legislation.

“The referendum process is great. It’s another form of check for government. I have no problem with that,” he said in an interview. “I have a problem with misleading statements or false statements about what the bill does to get people’s signatures.”

For example, Gibson, R-Mapleton, said people were led to believe, incorrectly, that the bill would increase their property taxes. Lawmakers had discussed property tax changes as part of a future education funding plan, but the bill passed in the special session left them untouched.

He said he’s heard from a number of petition signers who regretted adding their names once they understood what the legislation contained. Even some of the gubernatorial candidates who spoke out against the tax measure “have no clue what this bill was about,” he said, although he declined to specify which ones.

Fred Cox, a former conservative legislator who helped lead the referendum effort, rejected the accusation that signature gatherers spread falsehoods about the legislation. His coalition — which ultimately included anti-hunger advocates, the Harmons grocery chain, left-leaning politicians, most of the Republican governor candidates, and the Utah PTA — encouraged people to read the bill and the analysis prepared by nonpartisan legislative staff, he said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Former State Rep. Fred Cox, left, Judy Weeks Rohner and Matt Bell file paperwork with Special Assistant Seth Anderson to start signature gathering on an initiative seeking to allow voters to reject the newly-passed tax reform law, at Lt. Governor's Office, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

And while the measure passed in special session didn’t itself increase property taxes, it was pitched as the first in a series of bills reshaping the state’s funding structure and slashed an estimated $640 million from income tax revenues dedicated to public and higher education, Cox continued.

“They created a nightmare for funding education that could easily cause a property tax increase,” he said. “In fact, they said that they were going to be pushing it more towards the local level. Well what does that mean? That means property taxes.”

House Minority Leader Brian King, who opposed the tax reform bill, linked the referendum’s success to public displeasure over the Legislature’s decisions to overwrite voter initiatives on medical cannabis and Medicaid expansion. The lesson for lawmakers, he said, is that they should be more mindful of the will of their constituents.

“I think that we should be honoring the things that we hear instead of trying to talk people into something that they give us no indication they really want,” King, D-Salt Lake City, said. “They gave us no indication they want to increase the sales tax on food. They gave us no indication they want to increase the tax on fuel.”

The fate of tax reform, a project lawmakers have been struggling with for the past year, remains unclear as they return to the state Capitol. Herbert, who is not seeking reelection and is going into the last regular legislative session of his term, last week suggested that state leaders might need a break from the fraught endeavor and might be smart to wait until the 2021 session to revisit it.

Gibson said he does not expect lawmakers to take another stab at tax reform this session but remains adamant that Utah suffers from a budgetary imbalance that will catch up with the state eventually.

“It is a lot easier to fix a structural imbalance when the budget is going well ... than to try to fix it during crisis,” he said, but added, "Maybe we will just have have to wait for the crisis.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, in the House Chamber in Salt Lake City on Dec. 12, 2019, as lawmakers hold a special session focusing on tax reform.

Adams similarly suggested that lawmakers may have failed to capture the urgency of tax reform by taking on the issue before the state faced a crisis.

“Sometimes you need urgency,” he said, “you need the sky to actually fall before people realize there’s a problem.”

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the Senate’s budget chairman, said that state revenues are sufficient without tax reform to get through the budgeting process this year. And he suggested that lawmakers could hold funding in reserves as a result of the $160 million tax cut being repealed.

“We have a rainy day education account that could certainly be bolstered a little bit,” Stevenson said.

As they embarked on a new session, legislative leaders also sought to cast a vision for the new decade. Wilson called on his colleagues to remember the state’s core values of industry, compassion and faith as they plan for explosive population growth and seek to strengthen Utah’s education system and mental health care resources.

Wilson said Rep. Casey Snider’s wife, Kelli Snider, exemplified compassion when she recently spotted a young man on the road’s shoulder and pulled over because she could sense something wasn’t right. After the man admitted he was suicidal, Kelli Snider invited him into her car to reassure him that he was valuable and loved, the House speaker said.

“At a time when two Utahns die and 13 Utahns are treated for suicide every day we need more people like Kelli Snider,” Wilson said, adding that lawmakers will review several bills this session related to mental health and suicide prevention.

Adams said it matters to him that Utah is doing well because of his “fifteen-and-a-half” grandchildren who reside in the state, and who will live with the choices that are made today.

“We need to prepare for our grandkids’ future,” Adams said. “They should have the cleanest air, the cleanest water, the best education, the best roads, the best economy and the best health care.”

Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this story.