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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”