House and Senate leaders were practically beaming on Monday as they announced a long-sought tax relief package would become reality.
Tax cuts add up to $100 million and target families with dependent children, Social Security recipients and military retirees.
The reductions have been brewing since 2019. That’s when lawmakers set aside approximately $80 million for tax relief as part of the abandoned tax reform effort. That cash was still in play during the 2020 session, but visions of tax cuts evaporated when fears of a severe economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic prompted budget cuts of nearly $1 billion last June.
Fast forward eight months and Utah’s financial picture is glowing and getting better by the day. Just last week lawmakers announced they would have an extra $1.5 billion to spend this year, mostly due to a rapidly improving economy that is growing even faster than their projections.
Even discussing tax cuts in the middle of a global pandemic is reason for legislative leaders to celebrate.
“Utah has done better than most other states,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “We’re seeing our colleagues in Hawaii talk about furloughing teachers. We’re seeing the challenges that lie ahead in New York and California with budget deficits.”
Instead of a single tax cut, Utah lawmakers have settled on approximately $100 million spread across three separate areas.
First, they’re putting nearly $53 million toward fixing Utah’s income tax dependent exemption (SB153), which was a victim of the Trump tax cuts in 2017. Changes at the federal level impacted how the per-dependent state tax exemption in Utah was calculated. The result was a defacto tax hike for many Utah families.
“Our state income tax will go down by $200,” said Anthony Neal, who attended Monday’s news conference with his three children.
Next, lawmakers have settled on $17 million to expand a state tax credit for retirees on Social Security (SB11). Utah is one of a handful of states that taxes Social Security income.
The third piece of the tax cut plan is approximately $44 million for retired military members and a tax credit for Social Security recipients (HB86). However, retirees on Social Security can only claim one of the two tax credits under consideration.
Mario Reeve, who retired from the Utah Air National Guard after 29 years of service, says the cuts will help veterans like him who make Utah their post-retirement home.
“I applaud the Utah Legislature for recognizing the service of so many who have served,” he said. “This is a great way to show our veterans that we value the many benefits that they provide to our state.”
“Eliminating the state tax on Social Security would be a definite benefit to people,” added Lou Carrol. “That term ‘fixed income’ really comes home. You go to a grocery store, they don’t care that you have a fixed income. Go buy gasoline, they don’t care you’ve got a fixed income. Any time you can get some assistance like this it’s a definite benefit.”
With more than $1.5 billion in extra funds available, there are some questions about why lawmakers are not looking to cut taxes even further. Most of that money is one-time cash, which won’t be available for next year’s budget. Legislators are generally recalcitrant to commit one-time money to ongoing expenses, like a tax reduction.
That’s not to say there aren’t proposals out there. SB206 from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would take $253 million in one-time money for an income tax rate reduction for at least two years, but the bill appears to have little chance of going anywhere.
“We already reduced the rate a few years ago,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “We felt these tax cuts would benefit some populations we really wanted to see helped, so that’s why we went down this path.”
Most of the ongoing money lawmakers had to spend this year is going toward public education. In December, legislative leaders put about $280 million in those ongoing funds toward boosting public education funding and paying for expected enrollment growth. The remaining $200 million in ongoing cash available to lawmakers is not expected to go very far this year.
“There are still a lot of requests and a lot of ongoing programs and things in social services,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chair of the top budget committee. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what we have to do to keep the lights on this year.”