Gov. Cox says free mass transit would help Utahns struggling with high gasoline prices. Lawmakers aren’t so sure.

Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz says tax reduction would help more Utahns.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders agree inflation is a threat to the state’s economy. What the state can do to mitigate the impacts of inflation is where they differ.

During his monthly KUED news conference, Cox said he has been discussing ways to alleviate rising prices for Utahns, but there’s not a lot of common ground to be found right now.

“I’m a big proponent of making mass transit less expensive for people, making it free like we did in February,” Cox said.

The Utah Transit Authority’s “Free Fare February” led to a 16% increase in weekday ridership and a 58% jump on Saturdays. Cox said reducing or eliminating fares would help Utahns struggling with high gas prices.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like $4.30 gasoline, but it’s not going to end our budgets. We can get by. But there are people who just can’t do that, and then they have to make a terrible decision,” Cox said.

Cox is having a hard time getting the Republican-controlled Legislature to get on board with his transit fare plan. He characterized the reception as “tepid.”

“There’s not much support for free or reduced fares on mass transit,” says House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

“That would only benefit a handful of people,” he added.

Schultz says lawmakers haven’t given serious consideration to other ideas for curbing inflation. He says if lawmakers decide to take some action to ease inflationary pressures, it should impact the greatest number of people possible.

“If we were to do something for me, it would have to be more along the lines of a tax cut,” Schultz said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers dropped the state income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.85%. That $200 million cut averages out to about $8 per month in relief for the average Utah family with a $70,000 income. Rising prices across the board have eclipsed that meager decrease. Utah’s food costs have increased by 9.4% over the past year, while gasoline prices have jumped by a whopping 44%.

Schultz is not the only one making noise about more tax relief. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has repeatedly said he’d like to see another tax cut during next year’s Legislature.

Any reduction in income taxes is paid for by revenue that is constitutionally earmarked for public and higher education. This year’s $200 million cut could have boosted per-pupil funding in Utah’s public schools by 5%.

Cox didn’t address tax relief Thursday but did say the state could do more to increase resources for more vulnerable Utahns. Cox says his office is exploring whether that’s something they can do without calling the Legislature into session.

“We have the resources available in the budget currently where we can get more food, more necessities out to those foodbanks for people that are struggling,” Cox said.