George Pyle: Utah legislators offer tax cuts to their imaginary friends

(Thad Allton | The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP file) Then-Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks at the Kansas Chamber annual dinner in Topeka, Kan., on Feb. 21, 2017.

Asked to use the Yiddish word “chutzpah” in a sentence, many from across the broader American culture might remember Leo Rosen’s line about the person with so much of it that he killed both his parents and threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

If there is a Utah equivalent of the word “chutzpah,” it might be “legislator.”

Leaders of the Utah Legislature are planning a major assault on the state’s tax structure. Not only do they want to cut income taxes for the rich and raise sales taxes on the poor, they also plan to end the constitutional restriction that all state income tax revenues flow to public education.

They plan to ram most of that through in a special session of the Legislature, maybe in December, before too many people grasp what’s happening. But ending the income tax earmark for education will take a constitutional amendment, which can only be done with a vote of the people.

Yes, that’s right. The same legislative leaders who swept aside the vote of the people in favor of expand Medicaid, who had to fiddle with the approved referendum that set up a regime of medical marijuana, will soon be asking the people to approve another ballot measure.

Only, this time, it is one they like. One that will hurt the vulnerable as much as Prop 2 and Prop 3 might have helped them. Which, clearly, is the point.

It is hard to find anyone who isn’t a Republican haunting the halls of the Utah Capitol who thinks this is good idea. These lawmakers clearly don’t care about the poor. And they don’t seem to have been talking to the rich.

Draft a who’s who of Utah’s business leaders and you will find many of the names of those who were behind the Our Schools Now campaign. That was a plan — backed by Zions Bank boss Scott Anderson, mega auto dealer, movie exhibitor and Jazz owner Gail Miller and a platoon of other big money people — to put more money into education.

Rather than push through their original idea — a hike in income and sales taxes — these business mavens got rolled by the Legislature and instead backed a nonbinding referendum that called for a hike in the state’s gas tax. Which was hard to explain and failed with the same electorate that approved Medicaid and medical cannabis.

More recently, some of the same crowd is on board with a recent Envision Utah study that calls for higher pay for Utah teachers.

If real rich people want to raise income taxes to raise more money for schools, then just who are the Republican leaders of the Legislature trying to suck up to?

Imaginary rich people.

The eternal rationalization for lower taxes, especially lower income taxes, is that they will attract more rich people to do more business, hire more workers and, at the end of the year, pay more taxes.

Not only does that never, ever work, it is being proposed for a state that is already up to its construction cranes in business expansion, job openings, housing costs and jam-packed schools.

If anything, it might be a good idea for our schools, our highways, our homeless shelters, our air quality, our water supply and our public budgets to tap the brakes just a bit on all this economic activity and allow us to catch our collective breath.

If you buy the premise that economic activity on the state level can be boosted or restrained by something as small as an adjustment in the income tax rate.

To the degree that they work at all, tax cuts should be a weapon that stays holstered until needed to power our way out of the recession that we are not now in.

Ronald Reagan tried it, and it didn’t work. The Republicans who were then in control of the Kansas Legislature, prodded by then-Gov. Sam Brownback, tried it, with even bigger tax cuts, and it really, really didn’t work.

State revenues tanked. Public services, especially to the poor, were cut. School districts shifted to four-day weeks and shorter school years because they ran out of money. Business activity remained basically flat. Brownback quit and got a diplomatic post in the most undiplomatic administration in history.

The real lesson learned in Kansas was that, even when nearly everyone agreed that the tax cuts were a horrendous idea, it became a major and ongoing effort to undo the damage. Because, no matter what, people don’t like tax increases.

Especially when proposed by same institutions that sold us that last bogus tax cut.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks he is Groucho Marx when he peppers his language with Yiddish words and expressions. Really he’s just an old duff from Kansas. Email him at gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter, @debatestate