Jim Nielson: Utah tax reform plan is born of legislative hubris

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) The floor of the Utah House of Representatives.

This past week, I sent my state senator and representative the following message. Then I posted it online:

“This is one constituent that hopes you will oppose the latest version of tax reform. More stable for the government; less so for those that can barely afford food and can’t wait for a once a year rebate or EIC.

“To me the compensating factors proposed both for raising the food tax and for removing the constitutional income tax earmark for education are both cases of extreme Rube Goldberg contraptions.

“Both substance and optics in both instances are repugnant to my sensibilities, especially if y’all try to do it in a special session.”

Online support of my position cover the entire political and social spectrum of our community.

The versions of this year’s tax reform blueprint, beginning with its introduction and demise at the end of the general session earlier this year, are born of a legislative occupational hazard: hubris. We politicians are often like a legion of overconfident and overzealous doctors that prescribe, variously, one remedy followed by another and are then reduced to proposing cure upon cure to mitigate side effects of the potions initially prescribed.

Like medicine, taxation is complicated. I know and understand this because I served on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee during my entire time in office. As vice chair, I conducted several committee meetings. My understanding of tax policy goes back further — to my six years of service in the Reagan administration. While I didn’t direct tax policy there, I did gain first-hand knowledge of its impact on public priorities.

I’ll share one more bit of evidence that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to taxes: While in office, a professional association of government accountants asked me to be the keynote speaker at a major meeting. Members received continuing professional education credits for participating.

Like an errant doctor, lawmakers may think that a tax credit here, a statutory formula there, will assuage the deleterious side effects of a regressive food tax increase or elimination of the constitutional income tax earmark for education.

But these things won’t cure the problem. They only mask symptoms, and only for a time.

Utah’s proposed tax reform proposal has myriad moving parts. Unless leadership has unusual discipline over its troops (“Remember, one of them is called a ‘whip’!”), and the more complex it is — the more likely a bill is to collapse under its own weight, with every lawmaker finding something to oppose.

As Robert Gehrke pointed out recently, Utah’s last tax reform measure, enacted in 2007 after two years of painstaking efforts, “was nowhere near as complex as what lawmakers are now trying to pull off in mere months.”

As I watch our gubernatorial candidates respond to this issue, I find I must applaud Amy Winder Newton for suggesting we take our time to get it right. In contrast to her approach, Jon Huntsman seems hesitant to say anything. I’m guessing he wants, first, to assess the lay of the land with respect to tax reform.

And I am watching Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox closely. He is currently lining up with Gov. Gary Herbert, who seems to share the legislature’s enthusiasm for going down this rabbit hole. I’ve sent the message I began with to Cox. Along with many others, I may find it difficult to consider him if he doesn’t find a way to distance himself from all of this.

Jim Nielson

Jim Nielson represented Bountiful in the Utah House of Representatives from 2011 through 2014. He served on both the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and the House Education Committee.