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George Pyle: Utah needs to learn to measure its humanity

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled “Medicaid Expansion for Dummies,” appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, August 23, 2019.

The knee-jerk reaction of us fuzzy-headed liberals to news that a country, state or city is good for business is to assume that it is bad for people.

There are good reasons for that. Reasons that are apparent in Utah and becoming more so.

Those Forbes magazine and other surveys that rank states by their business friendliness (Utah has been first and now is third) are openly based on things like a permissive regulatory environment and low levels of corporate or individual income taxes, especially for individuals who have a lot of income to tax. At the same time, those doing the rankings may also award points for an educated workforce or good transportation and other public infrastructure.
A formula that gets low taxes for the rich and decent levels of public services in the same equation only balances if the tax burden — and other burdens — fall disproportionately on the working class. Which was indisputably the point of the tax reform bill that passed in a special session of the Legislature earlier this month.

Our lawmakers could not possibly have been more transparent. Reducing an already low, and flat, personal income tax rate while boosting consumer taxes on basic survival items like groceries and gasoline has only one conceivable goal: Make life easier for the rich and harder for the poor.

The really maddening thing is that there is no particular reason to believe that, even if such evil is the goal, that the tax plan will actually work.

Upper-income Utahns probably won’t even notice their lower income tax bills when the rate drops from 4.95% to 4.66%. And it is difficult to imagine a Fortune 500 company that would take that tiny change into consideration when deciding whether to locate or expand here.

What such worthies might notice, if over a longer period of time, is that the point of this measure and other bills that loom on the horizon is that the state is effectively slashing the wrists of its education funding bloodstream.

Changing the per-child income tax exemption from from $565 to $2,500 may help balance other tax hikes that the working class will pay, especially if they have large families, but it will also make it harder for those families to educate their children — and for existing and future businesses to find workers with the necessary skills.

The bill is so bad that only people who are not running for reelection — like Gov. Gary Herbert — and those who expect to be retuned to office as long as they can sit up and take nourishment — every Republican in the Legislature — are for it. People who are trying to win contested elections — like everyone running for governor (even the Republicans) — are campaigning against it.

The theory that the goal of the Republican leadership of Utah is to make life harder for working people even if it doesn’t really improve the lot of the rich is further supported by the length of time that was required to bring the expansion of Medicaid health care coverage, authorized by the passage of the Affordable Care Act almost a decade ago.

First the Legislature put its hands over its collective ears, sang “Polly-Wolly Doodle” really loudly, and pretended there was no such animal. Then Herbert floated an alternative that, he had reason to believe, might fly here because it dealt back in the private health insurance operatives that are the single largest contributor to unaffordable health care and early death the civilized world knows.

The Legislature shot that down, too.

Then the people of Utah passed Proposition 3, which not only demanded the implementation of Medicaid expansion under the ACA, it also raised taxes to pay for it. The Legislature repealed that and put forward a collection of alternatives that had as its sole purpose the desire to make sure that health care in Utah remains a privilege rather than the basic public good it is in any nation on earth that anyone would consider civilized.

As a fig leaf, the Legislature tried to extend Medicaid coverage to a few of the poorest of the poor, even though the sharp limits were bureaucratically cumbersome and unacceptable to the federal agencies that rule on such things. And even as it undermined the stated goals of Utah’s political class to reduce homelessness and divert the addicted and the mentally ill away from the criminal justice system.

Finally, right before Christmas, the Ghost of Health and Human Services approved an alternative Utah Medicaid plan that covers just about everyone Obamacare is supposed to cover, but leaves the state the ability to claim a victory by allowing what the anti-anti-poverty folks call a “work requirement.”

Which means that, in order to claim something that should be just as much your due as the ability to call the fire department, you have to prove you are working, looking for work, training for work, too disabled to work or too young or too old to work.

The only reason this proviso makes any sense is that those promoting it think those eligible for Medicaid are otherwise likely to be smelly bums who will crowd the deserving rich out of doctor’s offices and MRI waiting rooms. If the point really were to help people be self-sufficient, those making the rules would realize that the way to independence is to provide health care first and expect gainful employment later.

Speaking of being visited by three ghosts. Utah — and the whole United States — should take a hint from the young, female prime ministers of New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland who are setting up plans to measure the success of a nation by the well-being of its people, not the bottom line of its gross national product.

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

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, measures his well-being by looking at the stack of books that he really, truly, honestly is going to read this year.
Twitter, @debatestate


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