Tribune Editorial: Our tax future needs a real fix, not a quick one

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A long line forms to speak to the tax reform task force at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, as teachers turn out in large numbers to oppose any weakening of guarantee for public education funding.

As Utah legislators lurch toward an overhaul of the state tax code next week, they are looking a little lonely.

While there have been a parade of voices pointing out flaws in their tax plan, there have been scarcely few people who have spoken up in favor. Even among Republican legislators there is hesitancy.

In fact, to the extent there is a consensus in this state, it’s one that opposes this plan.

That is not entirely surprising. Any change in tax policy produces anxiety, and no final product would be greeted with universal cheers. But this plan is a poor candidate for passage in a one-day special session.

The only motivation for pushing it through now is so legislators can trumpet an election-year tax cut. That false urgency only further undermines the public’s confidence that these changes are truly necessary and not just politicking.

Saving some Utah families a couple hundred dollars for one year isn’t worth it for a plan that so few people support, especially when many of those families are going to be spending a chunk of whatever they save on other taxes anyway.

The decision to raise sales taxes on food — something only a handful of states still have — is basically an acknowledgement that legislators couldn’t do what they set out to do: raise the sales taxes on a broad band of services. After getting shelled by lobbyists, they went lighter on taxing services and went back to just raising the sales tax on staples, including food and gasoline, goods that the lower incomes buy at the same levels higher incomes do.

But the biggest problem is that the legislation on the table this week isn’t even the full plan.

The real plan is much more far-reaching. It includes ending the constitutional requirement that income tax be spent on education. And that will require the approval of all Utahns, something that looks far from certain. If that doesn’t happen, this first step won’t hold up.

The plan will also require school districts to raise more money through property taxes to keep their schools adequately funded. Cutting taxes so others must raise them? That’s another way to undercut the public’s confidence in the process.

Legislators deserve credit for bringing it this far, but they still haven’t produced a complete product. Tax policy is indeed lonely work, but getting it right will bring lasting respect. That’s better than trying to buy a few friends with a quick tax cut and a promise to figure it out later.