Tribune Editorial: Utah tax ‘reform’ package should be rejected

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Tax Reform," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.

After the creation of a task force that didn’t understand its task, a listening tour where no one listened and the drafting of a tax reform package that doesn’t meet any reasonable definition of reform, the Utah Legislature has been called into an unwise special session Thursday to consider a measure that almost no one who isn’t a lawmaker supports.

No one, apparently, but Gov. Gary Herbert, who apparently wants to begin the last year of his long public service by signing a bill that would make the state’s tax structure harder on those who can least afford it even as it takes millions of dollars away from the part of state government — education — of which he has long been a champion.

The resulting mess should be thrown out and legislators should come back — maybe in their 2020 regular session, maybe later — and try again.

This all began early last year, as state leaders were heard to complain that state sales tax revenues weren’t trending up with the overall economy. Fair enough. Even as the state captures more of the sales tax that always should have been collected on online sales, an increasing percentage of transactions involve people paying for services — which are not subject to sales tax — rather than for goods — which, generally, are.

But a scheme to subject to the state sales tax all kinds of services, from legal bills to veterinarian visits, didn’t survive the heavy lobbying from those interests. What came out of the task force instead was a cruel plan to restore the state’s share of the sales tax on groceries.

That’s a bad idea that the leading candidates to succeed Herbert as governor — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton — rightly oppose.

Some ancillary bells and whistles — an income tax credit to supposedly offset higher food costs and larger deductions for families with children — do not alter the fact that the arc of this scheme bends toward taking from the poor to give to the rich.

Having given up on any real tax reform, Herbert and leading lawmakers are falling all over themselves to tout some $160 million worth of tax cuts that exist largely to allow elected officials to brag that they passed a big tax cut.

This “More cowbell!” style of politics is not what we need.

The plan would take millions out of an education fund that is already last in the nation. The tiny boosts in income most families will see will quickly be eaten up by higher sales taxes and, according to plans that have been floated but aren’t before the Legislature this week, creeping increases in property taxes.

On one day this week, the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune carried articles that put the lie to the idea that the state should be slashing its own revenue stream.

In one, Herbert called for a significant increase in the number of computer science classes available to Utah high school students, which is a valid idea. In another, we were reminded that the population of Utah continues to boom, particularly in Utah County.

A state where population is soaring, construction is booming and employment, while high, leaves too many without enough income to afford a decent place to live should not be passing up funds it could use to meet its needs for transportation, education, affordable housing and something — anything — to deal with our dreadful air quality.

The fix is probably in. But the vote on this tax package should be a resounding no.