Holy cow this tax reform thing has been bungled. Thursday’s announcement that the bill passed in December would be repealed in January is just the latest veer in this clown car of a process.
The past year first saw one major tax reform plan — negotiated in secret — dominate the last weeks of the 2019 legislative session before failing under attack from all sides. That was followed by a listening tour of legislators that obviously was not about listening. They spent their barnstorming tour selling their failed ideas and assuring themselves their message was well received.
Then came this second version — passed in special session because of the supposed election-year urgency for a tax cut. It crashed after only five weeks, the victim of a petition drive that drew more than 152,000 signatures in one month.
Voter apathy? Not when you have incompetence to overcome. The Tribune polled on the reform plan right before Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders admitted defeat, and only a quarter of Utahns supported it.
Herbert tried to say that he never was a big fan of adding back the food tax, but that is just his latest stab at having it both ways. A year ago the governor said he didn’t want to add a food tax, but it was in the budget he submitted to the Legislature. And less than a week before pulling the plug, the governor was calling Harmons grocery store owners misinformed and ill-advised for opposing the food tax.
In the end, Harmons had Utahns’ interests at heart more than the governor did.
Herbert is on his way out, but for legislators the question now is whether they have the public’s support to take on any major challenge. After first throwing their weight behind this tax plan, now they’re scrambling to kill it before voters can. After leadership lost three times on ballot issues in 2018 (Medicaid expansion, medical cannabis and an independent redistricting commission), they didn’t want to become four-time losers.
What is most surprising is that the plan would have cut more than half a billion dollars in income taxes, and the public still wasn’t buying it.
Could it be the go-to Republican tax-cut strategy has finally lost its luster? Could it be that Utah families want better schools and air quality, more access to health care and a stronger social safety net more than they want another $15 a week?
And could it also be that restoring the tax on food — which everyone buys at roughly the same rate, to cut the tax on income — which rich people pay more than the middle class — is not a winning strategy in a state that still has a sizable middle class?
The dumped plan was actually just a first step. Legislators have been signaling that the next phase was to roll out a vote to end the constitutional requirement that income tax revenue be spent only on education. In the state that spends the least per pupil on schools, they want to divert money from schools.
Right now, that’s looking like another loser with Utah voters. Are legislators gluttons for punishment?
The irony in this one-party, gerrymandered state is that it’s unlikely anyone will be voted out of office over this. Their seats are bulletproof, and their funding is secure.
Individual lawmakers will cast this as a collective failure, which it is, and just the latest of many. Let’s not forget their bumbling efforts to override the voters on Medicaid and cannabis.
The challenge is not whether they can win. It’s whether they can lead.