Naive is as naive does, I suppose. But if both efforts go forward as described in a Deseret News report Tuesday, I wouldn’t count on seeing a tax reform veto on your 2020 ballot, no matter how angry you may feel about it.
By law, signature gatherers have until Jan. 21 to gather approximately 116,000 signatures from registered voters. Those signatures must be spread proportionate to 8% of active voters in 15 of the state’s 29 counties.
Granted, that’s not as hard as the threshold for ballot initiatives, which require signatures from 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts, but the short deadline means it requires concentration and dedication, not confusion.
Let’s review how we got here: Legislative leaders and the governor said Utah had to reform its tax structure because the economy is changing and sales tax receipts were not growing as quickly as income tax receipts.
Faced with this, lawmakers first talked about spreading the sales tax to cover previously untaxed services, then lowering the overall rate. But by the time the public, special interests and political considerations were through with it, the final reform package included new sales taxes on only a handful of insignificant or dwindling items (newspaper sales? Really? That’s going to increase receipts?), and two large regressive sales tax hikes.
One of those was an increase in the state’s portion of grocery taxes from 1.75% to 4.85% — guaranteeing higher food prices for everyone, but especially those whose incomes are low but not low enough to qualify for assistance.
The other was a sales tax on gasoline, equaling about 12 cents more per gallon. Not only is this regressive, it has little long-term impact given the rise of alternative-fueled vehicles and fuel-efficient engines.
Lawmakers did provide some grocery credits for the poor, one-time checks and an increase in dependent exemptions. They also cut the income tax by 0.29%, which primarily benefits the wealthy.
Two groups, one led by former Republican lawmaker Fred Cox, and the other called The People’s Right, have submitted separate petitions for a citizens’ referendum to veto this reform package. Cox’s group is relying on volunteers and is using social media. The other hopes to attract donors, quickly, to pay signature gatherers who can work, again, quickly.
Utah is one of only 23 states that give its people veto power, but lawmakers have made sure it isn’t easy to exercise.
That’s for good reason. In a republic, people elect representatives to study issues and make decisions on their behalf. Make citizen vetoes too easy and you lapse into a form of direct democracy that can paralyze government.
But make it too hard and you may unwittingly give disproportionate power to wealthy interests for protecting themselves.
In 2007, the last time Utahns successfully exercised their veto power, it was an effort led by the Utah Education Association to overturn a private-school voucher law. The UEA had the help of the powerful National Education Association, which contributed about $3 million to the cause.
This time, the UEA is staying out of the fight. Even though the tax reform bill directly hurts education funding by cutting the income tax, educators are counting on promises that lawmakers will find more money for them somewhere once the 2020 legislative session begins.
Besides, which effort would they join?
That leaves poor- to moderate-income people and their advocates — not exactly a group tailor made to pull something like this off.
I have an obvious suggestion for the two groups: Join forces.
Acting separately, they have no chance. People who sign one petition will tell the other group they’ve already signed. Confusion is not an asset. This is like running for office and discovering someone else with your name also is on the ballot.
Even without confusion, this citizen veto is a long-shot, at best. Duplicating efforts makes it impossible.