Opponents of tax reform pushing for referendum vote

Calvin Nay of Ephraim (left) signs petition to put tax reform referendum on the ballot. Zane Peterson (right) is the chairman of the petition drive for Sanpete County.

A dozen volunteers are gathering signatures in hopes Sanpete County will qualify as one of 15 counties required to put a tax reform act on the November 2020 ballot.

The 300-page tax reform law was passed in November, 2019 in a two-day special legislative session. Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, and Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who represent Sanpete County, voted for it. Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law the next day.

Since then, there has been a groundswell of opposition. Four candidates for governor have come out against the tax reform act and in support of the petition drive, while three others have expressed concern about the law.

If the petition is signed by 116,000 “active” voters (voters who have voted within the past three years), and if those signatures include at least 8 percent of active voters in 15 of the state’s 29 counties, a referendum on tax reform would go on the ballot.

If the referendum passed, it would essentially veto the act and prevent it from going into effect.

“Let’s get it on the ballot, because then we buy some time for further deliberation,” says Jay Zabriskie of Ephraim, one of the lead signature gatherers.

There’s fairly widespread, though not universal, agreement that the state’s tax system needs to be reformed to reflect new economic patterns, such as increased spending on services and internet sales.

If the law passed last November is vetoed by voters, the next Legislature could take up tax reform again and consider different approaches. Some ideas didn’t come up until days or hours before the special session.

Another priority might be simplification. At a forum last week in St. George where most Republican candidates for governor appeared, two candidates said the law is too complicated for the average person to understand.

One of them, Greg Hughes, former speaker of the Utah House, said he had warned legislators that “from out here in the cheap seats it isn’t well understood what you’re trying to do.”

One of the most controversial provisions of the law is an increase in the state sales tax on food from approximately 1.75 percent currently to 4.85 percent. The law allows lower income households to get a credit for grocery expenditures on their state income tax, but taking the credit would make filing a person’s state return a little more complicated.

Last Thursday, Jan. 9, the same day as the candidate forum, owners of Harmons said they would begin gathering signatures in their 19 stores around the state.

“Food is essential and should be affordable,” said Harmons Chairman Bob Harmon. “Increasing the tax on food hurts everyone, but especially those in our community who are already struggling. As a company, we do not believe groceries should be taxed. We feel strongly that Utahns should have an opportunity to vote on the issue before the tax goes into effect.”

The leader of the petition drive at the state level is Jeff Cox, a former Republican legislator. He is leading a Facebook group that has 25,000 followers.

Four citizen groups—Utah Legislative Watch, Utah Tax Reform Coalition, United Women’s Forum and Citizens for Tax Fairness—are supporting the drive.

The Sanpete County coordinator of the petition drive is Zane Peterson, who has a heating and air conditioning business. He called a meeting Jan. 2 at the Manti City Building, where some people signed on as signature gatherers and others simply signed the petition.

Zabriskie, who installs floor coverings, and who has been active in Scouts and in the Republican Party in Sanpete County, attended the meeting. He and his wife, Natalie, jumped aboard as signature gatherers.

Zabriskie said if the tax reform law goes into effect, in a few years, he will have to charge sales tax not just on the carpet and other floor coverings he installs but on his installation services. That could bump costs for his customers up as much as 4 percent.

He said his wife is concerned because the law includes a cut in state income tax. Under the Utah constitution, all income tax revenue is earmarked for education. The cut could mean less guaranteed money for education, although the panel that formulated the tax reform plan said the loss would be made up from other revenue sources.

Jay and Natalie Zabriskie set up shop in a conference room at the Greenwood Center at Snow College two evenings last week and gathered 120 signatures.

In the last few days, Scott Hymas, regional director of the Terrel Seely grocery stores, has approved signature gathering in Terrel’s Thriftway in Mt. Pleasant and Gunnison Market in Gunnison.

Volunteers plan to be in the stores Friday and Saturday from opening to close, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

As of Tuesday, Sanpete County volunteers had about 400 signatures. To make Sanpete County one of the 15 counties required to force a referendum, volunteers need to gather about 950 signatures.

But they probably need a few more than that, because some signatures will undoubtedly be thrown out because the signers turn out to not be active voters or to not live in Sanpete County.

All signatures statewide have to be into county clerks in various counties by end of day next Tuesday, Jan. 21.