Utah legislators began a statewide tour in Box Elder County last week, sending a task force to Brigham City to meet with local educators, concerned residents and others regarding possible changes to the ways the state collects taxes.
About 200 people showed up at the Utah State University Brigham City campus on June 25 to hear from and share their thoughts face-to-face with the panel, which has been tasked with studying the issue and coming up with recommendations.
During its annual session this past winter, the Utah Legislature considered reforms to the ways the state collects tax revenue, but decided to take more time to work on the issue after many expressed concerns about expanding taxes on service-based businesses to make up for anticipated shortfalls in revenue from direct sales of goods.
As part of that effort, several town hall-style meetings were scheduled across the state, starting with last week’s stop in Brigham City. The meetings were organized in part due to criticism that reforms were being shaped by legislators behind closed doors, without enough opportunity for public input.
Dozens lined up at the meeting to share their opinions and ask questions, with many reiterating concerns about how more taxes on services might impact people’s livelihoods.
Box Elder County Realtor Stephanie Tugaw-Madsen said additional taxes on services she and others in the industry provide would ultimately mean higher costs for many who are already struggling with rising real estate prices.
“I’m concerned we’re going to price more and more people out of the ability to buy a home,” Tugaw-Madsen said.
Trevor Nielsen, general manager of the Bear River Canal Co., said tax exemptions for the state’s critical water resources should remain in place, but also said the organization could support an excise tax if the revenue from it were used to fund additional water infrastructure as the state’s population continues to grow.
Some were there to express their frustration with what they see as government overreach. Don Dunbar, a Box Elder County farmer, told members of the task force that “the power of taxation is the power to destroy.”
Dunbar said the nation’s founding fathers intended for sales taxes to be used only for public safety purposes such as police, firefighters and the military, “not to provide everybody with everything they need … I’d like to see government spending cut in half.”
A measure that was shelved during the recent legislative session would have sought to offset any increase in service-based taxes with a corresponding decrease in the state income tax, which is used to fund public education in Utah.
A sizable contingent from the Utah public education sector was also in attendance, mostly to express concerns about the potential negative impacts on education if income taxes are cut.
“Education is our collective responsibility under our constitution,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “Children make up over one third of our population, and we must ensure we have enough resources for all students.”
Steve Carlsen, superintendent of the Box Elder School District, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to address legislators in person outside of their regular session. He also reminded the task force of the legislature’s duty under the Utah Constitution to fund public education, saying it “must remain the state’s top priority.”
After starting in Brigham City, the task force also held meetings last week in Salt Lake City, Richfield and St. George. Additional meetings are scheduled for this month in Kaysville, Roosevelt, Moab and Lehi.
Utah Sen. Lyle Hillyard of Logan, a co-chairman of the task force, thanked everyone for their input and reminded the crowd that no decisions have been made in regard to reforms, or on how the additional revenue from any reforms would be distributed.
Hillyard said the purpose of tax reform isn’t to grow the government bank account, but to strike a balance between those who oppose tax cuts and those who don’t want to see cuts in government-funded services.
“Our goal is to be revenue neutral,” he said. “We honor the constitutional provision that we balance our budget.”
State Rep. Francis Gibson, the other co-chair of the task force, said there needs to be a balance between taking enough time to study the issue and doing something about it before the state runs into more serious funding problems.
“What will our tax policy look like 20 years from now, and how do we address that now, when times are good?” Gibson asked.