A group of Utahns is trying to put a citizen referendum on the November ballot, to overturn the tax bill the state legislature recently passed in a December special session.
Park City resident Tom Horton has been politically active in Utah since the 1970s, canvassing and fundraising for issues and candidates. Now, he’s gathering signatures for a referendum to undo the Utah legislature’s tax overhaul.
“I'm one of those people who believes you gotta get in the game, or else things are going to happen to you about which you're mystified and have no control," Horton said. "That's kind of always been my philosophy is don't stand on the sidelines—get in there and be a player.”
Horton has been following the legislature’s months-long efforts to reform the state tax structure. After the first tax bill, which expanded sales taxes to many services, failed during the 2019 general session, legislators passed—and Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law—a bill that lowers the income tax rate and increases sales taxes on groceries, gas and some services.
Horton believes the new tax law negatively impacts low and middle-income taxpayers. He says some folks he’s spoken with in Summit County are well-informed about tax reform, but many are not. Still, he believes Summit County residents will support the referendum.
“The word is spreading pretty fast, and while our signature collection started slow, it is gaining momentum and speeding up," Horton said. "I'm very hopeful that we can contribute a lot in Summit County to this statewide effort.”
House Minority Leader Brian King, a Democrat who represents part of Summit County, says referendum backers face a steep climb, but he wouldn’t mind seeing it on the ballot.
“If that referendum got enough signatures and qualified for the ballot, we would be voting in November on what we voted on in this last special session, is my understanding," King said. "If that were true, I'd say let's see what the people of the state of Utah think.”
Although District 54 Rep. Tim Quinn was one of a handful of Republicans who voted against the tax bill, he says he doesn’t support citizen initiatives, of any kind. The Heber Republican sponsored the tax bill from earlier this year and believes the one that passed in the special session doesn’t fix the revenue imbalance between the state’s general fund and education fund. But if voters approve the referendum and the law is overturned, Quinn says it’ll force lawmakers to try again.
"We would have to take another stab at it, because we do have a structural problem in the state of Utah," Quinn said. "But to go back to what this bill did, with raising sales tax on food and sales tax on gasoline, I would find it difficult that we as a legislature would do that."
Horton says he’s struck by the non-partisan nature of the referendum. Both Republican and Democratic candidates for Utah governor have signed the petition. Horton feels it’s not aligned with any party or ideology and that support stems in part from the legislature’s disregard of other citizen initiatives, such as the Medicaid expansion and medical cannabis propositions from 2018.
“I would go so far as to say this is sort of a general rebellion against the legislature, and not only what it's done in taxes but what it's done in handling Prop 2 and Prop 3 and the inland port and all those things," Horton said. "There are a lot of angry people around the state.”
The referendum group must gather 116,000 signatures from at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties by Jan. 21 to make the November 2020 ballot.