Tax Reform Referendum Succeeds, In Spite Of Difficult Requirements

Jan 28, 2020

Just before the Utah Legislature voted to repeal the new tax law Tuesday, a referendum that would have put it to voters in November tallied more than enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Nearly 116,000 signatures from registered voters in 15 of 29 counties. That was the hurdle Utahns opposing the new tax reform law had to clear to put the law’s fate to voters in November. The state elections office reported Tuesday morning the tax referendum had more than 117,000 verified signatures, with 24 counties meeting their signature requirements.  (UPDATE: At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the elections office reported more than 130,000 verified signatures.)

Later Tuesday, the legislature voted to repeal the tax law referendum supporters opposed. Park City resident Tom Horton was one supporter who gathered signatures for the referendum in Summit County. Horton considers the referendum effort a success.

“The people who had other thoughts about how to restructure Utah's taxes made themselves heard and certainly bought themselves some time for everybody to have a second look and do a better job a second time around," Horton said. "So I think that was successful.”

At the same time, Horton doesn’t think the legislature understands why the public disapproved. In his opening remarks for the 2020 general session, House Speaker Brad Wilson said referendum efforts can be “divisive” and “short of facts.” Horton says legislators seem to believe they’re experts and the public’s understanding of tax reform is flawed.

“They seem to intend to stay on the same path as regards the details of the tax overhaul, and that's a message I think they didn't get," Horton said. "That the citizens of the state want to be partners with the legislature, rather than being encouraged to just stand by and let the adults figure it out.”

As for what sort of law referendum supporters want instead, Horton says most people were united in opposing the food tax and the complexity of the tax rebates and credits. Last year, lawmakers set out to fix what they call a “structural imbalance” between the income tax-funded education fund and sales-tax funded general fund, pointing to decreased sales tax revenues due to economic changes. But Horton says it’s still up for debate whether there is an imbalance.

“It's hard to argue that there is a structural imbalance in the face of Utah's big revenue boom, business boom, tax boom, the government surplus—that's a hard argument for people to swallow," Horton said. "So I think the legislature needs to start back at the beginning and persuade Utahns that a restructure is needed.”

Horton says support for the referendum goes beyond tax reform. He points to the legislature’s tinkering with 2018’s voter-approved medical cannabis and Medicaid propositions as one starting point for citizens’ displeasure. If lawmakers think this is just about the tax law, Horton says they’re shortsighted.

“I think they have to do a better job of taking that to heart and seeing what the institutional problems are, not just the problems with taxation."

Both Summit County Deputy Clerk Kellie Robinson and Wasatch County Clerk Cal Griffiths say they’ve verified all the signature packets they received. As of Tuesday afternoon, Elections Director Justin Lee says the most recent count for Summit County is 1,997 of 2,063 required signatures; for Wasatch County, 1,039 of 1,275. It’s possible that registered voters in Summit or Wasatch County signed referendum petitions in other counties, so those county clerks would verify and submit those signatures. But Lee says, once the governor signs the repeal bill, he anticipates county clerks will stop counting. (UPDATE: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the repeal bill Tuesday evening.)