About 300 Utah County residents attended a debate Wednesday to get some answers about the tax initiatives that will be on November's ballot, but they came away with a lot of contradiction and political rhetoric.
The Provo/Orem Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate, which took place in the Utah County Regional Government Center auditorium. The chamber has not yet taken a stand on the initiatives and wanted to hear both sides of the issue before making a decision, said Steve Densley, chamber president."We feel like (the initiatives) are going to be one of the more important things that will happen in our lives perhaps in a long, long time," Densley said.
The 16 or so citizens who spoke during the meeting were about evenly divided on the issue, but the crowd saved its most enthusiastic applause for supporters of the initiatives.
Most of the claims made by proponents of the tax cuts were countered by opponents, though, and by the end of the meeting it was hard to tell fact from fiction.
Mike Leavitt, a member of Taxpayers for Utah, a group formed to work against the initiatives, said Utah County government would lose about $3.8 million in property tax revenue if all three initiatives pass. Provo City would have to cut about $630,000, while the Alpine School District would lose $4.4 million. Provo School District would face a $1.8 million loss and Nebo District would have to cut back $1.4 million.
The three initiatives would limit property taxes, roll back tax increases approved by the 1987 Legislature and provide tax credits to the parents of children attending private schools. If a majority of Utahns approve the People's Tax and Spending Limitation Amendment, limits on property taxes would begin almost immediately, and additional limits on government spending would begin at the end of December.
The People's Tax Reduction Act would cut back state income, sales, gasoline and cigarette taxes approved in 1987. Under the Utah Family Choice in Education Act, parents with children in private schools would begin receiving a tax credit at the start of the next school year.
Leavitt said that if the Family Choice Initiative is approved, parents would have an incentive to turn away from public schools, and that, he said, is "not a productive public policy."
Greg Beesley, chairman of the Tax Limitation Coalition, said parents would get only $600 per student attending a private school, while the remaining $1,800 Utah spends annually on each student would go back to the state.
A whirlwind of contradictory figures were thrown around throughout the debate. When one Utah County employee stood to say that as many as 100 county workers would be laid off under the cuts, Mills Crenshaw, spokesman for the limitation coalition, scoffed.
"That's a remarkable number. Add to it that if the initiatives go through, it'll breed communism. I hear the most outrageous claims," he said. "Don't let them frighten you with statistics. The only people who seem to be confused (about the effects the cuts would have) are those who fear they're losing their power. The cuts will not be enough to cripple the economy."
Beesley said that under the most extreme scenario, government spending would be cut by 6 percent. "Opponents have launched a fear campaign."
But Leavitt said tax cut supporters refuse to say where money would be cut from government programs, and that should concern voters.
"We believe these proposals simply go too far. There's never been a tax initiative this radical," he said. "There's no way you can debate with figures that are completely unreliable and undocumented. They refuse to show where cuts will be made, and the minute anyone brings that up, they call it a scare tactic."
Jon Memmott, former chief of staff for Gov. Norm Bangerter and a member of Taxpayers for Utah, said voters should think about why the Utah State Chamber of Commerce as well as the Salt Lake Area, Ogden and Sandy Chambers have all announced their opposition to the initiatives.
"What it really boils down to is who do you believe. Wouldn't you think that if this really stimulated business, wouldn't you think the chambers of commerce would support this?"
Crenshaw said the chambers have a conflict of interest, because they receive money from city governments. The Provo/Orem Chamber gets $10,000 from each city annually.
"Follow the buck and you'll have the answers," Crenshaw said.
"I guarantee you that with a million dollar budget, we don't change our vote for $10,000 from the city," Densley said.
Crenshaw said the state's economy cannot survive without the initiatives. "If you don't pass these initiatives, the last one out of this state better turn off the pumps."