The LDS Church has been lobbying selected members of the state's Tax Reform Task Force, reiterating the church's stance that charitable deductions on state income taxes be retained.
Several legislators who spoke with church lobbyists and attorneys said they saw nothing improper with the contacts. "If they had not called me (to ask for a meeting), I would have called them," said task force co-chairman Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.
Other legislators, however, not only worry that the process could be a breech of separation of church and state but that church leaders might be expecting special consideration from member legislators.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, contacted by the Deseret Morning News, said he came away from a meeting a week ago with three church officials, including LDS Church registered lobbyist William Evans, "a little confused. While it was not directly said, I came away with the distinct impression that this was an outreach by a lobbyist that was not done in a vacuum but with the approval of the First Presidency," the three-member governing body of the 12-million member church.
Hughes, an active LDS Church member, said the charitable deduction "was not (portrayed as) a spiritual litmus test." But the tone of the discussion caused him concern. "The communication that I came away with is that there isn't a line of demarkation between the administrative and the spiritual eye in trying to make the best decisions for the church," Hughes said.
Evans did not return telephone calls Wednesday seeking comment. Church spokesman Dale Bills, who did not sit in on the meetings, issued the following statement Wednesday night: "As have many charitable organizations, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has consistently made known its strong support of state tax deductions for charitable giving. The church has shared its long-standing position with the public and elected officials.
"The church joins with most charitable organizations in the belief that our community is best served by providing tax incentives for the support of charitable activities. All such organizations play a vital role in providing for society's poor and needy, education and the arts, and in meeting other important social needs."
The church does not oppose a flat rate income tax per se, leaders have said. But a true flat rate income tax has no deductions, including no deduction for charitable giving, which the church wants maintained in Utah.
The task force is to recommend tax changes to the 2006 Legislature. More than 80 percent of the 104 part-time legislators are members of the LDS Church.
Word that the newspaper was calling task force members about church lobbying is apparently altering meeting plans. Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who was to meet Wednesday with Evans in the church offices, said he received a call at 8 a.m. postponing the meeting indefinitely.
"I would prefer (church officials) testify in an open public meeting," Dougall said, noting that a private meeting also scheduled Wednesday at the Capitol with several House members and church leaders was canceled last week. Dougall said he was told that LDS Church lobbyists prefer to talk with legislators individually, not as a group. Evans then scheduled but then later canceled a private meeting with just Dougall.
Another legislator, who asked that his name not be used, said, "It seems (church lobbyists) want to pick off those who favor a flat rate tax one by one."
Bramble and Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, who have spoken individually with Evans and other LDS Church lobbyists about the charitable deduction, both said at no time did discussions carry any religious implications.
It was clear "that this (deduction) was not a point of ecclesiastic loyalty," said Bramble, who has served in several appointed church lay leadership positions over the years.
"There was no talk of anything like that (religious overtones) — not even a veiled threat," Valentine said.
Dougall and Hughes both said their support for a true flat rate income tax has not waned. Various studies have shown that a low-rate, flat rate tax — adjusted not to harm poor citizens — would save many Utahns on their taxes, both those who regularly contribute to charities and churches and those who don't, Hughes said. In addition, at least one study has shown contributions to charities did not suffer in a state that did away with charitable deductions.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he still favors a "flatter" income tax, one that doesn't keep the traditional deductions, like charitable giving and home mortgages. Huntsman said that in September he'll start traveling the state, listening to what Utahns have to say on tax reform while selling the idea that now is the time to grab real tax reform in the state. Huntsman, whose late grandfather, Elder David B. Haight, was a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, has also met with church leaders about the flat rate income tax. The governor's office has declined to give details.
Hughes said if church leaders made it clear that keeping the charitable deduction was a matter of religious imperative, similar to opposition to abortion, "I would sustain them. I'd vote to keep the deduction. But I would be up front about that with my constituents and I'd say exactly why I was voting — that it was a matter of my faith."
Hughes said he hopes other legislators, should they vote against a true flat rate income tax, would likewise "be forthright, up front," on the reasons they oppose the tax.
In a task force meeting several months ago, Hughes made the motion to draft a true flat rate tax bill, with no deductions. That bill will be on the next agenda, Bramble said.
Scheduled public hearings
Exact locations will be announced later.
Oct. 19, 5:30 p.m., Salt Lake City;
Oct. 25, noon, Vernal;
Oct. 25; 6 p.m., Price;
Oct. 26; 6 p.m., Provo;
Oct. 27; noon, Cedar City;
Oct. 27; 6 p.m., St. George.