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Utah Legislature: Politics come into play with Demos' tax-hike bill

SALT LAKE CITY — It must be an election year.

There was a small blowup Thursday when conservative GOP members of the House Rules Committee voted to send HB90, a Democratic-sponsored increase in the state income tax for richer Utahns, to the House floor for immediate debate, bypassing public hearings.

That angered Democrats, some who say it was a political trick aimed at trying to paint them as a tax-hiking party.

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, and Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said it was a misunderstanding.

But the political knives were out just the same.

Clark said he believed he had an agreement for the move, and it was meant not to embarrass anyone but an attempt to see if there really was support from most House members to raise a general tax this year, especially a tax that would directly benefit public education.

Litvack had to make a motion on the House floor to send the bill to a public hearing. And that led Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, to ask why anyone wouldn't want their bill to go to immediate debate.

"We all hold the legislative process near and dear to our hearts. A Democratic or Republican bill should not subvert process. This deserves a public hearing in a standing committee."

All 75 House members are up for election this year. And Democrats have already been complaining that the majority Republicans are cutting too deeply and broadly from state programs — harming popular programs like public schools — in trying to close a $700 million budget shortfall next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

HB90, by Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, would raise $100 million for schools by increasing the current 5 percent flat-rate state income tax to 6 percent for anyone making more than $250,000 a year and 7 percent for anyone making more than $750,000 a year.

"Let's see where the votes are" for a general tax hike, Clark said in an interview.

GOP leaders say there may be support among some Republicans for a targeted tax hike this session — like raising the tax on tobacco products — but not a general tax hike.

House Rules Committee meetings have been relatively mild so far this session. But as GOP conservatives moved to put HB90 to the top of the calendar for quick consideration, Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, walked out of the meeting in disgust, and rules committee co-chairman Hughes tried to hide a smile as Democratic members were forced to defend voting against moving one of their own bills more quickly through the legislative process.

If, after a public hearing, King still wants to go forward with his bill and it can pass out of a standing committee, then it would be appropriate for the full House to take a vote, Litvack said.

GOP legislators say that is just fine by them, although some doubt whether many Democrats or moderate Republicans would want to vote a $100 million tax hike in an election year.

Republicans hold more than two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, and Democrats lack the votes to stop any major action in either body.