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Majority of Utahns favor local tax hike for transportation, poll shows

Nearly 55 percent of Utahns say they would lean toward voting for a local sales tax increase for transportation needs, according to a new poll.
Nearly 55 percent of Utahns say they would lean toward voting for a local sales tax increase for transportation needs, according to a new poll.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 55 percent of Utahns say they would lean toward voting for a local sales tax increase for transportation needs, according to a new poll.

The 2015 Legislature's passage of HB362, a bill raising the state gas tax by 5 cents per gallon starting Jan. 1, gave authority to local governments to hold an election for voter input on whether cities and counties should enact a quarter-cent sales tax hike for local transportation projects and transit.

If the local tax is implemented across the state, it would generate more than $147 million by 2017 for roads and transit districts, according to HB362. Of the 0.25 percent increase, 0.1 percent would go to cities, 0.1 percent to the Utah Transit Authority and 0.05 percent to counties.

Now, counties and cities are trying to decide whether to put the tax increase option on the November ballot.

According to the poll, 15 percent said they would strongly favor the increase, 39 percent would be somewhat in favor, 20 percent would be somewhat opposed, 21 percent strongly oppose, and 6 percent didn’t know.

The poll of 601 statewide registered voters was conducted March 30-April 7 by Dan Jones & Associates. It has a 4 percent margin of error.

Lincoln Shurtz, Utah Association of Counties governmental affairs director, said while it’s reassuring to see voters are open to the idea, it’s still “incumbent” on county and city leaders to demonstrate to the public their transportation needs.

“It’s encouraging that the public is seeing the demand that we’re going to be facing on our transportation infrastructure,” Shurtz said. “Hopefully we can continue to build the case that this is needed.”

Billy Hesterman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said the fact that 39 percent said they would “somewhat favor” the tax increase illustrates that voters are acknowledging the need for city and county transportation funding, but also saying they are not sure it's the best option.

“(Cities and counties) need to help us understand why they need it," Hesterman said, "because I don’t think they’ve done it yet. We need hard data and information that this will be spent in the right way and that what they’re currently receiving is also being spent the right way.”

Jones said it usually requires a 2-1 ratio of strongly in favor against strongly opposed voters for a proposal to win at the ballot box. Because so many voters are leaning toward the “somewhat” disclaimer, it will take city and counties “a real strong sales job” to ease voter uncertainty enough to approve the sales tax hike, he said.

“So no matter what county, it’s going to be hard to pass,” Jones said.

The poll also indicates that more Democrats and independents favor the tax increase than Republicans, he said, so Salt Lake County voters are more likely to approve the increase. In Salt Lake County, 16 percent were strongly in favor, 37 percent were somewhat in favor, 20 percent somewhat opposed, 23 percent strongly opposed, and 4 percent didn’t know, Jones said.

The pollster also said 20 percent of Utah County voters said they would strongly favor the increase, with 31 percent somewhat in favor.

Shurtz said while the poll was released early in the process of counties seeking input from residents and cities on the matter, “any favorable numbers would encourage county officials that now is the right time” to put the tax hike on the ballot.

He said communities along the Wasatch Front have been expressing more interest in considering the tax increase due to high population growth and more stress on transportation infrastructure.

“There’s still a lot to be determined, but I know many of the Wasatch Front counties are looking at it,” Shurtz said. “I think there’s high likelihood that either in 2015 or 2016 some counties will be putting this on the ballot.”

However, Shurtz said no counties have committed to setting it as a ballot item because they are still seeking feedback from residents and city leaders.

“Now is the time," he said, "that the public should be talking to both their city and county officials to make sure their interests and opinions are expressed."