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Jay Evensen: Who loses in Utah's proposed tax reform law?

Lobbyists discuss the GOP leadership-backed tax reform bill during a meeting of House Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2019.
Lobbyists discuss the GOP leadership-backed tax reform bill during a meeting of House Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To Jim Ferrin, tax reform is more than just an abstract concept. If Utah lawmakers succeed in making a law out of the roughly 260-page bill that became public last Wednesday and zipped through a House committee on Thursday, he may have a decision to make.

Try to deal with the cost and hassle of collecting sales taxes from his many clients spread throughout Utah, move somewhere else or find a different line of work.

Utah lawmakers are on the verge of enacting sweeping tax reform with less than two weeks to go in their annual 45-day session, which ends March 14. The bill, HB441, contains 8,030 lines of type. It is by no means the only thing to be considered during the final days. How many lawmakers have read it?

A former lawmaker himself (he lost re-election in 2006 after serving three terms), Ferrin is an investment adviser and retirement planner. He has separate contracts with each client and is licensed with a company in Atlanta that would need to be persuaded to begin collecting the Utah sales tax.

Legislative leaders are touting the plan as a tax cut because, eventually, it would lower the state’s portion of the sales tax from 4.7 percent to 3.1 percent. But counties and municipalities add their own sales tax rates on top of this. Ferrin, and others who provide similar services, would go from charging zero sales tax to having to collect a different rate for each client, depending on where that person lives. He calls it “an accounting nightmare.”

When Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, told last week’s committee hearing she could think of no obvious winners or losers in this plan, Ferrin was quick to react. Are you looking for a loser? “That’s me,” he said.

Others claim that label, as well. This reform plan would tax private lessons, lawn care services, barber shops, tuition, health insurance premiums, architectural services, plumbers, tax preparers and anyone else not specifically exempted. It would place a transaction tax on real estate purchases. It also would slightly reduce the state income tax rate.

The American Society of Travel Advisors issued a statement Monday saying the bill would cost the average Utah travel agency $13,000 a year, “threatening layoffs at a time of razor-thin profit margins.”

Of course, those kinds of reactions are everyday fare at any Capitol. Are the claims really true? Would people leave the state and ply their trades from Wyoming or Nevada instead? Would the bill be a drag on the economy?

There is no way to know for sure right now, although it’s safe to say every new tax law triggers unintended consequences.

What may be said with certainty, however, is that precious little time remains in this legislative session, and HB441 is massive.

The sponsor, Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, bristled during the hearing at the notion that the bill is being rushed. Legislative leaders have reacted similarly, saying the idea of taxing services and lowering the overall rate has been discussed for years. Lawmakers have long worried that sales tax revenues are drying up because the economy is becoming more service-oriented, with smartphones and other devices replacing many products people once purchased.

But discussing something in the abstract is one thing. Going over the details of an enormous, newly released bill is another. That ought to be true for most big decisions. A family may spend years discussing the desire to buy a home, for example, but it would be foolish not to take time to deliberately study a house and the details of a possible transaction before making a purchase.

That ought to be even more important in a representative republic.

Last week’s House committee hearing, held barely a day after the bill was made public, included only about 45 minutes for public discussion, most of which was dominated by business owners.

As for the general public, backers of the bill say the average family would save $664 a year.

Maybe, or maybe not. And maybe the average Utah family has no idea what’s happening. That’s what Ferrin believes.

“I bet you couldn’t go out on the street and interview 1,000 people and find three who know about this,” he told me.

If that’s true, they may soon find out the hard way.