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Jay Evensen: How Utah Democrats could influence tax reform

Gov. Gary Herbert, center, speaks about tax reform during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Gov. Gary Herbert, center, speaks about tax reform during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 7, 2019.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When you’re the minority party, and especially a minority as small as Democrats in Utah — comprising just 21 percent of the 104 combined Senate and House members — it can be hard to get ahead of an issue as big as tax reform.

So when House Democrats announced this week they will hold a series of public meetings on the issue in May, it sounded as futile as a family deciding to hold a family council meeting to complain about its property tax assessment.

In the end, Democrats have little power to affect the outcome, which will rest largely in the hands of a legislative task force expected to begin meeting later this spring, with only two Democrats among its 10 members.

But Republican tax reform efforts so far have suffered from two weaknesses that Democrats can, at the very least, use to give their hearings a sense of legitimacy.

The first is a sense of confusion. Average Utahns, if they are aware of the reform efforts at all, probably wonder why they’re needed. How can the state be both running a $1.1 billion surplus and facing a crisis that requires an overhaul of the sales tax and, perhaps, other taxes as well?

The second is a sense that reform efforts so far have been conducted in secret, with little regard for what the public may think. The official bill didn’t surface until two weeks before the end of the 2019 legislative session, and the public was given just 45 minutes to respond to it in a House committee hearing before the bill was abandoned in favor of the task force.

House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, touched on both when I spoke to him earlier this week. There is, he said, “a need to educate people as to why we’re even doing this (tax reform).” The first five to 10 minutes of each hearing will be devoted to this. The rest will be a discussion of a variety of options the Republican majority hasn’t discussed, such as changing the property or income tax, enacting a carbon or gross receipts tax, or maybe even changing how the income tax is earmarked solely for public and higher education.

Democrats are not challenging the need for reform, which is rooted in how technology and modern spending patterns are eroding sales tax revenues.

But Republican efforts so far have focused on taxing several services that currently don’t fall under the tax — a long list that includes haircuts, lawn care, Uber rides, attorney services, architectural services, tuition, tax preparation, plumbing and many other things, and then lowering the overall tax rate.

King hopes to expand that discussion a bit, without, he insists, pushing any sort of agenda. Staff members will compile the public testimony and note important trending opinions or areas of consensus.

And yet he acknowledged it will be difficult to remove politics from something as political as taxes.

So far, Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson’s reaction has been to express hope “these town hall meetings mean they (Democrats) are committed to solutions, not partisanship.”

He told the Deseret News, “Even though we discussed this issue many times with the House minority caucus, we have not yet seen any constructive suggestions from the minority leader.”

That’s a criticism with some merit, although it’s doubtful many Republican lawmakers would pay much attention to such suggestions, anyway. Public pressure, however, is a different matter.

But let’s face it, most members of the public won’t engage in tax reform until it strikes home. King said he hopes the hearings reach the “5 to 10 percent” of the public who want to be engaged in the discussion now.

While educating and involving the public seem like goals that might resonate broadly, the practical truth may be that they are impossible to achieve. The original bill contained more than 8,000 lines of type. Complicated tax reform, while easier to do in good times than bad, may be just too hard to do in one year, as Republicans hope.

So, will Democratic-led hearings matter? If they are dominated by special interests, as many such hearings are, no. If the real people among that 5 or 10 percent show up to offer real opinions, they might be worth considering.

In the end, however, Republicans still control the outcome. If Democrats just hold hearings and do nothing else, their effort is likely to vanish into the vast desert sky. But if they craft their own proposal based on broad public input — a difficult task — they might be able to muster the type of public pressure that gives them at least a little bit of influence.