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A Utah tax reformer who is happy to be there

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not the first time Lyle Hillyard has heard the question.

“Why would anyone with a sane mind volunteer to take over tax reform?”

To which he answers: “That’s assuming I have a sane mind.”

Hillyard is a state senator from Logan. At 39 years and counting, he’s been in the Utah Legislature longer than anyone currently in office — and he’s closing in on the record of longest-serving-legislator-in-Utah-history, set by the now-retired Haven Barlow, of Layton, at 42 years.

Lyle Hillyard
Lyle Hillyard
Lee Benson, Deseret News

Certainly that’s long enough for a man to kick back and rest on his laurels and not volunteer to chair the task force assigned to overhaul Utah’s tax system.

The decision to assemble the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force was made at the end of the most recent legislative session when it became apparent that A) the tax base isn’t what it used to be, and B) normal debate in the Legislature wasn’t going to solve anything.

Hillyard freely admits he sprang to action when he first heard about the formation of the task force. He wasted no time in going straight to Senate President Stuart Adams.

“I told him I’d be glad to serve on the committee,” he says, “and that I’d be glad to serve as chair.”

Adams said, uh, OK.

* * *

The 78-year-old Hillyard doesn’t see himself as the solver of all problems. Last year, when they invited him to play in the annual Legislature softball game, he told them he wouldn’t play unless they put an orthopedic surgeon at first base and a cardiac surgeon at third base, “because if I made it that far I’d need one.”

But the very factor that has diminished his base-running skills has enhanced his tax-fixing ability.

“I know this area pretty well,” he says. “When I came to the Senate I took the place of a really good guy named Chick Bullen, who did a lot with taxes, so I just kinda naturally fell into his positions dealing with revenue issues from the start. I understand how complex the subject is; it’s not checkers, it’s chess. You have to see moves far down the road.”

In a nutshell, this is how he defines Utah’s current tax predicament: “The main problem is that our sales tax base is not growing as fast as it used to, and that is because it’s based on goods and not services — and in today’s culture it’s services that are really growing the economy.”

The task force’s first goal, as he sees it, “is selling the idea that we’ve got a problem.”

And then?

“Then people are going to have to buy in to a solution everyone can live with that doesn’t cause too much damage.”

By the way, Hillyard does see a solution he believes would cure everything — “but it’s never going to happen” because it involves Uncle Sam.

“If I were king,” he says, “I would say to the federal government, you keep your federal land if you want it — 75 percent of the state — but let every county assess what that land would be worth on property tax values and you pay property tax like a regular private owner. If we did that, it would increase the tax base by three times.

“But the federal government is not excited about doing that. I don’t know why they should be upset. They’re running huge deficits in what they’re doing; what’s another $3 trillion going to matter?”

But he digresses.

In reality, he sees two basic theories about what to do to grow sales taxes. “One theory is you do something really big, and just tax services.”

That would mean applying sales tax to services provided by everything from lawyers to waiters and waitresses to the neighborhood piano teacher to the kid who mows your lawn.

“The other theory is you do a lot of little things and you don’t gore somebody’s ox; but you do enough of the smaller things that you get the increased revenue you need.”

Hillyard leans toward this second, more complex approach, which is why he sees great hope in the input the task force will collect in the eight town hall meetings scheduled to be held throughout the state over the next two months.

He says he’s rather looking forward to it. He enjoys a good road trip and he’ll get to drive his Subaru Outback from one end of this beautiful state to the other — and talk at length about a subject he’s spent half his life getting his head around.

“I really think I can help the process. That’s why I volunteered,” he says. “And I don’t mind a puzzle.”