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Pignanelli and Webb: Summer fun: Tax reform, presidential debates and inland port

Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, center, answers a question, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, center, answers a question, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee, AP

It’s summertime, and Utahns are relaxing with family vacations and recreational activities. But for hard-core politicos, it’s the time to recruit troops, develop strategies and otherwise prepare for future battles. Last week we saw events on three different fronts that will impact local politics. Your embedded correspondents file the following reports.

The Legislature’s Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force (yes, it’s a mouthful) held its first two town hall meetings last week. After a presentation explaining the structural imbalance in Utah’s tax system, individuals and special interest organizations aired very strong opinions on the matter. What are these town halls revealing?

Pignanelli: “A public figure cannot control what people say in open meetings.” — Jim Bridenstine.

Not all Utahns are finally enjoying their BBQs and pools. Observations of the town halls last week clearly demonstrate major forces are developing their weapons (i.e. talking points) and disciplining their armies to be ready when the task force commences regular business in August. The Utah Education Association is providing uniforms of red T-shirts for their attendees at these events, who passionately argue against removing the constitutional dedication of income tax to the school fund. Other organizations are lobbing artillery to permanently damage the earlier proposal of expanding sales taxes to services and water. Tax protesters and far right activists are the unregulated militia, relishing the captive audience.

In the midst of this scrum, task force members developed a sophisticated presentation to ensure participants understand the need for readjustment to collecting state revenues, thereby increasing public access and confirming all options will be reviewed.

Utah leaders have implemented a commendable statewide event for citizens to provide their opinion directly to decision-makers. So far, most attendees articulate rational and substantive arguments and considerations. They seek education why major changes must occur immediately and appreciate this open process. Town hall participants reflect Utahns pride of well managed state, and desirous of tax policies that protect economic development, public education and a great lifestyle.

Thus, the ensuing struggle will follow the “Utah Way,” with a new tax structure as the final result, and the only casualties missed summer evenings.

Webb: It’s clear that comprehensive tax reform is enormously difficult. The reality is that when the public and interest groups get used to a complex system, whether it is taxation, health care or anything else, it’s incredibly difficult to change, even if the changes make sense.

Good tax policy doesn’t pick winners and losers and incorporates a broad base and low rates. And as the economic system changes, tax policy must change with it. Our state tax system today does pick winners and losers, and the sales tax base is narrowing rapidly as the economy changes.

Almost everyone agrees with the principles of good tax policy. But the on-the-ground application is very difficult because it means some businesses that haven’t had to collect sales taxes in the past will have to do so in the future. And these businesses and their associations are very powerful and hire lots of lobbyists.

It is important for Utahns to remember that, despite what opponents say, tax reform will not mean an overall tax increase. In fact, it will most likely mean a tax cut. You might, for example, have to pay sales tax at the barber shop, but the rate will be reduced enough on all other purchases that you will enjoy a tax cut.

I hope the governor and legislators will hang tough in the face of strong opposition and pass meaningful tax reform. The future of the state depends on it.

Democratic presidential candidates squared off in their first debate last week. This is on the heels of a major shakeup within the Utah Democratic Party. How will this impact Utah Democrats?

Pignanelli: The dumping of an incumbent progressive Utah chair for a new moderate leader reflects the ideological and generational conflict raging within the national Democratic Party. As evidenced in the debates, many candidates are pushing hard to the left. Utah Democrats need to avoid this pull away from the center for the fight next year.

Webb: What happens in national Democratic politics is usually not good news for Utah Democrats. It’s clear the Democrats are going to nominate a leftist candidate favoring bigger government, higher taxes, more regulations, open borders and abortion on demand. The Democratic nominee will chase esoteric social justice goals, practice identity politics and victimhood, and promise lots of free goodies.

That makes life difficult for Utah Democrats and its candidates like Congressman Ben McAdams.

Why is the inland port the subject of another lawsuit and a major issue in Salt Lake City municipal elections?

Pignanelli: Despite promised opportunities, the inland port represents controversies to many city residents. Therefore, most candidates are articulating positions of deep concern and will be pushed to maintain opposition. This battle could be long.

Webb: I am confident that the inland port proponents are fully committed to building the world’s most sustainable and environmentally friendly large industrial complex. The mayor’s office and other port skeptics will be far more successful in ensuring the project is done right by engaging in the process instead of filing lawsuits and disrupting meetings.