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Opinion: Utahns clearly like their election system

The Beehive State deserves accolades for building something that is a crown jewel while defending untoward critiques with strength and dignity

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Carson Adams, an election clerk for Salt Lake County, loads ballots into an Agilis ballot sorting machine at the Salt Lake County Government Center.

Carson Adams, an election clerk for Salt Lake County, loads ballots into an Agilis ballot sorting machine at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. An initiative to do away with voting by mail in Utah apparently has failed to gain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

While the rest of the world is beleaguered with potential wars, COVID-19 controversies, inflation and haggling politicians, Utah’s Legislature chugs along in relative tranquility. We highlight some of the happenings of the last two weeks — mostly positive — that are significant to all citizens.

The Secure Vote Utah initiative petition effort (that would eliminate the current system of mail-in ballots) has apparently failed. Although most election reform bills this session are technical adjustments, some would address concerns about election integrity and voter fraud. Is there a silver lining in this focus on elections?

Pignanelli: “There are documented voting fraud cases of recent decades involving mail or absentee ballots. They’re stories, they’re dramatic, they are rare.”— Charles Stewart III of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Utah has so many unique advantages — especially our people. I love watching my fellow citizens, with their deep competence and substance, quietly but effectively deal with attacks on our state. The complete but subtle devastation of the initiative petition is a classic example.

After years of hard work, Utah state and local officials created the premier voting system in the country and possibly the planet. We consistently receive accolades for elections that are free from fraud while providing ultimate accessibility. The distribution and collection of ballots in Utah reflects the best of our state. Therefore, unfair and undeserved criticisms are an assault on us.

In typical Utah fashion, critics of our election system received a polite hearing and then were quickly dispatched. The lack of support for the petition and legislation was astounding. The Beehive State deserves accolades for building something that is a crown jewel while defending untoward critiques with strength and dignity.

Webb: Utah has a great election system that is working fine. The silver lining in these reform bills is that close scrutiny only shows how good our system is. Citizens especially like mail-in voting. Alleging voting fraud and demanding major election changes is not a good issue for Republicans. It alienates as many people as it attracts. It makes no sense to follow Donald Trump down this silly rabbit hole with claims of stolen elections.

The Legislature passed, and the governor signed, legislation to reduce the income tax rate to 4.85%. Also included is a provision for Utahns who earn less than $57,414 a year to be eligible for a 15% state match of the federal earned income tax credit. All Social Security income will be tax-free for those making up to $37,000 for individuals, and $62,000 for those filing jointly. Is there more than monetary benefit in this legislation?

Pignanelli: This legislation passed with bipartisan support (unanimous in the Senate) indicating cooperation and collaboration. Lawmakers and the governor deserve credit for this achievement. Recognition of those in need by enhancing the earned income credit and Social Security payments is especially noteworthy.

Also interesting is no reduction in the sales tax. This reflects concern by lawmakers the economy will likely encounter troubles in the years ahead and reducing revenues for the general fund would be a mistake. Furthermore, it may be some years before another tax cut is contemplated as the state navigates troublesome waters. Although contentious at times, the exercise developing these tax reductions demonstrated judgment.

Webb: I’m old enough to recall severe economic downturns during which state and school budgets had to be slashed with subsequent immense pressure to raise taxes. Therefore, as I’ve written previously, I hate to see Utah’s tax base eroded. I prefer low tax rates with a broad tax base. I strongly supported legislative efforts a few years ago to lower the sales tax rate while broadening the base.

That’s why instead of eliminating the food sales tax, I’ve supported giving low-income people a payment amounting to the equivalent, or more, of the food tax (as proposed by Gov. Spencer Cox. Cutting the income tax narrows the tax base the education system depends on.

I understand that Utah competes with some states that don’t have any income tax. But those states assess very high sales or property taxes (or both), or they depend on specialty taxes like, in the case of Nevada, gaming taxes.

Utah’s overall tax system and tax rates are fairly balanced. Let’s remember that in real, proportionate dollars, Utahns today are enjoying the lowest taxes in decades — despite our large families and proportionately more children to educate.

The legislative session is past the halfway point. Are there certain themes that will define the session?

Pignanelli: The 2022 session will be tagged “The Water Session” because a record number of bills dealing with this precious natural resource are being considered. Many will pass and be funded.

Webb: One bill with long-lasting impact on Utah’s transportation system is HB322, putting the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) in charge of large public transit construction projects that use state funds. That takes responsibility away from Utah Transit Authority (UTA), but on the positive side it likely means more funding for big transit projects needed to cope with Utah’s rapid population growth. UTA has done a good job of building and expanding the TRAX and FrontRunner systems, but it has done it so far with little state funding. If lawmakers are going to put hundreds of millions of dollars into public transit, you can’t blame them for wanting control over the projects they fund. UDOT and UTA will work collaboratively to ensure success.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.