Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Will a new Utah bill protect you against hidden tax hikes?

The tug of war between people power and a republican form of government is messy, and that’s OK

SHARE Opinion: Will a new Utah bill protect you against hidden tax hikes?
Tax reform referendum organizers hold a press conference in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2020, to talk about the 152,000 signatures that have been turned in to county clerks.

Surrounded by backers of the Utah tax reform referendum, Bob Harmon, chairman of Harmons grocery store chain, right, hugs Fred Cox, referendum organizer, during a press conference at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2020, where organizers talked about the 152,000 signatures that have been turned in to county clerks across the state.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

While they may not agree with this observation, it’s clear that both sides of a bill that would make it harder to pass certain citizen initiatives in Utah share one trait — a distrust of voters.

People can be so unpredictable when it comes to ballots.

If it passes, HB284 would require a 60% supermajority to pass any future statewide voter initiative that raises taxes, period.

It probably wouldn’t cover measures like the one lawmakers themselves put on ballots a few years ago, which would have raised gas taxes in a complicated scheme to increase education spending. That one failed, anyway, by a large margin.

But the unstated premise behind the bill is a worry that voters might be persuaded to approve such a thing, someday, perhaps unwittingly. 

The sponsor, Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville, told me special interest groups might launch clever marketing campaigns that hide tax hikes.

After all, back in 2018, voters approved Proposition 3, which called for a sales tax increase of 0.15% to expand Medicaid. Kyle said that isn’t the reason he’s sponsoring this bill, nor is he trying to make it harder to pass initiatives.

“A lot of people are dealing with what they feel are high taxes and inflation,” he said. “I’m trying to make it so people will definitely know if a measure would raise taxes.”

But those on the other side, who spoke out at a committee hearing on HB284 this week, seem just as worried that those same voters might decide to limit their own freedoms this fall by voting in favor of the 60% threshold. 

HB284 would require a constitutional amendment, and that requires a vote of the people.

This is not an unreasonable worry, either. 

Back in 1998, Utah voters amended the state constitution to require an even higher bar  — a two-thirds majority — to pass any initiative that concerns the hunting or controlling of wildlife. In other words, voters weren’t sure they could trust their future selves.

None of this is new. It is the latest skirmish in a battle that has smoldered from time to time since the turn of the 20th century, when Utah voters first amended the state constitution to allow citizens to write or repeal state law through initiatives and referenda.

As I wrote the last time this flared, somewhere in the realms beyond mortality, Sherman S. Smith must be smiling, perhaps maniacally.  

Smith was a Utah legislator and a populist. Those types could win elections back then. Somehow, in 1900 he convinced enough lawmakers to support citizen lawmaking that they put it on the ballot that year, where Utahns overwhelmingly supported it.

Thus, Utah became the second state in the union to adopt this form of direct democracy as a check on lawmakers, and lawmakers have been regretting it ever since. It took them 16 years to write a law defining how it would work, and it took several decades more before one finally passed.

Kyle explains the concerns this way. Most bills that go through the Legislature go through committee hearings. They get amended. There are public hearings. The rough edges are chipped away and they emerge, if they emerge at all, as more reasonable and thoughtful measures than they were at the start.

That’s true almost always, except when they occasionally suspend those rules.

Citizen initiatives, on the other hand, get an up-or-down vote by the people. While state law requires several public hearings, the ballot initiatives are not amended. Paid signature gatherers tend to persuade people to sign petitions that are used to get measures on the ballot. And while a bill is circulating this year to require people to read and understand petitions before signing, it’s unclear how practical that is.

Kyle said 60% is not an unattainable threshold. He said he wouldn’t mind if the Legislature itself were held to that requirement for tax bills. 

Opponents said it would make an already difficult initiative process almost impossible.

Both sides seem to be ignoring the strange contradictions that democracy tends to offer. The people of Utah elect conservative representatives to make laws. Then they organize petition drives to change those laws, only to subsequently elect more representatives of the same political persuasion.

My take? Utah has a good balance between republican government and people power. In recent years, we have seen popular uprisings force lawmakers to repeal bills, such as with an ill-fated tax reform effort.

But we all know that ultimate power rests with the elected folks, who often reject or modify what the people have done through initiatives. That’s what happened to that Medicaid expansion law and several other measures in recent years. The Legislature gets the last word.

It’s a messy and uneasy process. Nothing wrong with that.