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2 referendums submitted to reverse Utah tax reform

Citizens’ groups have until Jan. 21 to gather nearly 116,000 voter signatures

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is illuminated as the Legislature meets in a special session to consider tax reform on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two different groups are running citizens’ referendums to overturn the massive tax reform bill passed last week in a special session of the Utah Legislature that cuts income taxes while raising sales taxes on food, gas and some services.

“There’s too many things they’re doing that are just wrong,” said former Utah lawmaker Fred Cox, who filed a referendum Monday with the Utah Elections Office that he hopes can begin circulating quickly to collect the nearly 1116,000 voter signatures needed by Jan. 21 to qualify for the November ballot.

Cox, a Republican, said the focus of the “Tax Restructuring Revisions Referendum” will be on the portions of the more than 200-page bill that increases the 1.75% state sales tax on food to the full 4.85% rate and adds sales tax to the wholesale price of gasoline, on top of the state’s nearly 31-cents-a-gallon gas tax.

A private Facebook group set up by Cox to round up volunteers to gather voter signatures already had nearly 7,500 members by early Tuesday evening. He said the group is committed to collecting signatures without hiring professionals.

Steve Maxfield, chairman of a second group, The People’s Right, submitted a separate referendum to the elections office just before the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline, saying Cox’s plan to rely on volunteer signature gatherers is “going to fail. They’re naive.”

He said his group intends to solicit funds to pay for professional signature gathering, but acknowledged he didn’t have any donors lined up to help cover the cost, estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Maxfield, however, suggested the money is out there.

“I don’t know, ‘Available Jones’ had big dinners, million-dollar galas. We’re open for business. We have a (political issues committee) set up,” he said, making a reference to Gov. Gary Herbert using the name of a cartoon character available for a price to describe himself in a private meeting with lobbyists in 2016.

But, Maxfield said, “we have not identified any deep pockets.”

Cox said he’s “very optimistic” his referendum can get on the ballot because of the volunteers coming forward.

“We have the numbers,” Cox said. “It’s been a long time since people have had the support of enough volunteers to do this. We do. We have individuals that are very liberal and very conservative and everywhere in between working together.”

Because the tax reform bill approved last Thursday and expected to be signed by the governor failed to receive two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, it won’t take effect for 60 days and is subject to a citizens’ referendum.

Getting a referendum on the 2020 ballot requires at least 115,869 voter signatures, a number based on the active voters in the state as of Jan. 1, 2019, and specific signature thresholds also must be met in at least 15 out of Utah’s 29 counties.

State election officials have until March 17 to verify the signatures, and if enough are certified the tax reform legislation would be put on hold until voters decide whether to approve or reject it in the November election.

By then, lawmakers would have completed a budget for the spending year that begins July 1, 2020. The income tax cuts in the tax reform legislation cover all 2019 earnings, while the sales tax increases are set to take effect April 1. Additionally, low-to-moderate income Utahns will receive one-time “pre-bate” checks from the state next year.

The last successful referendum in the state repealed a school voucher law in 2007. The chief backer of that effort, the Utah Education Association, is staying out of a tax reform referendum because lawmakers have yet to take up key issues related to school funding.

Other organizations are getting behind Cox’s referendum.

“There’s quite a groundswell of support,” Brett Hastings, a founder and director of Utah Legislative Watch, said. “We’ve referred many of the people who contacted us seeking to volunteer to that group. We’re throwing our support behind that group.”

The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah plans to send out information to its members about how to volunteer for Cox’s referendum, the alliance’s executive director, Chase Thomas, said. But Thomas said the alliance will stop short of endorsing the referendum.

“There are different levels of support and I would consider ours to be support lite,” he said, adding that some of the organizations involved “seem to be just pretty anti-tax in general, where we are in the position that we need to have responsible taxing. We understand taxing raises funds for all those services we want and need.”