SALT LAKE CITY — Fred Cox, the former Republican state lawmaker who declared Tuesday more than enough voter signatures had been turned in statewide by the 5 p.m. deadline to put a referendum on tax reform on the November ballot, said he never doubted it could be done.
“I knew that we would be successful. All we needed to have was people that would have a little faith, and they’ve shown that,” Cox told the Deseret News after announcing at least 152,000 Utahns signed referendum petitions seeking a vote to retain or repeal the recently passed legislation.
He said lawmakers and others who believed the all-volunteer effort could not succeed “had no idea.”
Opponents of the tax reform package that reduces income taxes while raising sales tax on food, gas and some services that was passed last month in a special session of the Utah Legislature needed nearly 116,000 voter signatures divided proportionately among at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties.
Cox said the effort exceeded the number of names needed in at least 18 counties.
Throughout the day, he said, Utahns lined up at Harmons and Associated Foods supermarkets to add their names to the referendum petitions that still have to be verified within the next two weeks by county clerks. Cox said the support of the grocery chains was critical, particularly in Salt Lake County.
“We had the volunteers. But we were using libraries, we were using whatever, and people were not finding us. So that was huge,” Cox said. “People came to sign ... we didn’t have to convince them to sign, but to give them an opportunity.”
Harmons Chairman Bob Harmon became emotional during the news conference at the Salt Lake County Government Center where the announcement was made. The grocery chain’s involvement was criticized by supporters of tax reform, including Gov. Gary Herbert.
“As far as a risk, this was a risk worth taking,” Harmon said. “We got behind this thing because we felt there could be something better. And we felt, more importantly, that all of our voices should be heard. It wasn’t a very difficult decision for us to make. We care about all the communities that we serve,” including the less fortunate.
Gina Cornia, director of Utahns Against Hunger and one of the referendum’s sponsors, said restoring the full 4.85% state sales tax on food from the current 1.75% was what drove the opposition to the bill passed in a special session of the Utah Legislature last month, despite the inclusion of an up to $125 per person grocery tax credit.
“That has been our beef from day one,” Cornia said. “That it will have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable families, even with the grocery credit. To their credit, they thought about that. But it’s still the wrong way to go because it leave too many people out.”
The referendum also got a boost from support by Republican gubernatorial candidates, including businessman Jeff Burningham, who said in a statement, “This is Utah grassroots at its best,” and that the efforts send a strong message to lawmakers and the governor, even if it ends up not getting on the ballot.
State Elections Director Justin Lee said county clerks have until Feb. 4 to verify voter signatures, including the thousands turned in Tuesday. A total of 58,437 had been verified as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to the state Elections Office.
“This is an incredible amount of signatures that they’ve turned in, in a very short time period. I’m surprised, absolutely, just based on the history of what we’ve seen from signature campaigns in the past,” Lee said. The last successful referendum in the state repealed school vouchers in 2007.
Salt Lake County elections officials reported receiving 2,315 referendum packets Tuesday.
Once a voter’s signature is verified and it is posted online as required by law, Lee said that voter has 45 days to remove their name from the referendum. The Count My Vote initiative ended up not qualifying for the 2018 ballot as a result of an organized effort to get voters to remove their signatures.
A similar effort against the tax reform referendum has not surfaced, but Lee said his office has fielded some questions about the process. Cox said because of the volume of signatures collected, it would be difficult to successfully target enough counties to disqualify the referendum.
The state has until mid-March to determine whether the referendum qualifies for the ballot. If it does, the tax reform law passed after a monthslong effort to find a fix to lagging growth in sales tax revenues that fund much of the state budget would be put on hold until voters have the opportunity to decide its fate.
Volunteers worked right up until the deadline. Earlier at the county government center, Claudine Peterson, of West Valley City, tried to stay warm as she stood outside for several hours to collect referendum petition packets from other volunteers, and then cart the documents into the county clerk’s office for verification.
Peterson, a recent retiree, said she “lost count” of how many voter signatures she collected, estimating she’d already turned in as many as 30 petition packets, each with room for 49 voters to sign.
“The main reason I did it is because it’s not whether you’re for or against this particular bill, it’s because I would like to see it get on the ballot” so voters can decide whether to retain or repeal the tax reform package, Peterson said. “I think that’s very important.”
David Hollins, the husband of Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, brought four petition packets to the clerk’s office himself that he was able to get filled with signatures at a Martin Luther King Jr. event at East High School on Monday’s holiday.
“This should have never gotten through the Utah State Legislature. It should have been a big ‘no’ on it because this is going to hurt,” Hollins said, adding that the tax breaks for low- and moderate-income Utahns in the tax reform package wouldn’t be needed if taxes weren’t going up.
The legislation, opposed by Democrats in the Legislature and enough Republicans that it fell short of the two-thirds majorities needed in the House and Senate to prevent a referendum, adds sales taxes to wholesale gas prices as well as some services in addition to raising the sales tax on food.
Deborah Acocks, of Riverton, was among the volunteers who pulled up outside the government offices midday to drop off two referendum petition packets. She said she’d gathered about a dozen signatures — “not enough” — on her packet, and her friend’s packet had seven, but they still wanted to make sure those names were counted.
“It’s our right to stand up for what we believe,” Acocks said, describing what supporters say will be an overall tax cut of $160 million for Utahns as “taking from one thing and giving to another instead of coming up with a better solution.”