Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and top legislative leaders are considering possible ways to give Utahns relief at the gas pump in the face of record motor fuel prices.

One option, pausing the state’s state’s 31.9 cents per gallon fuel tax, has been discussed but it’s complicated given constitutional restrictions on shifting funds within the state budget and that gas tax pays the salaries of Utah Department of Transportation employees.

“It’s a little more complicated in Utah than other places because the money that we have to spend as government is not is not fungible. We can’t move it around like other states can,” Cox said Thursday while addressing reporters’ questions during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah.

“If I were to unilaterally remove the gas tax, I would also have to lay off all of UDOT’s employees, which is not great. That’s a really bad idea,” he said.

Asked if Utah would contemplate a fuel tax refund that is under consideration in other states, Cox said it was an “interesting proposal. Like I said, everything’s on the table.”

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During its recently completed general session, Utah lawmakers approved nearly $200 million in tax cuts, most of it individual and corporate income taxes. The Cox administration also proposed a food tax rebate but it was not adopted. Legislators, however, established an earned income tax credit that will result in a $16.1 million reduction in taxes.  

“I don’t know if that’s something (gas tax refund) the Legislature would be open to, but it’s certainly worth discussing,” he said.

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As motor fuel prices ticked up to $4.35 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline and nearly $5 for diesel, the governor acknowledged that high prices coupled with rising food and housing costs will mean difficult choices for Utahns.

“I believe that the pressure on families right now is as high as it’s probably ever been, so, so deeply concerning,” Cox said.

At a minimum, people will “have to change the way they do things. That may mean that family vacation that people were planning on taking may not happen or will have to be shortened or kept closer to home,” he said.

“In the worst-case scenarios, it means that that families will have to choose between a tank of gas and food at the store and that just can’t be a choice.”

As a practical matter, Cox cannot unilaterally move money in the state budget or extend tax rebates. Those would be legislative decisions, meaning lawmakers would have to be called into session to address any changes.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, in a statement, said Senate leaders are reviewing options to continue providing financial relief for Utahns.

“We need long-term, not temporary, solutions. I agree with the letter Gov. Cox sent to President Biden urging him to eliminate any barriers to increasing U.S. domestic oil and gas production. Utah remains committed to being deliberate and evaluating the short and long-term impacts when making decision,” Adams said.

“Our country should not rely on Russia for energy when America can produce it. We have been energy independent before and have seen the benefits. Utah and the U.S. have ample natural resources, and we need the ability to share energy with Americans and our allies.”

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House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement that state leaders are engaged in ongoing conversations how to address the dramatic rise in fuel prices.

“Utah’s budget is very nuanced and remaining fiscally responsible will always be a top priority. We are always looking for ways to reduce the tax burden and keep the cost of living low for all Utahns,” he said.

Cox said other topics under discussion include what can be done to increase production and “work with suppliers to lower the rates here,” he said.

“We’re putting together a meeting to talk with those with the petroleum industry here in the state of Utah. We hope to do that sometime in the next week. And we want to look at every point along the process and what that means,” he said.

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