No proposed fixes and no public comment at first tax reform task force meeting

No proposed fixes and no public comment at first tax reform task force meeting

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SALT LAKE CITY — There were no proposed fixes to the state's tax structure discussed during the first meeting Thursday of a new legislative task force formed after lawmakers backed away last session from imposing sales taxes on services.

And there won't be until the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force has held eight town hall meetings throughout the state, starting in Brigham City on June 25 and ending in Utah County on July 30.

"We want public input. This is just not our problem. It's everybody's problem," Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the task force's Senate co-chairman, told the more than 100 people gathered at the Capitol for the late-afternoon meeting.

Hillyard expressed concern that last session's legislation adding sales taxes to a wide range of services while cutting sales and income tax rates may dominate the town hall meetings.

Unless participants in the town hall meetings bring new ideas to the table, "that's all we'll talk about," he said. "We don't want to get into that. We'll listen to the suggestions, but we're not going to debate."

The House co-chairman, House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said the bill that was scrapped by legislative leaders amid protests from the public shouldn't be the focus going forward.

"There's some consternation that HB441, the taxation of services, is where we're starting," Gibson said. "That is not where we're starting. We'll actually look at all ideas. There will be many ideas that are discussed."

He said after the meeting the task force will not meet to discuss proposed tax changes until after the town hall meetings are completed. But Gibson said there still could be a proposal in time for a special legislative session.

"I don't think we're going to be held to any timeline," he told a reporter, adding that once the task force meetings start up again in August, they will likely continue at least through September, when a final progress report is due.

"If the time frame allows, there might be a special session," Gibson said.

Groups as diverse as the conservative Utah Eagle Forum and the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah have called for tax reform to be dealt with in the regular, 45-day legislative session set to start in late January.

During their nearly hour-long meeting, the legislators and tax experts on the task force approved a statement of goals following presentations on the impact of lagging growth in sales tax revenues as consumer spending shifts from goods to services.

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Their purpose, the statement said, is to "assure sustainable, adequate and flexible funding to meet the needs of Utah citizens, including education, public safety, social services, transportation, recreation and environmental quality."

Also approved was a schedule for the town hall meetings that includes stops in Salt Lake County on June 27, in Richfield on June 28, in St. George on June 29, in Davis or Weber counties on July 8, in Roosevelt July 9, and in Moab on July 20.

Specific times and locations for the meetings have yet to be determined.

What the task force didn't do Thursday was hear from the public.

"This is a kickoff meeting to discuss the process of the task force," Gibson said in announcing at the start of the meeting there would be no public comment. "This isn't a meeting where any specific policy options will be discussed."

That decision frustrated several groups who'd hoped for a chance to address to the task force, including the Alliance for a Better Utah and the recently formed Utah Legislative Watch.

"This is something that’s going to affect everyone in the state," said Lauren Simpson, Alliance for a Better Utah policy director. "So it's critical that the public has an opportunity to weigh in not just on the policy, but the process itself."

Utah Legislative Watch's Dalame England said she was disappointed there was no public input taken. The group had issued a news release describing "out of control government growth" as the real problem facing the state.

"We can fix in 10 minutes the way we collect taxes," England said, possibly by raising the sales tax rate and dropping income taxes, or by restoring the full sales tax on food while giving the poor an income tax credit.

The new group is also opposed to tackling tax reform in a special session.

"That's something that's pretty noteworthy," Simpson said of the agreement among such political divergent groups that tax reform needs to wait for a general legislative session.

"We might have different policy priorities," Simpson said. "But where we’re aligned is if we’re going to do something as far-reaching and all-encompassing as tax reform, we have to take our time."

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