SALT LAKE CITY — A little more than 11,000 verified signatures have been collected for a tax reform revisions referendum, according to numbers released by the Utah Lt. Governor’s Office Friday. That’s well shy of the nearly 116,000 signatures needed by Jan. 21.
However, those seeking to put Utah’s recent tax reform bill on the ballot also gained a big supporter Thursday. Bob Harmon, chairman of Harmons, announced his support for the referendum. He also said he will make the referendum available for customers to sign at all Harmons grocery stores starting Saturday and running until 3 p.m. on Jan. 21 — the deadline for signatures to be collected. Harmons has 19 locations across the Wasatch Front and in Washington County.
Harmon said he doesn’t support the state’s recently passed plan, which includes increasing the state’s food tax from 1.75% to 4.85%.
“Food is essential and should be affordable. Increasing the tax on food hurts everyone, but especially those in our community who are already struggling. As a company, we do not believe groceries should be taxed,” Harmon said, reading off a statement. “We feel strongly that Utahns should have an opportunity to vote on the issue before the tax goes into effect."
Harmon said it's not the first time the company has weighed in on an issue that leadership feels like it needs to stand behind, such as taxation or regulation. He insisted the decision to come out in support of the referendum was in no way political or because higher taxes may dissuade shoppers from buying more.
"In this case, we feel like the community has the right to weigh in on this particular issue where it is specifically directed, really, probably, to harm the most underprivileged or those who really can't afford as much economically," he added in an interview with KSL NewsRadio. "And food is especially such a vital part of all of us. We all eat. That's just not a fair way to actually increase tax (base)."
His statement came after the Utah Lt. Governor’s Office, which oversees elections in the state, announced that the referendum has received 8,126 total verified signatures that day. On Thursday alone, another 3,002 signatures were verified. That brought the total up to 11,128 by Friday morning.
It needs 115,869 signatures, with at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties having signatures exceeding the needed threshold in that county. So far, it has received at least one signature in 28 of 29 counties and two counties — Emery and Kane counties — have reached its threshold, according to the data.
Anyone who signs on a petition for a referendum must have a valid state license and be an active registered voter in the state.
The referendum itself was filed on Dec. 16 by former state representative Fred Cox, of West Valley City, and four others. It seeks to pause SB2001, which passed through Utah’s House and Senate on Dec. 12. The bill includes an income tax cut but adds more sales tax on items like food, gas and other services. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill on Dec. 18, but it can’t go into effect until February at the earliest.
Herbert has touted the bill, which he said in December will lead to taxes going down for 86% of Utahns in 2020 and provide new tax credits for families of four earning up to $75,000 annually.
The Utah Governor's Office issued a statement Thursday in response to Harmons. The statement read: “We are disappointed in Harmons actions to allow signature gathering to repeal the recently-enacted tax modernization package at their stores. As a corporate citizen in the state, they have a right to engage in the political process, but they also have the responsibility to do so in a way that elevates the public’s discourse and is based on facts and not emotion.
"Harmons has not contacted the governor to express their concerns. If they took the time to meet with the governor and/or legislative leadership, they would understand both the need for tax reform, and the viability of the policy enacted by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. The consequences of repealing the tax bill would severely impact the employees of Harmon’s as well as their low and middle-income customers. We urge them to rethink their ill-advised decision.
"Our office would hope that everyone studying this issue would look at the entire tax reform proposal and not just one aspect of it. Taken as a whole, 85% of all Utahns are better off under the new tax system than they are under the current one. It’s worth noting that a majority of those who benefit from the new tax law are low income.”
Utah Policy released a poll on Dec. 30 that found 68% of Utah respondents either somewhat or strongly opposed the bill. Only 5% of respondents strongly favored it.
Should the referendum receive enough verified signatures by Jan. 21, the bill would be put on hold and Utahns would vote on it in November before it could go into law.
Meanwhile, officials at Associated Retail Operations, which is comprised of Macey’s, Dan’s, Lin’s, Fresh Market and Dick’s Market, said in a statement Friday it doesn't have an official statement on the tax reform bill or referendum. That said, they would also allow residents to collect referendum signatures at their stores if residents desired.
"We feel citizens, if they want, can have their voices heard on this matter and that is why, if asked, we’re allowing the collection of signatures in our stores," the statement read.
Contributing: Lindsay Aerts, KSL NewsRadio; Lisa Riley Roche, Deseret News