SALT LAKE CITY — Kicking off the first day of the 2020 Utah legislative session Monday, House Speaker Brad Wilson’s opening speech addressed what he called the “elephant or, to be bipartisan, the donkey in the room,” the public backlash against tax reform.
Last week, legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert announced they would repeal the tax reform package passed in a December special session. Monday, HB185 was introduced to repeal the tax reform package reducing state income taxes while raising sales taxes on food, gas and some services.
Wilson, R-Kaysville, warned about the dangers of lawmaking by referendum.
”Legislation by referendum, while part of the political process, can be divisive and at many times be short of facts,” he said. “It has proven ruinous for many states that have turned down that path, turned away from the basic principles of a Democratic Republic.”
Wilson also urged lawmakers to find new ways to both listen to constituents and explain complex issues, noting they are a part of the legislative process.
”Our neighbors elected us to immerse ourselves in the details of each policy, weigh the various interests, drawbacks and benefits, this is a significant amount of trust that has been placed on us,” Wilson said. “But on many complex issues, our constituents are an essential part of that process. They play an important role in shaping the policy decisions that we make, and their voice is important. We must find new ways of both listening and explaining to our constituents the issues that we face and the decisions we make to address them.”
This session, Wilson urged lawmakers to “commit to applying the considerable resources we have available to us to serve the voice of the people.”
”As I’ve said before, we are not foes on the political battlefield,” Wilson said. “We are all Utahns committed to getting public policy right,” he said.
We are not foes on the political battlefield. We are all Utahns committed to getting public policy right.
–House Speaker Brad Wilson
The rest of Wilson’s speech revolved around Utah’s evolving economy, rapidly growing population, and that lawmakers will “face significant issues, and how we address these issues will significantly impact the direction of our state for years and decades to come.”
Wilson urged lawmakers to remember three core Utah values throughout the session to ensure state success, including prioritizing ways to keep the state’s economy thriving, policy to help reduce Utah’s suicide rates, and remembering how faith has long been a “bedrock element” of Utah and is a “key ingredient of the success of our blessed state.”
“May our path forward be paved by industry, may our actions be defined by compassion, and may our path be illuminated by faith in God and faith in one another,” Wilson said, concluding his speech. ”Now let’s get to work.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, focused on the Legislature’s role in making the state’s economy strong, but did not directly address tax reform in his opening speech. Both Adams and Wilson have said work on a new plan to rebalance state revenues will wait until the 2021 Legislature.
“Utah leads the nation in tax and regulatory policy and this Legislature sets that policy. So having the best economy in the nation is a result of your great work,” Adams told senators, acknowledging that they are called upon to make tough decisions and are able to rebound when things don’t work.
“We do hard things and Utah does well,” the Senate leader said. “Nothing good just happens.”
The repeal bill, announced last Thursday by Wilson, Adams and Herbert, comes as the number of voter signatures verified on the referendum hit 105,444 as of Monday morning, closing in on the nearly 116,000 needed from around the state to qualify for the November ballot.
Fred Cox, the former Republican state lawmaker who lead the grassroots effort against the tax reform package, stopped short of saying the repeal bill would end the referendum.
“Good question,” Cox said. “We still want the signatures to be counted.”
The repeal bill requires the support of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, but legislative leaders said that wouldn’t be a problem. The special session tax reform package was vulnerable to a referendum because it fell short of a two-thirds majority even though Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
One of the Republican lawmakers who voted against tax reform, Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, said with the referendum, repeal is now the only option.
“At this point, no matter what you think about the tax reform, we have no choice. We have to budget. So we can’t wait until November to do that so it has to be repealed,” Quinn said, because that’s when referendum would be on the ballot for voters to decide whether to retain or repeal tax reform.
Lawmakers must put together a budget over the 45-day session for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The repeal bill, expected to be voted on Tuesday, would add back $160 million in revenues that had been set aside for an overall tax cut.