Are the Republican leaders of the Utah House just excellent politicians, or are their Senate counterparts just kind of fumbling along?

Once again, House GOP leaders have outmaneuvered state Senate Republicans on a vital issue to voters during this election year — tax reform and tax cuts.

This past week the Deseret Morning News reported that there is a tax compromise in the works: Instead of just switching to a new personal income tax system with a rate of about 5 percent for all Utahns, residents could choose between the current 7 percent rate system with a bunch of exemptions or go to the new "fairer, flatter" 5 percent system with only a few deductions.

While there may be some confusion at the start-up of the two-system operation, in the end there would be no "losers," says House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, because individuals and families could pick the system that gives them the best tax advantages.

Caught a bit off-guard (and not the first time in this ongoing tax debate), Senate GOP leaders immediately started talking about the problems with a bifurcated personal income tax system, not discussing any of its merits.

But politically speaking, the House has again roped in its Senate colleagues.

Who can candidly, publicly argue against a "tax reform" movement that gives a $70 million tax cut to all residents and no one has to pay any higher taxes?

Almost always in so-called tax reform efforts, when all the complicated numbers are run, a few taxpayers see a tax shift. And quite naturally, those who may pay a bit more, who lose some long-held tax exemptions, complain.

When those tax shifts also take place in a legislative election year — all 75 House seats are up and 16 of 29 Senate seats are up — well, you get the political picture.

You may recall that during the 2006 Legislature that ended March 1, the 56 House Republicans had voted in caucus to give a $350 million tax cut this year.

GOP senators hemmed and hawed for weeks, then finally took a caucus vote to give a $100 million tax cut.

Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. originally suggested even a smaller tax cut than the GOP senators, but he also kept saying that the state could afford his H3 personal income tax reform and remove the state's portion of the sales tax from unprepared food — which would have cost around the $350 million figure.

In fact, Huntsman and House Republicans ended up on the same side on tax reform and other issues last session, as the senators continued to oppose removing all of the state sales tax from food.

Admittedly, the Senate did pass Huntsman's H3. But the upper body would only agree to cutting 2 percentage points off of the 4.75 percent food sales tax.

The last night of the session, after $70 million had been taken out of the Utah personal income tax receipts next year for a tax cut, the House refused to adopt H3, some members talking the Senate bill to death.

Huntsman quickly said he'd call a special session this spring and force the House to take a vote on income tax "reform."

But then Tax Commission economists discovered a $35 million mistake in the H3 fiscal note — and Huntsman said it all would have to wait until the 2007 Legislature.

But House Republicans wanted the $70 million tax cut to at least be voted into law before they faced voters this fall.

And at the GOP Salt Lake County Convention last Saturday, a number of legislative challengers to incumbents complained loudly that GOP lawmakers were Republicans in name only — how could any true conservative not cut taxes when the Legislature faced a $1 billion surplus this year?

While GOP senators just waited for Huntsman and House leaders to force the "H3" issue, GOP House leaders came up with the "win-win," two-option compromise.

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And Republican senators are, again, put into a political position of killing what seems to be the perfect political solution on personal income tax reform in an election year.

Many House Republicans are smiling. GOP senators are frowning and stumbling to explain their opposition.

And Huntsman is starting to count votes in each house, hoping for a summer special session that will give Utahns a $70 million income tax cut and trim the state's income tax rate on most residents by 2 percentage points.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com