A day after Utah business leaders proposed a special legislative session to authorize a $2.1 billion sales-tax hike for transit, state senators nixed the idea.
The Senate Republican caucus on Wednesday took a position against a special session, saying that lawmakers should wait until the general session of the Legislature to consider a possible tax hike for transit. House leaders who did not call for a position vote said talk about a special legislative session was premature.
"To make these decisions in a single-day special session is just too complex," said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem. "We would not support that."
The Senate GOP's position was met with cheers from tax watchdog groups. Raising the sales-tax rate, even in only four counties, would give Utah the third-highest tax burden in the nation, according to Mike Jerman with the Utah Taxpayers Association.
But the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce said waiting for a general session to debate a tax increase for transit would cost the public both time and money. The chamber still plans to continue lobbying for a special session this July to give counties authorization to put a sales-tax hike on the ballot.
"Information is awfully powerful, and there's a reason why the business community is moving forward with this," said Lane Beattie, the chamber's president. "Lawmakers just haven't seen that, and we haven't had a chance to lay that out in front of them. We just need to make sure the case is understood. Once it is, we're confident that they will make the right decision."
The chamber and a business-led coalition called the 2015 Transportation Alliance released a study Tuesday that said not investing in new transportation projects now would mean a tripling of congestion by 2030. The chamber then called on voters in four Wasatch Front counties to approve a sales-tax hike to raise the tax amount for transportation to 1 percent.
A majority of the proposed sales-tax increase would go to build four new TRAX lines in Salt Lake County, extend commuter rail to Utah County and build bus rapid-transit lines in Weber, Salt Lake, Davis and Utah Counties. A smaller percentage would go to fund roadway improvements.
The Utah Transit Authority said Wednesday that it supports the chamber's efforts to find various means of funding for transit expansion. The transit agency, however, will continue to push Salt Lake County to authorize a ballot question asking for a property-tax hike this November to build the four TRAX extensions.
"The mechanism for funding the four new TRAX lines and other transportation objectives is rapidly developing and evolving," said UTA spokesman Justin Jones, in a written statement. "UTA will continue to pursue a general-obligation bond for property taxes in Salt Lake County."
The property-tax hike would cost homeowners about $95 a year on a $180,000 house. The money would go to fund a $895 million bond by Salt Lake County. Council members have said in past interviews that they do not support bonding for the total amount. In general, a sales-tax increase is a more favorable method to expand TRAX, council members have said.The County Council is expected to debate UTA's property-tax proposal during a meeting Tuesday. For more information about the Salt Lake Chamber's sales-tax proposal, log on to www.2015Utah.com.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche and Bob Bernick Jr.