The head of the Salt Lake Chamber doesn't like to use the term tax increase.
But Lane Beattie is calling for Utah lawmakers to look at boosting a wide range of taxes next session to make up about half of the state's looming budget shortfall, estimated to reach as high as $850 million.
The list he offered Thursday at a Sutherland Institute forum on state budget cuts included restoring the sales tax on food, raising the motor-fuel tax, imposing severance taxes on coal and temporarily diverting money now set aside for water development. He suggested that some of the increases could be rolled back when the state begins collecting revenue surpluses again.
"It's common sense," Beattie told reporters after his presentation to about 50 lawmakers and others gathered for the forum. "When you're a billion dollars short, it's got to come from somewhere."
Beattie, a Republican, did not rule out the need for further belt tightening. But he emphasized the business community's concerns over continuing to cut education and other areas of the budget that affect the state's ability to attract new jobs.
A former state Senate president, Beattie said he recognizes how hard it is to make "the right cuts at the right time and in the right places." A wrong decision, he said, could cause a "staggering of our economy."
The chamber will release a detailed proposal next month that Beattie promised will be "very dramatic."
Another speaker, former GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, said that while he is not endorsing any tax increase, restoring the sales tax on food is a place to look.
"I don't think the state can stand a general tax increase like I did when I was governor," he said. In 1987, Bangerter proposed the largest-ever state tax increase, most of which went to education. But as governor he also successfully opposed a citizens' initiative to take the sales tax off food, saying the state couldn't afford to lose a stable source of revenue.
Bangerter now heads a commission created by Gov. Gary Herbert to find ways to optimize state revenue.
"This economy isn't going to boomerang back in 30 days. We're in it for the long haul," Bangerter said. "We have to look at everything."
Lawmakers are already talking about raising cigarette and other so-called targeted taxes by $100 million. There's little interest among the majority GOP leaders, however, in going further. And Herbert has pledged his first budget will contain no tax hikes.
House Budget Chairman Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, who moderated the forum, said additional budget cuts are "extremely likely" for most, if not all, areas of the budget.
"The reality is, with the available funds that we have, real programs with real needs are being cut," he said. Even so, he said there's not support for major tax increases at this point.
Several audience members suggested Utahns would be willing to pay more in taxes to prevent drastic budget cuts.
Dee Rowland, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, wondered if Bigelow wasn't underestimating the public's willingness to accept tax increases.
"I do think the people of Utah would understand," she said.
But Bigelow said the push for higher taxes has to come from the public. When the public decides cuts to programs like education are too deep, he said, "they'll let us know and it will become very apparent."
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