Poll: 53% of Utahns pick higher taxes instead of budget cuts

Published: Thursday, Jan. 21 2010 12:48 a.m. MST

Utahns are willing to pay higher taxes to avoid additional state budget cuts, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

The results come as GOP Gov. Gary Herbert is calling for lawmakers to balance an estimated $700 million budget shortfall without raising taxes, and as lawmakers are predicting another round of severe cuts.

But 53 percent of Utahns surveyed by Dan Jones & Associates said they would rather pay more in taxes than see education, human services and other state programs cut for a second year in a row.

And they supported increases in a range of taxes — on income, tobacco and alcohol as well as on coal, oil and natural gas. There were only two hikes a majority of poll respondents wouldn't support. The first is on gas. They also don't want to restore the state's share of sales tax on food.

Lawmakers will consider at least some tax increases this session, acknowledged Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. But some taxes are off the table.

"I can guarantee you, we're not going to have any increase in the income tax," he said, or sales taxes. Nor will lawmakers require an increase in locally assessed property taxes.

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, agreed.

"I think it's safe to say we're not going to increase any general tax rates during this session," Garn said.

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara said he still hopes that the budget could be balanced without imposing new taxes.

Still, Clark, who's been a champion of state health care reform, said he would personally support an increase in the tobacco tax rate, but not because of budget issues.

"We considered an increase in the tobacco tax last year and decided to save it," Clark said. "I would vote for this change, but not so much as a tax issue as a health care issue."

Waddoups said Utahns can expect more budget cuts no matter what happens with tax increases. He said those cuts could include closing a college campus, shutting down a prison and eliminating some support services for the state's needy.

The Senate leader said he told the Senate's closed-door GOP caucus Wednesday that "government is the fastest-growing sector of our economy. If business is declining, it's not fair for government to maintain or increase. It just isn't."

Lawmakers spent Wednesday afternoon in budget hearings, looking to cut 4 percent from the current budget year that ends June 30. Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said, agencies can expect to lose another 5 percent in the upcoming budget.

"The tax increase that would be required to bring us up to where we were before are so staggering that the people who are advocating them don't understand where we are," Hillyard said.

Lawmakers are waiting until the final set of revenue projections are completed in late February before finalizing their budget, and before settling on any tax increases.

The governor's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said the choice for lawmakers isn't between devastating budget cuts and tax increases.

"The governor does not believe that level of cuts is necessary moving forward because the economy is starting to rebound," Welling said. And, she said, Herbert does not believe this is the time for a tax increase.

Avoiding tax hikes now, she said, "makes more sense to the governor than further burdening Utahns who may already be struggling and slowing down what economic recovering we're already beginning to see."

Allison Rowland, budget and research director for advocate group Voices for Utah Children, said tax increases can be crafted in a way to protect those most effected by the recession.

"The governor thinks we can face this problem without raising taxes," Rowland said.

"It's important to realize we can raise taxes without hurting the state's lower income residents. The idea that raising taxes slows down economic growth is completely false."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com, araymond@desnews.com

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