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Is it time to talk gas tax? Legislature kicks off Monday

Published: Sunday, Jan. 26 2014 12:05 a.m. MST

When the 2014 Legislature begins meeting Monday, lawmakers will face a pressure familiar to Utah families, trying to make sure there's enough money to keep up with expenses.

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SALT LAKE CITY — When the 2014 Legislature begins meeting Monday, lawmakers will face a pressure familiar to Utah families: trying to make sure there's enough money to keep up with expenses.

While revenues are up, there's increasing pressure to look at raising taxes for transportation and education. But legislative leaders say there's little chance tax hikes will be approved during the 45-day session.

This is an election year for most lawmakers, and other issues are expected to surface, particularly dealing with religious freedom and potential antidiscrimination legislation.

The Legislature will address other key issues, including the Wasatch Front's poor air quality, the state's liquor laws, early education, college readiness and intergenerational poverty, each an issue of importance for Utah's families.

Gov. Gary Herbert, whose $13.3 billion budget does not contain any tax increases, expressed frustration over the lack of urgency to deal with transportation funding this session.

"I understand politics, and usually gasoline taxes have historically been done in an off-election year. But we need to have the discussion as far as how we're going to pay for the billions of dollars of needs in infrastructure and roads going forward," Herbert said.

Even the governor acknowledged that it may take time to come up with either a way of tying the first increase in the 24.5-cent gas tax since 1997 to inflation or an alternative fee for drivers.

"I think between now and the next session, there will probably be a serious attempt to modify the gas tax or find a funding mechanism," Herbert said. "I'm anxious to hear any and all proposals."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said there could be some action this session on how the gas tax is distributed among government entities, but any change would have to be revenue-neutral.

"It's really difficult to see any increase implemented," Lockhart said. The speaker said she expects most of the discussion about transportation funding to take place during the legislative interim session.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he doesn't expect any proposal to increase the gas tax to even come up for a vote, let alone pass this session.

"It can wait a year. It's just every year you decide not to do it, the harder it gets. The cure becomes more extreme and more difficult," Niederhauser said, as revenues decline because more vehicles on the road use less or even no gas.

But the Senate leader acknowledged it's a tough decision for lawmakers seeking re-election this year. "I don't think anybody wants to be pegged with increasing revenues," he said.

Money for schools?

Democrats are going to try again this session to bring in more income tax dollars for schools. Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Holladay, is looking at limiting income tax exemptions for individuals and their dependents.

"Utah voters support tax increases to pay for education," House Minority Whip Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, said.

Only 15 percent of Utah voters polled recently for Weber State University and the Exoro Group said they would not be willing to give up an income tax exemption to increase school funding.

Niederhauser said any attempt to collect more income taxes faces an uphill battle. He said that's the reason Jones is looking at reducing exemptions rather than simply raising tax rates, "which would be dead on arrival."

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