State officials are speaking out against the tax initiatives, saying it is their responsibility to tell the public how government services would be affected if the tax-cutting measures are approved by voters in November.
But leaders of the tax-initiative movement believe that while government officials have the right to take a stand, they should not be taking it while they are on the taxpayers' payroll.
Instead, according to the movement leaders, appearances to protest the tax initiatives by officials like state Tax Commissioner Roger Tew and University of Utah President Chase Peterson should be after working hours.
There is nothing illegal about high-ranking government employees giving speeches against the tax initiatives during the workday, as long as they don't spend state money to do so. Only career service employees are prohibited from engaging in political activities while working. However, Merrill Cook, independent candidate for governor, said that a law extending that prohibition at least to appointed officials might be needed if those government employees keep up their daytime campaign against the tax initiatives.
"I think it has a real chance of getting out of hand," Cook said. "The legal requirement should not be the standard for performance."
Both Cook and Greg Beesley, the leader of the group that got the initiatives on the ballot, argue that it is solely Gov. Norm Bangerter's responsibility to fight the initiatives on behalf of government.
Cook, who entered the race for governor at the urging of tax-initiative supporters, said that although Bangerter has opposed the measures, he is allowing other government officials to do his fighting for him.
Bangerter is expected to hold a press conference soon to detail the tax initiatives' effects on state government. He has also said he will prepare a contingency budget in case the initiatives do pass this November.
The three initiatives would limit property taxes and government growth, roll back tax increases passed by the 1987 Legislature and provide tax credits to the parents of children in private schools.
Just how much money the tax initiatives would slash from state and local budgets is still being calculated to reflect both current property tax rates and recent reductions in state tax rates passed in a special legislative session.
Opponents of the tax initiatives have long been citing a lengthy list of government services that would likely be reduced or eliminated if the measures are approved, emphasizing the impact on education.
Jim Jardine, an attorney who is volunteering his time to Taxpayers For Utah, a group formed to oppose the initiatives, said that government officials have a duty to inform voters of those effects. They also have the right to tell the public how to vote on the tax initiatives.
"Public officials have a fiduciary duty and a First Amendment right to take positions and express their opinions on important public issues," Jardine said, adding that government officials are "the people who theoretically should know best" the effects of the tax initiatives.
Jardine said he considers it no different than when a government official testifies before lawmakers during the Legislature and tells them first the effects of a bill and then their opinion of it.
Tew led the battle against the initiatives until Taxpayers For Utah took over earlier this year. Tew said he readily debated with supporters of the initiatives and, as a result, was often criticized.
He said that he felt it was his responsibility to see that the public was aware of the amount of money the tax initiatives would take from state and local coffers, which was originally estimated by the Tax Commission at $350 million.
"I don't apologize for that," Tew said. "I've taken some personal attacks. If they don't like what the data say, then it's improper campaigning."
Coalition leader Beesley said Tew's job is to report to the governor any adverse effects he sees resulting from the tax initiatives.
"His nose should be totally out of the political ramifications of this," Beesley said. "To have Roger Tew go out and debate, to express a position that makes safe the governor's political position during working hours, is wrong."
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Finlayson said the law gives government officials more discretion to express their opinions because they are accountable to the public, either directly through election, or through political pressure that can be exerted on those who appointed them.
"People can kick them out of office," Finlayson said. "But there is not going to be anything in Utah law to prevent them from making their pitch."