Legislative leaders told county officials gathered here Thursday they can expect some kind of property tax limits to come out of the next session of the Utah Legislature.
But the lawmakers were careful to say no one yet knows what form tax- limiting legislation will take, and they pledged to work with county officials to make certain any new tax limits meet local government revenue needs.Legislators also predicted a fight during the next session over a proposal to remove state sales tax on food purchases, and said remnants of the politically battered Tax Limitation Coalition may mount another initiative petition drive regardless of what the Legislature does on tax limitation.
Officials attending the annual Utah Association of Counties convention also heard legislators say it's very unlikely there will be any new taxing authority granted to counties to ease pressure on local government revenues should property tax limitation become law.
Gov. Norm Bangerter pitched his own tax limitation plan during a convention speech. But the governor got from legislative leaders only a commitment to consider his plan.
"I don't think any of us has any answers yet," Rep. Craig Moody, the new House majority leader, told the convention. "We're struggling through this like you (county officials) are."
Bangerter proposed his six-point tax relief package last month at the height of his re-election campaign. The plan includes provisions to freeze property taxes at current levels, limit government spending growth and provide additional tax relief for property owners living on fixed incomes.
"I know the property tax freeze proposal gives you heartburn," the governor told county officials, who referred to the property tax as the bread and butter of county revenues.
"None of us ran on a platform of raising taxes this year. We all ran on the idea of living within our income."
But the governor's proposal drew fire from House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, who called the plan scary - especially if it includes a provision to let voters set tax limits.
"The message I got (from the initiative's defeat) was that we as legislators must let our constituents know what we're doing," Dmitrich said. "Once our message got out, the voters defeated the initiatives."
Democrats must have a role in drafting any tax-limiting legislation, Dmitrich warned. And Bangerter and Republican legislative leaders agreed that the Legislature, the administration and local governments must all play a part in crafting any tax-limiting plan.
"We have to put in reasonable, workable limits that do not bind the counties," Bangerter said. "We have to provide flexibility so limits don't impact inequitably on any government sector. And we have to address the potential impact on our bond ratings and meet constitutional requirements. That's why the Legislature must draft the limits, not four or five people in a room by initiative petition."
But despite the rejection by voters of tax-limiting initiatives just 10 days ago, the initiative movement may not be dead. Moody said after he was chosen new House majority leader Wednesday he received three phone calls from people claiming a new initiative petition drive would be mounted within 30 days to get tax limitation on the ballot again.
Senate Majority Whip Dix McMul-lin said a bill that would exempt food from state sales tax will pick up momentum between now and the beginning of the legislative session in January. But Utah badly needs the tax dollars that would be lost to the exemption, he said.
"If we take the sales tax off food, we'll reduce our revenue significantly," McMullin said. "We all eat, and we all pay it. I'm not against the poor or elderly, but I don't think we can take it off because the demands on our dollars are too great."