The 1987 Legislature had a tough time because it had to raise taxes.
The 1988 Legislature was unpleasant because partisan politics played a great role that election year.But the 1989 Legislature may be the noisiest of the three, simply because there is money to spend. And as any veteran lawmaker will tell you, the most bitter fights occur over who will get extra cash for pet programs and causes.
The 45-day session officially opens at 10 a.m. Monday, and like every year, the most important item is adopting a state budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Gov. Norm Bangerter recommends a $2.9 billion spending package that includes a 3 percent pay raise for state workers and public education teachers, and $19 million in tax relief.
Bangerter, the Republican incumbent who won a second term in November with 40 percent of the vote in a three-man race, doesn't say now where that $19 million should be cut. "We want a full discussion, full debate, of the issue," Bangerter says.
His caution is understandable. Bangerter was badly burned politically when he took the lead in the $165 million tax hike of 1987.
This past year lawmakers balked at one of his key programs. Bangerter suggested a settlement of the failed thrifts and loans to lawmakers in August with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Republican senators decided they could cut a better deal for the state than the governor and finally did so.
So Bangerter isn't sticking his neck out yet on which taxes should be cut. He'll let the legislative debate proceed a bit first.
More than 100 bills have already been pre-filed and lawmakers will likely consider some 600 bills before the session adjourns at midnight Feb. 22.
While he says he doesn't have a preference, Bangerter appears to be leaning toward property tax relief or restoring more of the deduction for federal taxes paid to state returns.
Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers and the tax limitation movement leaders want the sales tax removed from food. It's an unholy coalition that is clearly fragile and could break apart during the session.
Sales tax on food has always been an issue dear to Democrats, but their minority status, as well as the poor economic health of the state in recent times, has made it both politically and economically impossible.
"Now all of a sudden we have the Republican right wing (and tax protesters) joining with us and saying they, too, want to eliminate the sales tax on food," said House Minority Whip Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake. "It's an interesting alliance that, given the improving state of the economy, could work. It's the best year in a long, long time to get it done."
Democrats in the House would need the defection of at least nine Republicans, for Republicans hold a 47-28 majority in the lower house.
"The removal of the sales tax on food doesn't have the support of the Republican caucus," said House Speaker Nolan Karras, R-Roy. "Not now, anyway."
But there's a Catch-22. Pignanelli admits if the Legislature goes for an elimination of the sales tax on food, it would have to severely cut many of the other state programs that are near and dear to the hearts of Democrats.
"Actually eliminating the sales tax on food might be much harder on Democrats than we ever dreamed," Pignanelli said. Bangerter wants only $19 million in tax relief. Removing the sales tax on food completely would cost between $60 million and $100 million.
Karras said he and other Republicans want to see the sales tax proposals in more detail. One Democratic bill calls for a tax credit for the sales tax on food with a limit on many members of the family can claim the credit.
"That's an interesting idea," said Karras, who admits he's not inclined to tamper with the sales tax. "The calls from my constituents are the same: They say the sales tax is the fairest tax of all because everybody needs to pay their fair share. And with the sales tax they do."
From an economic development point of view, the sales tax on food is not a factor considered by businesses seeking to relocate, Karras said, while there is some indication that the federal tax deduction is.
And there is another possible problem: Removing the sales tax on food could harm the tax base of many towns and cities at the same time Bangerter wants to freeze the property tax, the major source of income for local governments.
Some cities, like Karras' Roy, garner almost their entire sales tax revenues from supermarkets, he said.
"The little towns are opposed, and you can see why," Karras said. "If you don't tax food, there is nothing left for many of these towns to tax."
The Republican Senate may be even cooler to taking the sales tax off food than many House Republicans.
Sen. Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, has long been the champion of the cause. But Republicans outnumber Democrats 22-7 in the Senate. An evenworse omen for the Democrats: Conservative, wealthy Republican senators have been the driving force behind restoring the federal deduction to state income taxes.
Removing the deduction hit upper-income Utahns hard. One GOP senator was overheard saying his state income taxes went up five times because of the loss of the deduction.
Well-to-do Republicans throughout the state complained about losing the deduction, and Republican lawmakers heard those complaints. "I want the $19 million to go to restoring the deduction," said Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, after Bangerter announced his budget. "If more money is found for tax relief, I'd want to restore the deduction completely."
Bangerter's $19 million will allow half of the deduction to be restored - in short, you could deduct half of your federal income taxes paid on your state returns if lawmakers pick that route.
If the Republicans move toward restoring the federal deduction on state income taxes, the Democrats may try to thwart any tax reduction.
"We have to make sure state needs are met before we talk tax relief," said House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price. The $19 million equates to $25 or $30 per household, a small tax cut by most standards, he said. "We haven't even talked about asbestos (removal) in schools. We have additional medical insurance costs for state employees. I'm not sure the $19 million shouldn't go to salaries, it's been years since state workers got a decent raise."
Perhaps the $19 million would be better spent in economic development, "giving us more of a return than $19 million later," Dmitrich said.
Dmitrich warned that House Democrats may well try numerous amendments to any bill that would restore the federal deduction to state income taxes. "But we won't be obstructionists," he said.