SALT LAKE CITY — GOP legislative leaders are pushing to pass a package of tax reforms in the final weeks of the session that include restoring the full sales tax on food, phasing out income tax exemptions for more Utahns and raising gas taxes.
The newly unveiled proposal, endorsed by majority Republicans in closed-door House and Senate caucus meetings on Thursday, also would lower the state's 4.7 percent sales and 5 percent income tax rates by around a half percent each.
Also a possibility this session is adjusting the 2015 change in how gas taxes are calculated, which initially boosted prices at the pump by about 5 cents a gallon, to ensure revenues keep up with inflation when oil prices are low.
The talk of bringing in more money to the state came as lawmakers learned the latest revenue estimates show $100 million more coming in than the $285 million originally anticipated, mostly in income taxes that go into the education fund.
Surprisingly, the general fund is also expected to be up $13 million in the budget year that begins July 1, largely because of an agreement with Amazon.com to collect sales taxes on purchases made in Utah starting this year.
The new numbers mean there is $13 million in one-time surplus monies and $372 million in ongoing revenues now available. But, Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said there's some $540 million in still unfunded requests.
“The good news is overall, revenue continues an upward trajectory,” Stevenson said, cautioning that still, “this doesn’t mean we are about to go out on a spending spree.”
House Budget Chairman Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, said while the size of the estimated revenue increase wasn't expected, it's still not going to be enough to satisfy all of the funding needs.
"People think this is a lot of money," Sanpei said. "But it's going to get eaten up blink-your-eyes fast."
The numbers are being viewed as showing the instability of the state's tax system that depends largely on income, sales and gas taxes.
"We’re thinking that we need to restructure our tax system, broadening the bases and lowering the rates," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Friday, with the intent of increasing revenues "in the long run."
He said both he and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, want to see the sales and income tax package approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature before the session ends March 9, even though the bills have yet to be drafted.
"This is an action item for us. We’ve talked about these things for a number of years. It's time to act," Niederhauser told reporters during the Senate's daily media briefing.
Hughes, who was sick Friday and unable to do interviews, told UtahPolicy.com that House Republicans are ready to support tax reform.
“Look, we can wait a few years and do nothing,” he said. “Or we can get out in front of this thing and act now. I’m for acting now, and so is our House caucus.”
While Senate GOP leaders have been talking for some time about the possibility of adding back the 3 percent reduction made in the state sales tax rate on food under former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., the income and gas tax pieces are new.
On income taxes, the tax credit Utah gives taxpayers for federal exemptions and educations would be phased out for those earning $100,000 or more. Currently that provision affects most Utahns making at least $175,000, Niederhauser said.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said Friday he needed to hear more about the proposals, which so far have been debated in closed caucus meetings by Republicans in the House and Senate.
Niederhauser said other tax changes this session could include requiring all out-of-state companies to collect sales taxes on online purchases and freezing the state's basic property tax rate to ensure it doesn't go down when property values go up.
And he said again Friday that lawmakers plan to take a closer look at tax exemptions and credits during the interim.
The state's continued population growth means there are "huge needs" ahead when it comes to the budget, Niederhauser said. "It isn’t going to be any one legislature that’s going to solve that problem. This is going to need be done incrementally."
Gov. Gary Herbert didn't sound like he was in quite as much of a hurry as lawmakers when it comes to tax reform during his monthly news conference on KUED, taped Thursday.
"It's easy to say just raise a tax. That's simple," the governor said. "But it's going to take us some time to get to where we need to do it. My deadline is by the end of the next legislative session that we have something in place."
He did say however, he would be willing to veto any additional tax exemptions passed this session. Herbert had requested a review of tax policy in his proposed budget.
The focus on tax reform may largely be due to the threat of a proposed 2018 ballot initiative supported by business and community leaders that would increase the income tax rate by seven-eighths of 1 percent to raise $750 million for education.
"Without the Our Schools Now initiative, we may not be having this discussion," Niederhauser said. He and other lawmakers believe raising the income tax will damage the state's economic competitiveness.
Even though the governor wants to take more time on the issue, he credited the initiative with getting "everyone's attention. That is why I think we have the energy about tax reform today. So let's capitalize on that."
But whether the tax reform being proposed is enough to keep initiative backers from beginning to gather voter signatures later this year remains to be seen.
"We are encouraged the Legislature is discussing ways to provide more funds to education, and look forward to learning more details," Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, said.
House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the initiative is "interesting and coincidental timing," but he believes the tax talk is being driven more by what he termed a "lopsided" tax base where collections of sales and gas taxes lag.
"The sooner we deal with it, the better and the less painful it will be," Wilson said. "And the sooner we deal with this, the less crazy some of the solutions might be in terms of outside groups that have agendas or things they’re trying to see us do."
Contributing: Ryan Morgan