SALT LAKE CITY — Would you vote to add 10 cents to each gallon of gas you purchase, with the money going toward education?
After all, a measly dime isn’t worth much anymore, is it? In fact, today it’s worth only what a penny was in 1969.
But let me put it another way. Would you vote to increase your gas taxes by 33 percent?
Now that’s altogether different, isn’t it? Many of us have to budget for commuting costs. Even driving kids to school ought to be considered a part of the cost of education, right? And what about poor people trying to hold down jobs and feed their families? Increasing the taxed portion of those costs by a third would greatly impact budgets.
But look closely and you’ll find those are two versions of the same question. Presentation, as any wardrobe consultant or book-cover designer will tell you, is everything.
It also can affect how people vote.
Utah lawmakers understand this. That’s why the way they allow a tax-hike proposal to be worded on a ballot depends on yet another question. Is this a tax hike they support or oppose?
One year ago, supporters of the Our Schools Now initiative were proposing to raise the state income tax from 5 percent to 5 7/8 percent, in order to raise about $750 million more for public schools. That proposal ended up being modified over time, but back then the Legislature was abuzz over how the initiative was being sold to the public.
Supporters liked to say they were seeking to add only seven-eighths of a percent onto the income tax; a harmless-sounding figure. But lawmakers, who hate income tax increases, especially when they come via citizen initiatives, pointed out that the difference between 5 percent and 5 7/8 percent actually is 17.5 percent.
An opinion poll by the Libertas Institute and the Utah chapter of Americans for Prosperity bolstered the notion that giving people an actual percentage makes a difference. It found that 64 percent of those surveyed said they would be less likely to support the percentage increase than a figure of seven-eighths of a percent.
That led to a bill requiring initiatives to put tax increases in terms “calculated by dividing the tax percentage difference by the current tax rate and rounding the result to the nearest thousandth.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, told a hearing, “I think it’s dangerous to raise taxes any time you have an economy that is effectively moving. I think it’s even more difficult, though, to not tell the whole story behind the economic picture of what you’re attempting to do.” The bill quickly became law.
But that was then.
Fast-forward a year. In the final days of the just-completed 2018 legislative session, legislative leaders finally brokered a deal to get Our Schools Now to drop its initiative. Part of that deal included letting the public vote on a nonbinding proposal to add 10 cents to the gas tax.
When this came up for discussion on the floor of the House, an amendment was offered. In addition to noting it as a 10-cent per gallon increase, shouldn’t the ballot measure also note it is a 33 percent hike over the current 29.4-cent state gas tax?
“If we are truly concerned with transparency,” argued Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, “we’ll tell the voters what the percentage and the monetary increase will be.”
To do otherwise would be to “manipulate the public intentionally.”14 comments on this story
But the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, would have none of it. “When a voter fills up their car with gas, they look at the price of the gas,” she said. They don’t look at percentages.
Besides, the voter information pamphlet will cover all the details, she said. “I think we do a disservice to our educated voters when we think they can’t understand this.”
And yet a year earlier, lawmakers felt leaving off percentages would do a disservice.
As I said, presentation matters. So does whether a majority of lawmakers wants you to vote “yes” on a matter.
The amendment failed miserably.
Which is why, on Nov. 6, you will have to do the math all by yourself.