State Rep. Susan Duckworth went through her annual windmill-tilting exercise Wednesday, trying to get fellow lawmakers to support her bill to make all feminine hygiene products, diapers and similar items exempt from sales taxes in Utah.
The Democrat from Magna has carried this bill unsuccessfully for four years now. On Wednesday, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee listened politely, then voted to hold the bill, effectively killing it once more. This time, however, the reason given was that everyone is waiting on a huge tax-overhaul bill to emerge from somewhere deep within the marbled walls of the State Capitol.
About that, two things may be observed.
First, tax exemptions will be with us always. Not only that, good reasons to enact them will be with us, as well. When lawmakers talk about tax reform as a heavy lift, this is part of what they mean.
Duckworth and those who spoke in favor of her bill were loaded with compelling arguments. Strongest among these? The tax break would help people buy diapers — no small thing in one of the most diaper-friendly states in the nation.
“We’re trying to make this a little more friendly to the young families … and our seniors on a fixed income,” Duckworth told the committee, reminding them that virtually everyone, even males as infants, benefit from these products at some point in their lives.
Who doesn’t want to help struggling young families save a few cents? And, as Duckworth reminded fellow lawmakers, they probably would quickly reinvest those cents in some other product for the little ones.
The only downside, of course, is that each exemption leaves fewer products to make up for the tax revenue lost. Gov. Gary Herbert is fond of saying transactions subject to sales taxes have shrunk from 70 percent to only 40 percent over the last four decades, hence the need for reform.
State lawmakers apparently have granted 88 such exemptions through the years. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, briefed Democrats on reform efforts last Tuesday and expressed a desire to remove 16 of them, although he wasn’t specific. But you can bet each one, like a boulder whose top alone is visible, comes with a host of heavy reasons not to be removed. Some may even come with a team of lobbyists ready for battle.
Heavy lifting, indeed.
The second observation is: Where the heck is this reform bill, anyway?
Wednesday was the official halfway point in the 2019 session. Utah’s Legislature is not for the slow of foot. The constitution requires it to meet no more than 45 working days per year in regular session.
An out-of-state lobbyist told me he was almost gasping for breath during the first week. “People were passing bills on the first day,” he said with wonder.
If such a fast pace produces any casualties, these generally are among the public.
If a detailed tax bill emerges soon, enough time remains for hearings, protests and a full public airing. If lawmakers wait too much longer, they risk having to ram something through without that.
We know the general idea. Lawmakers have talked about taxing a lot more items, especially services. That would bring in enough revenue to lower the sales tax rate, effectively giving everyone a break (except those buying the aforementioned services, of course). Some also have talked about income tax reform.
But questions abound. Which services would be on the list? So far, politicians have mentioned things like haircuts, Uber rides, limousine services and lawn care. Coincidentally, these all are things working-class people do to get by. Less clear is whether it would extend to attorney services, real estate or things wealthier people do.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said Wednesday the one thing he hears most from his constituents is, “Don’t tax my haircut.”
Do it without enough time for public involvement and the scraggly could revolt.7 comments on this story
Then there is the question of money. Revenue projections aren’t looking as good in February as they were late last year. Fillmore said the governor’s stated desire to get the state sales tax rate down to 1.75 percent is unrealistic because it would require $100 billion in new revenue from taxing services, etc.
The 2019 legislative session may be remembered for two things — changing a voter-approved Medicaid initiative and tax reform.
The first left a bad taste in a lot of mouths. The second could double that bitterness if it’s rushed. At worst, it could inadvertently create an underground economy of rebel service providers who don’t want to collect taxes.
Despite the fast pace of 45-day lawmaking, this is one worth taking slowly.