In the end, the massive tax reform effort promoted by Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders may have been too big and complicated for a single 45-day session, let alone for the waning days of one.
House Speaker Brad Wilson announced Thursday afternoon that HB441, the nearly 260-page bill that sought to reframe the state’s sales tax to apply to previously untaxed services, while lowering the rate, will not proceed during this year’s session.
We appreciate the wisdom of not proceeding with such little time left. Hurried legislation rarely leads to good results. However, we urge lawmakers to keep working on the issue during a future special session, giving it the kind of vetting it deserves.
Despite the failure of HB441, the underlying problems in Utah’s tax code remain. Because of a shifting economy, the number of transactions subject to the sales tax is steadily shrinking. The governor has said it applies only to about 40 percent of transactions today, down from about 70 percent 40 years ago.
A shrinking tax base results in an unfair burden to the few merchants who must collect it. Also, it leaves the state more vulnerable during an economic downturn, when people tend to purchase fewer goods.
A breakdown of anticipated state surplus funds, made public by Senate leaders a few weeks ago, illustrates the problem. It showed an income tax surplus of nearly $900 million, and a sales tax surplus of only about $230 million. Clearly, even a booming economy doesn’t reflect much in the sales tax, and yet that is the tax that primarily funds most state programs other than education.
Yet, as soon as the real work of broadening the base and lowering the rate began, complications started multiplying. The governor originally set a goal of reducing the state sales tax rate from 4.7 percent to 1.75 percent, while also reducing taxes by $225 million, matching the tax cut goal of the House Speaker. But soon, new revenue figures showed the anticipated state surplus was not as large as originally thought. Talk turned to reducing the rate to 3.1 percent, instead.
Then proposals were made to reduce the income tax as well, from 4.95 percent to 4.75 percent, shifting some of the burden for higher education to the sales tax.
When details emerged about which services would be taxed, several groups, from media companies to piano teachers, began to complain. Occupations that require people to transact business at the homes of clients, such as plumbers or financial advisers, wondered how they would collect sales taxes at the different rates charged by various jurisdictions.
Proposals emerged to apply a 1 percent tax on health insurance premiums and a 0.075 percent transfer tax on real estate transactions.7 comments on this story
Income tax changes were proposed to help families who have had to pay more in federal taxes because of recent tax changes in Washington, as well as to help the poor and elderly.
With less than a week to go before the session is mandated to end, these complications undoubtedly became too great. As important as it is to enact reforms that strengthen the tax base and provide some overall relief, it’s equally important to be careful and do it right.
Lawmakers are to be commended for their hard work, as well as for the wisdom to know when they were moving too fast. We hope their work has just begun.