Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Also with Herbert are Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.

SALT LAKE CITY — An astute observer at the State Capitol put it to me this way: Human beings differ from other animals in that they can lengthen the time between stimulus and response through reason and thought.

Provoke an animal and it probably will lash out immediately in self-defense. Provoke a human and he or she might take awhile to assess the situation before deciding how to respond.

But that time begins to shorten significantly when people begin to feel confused, overwhelmed or under attack.

Which explains what happened when, with less than two weeks to go in the 2019 legislative session, a mammoth tax reform bill roared out of the shadows like a shiny new SUV, then ran smack into a mud bog.

What had started as a smattering of concerns about taxing haircuts quickly became a full-scale alarm from a variety of businesses and industries not used to lobbying the Legislature.

They were confused by the complexity of it all, overwhelmed by how fast the bill was advancing and threatened by what it might mean for them and their businesses.

Suddenly, people as varied as plumbers, travel agents and piano teachers were mobilizing forces, as was the familiar public education lobby, worried about a plan to reduce the state income tax — the primary funding source for schools.

To many of these people, the bugle call that had been used to attack the Legislature’s earlier decisions to change citizen initiatives on medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion — that politicians weren’t listening to the people — was beginning to sound real and clear. The optics were getting ahead of the message.

Even in a non-election year, the only logical option was for lawmakers to retreat.

But as many average Utahns resume their daily lives, it’s important to understand a couple of things.

First, this major tax reform effort hasn’t gone away. Lawmakers and the governor remain committed to enacting something this year, mostly likely by July, and the framework of what they want to do remains virtually unchanged.

Second, good reasons exist for doing all this. Generally speaking, legislative leaders and the governor should be commended for tackling what is a distasteful and difficult task. Few things come more naturally to a politician than the desire to avoid doing hard, unpopular things (see Washington and virtually any topic from immigration reform to the annual federal deficit).

Politicians really don’t take glee in playing with taxpayers the way an 8-year-old boy might roast ants with a magnifying glass.

That said, they could be taking a harder look at some even tougher tax reform issues, such as examining all the sales tax exemptions they have granted to various businesses through the years. And they could have started this process early enough to allow all the people who became alarmed about this version of reform to have their say.

They also now face the daunting task of trying to undo the bad optics. That includes the overall message that a tax crisis exists while the state has a tax surplus of about $1.1 billion.

They’re not helping matters much by arguing over whether to spend all of that surplus or hold $400 million of it back to allow for an eventual tax cut to go along with an eventual reform bill.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told reporters last week that he thinks the public is starting to get it. People, he said, had been throwing pitchforks. Now, he’s hearing them say, “We want to help. We want to be involved in finding a solution.”

Maybe, but he also supports state leaders going on a statewide “listening tour,” which probably should have happened before this session began.

12 comments on this story

The argument for tax reform is, at its core, a wonkish one. It’s for people steeped in tax philosophies and fiscal realities.

Over time, the state’s sales-tax collections have lagged. This has put the general fund, which pays for most state programs other than education, in long-term jeopardy. If you begin to tax services and transfer some higher education money from the education fund, the long-term outlook gets better.

Explaining this wonkish problem in a couple of months, and in a way that soothes fears of being attacked, keeps people from feeling overwhelmed and clears up confusion, will be a tall order.