If the 2019 Utah Legislature were to be graded, it likely would have earned an incomplete.
Before the session started, Gov. Gary Herbert joined leaders in the House and Senate in listing tax reform as a top priority. Because of a gradual shift toward a service economy, sales tax revenues were lagging behind the income tax and threatening the state’s ability to fund many of its non-education-related programs and projects.
Unfortunately, it took until the final days of the session before a bill emerged that would have spread the sales tax to a variety of services, reduced the income tax and provided a modest tax cut, among other things.
It was simply too much, too late, and lawmakers wisely backed off in favor of a task force that will study the matter with the hope of gathering consensus for a comprehensive bill at a special session in June.
Simply put, there is no way to enact such sweeping tax reform without angering some people, and lawmakers will have to come to terms with that in order to accomplish anything meaningful. But that doesn’t mean every proposal is worthy of support.
For instance, Senate leaders have floated the idea of restoring the full state sales tax rate on groceries. Currently, most food items are taxed at 1.75 percent, rather than the full rate of 4.7 percent.
This would be a terrible idea. Lawmakers reduced the rate during the Jon Huntsman Jr. administration as a way to bring relief to the poorest Utahns. Food is a basic human need. Unlike many other taxed items, its purchase generally is not considered optional. It should be unthinkable to restore the full tax to groceries, especially at a time when the state has a $1.1 billion surplus in tax collections.
The structural imbalance of tax receipts is a real thing, and lawmakers are right to take on the challenge. We hope they have given themselves enough time to do the job right, and in a way that doesn’t provide undue pain to those least able to absorb it.
Beyond postponing tax reform, lawmakers did make some significant strides during this session. They passed a meaningful hate crimes bill after many years of falling short. The new bill would address crimes committed with the intent to intimidate or hurt entire classes of people. It is modeled after legislation favored by the Anti-Defamation League, and ought to become a useful tool for prosecutors when faced with particularly troublesome crimes.
Education also fared well, with $280 million more in ongoing funding being earmarked for public schools and a 4 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit. Keeping up with growth remains a never-ending challenge for lawmakers when it comes to education funding.
Lastly, the 2019 session will be remembered for the way lawmakers altered successful citizen initiatives. Voters approved three of these in November. Lawmakers altered two of them, and may yet tackle the third.
We agreed with changes made to the medical marijuana initiative — changes supported by both opponents and supporters and enacted before the regular session began. These changes make the law more effective, providing relief to sufferers without opening the door to recreational marijuana use.
Changes to the Medicaid expansion initiative are more problematic, however. Voters approved a measure to expand Medicaid to everyone earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, as called for under the Affordable Care Act. But lawmakers said the tax increase allowed for in the initiative would not raise enough to fund that, so they reduced the expansion to full coverage for everyone earning up to 100 percent of poverty.
The change still depends on Washington approving waivers to the law, but it clearly alters the intent of what voters approved.7 comments on this story
In addition, lawmakers passed three bills to make future initiatives more difficult to pass. One, requiring initiatives to provide the means to fund themselves, makes some sense. So does another that aims to ensure voters understand petitions they are signing, making it easier for them to remove signatures. The third one, however, would postpone the effective dates of voter-approved laws until after lawmakers meet in session. The troubling premise is that lawmakers always would want to alter what voters have approved.
As with tax reform, the long-term effect of these remains to be seen. If they harm the public’s ability to be heard on important matters lawmakers have ignored, that would leave a lingering bad taste from the 2019 session.