BRIGHAM CITY – Members of the Utah Senate, Utah House of Representatives, representatives from Governor Gary Herbert’s office, professional tax accountants and economic professors representing the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force filled a stage in Brigham City Tuesday night to field questions and comments about how to update Utah’s tax system. Several hundred people were in attendance and they were given opportunities to stand before the task force and give suggestions or ask questions. Written questions were also asked of the task force, to which they were given opportunities to respond.
Many of the comments during the town hall meeting at the Utah State University-Brigham City campus could be summarized into three main categories: don’t change the tax code at the expense of education, don’t tax services, and the state should consider reducing government rather than raising taxes.
Task force co-chair Rep. Francis Gibson, R-District 65, explained to the group that state government has not increased in well over a decade. In fact, he said, the number of state employees compared to the overall state population has declined. “We have less government employees than we had in 2001,” he exclaimed.
The other co-chair is State Senator Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
“We really have a real problem with structure and how our taxes are being collected,” Sen. Hillyard explained Tuesday. “Sales tax is the life blood of the government and it’s not growing as fast as population because our spending patterns are different. We buy more services now than goods.
“The figure is 76% was spent on goods in the 1930’s. Now, in Utah, it’s 34%. That impacts our ability to fund roads, clean air initiatives, corrections, courts, and even education because education gets a sizable amount of General Fund money every year. As that dries up and gets less, that really puts us in a bind.”
Rep. Gibson said the task force is taking a step back from what was being proposed during the last legislative session and is considering all options.
“Most people think that our starting point is where we left off,” Rep. Gibson explained. “Quite contrary, we’ve said we’re willing to look at everything and look to see how we might be able to find a solution that may be different. But we do need to find a solution to look at our general sales tax and where that is coming from.
“If I could be very clear about something, we are not looking for tax increases. We are looking for ways we can lower taxes but solidify the base in which we receive our tax revenue.”
Regarding education, the task force reiterated that Utah is the only state in the country that has a specific earmark solely for education. The state dedicates a greater percentage of its overall budget to education than any other state. But having the majority of education spending tied specifically to income tax hasn’t necessarily yielded more funding for education. One of the proposals that was recommended was to adjust the Utah constitution to allow income tax to go directly to the general fund, with the commitment that education spending would not change.
“I hope we learn something,” Sen. Hillyard said. “I hope when we get through this that people feel like we’ve listened to them. I’ve found sometimes as a legislator you can listen to the public but there are things you have to do that you just have to do.”
After more than three hours of mingling with those in the audience and fielding their questions, Rep. Gibson said the goal was to hear people’s suggestions and concerns, as well as communicate to Utah’s citizens what problems the state is facing.
“We hope to educate through these town hall meetings what we see, what we see coming,” Rep. Gibson explained. “Today it’s all roses; everything is wonderful and great, our economy is booming. But what is that going to look like five years, ten years down the road? We need to find a system that allows you to prosper – as a citizen in the state of Utah paying lower taxes – but yet still allows government to do what it needs to do.”
Rep. Gibson said the task force is not operating under a deadline to find a solution, even if it means discussing it during next year’s general legislative session.
“We plan on having a series of committee meetings. At those committee meetings we will take specific issues. At those specific issues people who are interested in those issues can come and make presentations, debate and the committee can take action. I sat down with staff and went through everything. We came up with 48 possible solutions. I don’t want to see about 35 of them.”
Hillyard said the group will narrow it down to two or three of the best solutions presented on the agenda for the task force to discuss.
Seven more town hall meetings will be held throughout the state by the end of July. Additional information about the task force, along with community feedback that is gathered through the process, can be found at strongerfutures.utah.gov.
AUDIO: One-on-one with Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force co-chairs Sen. Lyle Hillyard and Rep. Francis Gibson