ST. GEORGE – Republican gubernatorial candidate and Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson signed a pledge Tuesday not to raise or create any new taxes if he is elected to office. The pledge was signed while visiting St. George as a part of Johnson’s ongoing tour of the state aimed at spreading his message of limited government.
On Tuesday’s visit, Johnson wasted little time in highlighting Gov. Gary Herbert’s history involving raising states taxes.
“He has been a tax raiser,” Johnson said. “Last year alone, he raised three different taxes. He raised the gasoline tax to the tune of about $75 million. He raised the property taxes in Utah to the tune of about $75 million. And he and the Legislature approved (a bill) … (allowing) different counties to vote on whether they were going to raise sales tax. So now some of the counties in Utah have raised sales tax by a quarter of a percent.”
The taxes to which Johnson referred are primarily aimed at providing funding for the state’s transportation infrastructure and public education.
The state gas tax rose 5 cents per gallon of gas at the beginning of the year. As a part of the legislation increasing the gas tax, counties were given a local option to raise sales taxes by .25 percent provided it was approved by voters. The hike in property taxes was a part of an overall $500 million in new public education spreading. Both funding measures were passed during the 2015 legislative session.
Other incidents of tax raising or approving tax hikes Johnson pointed to included Herbert’s proposal to raise taxes on electronic cigarettes in 2014 — which the Legislature did not move on — and allowing $44 million in new taxes on tobacco products to go into law. Johnson said:
President Reagan said, ‘Some people have never met a tax they wouldn’t hike,’ and I think Gary Herbert fits that role. I’m going to be a different kind of governor.
As for as some of the state’s preexisting taxes, Johnson said he would work to either reduce or outright eliminate income taxes on military and Social Security benefits.
Johnson said he will also go after the corporate income tax. Small businesses deserve the same tax breaks big business recruited into moving into Utah get, he said, adding that he believed the state shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers in business.
Should any proposals to raise taxes come from the Legislature while he is governor, Johnson said, he will veto them. To this end, he signed his name to a large board symbolizing the pledge. Other lines on the board were left blank for town hall attendees who were allowed to sign their names as witnesses to the pledge.
“I’m extremely impressed with Jonathan Johnson,” St. George resident Rebecca Monson said, adding she particularly liked his focus on keeping the government close to the people.
The concept that “the government that governs closest to the people governs best” has been a primary theme of Johnson’s campaign. He has advocated for much more local control in government, from public lands to education.
“I’ve very impressed with his tax pledge to not raise taxes,” Monson said. She also said she liked the candidate’s position on ending taxes related on senior citizens and military retirees.
“Vote for JJ on the ballot,” Monson said.
Johnson spoke to many other topics during the meeting, including education. He went into more detail about his proposed plan for Utah’s public education system during his last visit to St. George in February.
Tuesday’s town hall meeting was 19-year-old Dixie State University student Haley Gaery’s first venture into the world of politics. She and a friend saw a post about the town hall meeting on Facebook and decided to check it out. Being 19, she said he hasn’t yet had much operating to participate in elections and wanted to learn more about who was running. Johnson’s comments on education impressed Gaery, who said she plans on becoming a teacher.
“I’m going into education, so the fact he wants to do something about what (the state is) doing with education is really important to me,” Gaery said.
Known largely as the chairman of the board of Overstock.com, Johnson practiced law with a firm in California before moving his family back to Utah, where he became legal counsel for a software business and eventually counsel for Overstock in 2002.
Since then, he has served in a number of positions within the company, including its president and acting CEO.
Johnson has been with the company from its time as a startup with 18 employees to what is now a billion-dollar business with over 1,000 employees. He has managed big budgets and helped Overstock operate with an 18 percent margin in order to keep customer costs low.
Johnson wants to bring the business principles that made Overstock successful to Utah government.
Lane Ronnow, who host the program “A Story to Tell,” has interviewed Johnson and his wife during their earlier visits to St. George and was also in attendance at the town hall meeting Tuesday.
“My father taught me once: ‘It’s not what you’ve been, it’s what you’ve done,” Ronnow said, “and (Johnson) has done great things with Overstock. He has some great ideas, and I think he’s determined to make them work.”
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