ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah taxpayers are taking action against the Utah Legislature’s sales tax bill.
During a special session on Dec. 12, the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force passed legislation that increases sales tax on food and gas, implements sales tax on select services and creates a grocery tax cut. Just a week later, on Dec. 19, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law.
Days before Herbert signed it, two citizen referendums were filed seeking a public vote on the bill. Although the Lieutenant Governor’s Office threw out the second referendum after it was discovered that two of the six sponsors did not vote in the last general election, the first referendum, filed by former state representative Fred Cox, is still active.
The referendum is required to collect more than 115,869 signatures to qualify for the ballot. In order to collect and validate those signatures, taxpayers all over the state are organizing signing events at local libraries to help residents learn more about the legislation and sign the referendum.
St. George resident and member of the Utah State Board of Education Michelle Boulter, one of the organizers behind the St. George and Santa Clara events on Monday, told St. George News that asking for the referendum not only allows residents to vote on the legislation, but it also gives taxpayers the opportunity to read through and fully understand what is being passed.
“We the people don’t really know what exactly is in this bill and how it’s going to impact us fully,” she said. “This will give us a few months to at least read over it and then decide if this is what we want.”
Changes made minutes before the special session, and then again during the session, contrast the “measure twice, cut once” mentality task force leaders presented to the public during an eight-stop listening tour that began in mid-June.
The tour, Boulter argued, wasted taxpayers’ time as they felt their concerns fell on deaf ears. There has even been a public outcry against certain aspects of the bill, especially sales tax on food, since before the town hall meetings began, she said.
“We’re upset because it feels like you did not listen to us,” Boulter said of the task force. “It shows.”
Sales tax on food is a particularly challenging concept, especially in Southern Utah, where the cost of living is already high and wages are low.
Southern Utah, especially Washington and Iron Counties, has a high number of young families and retirees. An increased food tax, Boulter argued, forces those on fixed incomes and those just starting out to choose between necessities rather than choose to cut out luxuries.
“When we’re all tightening our belt in an economic downturn, the last thing you want to try to think about is ‘Do I want to buy milk or eggs?'” Boulter said. “That’s a really bad thing for Southern Utah families.”
Another tough topic that Southern Utahns found particularly unsettling was the inclusion of the gas tax. Last year the gas tax was included on the ballot and Utah voters struck it down, but then it was added to the tax bill earlier this year.
St. George resident Theresa Frazer attended the event with her neighbor Elfrida Villalobos, who hadn’t heard about the legislation until it had already passed.
Frazer said her biggest problem with the bill is that lawmakers touted they cared about taxpayers’ concerns but didn’t reflect that sentiment when drafting or voting to approve the legislation that would greatly and impact the average Utah resident.
“Everybody objected to all of this and it was not taken to heart,” she said. “Then they passed a bill at the last moment without any public input.”
The bill in question — SB2001 — was created to help expand the state’s shrinking sales tax base, address balance issues within the current tax structure and increase flexibility within the general fund as the state tackles issues relating to its growing population.
Boulter, however, said the legislature doesn’t need to work to expand the sales tax base and should instead be looking at how to cut spending.
“I balance my own budget at home, and I may want things and I may wish to bring in stuff, but I can’t sit here and tax my children so that I can have what I want,” she said. “We shouldn’t be taxing the families of Utah so that we can increase our spending.”
At the very least, she said, lawmakers should wait to see how the legislation that imposed taxes on online goods and services will impact the state’s economy. Imposing taxes, she said, should be one of the last resorts.
One of the biggest criticisms that supporters of the bill have for those who are backing the referendum is that there has been quite a bit of misinformation surrounding the legislation. They also argue that taxpayers voicing their opposition don’t understand the bill, haven’t read the bill or misunderstand what it does. Boulter disagreed.
“Nothing is more infuriating as a voter than when you are told that you just don’t understand, and if you had more information, then you would agree with them,” she said. “I’ve read the whole bill — many of us have — and we’re still saying no. Just because we don’t agree with what was done does not mean we do not understand.”
During Monday’s St. George signing event, Boulter said volunteers collected over five booklets of signatures. Participants have spanned all generations, political parties and racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“We have come together to say this is bad for Utah and this is bad for Utah families,” she said. “We need to fix it. Overall, the consensus is we need to start over.”
Frazer said she agrees there are a number of people who are being left in the dark, but it’s because they don’t know about the legislation at all. Frazer signed the referendum to ensure that the bill is delayed, that more taxpayers can look into what the legislation does and that the power to make the decision rests in the hands of Utah residents.
More events have been scheduled around the county until Jan. 4. Tuesday, volunteers will be at the Hurricane Public Library from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Residents registered to vote in Utah can also sign the referendum and learn more about the bill Wednesday outside the Tabernacle in St. George from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Thursday at the Washington City Public Library from 4-8 p.m.
On Saturday, volunteers will be all over Washington County gathering signatures at a home on Dixie Springs in Hurricane from 2-5 p.m. at Discount Pawn Shop at 790 S. Bluff St. in St. George from 3-6 p.m., and at Discount Pawn Shop at 134 E. Main Street in Enterprise from 3-7 p.m.
Iron County residents have also begun gathering signatures. Another referendum signing event has been scheduled for Saturday from 1-3 p.m. in the east room of the Cedar City Public Library.
Election officials have until March 17 to verify the collected signatures. If volunteers collect more than 115,869 valid signatures, the tax bill will be put on hold until residents vote on the legislation in November.
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