Rep. Lesser lauds brine shrimp bill, says grocery tax issue may emerge in ’24
OGDEN — The state is likely to get a new mascot meant to highlight the push to preserve the Great Salt Lake — the brine shrimp, to become the Utah state crustacean per legislation authored by Utah Rep. Rosemary Lesser, an Ogden Democrat.
The Utah Senate approved the brine shrimp legislation on Friday, the last day of the 2023 session, and Lesser said she expects Gov. Spencer Cox will sign the measure, House Bill 137, into law.
Separately, the lawmaker, speaking Monday, said another issue she pursued during the session — elimination of the 1.75% state sales tax on groceries — will likely get attention in the 2024 session. Her push to ax the tax was set aside in favor of a GOP-led plan to eliminate it in 2025, but only if voters approve a separate ballot question in 2024 to eliminate the constitutional provision earmarking income tax revenue largely for education.
“I maintain that the people need the relief now, not nearly two years from now,” she said. She opposed the notion of tying elimination of the grocery tax to the income tax provision.
The brine shrimp designation — championed by Lesser in response to the pleas of a class of sixth graders at Emerson Elementary in Salt Lake City — doesn’t boost funding to help the Great Salt Lake. Nor does it somehow increase the water level in the lake, focus of other measures.
“It really is one of those things that calls to attention the complex relationship of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem to our well-being in our state,” said Lesser.
That is, designating the brine shrimp the state crustacean raises the profile of the sea critter and its plight as the Great Salt Lake water level dips, thereby serving as another reminder to the public of the import of saving the lake. Brine shrimp are commercially harvested and also serve as a key food source for birds migrating through the Great Salt Lake area, making them symbolic of the lake. But the increased salinity of the lake brought on by declining water levels poses a potential threat to the brine shrimp, Utah Public Radio reported last fall.
The Emerson Elementary students have been raising brine shrimp as part of a class projects.
“Watching these majestic creatures swim is mesmerizing. They are so little yet so important to our lives and economy,” reads a Change.org petition the class created to drum up support for their push to make the shrimp the state crustacean. It went on, saying the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem “is imperative for brine shrimp to survive.”
The brine shrimp would join the state animal, the elk; the state bird, the sea gull; the state dinosaur, the Utahraptor; and many other items, creatures and things as official symbols of Utah.
GROCERY, INCOME TAXES
Per House Bill 54, approved by lawmakers, the elimination of the state grocery tax hinges on approval of a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the income tax earmark for education that’s to be put to voters on the November 2024 ballot, per Senate Joint Resolution 10.
GOP lawmakers argue that the income tax earmark limiting use of the revenue stream on education and programs for the disabled is constraining. Eliminating the restriction, in tandem with elimination of the grocery tax and the money that generates, would make budgeting easier, they say.
Lesser, however, doesn’t think the issues should be tied together, though she said she could shift her view if there’s a way to assure education advocates that eliminating the income tax provision won’t hamper education funding. Either way, she foresees continued discussion on the issue during the 2024 session, though she didn’t get specific.
Meantime, education advocates have been consulting with legislative reps on their concerns about ending the income tax earmark, Lesser said.