LAYTON — Utah lawmakers may discuss the possibility of amending the state Constitution during the current legislative session to eliminate the provision earmarking income tax revenue for education, says Utah Senate President Stuart Adams.
If so, though, he’s skeptical the notion — cause for alarm among some education advocates who fear such change could gut funding for schools — will go anywhere.
“I don’t want to say no because there are a bunch of other legislators,” said Adams, addressing the prospect of such debate. “But I just don’t know that it’s got a lot of traction.”
The broader issue of tax reform to balance the stream of revenue entering state coffers, meantime, may not get another thorough look by lawmakers until after voters pick a new governor in balloting in November. Utah lawmakers approved an overhaul of the state’s tax system during a special session last December, but repealed it just as quickly last week after a loud outcry by Utahns opposed to the action.
Asked at a town hall Monday night in Layton about where the debate goes now, Sen. Jerry Stevenson looked to the next gubernatorial administration. Gov. Gary Herbert is not seeking reelection and a crowded slate of hopefuls are running to succeed him. “We will have a new governor in office next year and we’re going to hand him a plate of worms because this has to be fixed,” Stevenson said.
Even so, Stevenson, a Layton Republican, like Adams, reiterated his support for the measure just repealed and the focus of lingering discussion. The plan called for a cut in income taxes, an increase in taxes on gas and groceries and a series of new service taxes. It would have resulted in a net cut of $160 million in taxes collected by the state.
“If I had to vote on that again I would. I’d vote for it,” Stevenson said.
Many critics have particularly blasted the repealed plan’s provision to bolster the sales tax on groceries. Adams, though, tried to calm the waters, saying that while change is needed, Utah’s economy is solid and there isn’t just one way to make the needed changes to the state’s tax system. Many lawmakers say change is needed to make sure the various government operations get the stream of needed funding. With income tax earmarked for education, other things like road and infrastructure needs don’t get the funds from other revenue sources, chiefly sales tax money.
“We are resetting, but our future is as bright as it’s ever been,” Adams said. “We will find a way to solve this structural imbalance, and we’ll do it another way.”
‘GUNS DON’T CAUSE
A bill put forward by Handy that would allow family members or law enforcement officials to seek a court order to confiscate guns owned by someone who has threatened self-harm or acted violently came up for debate. Handy ultimately told the crowd that he didn’t plan to pursue the legislation, House Bill 229, or the Extreme Risk Protective Order Act, but not before it garnered sharp rebukes from some at the meeting, worried it infringed on gun rights.
“Where does it stop?” said one man in the audience, worried the bill, if approved, could lead to other measures bearing on gun rights.
Handy, who introduced similar legislation without results in the last two legislative sessions, touted the measure as a means to try to get a handle on suicide. “I bet everyone in this room somewhere or another has been touched by suicide. I’ll bet everyone here. It is an epidemic in our state,” Handy said.
Those speaking out, though, expressed skepticism.
“Guns don’t cause suicide,” said one man. Someone else called suicide “a personal choice,” casting doubt on the effectiveness of legislation in curbing it. “It’s repugnant to the Constitution,” said a third.
Handy expressed exasperation, saying similar measures approved in other states have passed constitutional muster. He also lamented what he said was misinformation circulating around the measure.
The proposal resonates with people “who have lost their loved one. They couldn’t get law enforcement to help their loved one who was in a bad mental state. They couldn’t remove that lethal thing,” Handy said. In light of the proposal’s unpopularity, though, “I guess that this terrible suicide epidemic is just going to continue. I guess we’re going to say, I guess it’s OK. I wish that wasn’t the case but I guess that’s what it is.”
Lawmakers also touched on Utah Department of Transportation plans to widen U.S. 89 through Davis County and many more topics. In response to concerns of one man that the upgrade would lead to traffic congestion where the widening ends around the Weber County line, Handy said UDOT is studying roadway upgrades beyond that endpoint.