howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Despite the fact that Utah’s taxes and fees are now third highest in the nation, voters throughout Utah are facing tax hike proposals on the ballot this November. You heard it correctly: Our taxes are third highest, and the measures on the ballot are not for tax cuts or spending limitations, but for tax hikes!

Are we nuts?

I believe this is an appropriate time to repeat to Utah’s spending lobby the statement Biff said to George McFly while rapping his knuckle on George’s head in the movie Back to the Future, “Hell-o-o-o-o? Anybody ho-o-o-m-e?”

These tax hike ballot issues include a statewide sales tax initiative for open space, a ¼ cent sales tax increase for highways in Utah County to get happy valley taxpayers to subsidize UDOT, and a 1/10th cent sales tax for the arts in both Weber and Davis counties. The worst thing about these tax hike proposals is that they’re all sales tax hikes – the most regressive yet unnoticed tax we’ve got.

It’s ironic that while state policymakers work to streamline the sales tax, local officials and the spending lobby keep messing it up. Utah’s sales tax has become a Christmas tree and everybody wants another ornament for their pet project.

Supreme Court Legislates from the Bench — Again

The Utah Supreme Court has intervened — once again — in Utah’s initiative process, this time bending rules to require county election clerks to count as valid, the petition signatures of persons whom county clerks could not confirm to be registered voters. The High Court’s recent action in ordering Cache County and Utah County clerks to count signatures they had previously disqualified has resulted in the Open Space Sale Tax Initiative to qualify for the ballot.

This isn’t the first time the Utah Supreme Court has intervened in the initiative process. In the 2000 general election the Justices took it upon themselves to draft the actual ballot language for Initiative B, Utah Property Protection Act, because they didn’t like the wording written by the statutorily-designated drafters, the Office of Legislative Research & General Counsel.

Then in 2002, when the spending lobby failed to qualify their initiative to impose new taxes on Envirocare’s low-level radioactive waste depository, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Legislature’s new requirement that sufficient signatures had to be collected in at least 20 of Utah’s 29 to qualify an initiative petition for the ballot. As a result of intervention by the Supreme Court, the measure appeared on the ballot November. Your Taxpayers Association and other defenders of free enterprise urged Utahns to vote “no” on this initiative in the November general election. The issue was defeated by a two-to-one margin after more than $3 million was spent by opponents.

Initiative #1 Is Bad for Taxpayers

Everyone who was concerned about the anti-Envirocare tax initiative in 2002 should be even more worried about Initiative #1, the open space tax issue in 2004. The passage of Initiative #1 would give encouragement to the rest of the spending lobby that this is their way to get the taxes enacted which the legislature has been so stubborn about. Initiative #1 is the harbinger for future tax initiatives in Utah.

The proposal would require the issuance of $150 million in bonds to be spent on “clean water, quality growth, and open space.” Decisions on how to spend the money would be made by the unelected Quality Growth Commission.

Passage of this measure will signal to well-funded out-of-state spending groups that hunting season is open – on Utah’s taxpayers. Utah has no restrictions on initiative campaign finance, and special interest groups will effectively manipulate the system to force tax increases that will harm Utah’s economic growth.

Supporters of Initiative #1 say it is essential to maintain Utah’s special quality of life for our children, by protecting Utah’s drinking water, air quality, wildlife habitat, rivers and streams, family farms and ranches, and cultural and historic landmarks.

And, oh yes, it will also cure cancer.

What supporters aren’t saying is that only 22% of Utah is privately owned and the rest is almost entirely open space.

Contrary to supporters’ claims, the majority of farmers and ranchers do not support this statewide tax increase. The Utah Farm Bureau’s 22,000 member families have debated this issue extensively and prefer to support local funding for open space.

Proponents claim that little is being done to preserve Utah’s quality of life. They don’t want you to know that over the past ten years we have spent well over a BILLION dollars to improve water quality, preserve family farms and ranches, protect watersheds, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, maintain and improve state and local parks, improve air quality, conserve historic and cultural landmarks, protect endangered species, guard against dangerous wastes, and protect open space.

What Proponents Don’t Want You to Know

This initiative leaves too many unanswered questions:

• How are young family farmers going to afford land when they have to compete with $150 million of our tax dollars?

• Why aren’t proponents advertising that Initiative 1 will allow $30 million to be used for convention centers and other local government buildings?

• Why does the “Open Space” initiative require a minimum of $5 million to be spent on museums?

• The devil is in the details, but it makes me wonder what other surprises are hidden in the legal text and the private agendas of supporters.

Some insiders say this proposal is more about buying up property in rural Utah to prevent natural resource production than it is about open space in urban areas. It appears supporters of the initiative think hunting and development of natural resources are incompatible.

Even Bill Clinton didn’t have the gall to suggest a tax hike on the Utah general election ballot when he decided to take the grand Staircase. His decision placed off limits the nation’s largest coal reserve containing over 7 billion tons of coal worth over $1 trillion dollars. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that some of the supporters of Initiative #1 were present on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon during President Clinton’s announcement of the Grand Staircase National Monument.

Supporters of Initiative #1 seem bent on doing similar things to take lands out of production, but this time they’re using new taxes to accomplish their designs. However, the $150 million plus tax hike contained in Initiative #1 is tiny compared to the potential economic costs of placing our natural resources off limits for economic production.

Proponents are selling this as feel-good measure, but it won’t feel good when bad policy comes back to bite us.