howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s belated opposition to Amendment 3, the Joint Resolution on Marriage, was a surprise to legislators. The surprise was not just his position but most of all his timing. Shurtleff claims that he and his office didn’t have time to weigh in on the legislative debate on same-sex marriage while the measure was before the legislature. But now, after the fact, he’s taken a position against the amendment.

I find it incredible that Shurtleff’s office did not have the time or interest to give advice on the single most controversial proposal of the session: a Constitutional amendment which everyone knew would be challenged in court if finally approved by voters. HJR 25 was printed and available for pubic inspection on February 10 and obtained final passage on March 3. Shurtleff and his stable of lawyers had 22 days to provide input. This was not a piece of legislation which was below the radar screen. It was perhaps the most visible piece of legislation in the 2004 General Session. Upon passing the House with the required 2/3 majority after lengthy committee and floor debates, it went to the Senate where it was debated and amended and ultimately received the necessary 2/3 majority. The resolution then had to return to the house for ratification of the Senate changes and another 2/3 majority vote.

He had plenty of time to help amend Initiative B

It’s interesting that Shurtleff and his staff had plenty of time last session to lobby for passage SB 175, the measure which scuttled Initiative B, the prohibition of illegal property seizures, which had passed the electorate in the 2000 elections with nearly a 70% favorable vote – the highest of any initiative in memory. He and his assistants were there in force during committee meetings, caucuses, and floor debates. They even helped craft the language so it would be defensible in court.

But somehow, Shurtleff didn’t feel it was important to ensure that the Marriage Amendment was defensible.

He had plenty of time to buck for major tax hikes

Shurtleff’s office also took the time last session to argue against tax cuts and lobby for tax increases.

The AG’s office testified before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee during the 2004 Legislative Session in support of the Jones-Mascaro Tax which would have imposed an additional $79 million tax on Utah’s already heavily taxed families. Shurtleff’s representative said the tax hike was the best tax proposal he’d seen.

This was the same legislative session Shurtleff and his team didn’t have time to review or comment on the high-profile Marriage Amendment.

Keep in mind that Shurtleff was one of the three outgoing Salt Lake County commissioners responsible for the massive “midnight massacre” property tax increase in 2000, part of which was rolled back by Nancy Workman when she took office in 2003.

Businesses should especially be concerned

Recently, the Attorney General’s office took time to testify before the legislature’s Income Tax Task Force opposing reductions in corporate income taxes. Shurtleff’s representative told the task force that large multi-state corporations, which already pay close to 90% of Utah’s corporate income taxes, don’t mind paying higher taxes

The AG’s spokesman said, “. . . we can get this money right now from out of state businesses that are glad to pay it.”

The AG’s office not only does not want to eliminate the tax but feels the state should hire more auditors, and pay them more, to go after multi-state corporations.

The AG’s office also targeted failing business by suggesting a gross receipts tax is worth considering as a method to capture more money from corporations which pay the minimum $100 tax. This would require businesses, which already pay property and sales taxes, to pay more income taxes even if they had no profit or had losses.

The AG’s office also complained to the task force that under the current system, if a business has a “big loss” in one period, it has 15 years to offset income against that loss. They feel the minimum tax should be tied to a factor such as sales. In essence businesses will need to pay taxes even if they’re “not sure of a profit.”

Shurtleff’s representative mentioned that Utah’s 5% corporate tax rate is below the national average but failed to mention that Utah is one of 24 states that uses combined reporting which gives Utah a broader base than most states. Also, in some states, including neighboring Idaho, offer generous manufacturing tax credits which reduce effective corporate rates.

In fairness, perhaps these tax proposals are not specifically from Mark Shurtleff, but the opinions of his staff, but they still raise the question of why he and his staff have the time to be involved legislatively on so many other issues, but not a Constitional Amendment until it is past amending.