howardnlby Howard Stephenson

Utah Taxpayers last Tuesday recognized four distinguished Utahns for their service to taxpayers. At its annual conference, held April 26 at Little America Hotel, the Association presented recently retired Governor Olene Walker with its Lifetime Service Award, the Utah County Commission with its Excellence in Public Service Award, and Representative Dave Clark with its Taxpayer Advocate of the Year Award.

Governor Olene Walker honored for lifetime service

In presenting Governor Olene S. Walker with the Taxpayers Association’s lifetime service award, Association Chairman Ken Macey noted tha Governor Walker was sworn in as Utah’s 15th and first woman governor on November 5, 2003.  While serving as Utah’s first woman lieutenant governor, Walker spearheaded many important initiatives including budget security measures, healthcare reform and workforce development.  Walker also served as Chair of the Workforce Task Force, resulting in the development of the Department of Workforce Services.

Governor Walker was a leader in the Utah House of Representatives where she served as majority whip.  In 1985, she sponsored a bill to create the “Rainy Day Fund.”  The fund helped enable the state to get through the economic slowdown without raising taxes. In 2003, USA Today named Utah as the state that best managed the downturn of the previous two years.

With a strong academic background, Governor Walker served for years in public education administration.

The Taxpayers Association honored Governor Walker for three significant contributions to taxpayers of the state: (1) Her leadership in establishing the state rainy day fund, (2) Her strong and courageous opposition to Initiative 1 – the so-called open space initiative – that would have raised taxes by more than $195 million over thirteen years. Without her opposition, it would have been difficult to overcome the momentum which had reached a fevered pitch before last November’s election, and (3) Her leadership in pushing her tax reform committee during 2004 which set the stage for Governor Huntsman’s economic development and tax reform efforts and was the impetus for this year’s legislation establishing the new Tax Reform Task Force.

Utah County Commission receives 2005 Excellence in Public Service Award

Urban counties in Utah have not elicited public confidence of late. In recent years Davis County has struggled to balance budgets, having proposed a 138% property tax hike which generated thousands of angry protesters at the statutorily-required Truth-in-Taxation hearing. Salt Lake County has experienced ongoing budget problems while being riddled with continuous unveilings of new misuses of public money. These have included “Guzzlegate,” questionable hiring practices, tuition misuse, purchasing irregularities, and recent attempts to shift surpluses from enterprise funds to fill the gaps in governmental budgets.

Given the happenings in other of Utah’s urban counties, the lean, mean approach to taxes and spending by the Utah County Commission is a breath of fresh air. For years, Utah County government has been viewed as the most efficient urban county in Utah and one of the most efficient in the nation.

The Utah Taxpayers Association felt so strongly about Utah County’s good example, they decided to present Commissioners Jerry Grover, Steve White, and Larry Ellertson (who replaced now Lt. Governor Gary Herbert) with the Association’s 2005 Excellence in Public Service Award.

In making the presentation, the Taxpayers Association pointed out that the Utah County Commission has only increased property taxes once during the past 20 years, and that was to enable the opening of a voter-approved new jail.

The commission has also cut the Restaurant Tax by 10% and plans to cut another 20% in the near future and ultimately, has scheduled its repeal as soon as the McKay Events Center bonds are paid off.

The Association noted that Utah County has kept costs low by employing zero based budgeting, privatizing government services, applying business principles to government, and requiring each department to operate independently, as a separate enterprise.

It was also noted that Utah County’s county-wide property tax rate is significantly lower than other urban counties in Utah: Utah County .001425 Davis County .001948, Salt Lake County .002816, Weber County .003663

Representative Dave Clark named Taxpayer Advocate of the Year

Confronting special interest groups on behalf of the general public interest is always a challenge. During the 2005 General Session, Rep. David Clark represented taxpayers by addressing the issue of accrued sick leave conversion for state government employees. Under the previous arrangement, retiring state employees could “cash out” 25% of accrued sick leave hours and convert the rest, after a 480 hour deduction, into health insurance coverage at the rate of eight hours sick leave per one month insurance – a $600 benefit for eight hours sick leave. Since state employees receive thirteen sick days per year and since health insurance costs continue to escalate, the impact of this benefit on the state budget was becoming increasingly critical every year. In fiscal year 2005, this benefit will cost taxpayers $16.3 million, and the cost is growing alarmingly at an annualized rate of 16.8%.

In making the award to Rep. Clark, Association Vice President Mike Jerman explained that Clark’s legislation – HB213 – is sound fiscal policy and balances taxpayer interests with commitments made to state employees. HB213 allows sick leave that is accrued prior to December 31, 2005 to be converted into health insurance coverage under the previous arrangement, thereby keeping commitments made to employees. Sick leave accrued after 2005 will be converted into 401(k) transfers and medical savings account distributions based on ending rate of pay. Compared to private sector employees, this is still an exceptionally generous benefit.

The public employee reaction to Rep. Clark’s proposal was furious, and the lobbying effort against HB213 was intense. Rep. Clark was the target of vicious hate mail and other attacks. Many legislators would have capitulated under such a relentless attack, but Rep. Clark persisted. Proposing sound yet contentious legislation is commendable, but working to make sure the legislation is enacted is even more commendable. The vast majority of legislators acknowledged that HB213 was sound policy, but many were reluctant to stand up to the special interests. Despite the intense but unjustified opposition, HB213 was passed by the House and the Senate and was signed into law by the Governor.