FROM THE DESERET NEWS
In an eye-opening exchange with men and women in poverty last week, I learned a great deal about the actual impact of the new tax reform plan being fast-tracked through the Utah Legislature. I sought their feedback on a proposed tax increase for unprepared food that will be coupled with a $125 annual grocery rebate for each family member. I didn’t get the response the bill’s proponents might have expected.
Utah leaders have a great track record of collaborating to find meaningful solutions to public policy challenges. Despite that record, and the tax reform task force’s commendable work holding open forums throughout the state, Utahns aren’t ready to go along with the reforms. They are still hungry for more transparency, listening and discussion. They are also hungry for leaders to cut any unnecessary spending.
It’s no secret that HB441 was mishandled. You simply cannot draft a complex tax reform plan behind closed doors, debut it in the last two weeks of the session and expect buy-in from the public. The process was flawed. Utahns lost trust.
The path to regain the public trust and get tax reform back on the rails is through a combination of bold leadership, genuine listening and deliberate collaboration.
First, leadership is key. The public needs more information about the challenges in our current tax system. The current process skipped this piece, assuming everyone understood the why and were ready to talk about the how. For many voters, their first exposure to the discussion was the debate over taxing services. Fully and accurately diagnosing the problem in a way that gains public buy-in is an important role for Utah’s governor and state Legislature.
The second step is listening. Utahns expect and deserve state leaders who will genuinely listen and seek honest feedback, not to fulfill a requirement, but to gain more information to apply to decision-making. Far too often, elected officials think they know what’s best for the public without having real, direct, personal conversations with those directly impacted by changes in public policy.
As I met with the people who would be directly affected by the sales tax on food, I learned some things. Even though the rebate may be more lucrative for these families in the long run, the majority said they’d rather have the monthly savings on their grocery bill. Other groups have shared with me genuine concerns that this change will hurt lower- to middle-class families who don’t qualify for the grocery rebate.
The last step is the most important. Listening must lead to deliberate collaboration. Utahns are smart, engaged, passionate people. It’s one of the many things that makes our state stand out in this country. Elected leaders should view the citizenry not as an obstacle to tax reform, but as partners in crafting better policy.
A process Utahns can feel good about would be slow, deliberate and open. It would involve countless economic models about different approaches to taxation, including projecting impacts to all business sectors. It would allow each resident to know exactly what their tax burden would look like under various proposals under consideration. And it would mean we don’t add a new tax on anyone who hasn’t been part of the discussion.
I believe our legislators are good men and women working in earnest to craft tax policy that they believe is good for Utah. They’re willing to tackle an incredibly complex issue, and they’re giving their best effort to it. But this tax reform public process has been hastily undertaken.
The push to sidestep the full legislative process by passing the reforms in a special session is a mistake that risks alienating key constituencies. It could prompt more citizens to seek to govern via referendum. The legislative process is the best tool for policymaking. We should stick with that process in the general session to allow for optimal deliberation and public engagement.
Utahns rightly expect and deserve the best tax system of any state in the nation, befitting of Utah’s status as the best managed state in the nation. And that will only have a chance by engaging in the best possible process.
Aimee Winder Newton is a Utah Republican candidate for governor and a Salt Lake County council member.