Former state representative leads referendum against tax reform bill passed in special session

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Former West Valley City State Representative Fred Cox is leading the effort to undo the controversial tax reform bill passed by the Utah State Legislature in a special session Thursday. The proposal would reduce income tax by $160 million for Utahns, but increase sales tax on multiple items such as food by three percent.

Senator Lyle Hillyard, who co-chairs the Utah State Legislature Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force said the tax restructuring proposal includes modifications that would help Utahns in the lower-income class.

“Number one, we have a grocery tax credit. That’s $125 for every person living in the household where the income is below $45,000,” said Hillyard.

But critics said the credit would cause more Utahns experiencing food insecurity to fall through the cracks.

“They’re not actually fixing anything with this particular bill. They’re shuffling money around. You can add some additional money at the end of the year or periodically in checks, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Cox. “According to polls, there are two million Utahns who don’t support this tax reform bill.”

Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson said the Tax Restructuring and Equalization task force had spent the past seven months studying how to address the state’s revenue imbalance and held 17 public meetings – eight town halls across the state and nine public meetings at the Capitol.

But hunger advocates said they believe the proposal was a done deal from the start.

“We’ve also been told that from the get-go that this has been a done deal, that the train has already left the station,” said Alex Cragun, Food Security Advocate for Utahns Against Hunger.

After the task force voted last Monday to move the proposal forward, the Utah State Legislature passed the major tax overhaul plan during a special session Thursday. That’s when Cox immediately got to work.

“I started calling people and the more people I talked to, the more people that were mad at this particular legislation. They were angry that the state had not listened to them in all those public comment meetings,” he said. “I do know that representatives and senators that I talked to were concerned that if they voted no, it could cost them during this next session on critical bills they were running.”

Since the bill didn’t pass with a minimum of a two-thirds vote, he decided to pursue the option of filing a referendum using his experience with the state code. With nearly a dozen supporters willing to sponsor the application, he filed the referendum to the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s office Monday morning.

“I have been since 2011, opposed to raising the tax on food. When I got in the legislature, there was discussion then. I knew what it was like to walk into a store with $3 and look at the can of milk and can of chicken and go, ‘What can I buy based on tax?'” said Cox. “Some of the legislators didn’t understand that at the time, but I told them why it should be opposed and it has been opposed to since then.”

One of the application sponsors was Gina Cornia, Executive Director for Utahns Against Hunger.

“I think that the state legislature had other options besides increasing the sales tax on food. That has been our message from the beginning of this conversation,” she said. “We believe that voters should be engaged in the public process and policymaking.”

Cox now has until January 21 (40 days after the special session passed the bill) to collect nearly 116,000 signatures in at least 15 counties. If they get enough, the bill effective date would be paused and its future would be left up to Utah voters on the November 2020 ballot. 

The former Republican lawmaker said he doesn’t plan on hiring any professional signature gatherers. Although a tough feat, he said he’s confident his team of volunteers and supporters can do it. As of Monday, the FaceBook volunteer group, Utah 2019 Tax Refendum had 3,000 members.

“If every single one of those people gathered 50 signatures, we would have more than enough,” said Cox. “We get the signatures in place and bill, whether the governor signs it or not, will never become effective. It will never be law as long as the voters vote it down.”

In a statement to ABC4 News Monday, Utah Senate President Adams said:

“We saw unprecedented citizen engagement and addressed many concerns we heard throughout this process. Our goal was and will continue to do what is right for Utahns and our state both now and in the future. This tax reform bill is a result of a robust public process that provides Utahns with a significant tax cut, helps stabilizes our base and begins to address the structural imbalance in the state budget.”

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