SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Volunteers across the state are scrambling to collect signatures and meet the deadline that’s quickly approaching for the referendum against the Tax Reform Bill. Although the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has only processed one percent of the needed 116,000 signatures so far, organizers said they’re not worried.
Lawmakers behind the controversial bill, passed by the Utah State Legislature during a special session on December 12, said the new plan evens out an imbalance in the state’s tax structure. On the income tax side, it would reduce income tax from 4.95 to 4.56 percent, expand Utah dependent personal exemption, give a social security credit, and a grocery tax credit.
On the sales tax side, it would increase sales tax on food from 1.75 to 4.85 percent, repeal exemptions, apply sales tax to gas, services, motor vehicle rental, provide an exemption for feminine hygiene products, and give a discount to modified vendors.
Critics said the tax overhaul plan would cripple Utahns living in the lower income class and already struggling to meet daily needs. Just four days after the bill was passed, former West Valley City State Representative Fred Cox filed a referendum to pause the bill and put it on the November 2020 ballot for Utahns to vote on. His grassroots organization has until January 21 to collect signatures from eight percent of registered voters in at least 15 different counties.
In a statement, Utah Taxpayer Association Vice President Rusty Cannon voiced his opposition to the referendum.
“The volume of hysteria and incorrect information based on myths and falsehoods surrounding the tax reform bill is becoming almost deafening. […] Has anyone actually bothered to read the bill? So far, in our conversations with those complaining about the bill it is abundantly clear that virtually nobody has. […] We realize tax reform can be confusing and boring, but we are pleading for people to slow down and pay attention to the facts for just a minute. […] Those gathering signatures to repeal this bill are asking citizens to sign a petition that would actually undo one of the largest tax cuts in Utah’s history and HIKE taxes upwards of $200 million per year.”
Cox fired back saying, “The Utah Taxpayer Association claims we misunderstand the tax reform bill, but they actually need to read the Utah Constitution. It wrongly claims the referendum will hike taxes. It only puts the tax reforms on hold until voters decide its fate.”
Meanwhile, volunteers like Rebecca Campbell has put her life on hold to distribute packets and train others to collect signatures.
“Recently, I’ve put in every hour I have basically. First thing in the morning until at night. Thankfully, my husband can be at home with my children,” she said. “I did not like hearing about the food and gas tax going up. That’s going to hurt everybody in their everyday life. I think it’s a regressive tax and I didn’t like how the legislature didn’t listen to anyone, as I understand this. Most people were very opposed to this. They put it through anyways right before Christmas.”
Judy Rohner, one of the referendum sponsors said referendum requirements and guidelines have become stricter, prompting them to make sure each signature entry is collected correctly.
“It is a Class A misdemeanor if someone signs more than one packet, if they sign for someone else, or if they sign without being a registered voter” said Rohner.
Signature collector Tena Rohl said her volunteer efforts have felt like taking on a full-time job, but it’s all worth it because of her strong opposition to the increase sales tax on food.
“I’m a newly retired teacher and I have fed many children in my career. The raising of the tax on food I believe is immoral and even evil,” said Rohl. “I believe legislators snuck that bill through without the vote of the people and we need to vote on it. We need to read it. We need to have time.”
Cox told ABC4 News last Monday his group was working on printing more signature packets after struggling to keep up with the demand. Campbell said the number of Utahns wanting to sign the petition has been positively overwhelming.
“It’s amazing. So many people want to sign this referendum. It is so easy to get signatures if we can get out to people,” said Campbell. “Yesterday, we had people lined up out the door to sign in Millcreek. They want to sign, they’re really excited to do it. Everyone has a good attitude, so I actually am enjoying this. But we need more volunteers.”
With less than three weeks left, Justin Lee with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office told ABC4 News they had only processed 1,603 valid signatures as of Friday afternoon. But said numbers are being updated constantly.
“County clerks have to review each signature to verify that individual is eligible to sign the petition. The clerks have 14 days to review a packet once it’s submitted,” said Lee via text message.
Rohner said they’re not worried about meeting the deadline because there are still volunteers who have not submitted their packets to their county clerks and noted the amount of time it takes for each signature to be verified and counted by officials.
“We’re not going to let it fail. We are going to make sure that we get those signatures and we’re going to try and we’re going to make sure that come November, that one of the things that’s on that ballot is this referendum,” said Rohner. “It sounds like it’s impossible. But I believe the determination of these people and the fact that they feel legislators haven’t listened to them, I think we’re going to make it.”
If you would like to volunteer or find a location to sign the referendum, click here.