SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – The Utah bill that would see the state get rid of its sales taxes on food at grocery stores has put lawmakers on Utah’s Capitol Hill at odds because of its link to guaranteed educational funding written into the state constitution.
H.B. 101, otherwise known as the Food Sales Tax Amendments, would remove the state sales tax at grocery stores. Its implementation hinges on an amendment to the Utah State Constitution that would remove the requirement that all revenue from income tax is used to support public education, children, and individuals with a disability.
Since it is a change to the state constitution, it would require voter approval in the 2024 general election to pass.
Utah Democrats have been critical of linking the two issues together, saying that Utah Republicans are using food sales tax as a “political pawn in its games.” The concern being without the earmark, there would be less funding for public education.
“First, Republican politicians handcuffed crucial pay raises for our teachers to a harmful voucher program, and now they’re holding the removal of the food tax hostage unless voters give in to their demands and allow them to raid the education budget,” said Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis in a statement. “Utahns are sick and tired of their legislators playing cynical political games when it comes to critical issues facing our state.”
House Democrats have called on colleagues to consider debating food sales tax and a change to the state constitution on their own merits. On Wednesday, House Rep. Rosemary Lesser (D-Ogden) proposed an amendment to H.B. 101, of implementing the sales tax removal in July 2023 without the amendment to change guaranteed educational funding in the state constitution.
Her proposal was voted down with a resounding “no,” as House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz (R-Hooper) called it “irresponsible … without addressing our budget concerns.”
“It’s easy to stand up and speak against removing the earmark, but we must take the long view and make tough decisions,” Schultz told ABC4. “Opponents say that this will take away from education funding. However, we will not let the removal of the earmark affect education funding in any way.”
During a discussion of the bill on Wednesday, Schultz mentioned that the surplus in Utah’s General Fund was $130 million while the income tax surplus was $1.1 billion. During the session, Schultz said it was possible to cut the sales tax on food and lower income tax in a responsible way, while not harming education funding by freeing up income tax funds tied to education.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Judy Rohner (R-West Valley City), told ABC4 there was an impression in 2019 that legislature failed to listen to Utah voters. Giving Utahns an opportunity to vote on the changes in 2024 will provide an option to make their voices heard, which both she and Rep. Schultz said they look forward to hearing.
H.B. 101 has been working its way through the 2023 Legislative Session since it was first introduced in the House on Jan. 17. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, the bill passed through the house on a vote of 57-15.
The bill has now been sent to the Senate where it waits to be heard by the Revenue and Taxation Committee.