Home » News
Home » News

Utah Legislature continues wrestling with tax reform, possible food tax hike

Published May 17, 2017 8:52 pm

Interim committee • Lawmakers resume effort to tinker with the Utah code.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lawmakers made clear during a hearing Wednesday they're looking at every aspect of Utah's revenue stream — including a higher sales tax on food — in an effort to protect state services from cuts during future downturns.

But, after abandoning a tax reform push in the legislative session earlier this year, they still are struggling to settle on a concrete plan.

Members of the Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee heard from Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who said those working on the issue had looked at every option.

"I'm hoping that we can come up with some kind of things that we've never thought of before, but I don't see it," the Sandy Republican said. "There are only a couple things that I think really can be addressed."

If Utah wants a more stable tax system while also preserving its image as a tax-friendly climate for business, it must avoid targeting business for new revenue, and shift tax burdens elsewhere.

As they scour the tax code for possible areas to cut or raise taxes, lawmakers are looking at higher taxes on vehicle fuel, food and possibly services, each carrying its own challenges.

What makes taxing services particularly difficult is that medical services make up more than half of the taxable transactions, Niederhauser said.

Niederhauser didn't unveil new proposals for tax reform as he spoke to the committee. He said the Legislature should look to the taxes that pay for Utah's roads, which Niederhauser said was a $600 million drain on the general fund as cars have become more efficient and gas tax revenues lag behind needs.

Lawmakers are scouring the tax code to look for ways to lower the income tax rate and eliminate certain exemptions and deductions for individuals.

"An income tax is a tax on productivity," Niederhauser said. "If you want more productivity, guess what we have to do, we lower it."

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, suggested lawmakers raise the income tax on what he said were about 19,000 people making more than $500,000 a year, from the flat 5 percent tax to 7 percent.

"I suspect if we polled them a vast majority wouldn't say this is going to force them to move to Idaho," Dabakis said. "They would recognize the responsibility that they have, having done well."

While lawmakers considered raising the sales tax on food during the legislative session, Niederhauser said they'd discovered that charging the same 4.7 percent on food purchases already applied to general sales "isn't a big enough part of the tax revenue to make a huge difference in volatility."

Utah is one of six states that offer a reduced rate on grocery taxes. Thirty-two states don't tax most groceries and five states have no sales tax. Utah legislators were looking at joining seven other states that charge a full sales tax on food.

House leaders don't appear ready to move past the idea of raising the tax on groceries, which Utah lowered in 2007 to 1.75 percent. An additional 1.25 percent is collected by local governments, effectively putting Utah's tax on groceries at 3 percent.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, the committee's co-chairman, said lawmakers should look at a hybrid of keeping the discounted tax on staple foods while raising it on other food items.

"Many states limit their sales tax exemption [on food] to basic food staples," Eliason said.

Arthur Sutherland, of the Coalition of Religious Communities, spoke out against any effort to raise the tax on groceries because it would disproportionately burden poor people.

Instead, Sutherland said, lawmakers should repeal the food tax altogether. He proposed lawmakers raise the general sales tax slightly – from 4.7 percent to close to 5 percent – to pay for eliminating the tax on all food.

"Eliminate the sales tax on food," Sutherland said. "It seems that it's a simple thing to do."


Twitter: @TaylorWAnderson






Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
comments powered by Disqus