This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
"If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made" Otto von Bismarck
Years were required to properly mix, stuff and fricassee the legislative sausage that just passed to raise Utah's gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon spiced with future automatic increases, and permission to raise other local sales taxes.
The state's current 24.5 cent per gallon gas tax had not been raised since 1997, mainly because legislators believe that those who hike taxes are booted by voters.
Supporters of boosting taxes for other causes such as the nation's lowest per-pupil spending face the same challenge. So how did gas tax advocates pull it off?
Calming lawmakers' fears required the creation of political cover by outside groups; education; initially asking for higher increases so the final one didn't look too bad; finding the right timing; and making everyone believe they won when maybe they didn't.
Chess match • The push for this year's tax hike actually started three years ago.
Businesses began publicly complaining roads were deteriorating and not keeping up with growth, hurting the ability to move goods. As the gas tax kept losing value from inflation, they said, highway officials stopped maintaining rural highways to focus on busier urban freeways.
That started to provide political cover worried lawmakers needed.
In early 2013, the Salt Lake Chamber formed the Utah Transportation Coalition. It produced studies saying economic benefits of such tax hikes would be far greater than costs. It testified, lobbied and even advertised on behalf of a tax hike.
At the same time, the nonpartisan Utah Foundation released a report saying that Utah has an $11.3 billion shortfall over the next 30 years for priority highway and mass transit projects. The study was quoted incessantly for two years.
More players • Cities and counties which receive 30 percent of the gasoline tax contended that the stagnant gas tax had forced them to raid other programs or raise revenues to fix local roads.
In 2014, an election year for lawmakers, city and county officials asked the Legislature to allow them to raise gasoline taxes by 5 to 10 cents a gallon locally. City leaders who would not face election until 2015 would take the heat for actually raising taxes.
But even allowing tax hikes by others in an election year seemed risky, so lawmakers instead ordered a year of study.
Supporters of the Utah Transit Authority tried to win permission for counties to ask voters for a sales-tax increase to help fund UTA service expansion and projects, but that died in the final minutes of the election-year session.
Proposals • By late 2014, the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee returned with its conclusion: a tax hike was critical and it suggested raising fuel taxes, sales taxes, vehicle registration fees or more.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert said that the new taxes were needed in this non-election year. But they supported different proposals.
While Herbert endorsed raising the gas tax, he wanted revenue to help allow transferring $94 million from transportation funds into education. Other leaders wanted gas tax hikes to go to transportation.
Herbert's move created what became a key argument: lack of a gas tax hike through the years led the state to use other funds for roads that could have helped schools.
Meanwhile, with the support of Senate leaders, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, introduced a bill calling for a 10-cent a gallon raise. He said he fully expected that it would be cut by perhaps half in negotiations which is precisely what happened.
House leaders then proposed a sort of legislative magic trick that would allow gas taxes to rise, but allow lawmakers to say they technically did not vote for a tax hike.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, introduced a bill to switch from the current cents-per-gallon gas tax to something closer to a sales tax. It would charge a percentage of the wholesale price of gas, and would adjust annually without any action by the Legislature.
As gas prices rise, so would the tax collected at the pump allowing automatic tax increases without politically risky votes.
Anderson initially proposed setting the percentage so it would match the current 24.5 cent a gallon taxbut Senate leaders objected that it could be a huge tax increase in disguise.
The House also proposed allowing counties to ask voters to approve a quarter-cent per dollar increase in sales tax. Proceeds would be split by cities, counties and the Utah Transit Authority for their local projects.
Compromise • Anderson, Van Tassell and other negotiators publicly previewed weeks ago the compromise that ultimately would pass in the legislative session's final minutes. But some maneuvering would be needed to bring other lawmakers along.
The deal included adopting a 5 cent a gallon gas tax increase, effective Jan. 1 the sort of hike the Senate sought, but scaled back.
The deal included adopting the House's idea of switching to a sales-tax-like system.
To placate House members squeamish about voting for a tax hike, the compromise was designed so additional automatic tax hikes would not kick in until the wholesale price of gas reaches $2.45 gallon, which Anderson said is not projected to occur for another six to 10 years.
To ease Senate concerns about potential runaway taxes once the automatic raises kick in, the compromise guaranteed a tax cap of no more than 40 cents a gallon.
The deal also included the House's proposal for a local-option sales tax.
The compromise still faced resistance. Many senators opposed the sales tax while many House members opposed any immediate tax hike.
A way eventually emerged to make them all feel like winners as pressure built from the governor, businesses, local governments and others for action.
End game • The breakthrough came during the rush of the last afternoon of the session when the Senate finally amended the compromise into the House's gas-tax bill, HB362.
The merged legislation added something neither side had wanted: increased vehicle-registration fees.
Uniting behind the common goal of eliminating the fee-hike would eventually help the Senate and House to each claim they had won a victory over the other.
The fees were not mentioned as the Senate quickly passed the package, and the lengthy substitute containing them was made available only moments before the quick debate so the Senate passed it without controversy.
When the bill arrived in the House, members refused to accept Senate changes largely because of the vehicle-registration fees. So the two houses called for a conference committee to work out differences.
Van Tassell told other senators just before that meeting that he had included the registration fees mostly to ensure a conference committee would be held.
Negotiators agreed on a solution within a minute, saying they both wanted simply to erase those new registration fees.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Al Jackson, R-Highland, reported back that senators had won "99.9 percent" of what they wanted and the Senate approved the deal 20-8.
On the other side of the Capitol, Anderson told House members they were the winners. "The local option that we approved has stayed intact," he said. "The registration fees that this body rejected have been removed."
He said the hike would help stop education from having to compete with transportation for funds.
"This is a comprehensive solution that we and future generations will benefit from," Anderson declared. "I realize this requires dedicated public servants to cast a courageous vote."
The House then passed it 44-29 shortly before the midnight adjournment, completing the long-simmering legislative sausage now on its way to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature.