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Taylorsville • Anthony Martinez's eyes grew wide when he saw how one group is fighting a proposed sales-tax hike for transportation. He was handed a $50 gift card as he was about to enter a Reams grocery store with his grandson.
"Really? Wow," he said as he took the card, not quite believing it.
Martinez then listened a little more closely as Evelyn Everton, state director of Americans for Prosperity, talked to him about how the tax hike would cost an estimated $50 a person per year in Salt Lake County.
"So we're giving $50 gift cards so people can get an idea of how much that can buy," said Everton.
"I hadn't heard anything about that tax increase," Martinez said afterward. "I was really surprised" about the free $50, "but I like it."
Martinez was one of 20 lucky shoppers given such gift cards Thursday, while others simply received printed fliers about the tax or were shown a table with $200 in groceries to demonstrate what a family of four could buy with money that would go to the tax increase.
At issue is a proposal to raise sales tax by a penny for every $4 in purchases. Counties are deciding whether to put it on the ballot this November. Forty percent of the money in Wasatch Front counties would go to the Utah Transit Authority for rail and bus services, and the rest would go to local cities and counties for roads.
"It may not sound like a lot. But when you quantify what a family can buy with it, it does add up," Everton said. At $200 a year for a family of four, "We're talking about three months of electricity for a family. We're talking about four tanks of gas."
She said supporters of the tax "just talk about roads. They don't talk about the real money that's coming out of Utah families' pockets."
She adds that the Legislature this year already raised property taxes for schools and gasoline tax (by 5 cents a gallon, effective Jan. 1). "We've had two tax increases, and now comes another costing a family of four $200 a year."
Americans for Prosperity also sent out mailers this week asking residents to call county leaders to oppose the tax increase.
The Utah Transportation Coalition, a group of businesses that has worked closely with mayors and other elected officials to push the sales-tax hike, dismissed the new fight by Americans for Prosperity as coming from "an out-of-state special-interest group," and said support from local cities and counties show the tax is needed.
"Utah voters should decide based on their own values, not the values of an out-of-state special-interest group. Utah voters are smart. They understand the value and prudence of investment," it said in a written statement.
Americans for Prosperity has sometimes been controversial. It was started by conservative philanthropist brothers David H. Koch and Charles Koch, and is seen as their primary political advocacy group. As a tax-exempt nonprofit entity, AFP is not legally required to disclose its donors and it has poured big money into politics.
Everton said AFP's Utah chapter is one of 36 nationally, and said it is a local group.
"We're fighting for Utah families. I'm a Utahn, and I've lived here for 22 years. Everyone here [among volunteers] is a Utahn and cares about Utah issues," she said. "Our values are Utah values: limited government, free market, less taxes."
She said the group has no budget set for its campaign against the sales tax, "and we wouldn't disclose it if we did." She added she is unsure how many more campaign events at stores it may hold similar to the one Thursday.
The Utah Transportation Coalition on Thursday also defended the need for the proposed sales tax, saying it is needed to cover a projected shortfall for needed transportation projects and is "vital to maintain our state's economic growth and good jobs."
It said if Utah had not previously invested in building freeways and transit systems, "We would have gridlock to rival any major state in the nation. Instead, we have the best economy in the country and we get home quicker and safer."
Adding to the argument for the sales-tax increase is a study released Thursday by TRIP, a national transportation research group. It said 30 percent of roads in the Provo-Orem area are in poor condition, ranking 22nd worst among the nation's medium-size urban areas. That costs Provo-Orem drivers $583 extra a year in additional fuel consumption, tire wear and extra maintenance from rough roads.
John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said most state highways and freeways in the Provo-Orem area are in good shape and most of the poor-condition roads discussed by the report are local city and county routes, which could be helped by the sales-tax increase.
He said such findings about poor local roads "[are] why we advocated for the gas tax [increase] and the local option" sales tax increase.