Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser says “maybe,” House Speaker Becky Lockhart says no to any gas tax hikes in the 2014 Legislature.
The two top state politicians were just a few of the experts who spoke Tuesday morning at a special CEO legislative briefing at the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
Niederhauser, R-Sandy, says it will be tough to get a gas tax hike – he prefers to call it an adjustment, or indexing – in the 45-day general session that starts Jan. 27. But it could happen.
“I prefer an indexing, step-by-step” over several years, Niederhauser told UtahPolicy after the meeting.
The president supports some kind of transportation funding adjustments, and believes not only will it be talked about, but seriously considered in the session.
He wouldn’t be surprised if an increase in the current vehicle registration fee is approved – that is more likely than a gas tax hike coming from the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
Lockhart, R-Provo, told business leaders she doesn’t see the House approving any kind of tax hike this year.
All the 75-member House and half the 29-member Senate are up for re-election in 2014.
Chamber President Lane Beattie – who is a former Senate president – said the leading business group supports some kind of gas tax indexing.
Beattie said he’s an optimist, and he believes even in an election year the GOP-controlled Legislature can adopt such a plan.
“In my mind it is not a tax increase,” said Beattie – although certainly some GOP conservatives will differ with that view.
Rather, said Beattie, like a number of other government revenue producing programs, the per-gallon state gas tax could be tied to inflation in some manner, and increased annually to keep even with the buying power in road construction and maintenance.
Such a change “would only keep us even,” said Beattie in a news conference. It wouldn’t “even begin” to get much needed new revenue for state and local roads.
The Legislature last increased the state gas tax in 1997, and since then inflation has cut the tax’s purchasing power by 47 percent.
That is another issue that lawmakers need to address, as a special transportation coalition group last year said Utah will fall short by $11 billion over the next 30 years in road needs if something isn’t done.
You can read the chamber’s 2014 policy guide here.
While Utah fairs better than most other states economically, Dave Golden, the chamber’s leader in transportation policy, said if Congress and President Barack Obama don’t start working together, the nation’s economy will just keep struggling along.
Golden is head of Wells Fargo Bank’s western commercial lending. He says his bank, as well as others, are sitting on billions of dollars in cash.
Businesses won’t start investing until they see clarity in tax policy, immigration, healthcare and the debt problem.
“We want desperately to invest in a better way – the money is just parked there” in revenue reserves, said Golden. “We are seeing significant economic impacts by inaction” in Washington.
Utah’s economy is directly tied to what Congress is – or isn’t – doing, said Natalie Gochnour, chamber economist and University of Utah business school associate dean.
The next congressional debate over the debt limit ceiling will come in late February and early March, noted Gochnour, just as the Utah Legislature is wrapping up.
“It is very important that (the debt ceiling) not go sour on us. We need economic leadership out of Washington, not uncertainty and paralysis.”
Beattie said considering the many state needs in transportation and education, it’s time that lawmakers review some of the tax cuts that came in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Are they doing what was expected?”
Beattie questions that.
Especially cuts in the corporate and personal income taxes and imposition of the sales tax reduction on unprepared food should be re-evaluated, said Beattie, who was a GOP senator from Bountiful in the 1990s.
Gochnour, who was a state economist in the 2000s, said when she left state government the state sales tax had $50 million in earmarks. That is $50 million of that revenue was by law dedicated to certain programs.
Now there are $500 million in sales tax earmarks, greatly reducing lawmakers’ ability to move revenues to areas of greatest need, she noted.
Beattie added: “Let’s hope that the issues and needs discussed (in the 2014 Legislature) are not controlled by short-term politicians. Now we’re looking for long-term statesmen, and Utah has those.”