Utah Taxpayers Association takes unusual step of jumping into Love/McAdams race

The non-profit Utah Taxpayers Association has stepped into a new role for the tax watchdog group – apparently taking sides in a partisan candidate election race.

While UTA Vice President Billy Hesterman says the group is NOT endorsing 4th District GOP Rep. Mia Love in her tight re-election race with Salt Lake County Democratic Mayor Ben McAdams, the taxpayers association analysis released Tuesday of county tax decisions is the first time the group has gotten involved directly in a partisan candidate election.

The UTA has, of course, over the years supported or opposed – mostly opposed – various public tax increase efforts, usually bond elections or tax hikes by state and local governments, school districts, transit districts or special improvement districts.

The UTA has been around since the 1930s, and today is primarily funded by local businesses, with business leaders on its board, and especially opposes property and other taxes that impact businesses.

It sponsors several “Utah Taxes Now” seminars yearly, well attended by legislators, lobbyists, and local and state government officials.

The UTA staff produced what is commonly called these days a “fact check” on McAdams’ campaign claims that as mayor he did not raise taxes over the last six years, and in fact has cut tax rates.

Love is running a TV ad specifically criticizing McAdams’ tax record.

Hesterman said the taxpayers association staff decided on their own to conduct the fact check and issue their analysis.

Hesterman said they did not inform the taxpayers’ board of directors beforehand, and have not so far heard from their board.

UTA President Howard Stephenson is a long-time GOP state senator from the Draper area.

In recent times, it has been the association’s vice president who has taken the public lead on politically-related issues – like testifying before a legislative hearing on this or that tax or budget bill.

But Hesterman said Stephenson, who is retiring from the Senate this year and not running for re-election, was informed of the staff’s intent to analyze McAdams’ campaign tax claims, and Stephenson approved of the idea.

Hesterman said when the staff heard of the Love/McAdams give-and-take over McAdams’ tax record, “We thought we could look that history up, see what happened” with county taxes.

While this may be the first time the association has done this, Hesterman said it might well be that in the future, when candidates are discussing tax history, the association may get involved again “to add some context” to the debate.

You can read the UTA analysis of McAdams’ record – which the association directly criticized in their news release – at the bottom of this story.

Hesterman said the association is a 501c(4) non-profit group, and as such, they have been careful about getting involved directly in partisan candidate races – although they believe they are on safe, legal ground here.

“We did see a tax issue here and decided to clarify that on behalf of taxpayers,” he said. “That’s why we jumped in here.”

 “We did not endorse in this race and likely won’t,” he added.

Among other things, the association’s “fact checking” of McAdams’ campaign ad says he is “playing games with Utah’s property tax system and is meant to hide the truth from taxpayers and voters.”

Alyson Heyrend, McAdams’ campaign spokesperson, told UtahPolicy.com: “According to the state, the property tax rate did go down every year.

“Mayor McAdams is proud of the work he’s done with the Republican-led County Council to balance the budget, earn an AAA bond rating, and provide vital services county-wide — all while keeping taxes low.”

Hesterman says the association is not playing politics with this McAdams’ tax assessment. He notes that a month ago the association published an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune questioning why Love supported a carbon tax bill.

“So we have brought up issues now with both candidates and their tax issues,” he told UtahPolicy.com.

The Utah Tax Association’s publication is below.

Utah Taxpayers Association Analysis of Mayor McAdams Tax History

 A TV and social media advertisement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uV97ojgi6e4) released by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams’ congressional campaign made an inaccurate claim about the mayor and his property tax record during his tenure as Salt Lake County Mayor. The video claims that the mayor has lowered Salt Lake County’s tax rate every year since he has been in office. This claim is playing games with Utah’s property tax system and is meant to hide the truth from taxpayers and voters.

It is important to understand that Utah’s property tax system is a revenue-based system and not a rate-based system. Each year, every taxing entity (cities, counties, school districts, special districts etc.) has a new rate set which will generate the same amount of revenue the entity collected the year before, plus additional tax revenue from growth (new developments) within the entity. If property values in the area increase, the rate will automatically decrease. This happens automatically outside of any decision made by the elected officials of the taxing entity.

If the elected officials want to collect more revenue than the entity collected than the prior year plus growth in the entity’s boundaries, then the Truth-in-Taxation process is triggered, which requires the entity to hold a public meeting on the tax increase before being able to collect additional revenue. Revenue increases are what a taxing entity should be held accountable for when discussing property taxes.

In 2015, Mayor McAdams and the Salt Lake County Council approved a property tax increase that raised $9.4 million in additional revenue for the county. According to the State Tax Commission, the rate for Salt Lake County, to generate previous year’s revenue, would have been set at .002261. The rate that was adopted, to gain additional funding for the county, was .002371. For the McAdams campaign to claim tax rates have been kept down when there is a clear increase like this, is misleading. 

“The fact is Mayor McAdams and the Salt Lake County Council have increased property taxes during his tenure,” said Billy Hesterman, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. “To convince the public of any other story is an attempt to hide what is reality.”

In addition to increasing property taxes, Salt Lake County has also sought twice to increase the county’s sales tax rate. In 2015, McAdams and the County Council placed Prop. 1 on the ballot to increase the sales tax rate by .25%. Voters in Salt Lake County voted down that proposal but just this year the county moved forward with increasing the sales tax rate by .25% after a supermajority of city councils within the county passed resolutions urging the county raise the sales tax rate. Mayor McAdams did little, if anything, to protect taxpayers from this increase.

The Utah Taxpayers Association knows Mayor McAdams is a supporter of transparency. We call on him and his campaign to be clear about the tax record of the county while he has been in office and recognize the increases that have been passed during his tenure. 

The Utah Taxpayers Association has not endorsed a candidate in the 4th Congressional District race but works to correct erroneous tax claims made by candidates and office holders.