Bob Bernick’s notebook: Tax reform vs. public opinion

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GOP legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert are moving ahead with restoring the state sales tax back on unprepared food purchases at grocery stores.

And they are solidly behind changing the state Constitution to remove the income tax revenue guaranteed dedication to public and higher education.

In both cases, polling by Y2 Analytics shows citizens against those moves — and state Republican leaders will be hard-pressed to change public opinion — especially concerning a constitutional change which must be approved by voters next November.

Thursday night, the Tax Reform Task Force discussed, again, restoring the sales tax on food in their draft bill — which gives upwards of $80 million in tax relief (with the hope of getting to $100 million later) and cuts the income tax rate, as well.

This is not a popular move.’s pollster Y2 Analytics found in a recent survey that voters don’t want the sales tax back on food, even with some kind of an income tax refundable rebate going to low-income Utahns.

An even bigger political problem for legislative Republicans and the governor will be, as part of tax reform, a state constitutional change that would decouple personal and corporate income tax revenue from college and K-12 public school spending.

Utah is the only state that ties income taxes to public schooling at the K-12 and college levels.

And state leaders say (they are all Republicans) that the constitutional restrictions make it more and more difficult for the Legislature to balance state budgets.

The whole reason for this tax reform effort is because the state sales tax, now set at 4.85 percent, isn’t keeping up with needs in the state General Fund.

The sales tax is not levied on hundreds of services, many of which, before the high-tech revolution, either didn’t exist or were obtained via hard material sales, which are taxed.

Just one example: It used to be that folks bought videotapes or movies on DVDs, which are sales taxed. But now, especially among the younger set, they stream movies on their computers or iPads, even linking them to their TV sets to view. And streaming services are not taxed.

You can see a lively explanation for tax reform at the Legislature’s special web page StrongerFutures. Every citizen should read it.

Y2 finds that two-thirds of Utah voters, 66 percent, either “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose restoring the sales tax on unprepared food.

Half of all Utahns don’t want the Constitution changed, fearing harm to public schools; only 30 percent favor change and 20 percent are neither for no against it.

Pro-public school advocates, especially the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union, are very warry of such an amendment.

GOP legislative leaders and Herbert say they have ongoing discussions with public ed groups, including the UEA. And the politicians hope they can get the groups not to oppose such a constitutional change, even if they can’t be convinced to support it.

Key to this issue will be promises, perhaps some set in law, that public school income tax revenue won’t be diverted to non-education state programs — and thus keep their unique funding sources even if the Constitution is changed.

If a future showdown over basic education funding isn’t avoided, the income tax dedication change amendment could face the same fate as private school vouchers did back in 2007.

You may recall that after years and years of trying, legislative conservatives finally passed a vouchers bill, giving parents who send their kids to private schools some tax relief, in the 2007 Legislature.

Pro-public school groups, especially the UEA with 15,000 teacher members, quickly got going. In record time they gathered the needed signatures on a repeal referendum petition.

And the voucher changes were killed by voters in November 2007, 62-37 percent, a real public thrashing.

That drubbing has not been lost on GOP legislators, and no voucher attempts have been made since.

Can public education advocates be brought on board to tax reform changes?

And can two-thirds of Utahns come to support, or at least accept, putting the sales tax back on food?

Some real public opinion shifts are needed out of the GOP state bosses, that much is clear.