Analysis: Pro-tax reform vote did not hurt many lawmakers politically

Utah Capitol 16

When the anti-tax reform public movement was gaining strength in early January, there was all kinds of talk about how in key legislative contests, leading lawmakers who pushed reform in the December special session could be voted out this year.

Well, candidate filing deadlines have passed. And guess what?

Top GOP House members and senators ARE NOT getting many, or any, challengers this year.

Just like what happened in the very much more visible “tax revolt” of 1988, the anti-tax reform 2020 movement is more bark than bite.

Some key examples:

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, was the House co-chair of the Tax Reform Task Force that came up with the specific reform measure. He also led the charge in the December special session to get it passed in the House.

Gibson is running for re-election in his House District 65. And no one filed against him. He’s automatically re-elected to another two years.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, led the overall Republican effort in tax reform. He has only one challenger, United Utah Party candidate Ammon Gruwell. No third-party candidate has won a Utah legislative seat since the 1930s. Wilson is all but re-elected, as well.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, sat on the Tax Reform Task Force and was also a strong tax reformer. His only challenger is Shawn Ferriola, also of the UUP. Schultz is also almost reassured re-election.

Assistant Majority Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem, is being challenged by two candidates, Catherine Eslinger of the UUP and fellow Republican Party candidate Matthew W. Bell.

It’s unclear now how serious Bell will be in this House District 59 race. A computer search for Bell comes up with one listing where he supported archconservative Republican Chris Herrod in Herrod’s failed 2012 intra-party challenge to then U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

An issue in Peterson’ re-nomination — both men are taking the convention route — could be his tax reform support. The two face delegates in the Utah County GOP Convention because the district is wholly inside the county.

The Senate’s GOP leadership won’t be bothered at all by their tax reform support:

President Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City; and Assistant Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden; are not even up for election this year. They are in the middle of their four-year terms.

Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, is up this year. But he had no one file against him. So, he, too, is automatically elected to another four-year term.

One pro-tax reform leader, long-time Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, actually could be in some trouble this year.

Hillyard, in a multi-county district, has been in the Legislature since 1980 — at 40 years one of the longest-serving legislators in Utah history.

And he told his local newspaper four years ago that he wouldn’t have run back then, except that he believed he would be re-appointed by then-Senate President Wayne Niederhauser to again be the Senate chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee, the all-powerful budget-setting committee made up of House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders.

Hillyard was not appointed to that top post. So, a number of Senate watchers expected Hillyard to retire this year; but instead, he’s running for his 10th Senate term. (He served two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate.)

Hillyard is being challenged by fellow Republican Chris H. Wilson and Democrat Nancy Huntly in the very Republican Senate District 25, whose home base is Cache County.

Wilson is a wealthy car dealership owner in Logan who told the High Country News that he plans to use “fresh ideas” to run against Hillyard; the likelihood of a Democrat winning the seat slim, at best.

Wilson has been critical of Hillyard’s tax reform efforts; Hillyard sponsored the bill in the special session.

Both men declared they are taking both the signature gathering and the delegate route.

Any GOP candidate needs 2,000 signatures of registered Republican voters to make the late-June closed party primary. Hillyard has 1,839 verified signatures, so he needs to get 161 more GOP signatures to ensure a primary ballot slot.

Wilson hasn’t turned in any signatures, yet, state elections office reporting shows.

If Hillyard gets his needed 161 signatures, he’s on the primary ballot no matter what happens to him in the state convention. If Wilson doesn’t make the primary ballot via signatures, and if Hillyard gets 60 percent of the convention vote, then the senator will be the nominee. Otherwise, the two meet in the late June GOP primary for Senate District 25.

One of the highest-profile anti-tax reform referendum leaders, former Utah Rep. Fred Cox, is not running for the Legislature again (he’s lost several races there). Instead, Cox is running for the Salt Lake County Council, which had nothing to do with the state failed tax reform effort.