Don’t expect a general tax hike in the 2015 Legislature, says the Utah House’s new speaker.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, sat down with UtahPolicy on Friday for an hour’s long conversation. Some of his insights follow below.
Hughes, who won a resounding victory in the three-way speaker’s race among the 60 House Republicans two weeks ago, wished to stress that he is speaking only for himself at this point: His GOP caucus has not yet met to discuss 2015 general session issues, his elected leadership team (himself, Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville) have reached no recommendations, and the leadership team has not yet chosen committee chairs, vice chairs or memberships.
Here are a few of the hot topics UtahPolicy put to Hughes concerning the upcoming 45-day general session, which startsJan. 26:
Groups representing public education, transportation and water development will be coming to the 2015 Legislature asking for more money – most likely even some kind of tax hike(s).
Hughes rules out, from the outset, a general tax increase.
“I don’t think you will see any tax hikes,” said Hughes.
However, you could see tax revenue shifts along several fronts – with no increase in the amount of money state government takes from citizens.
For example, some lawmakers want to remove the current sales tax earmark for transportation, or road building.
Imposed several years ago over a gubernatorial veto, the earmark sends tens of millions of dollar each year to roadwork.
If you gave that money back to the state’s General Fund, then you could use that money for colleges and universities, and, in turn, allocate more personal and corporate income taxes to public education.
That would not give public education a huge amount of new money, which is what some public school advocates want.
But it’s a change the Republican House could discuss, said Hughes.
Also, just about everyone agrees the state’s stagnant per-gallon gasoline tax is drastically underfunding road costs.
To just increase that per gallon tax – now at around 27 cents per gallon – is not a good solution, said Hughes.
Other ideas include removing the per-gallon tax and replace it with a sales tax, which would bring in more money as the price of gas increases.
Or you could somehow index the per-gallon tax to fuel inflation, and see revenues at least stabilize.
Utah is basically deserts surrounded by mountains, and water development is critical to keeping a strong economy as our population grows.
Water projects cost even more than roads – they are huge capital expenditures. Water conservation is important, but gets you only so far.
Still, any kind of new water development funding can’t come as a general tax hike, says Hughes.
“We just don’t say “no,”” to the growing revenue needs of public schools, roads and water, said Hughes.
“To have or maintain a strong economy we need transportation, we need water, we need schools. It takes a growing tax base from people’s jobs (the income tax) that is dedicated to public education.”
Overall, it’s time to look at the state’s tax policy – some may call it reform, says the new speaker.
Hughes hopes to see the three entities’ advocates – public schools, transportation and water – come together in some kind of joint plan for future funding.
Little can be accomplished if these special interest groups just end up fighting each other before lawmakers, said Hughes.
“An agreement, that conversation is most fruitful.”
But, overall, lawmakers must be “honest by what we are doing here. The new funding sources may be phased in – like tie road funding through the fuel sales tax.
“But we can’t continue hemorrhaging” road revenues through the current dysfunctional per-gallon gas tax, said Hughes.
A change in the gas tax WOULD NOT be an automatic tax hike, said Hughes, but as gasoline prices went up, consumption went up, road-building revenues would as well.
That is just one thought, said Hughes, and is by no means a decided matter.
— ZION CURTAIN and liquor reform.
Hughes did much of the groundwork for the history-making liquor-by-the-drink reform law of several years ago.
He said he understands the liquor industry and tourism industry’s frustration with the so-called Zion Curtain – the 7 ft. glass wall that keeps restaurant patrons from seeing alcohol bottles on display or the mixing of alcoholic drinks.
On the other hand, a deal was struck by all parties – including leaders of the LDS Church.
And Hughes said it bothers him that the ink is barely dry on a new liquor bill than the industry proponents want something changed.
Logically, Hughes said he understands that seeing a bar drink mixed in public isn’t going to affect a minor’s desire to drink any more than when an attractive-looking drink appears on the table for adults to gulp down.
“We’ve made real liquor reform, but no sooner than we do, critics voices rise once again. We reach a compromise, but the clamor never subsides.”
— HEALTHY UTAH and Medicaid expansion.
The GOP House won’t just vote Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan up or down, said Hughes.
There are half a dozen medical experts in the 60-member House GOP caucus. And those folks will be asked to play a real roll in coming up with a Medicaid expansion plan crafted for Utah’s needs. (Dunnigan, an insurance agent, has already been working on this issue for several years.)
Healthy Utah will almost certainly be changed, or even a new plan devised, said Hughes.
And House Republicans are not worried in the least that Utah will have to go back to the Obama administration and get new waivers or other approvals for the new state law, aimed at covering Utah’s poor individuals.
Medicaid expansion “is not an annual decision,” said Hughes. “We are going to decide, this year, the fundamental way people pay for health care in Utah; it is a pivotal decision.”
— ANTI-DISCRIMINATION law for gays and lesbians in housing and employment.
The “non-decision/decision” made by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year tells Hughes that on a ground-level the rights of homosexuals to marry is made, whether most Utahns like it or not.
“I’m still having trouble working through the legal ramifications of the Supreme Court’s actions,” said Hughes, an apartment owner and manager.
“I would never, ever,” reject a gay couple from renting one of his apartments, said Hughes. “And I never have.”
But if it is a given that gays can marry, how could a state sanction housing or job discrimination for those folks? He asks.
Why would the Legislature even have to act on that issue – the first instance of employment or housing discrimination would be struck down in the courts, says Hughes.
If Sen. Steve Urquhart’s anti-discrimination bill comes to the House, Hughes said, neither he nor other leaders would try to stop it. “It would go through the normal committee and bill sifting process, like any other bill.”
Finally, Hughes said, legislative watchers may be surprised by some of the committee chair/committee membership choices that he and his leadership team makes, the speaker predicts.
But he declined to be specific. Those decisions are yet to be made.
And House leaders may change how bills are moved through the 75-member body the final week of the session – as freshman and relatively-new representatives didn’t like all the end-of-session-bill-passing seen the last few years.
Being blunt – and Hughes usually is – “We new leaders were elected to lead, not follow.”
The GOP caucus will make all the major decisions in the House, but expect Hughes & Company to play a big role in that process.