Bernick Mug 01

The Legislature’s Tax Reform Task Force is quickly moving towards hard recommendations on substantially changing the state’s taxing system -- either at its Nov. 7 or Nov. 21 meeting.

There are, of course, real political implications in what the task force ultimately comes up with.

Tuesday night saw a five-hour open meeting, ending with about 30 members of the public making comment on a proposal -- released a week ago -- by the two task force co-chairs: Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

A few of the senators on the committee -- Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan; Curt Bramble, R-Provo; and Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper; expressed some misgivings, both at the speed the co-chairs were moving at, and parts of their specific proposal, an updated version of which you can read here.

The internal politics, at least at this meeting, were interesting to me.

Some observations:

-- House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and his GOP leadership team were smart to put two members of majority leadership on the task force -- Gibson co-chairs it and House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is one of four House GOP members.

Historically, the 75-member House, with a 60-plus Republican majority, has been more willing to listen to leadership than the smaller, 29-member Senate, 23 of which are Republicans.

So, House GOP leadership has two votes on the task force to start out with.

Hillyard, while a long-time respected member of the Senate, is not in leadership. And this could be his last term in office.

Fillmore was elected in 2016 and is still a freshman officially.

Cullimore was elected last year and certainly is a freshman.

Now, seniority in the Senate is not as important as it used to be 40 years ago when I first started covering the Legislature.

But it still stands for something.

Bramble, a former Senate majority leader, has considerable pull in the body today.

And, as best as I could tell by listening to the final hour of Tuesday’s meeting, Bramble actually voted against motions to draft bills for consideration in the Nov. 7 meeting.

So, on the one hand, you have House Republicans on the task force ready to move ahead with the Gibson-Hillyard tax reform plan, and three of the GOP senators balking a bit.

Gibson and Hillyard have been kind to Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, by including two proposals in reform she wants: Giving an income tax exemption to senior citizens on Social Security, up to a point, and (as approved Tuesday), a sales tax exemption on the purchase of feminine hygiene products.

Mayne may be a “yea” vote on the Gibson-Hillyard plan because of this. That remains to be seen.

If so, then only one other senator needs to vote “yea” to get the Gibson-Hillyard plan, as amended, to be the whole task force’s reform plan --which will go before a special legislative session in early December, is told.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has his top budget folks on the task force as non-voting members. They weren’t there Tuesday night, so we didn’t hear what they think of the Gibson-Hillyard plan -- but if Herbert had any serious objects to the co-chair’s plan no doubt those concerns would have already been addressed privately.

As with any major issue in the Legislature, the House and Senate GOP caucuses will make the final decisions on the tax reform bills, including some politically controversial ones, like putting the whole state sales tax back on unprepared food and amending the Utah Constitution to do away with the current earmark that all corporate and personal income tax revenue goes only to colleges and K-12 public schools.

Herbert isn’t running again next year.

And his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, is already announced and raising money and campaigning.

Soon to announce, it is believed, will be former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman --who pushed the Legislature more than a decade ago to remove most of the sales tax from food.

If Herbert signs a tax reform bill that puts the food tax back on, then clearly Cox has to support that as well.

So, there will be a clear difference between at least two of the gubernatorial candidates next year on this issue -- and it would really be a campaigning point for both.

As it stands, a recent Analytics poll found that 66 percent of Utah voters -- or two-thirds -- don’t want the sales tax put back on unprepared food.

This is one reason Herbert et al. would like to decide these issues in a December special session, and not wait until the 2020 general session, which starts in late January and runs into early March.

The gubernatorial campaign could be well on its way by March -- with a healthy field of Republican candidates sprinting towards a June primary election.

Will several GOP senators on the tax task force get in line and vote for the Gibson-Hillyard plan?

Can the votes be found in the House and Senate Republican caucuses to call a December special session and pass tax reform?

Right now, I’d say yes to both.

We’ll find out over the next six weeks.