Sometimes history and political movements are changed by just a few votes.
And as it appears the referendum to repeal tax reform in Utah will make the November ballot, one only has to look back to the early-December special legislative session and the seven votes that didn’t come from the House GOP majority to tell this tale.
Utah referendum law says if a law passes by two-thirds majorities in both the state House and Senate, then it is NOT subject to referendum -- or being repealed by voters.
HB2001 -- the tax reform bill -- in final passage votes was 43 “yea,” 27 “nay,” with 5 being absent in the 9:19 p.m. tally Dec. 12.
That is seven votes short of 50, or two-thirds. That meant that tax reform COULD be subject to a referendum.
And all those seven critical “no” votes came from House Republicans -- all Democrats present voted “no.”
Of the five absent, all were Republicans.
If all of them had been voting “yes,” then only two of the 10 Republicans who voted “no” would have been two-thirds.
Even without those representatives, if seven of the 10 “no” votes had switched to “yes,” two-thirds would have been met.
Over in the Senate, an earlier vote on tax reform did get 20 “yea” votes, and that is two-thirds. One GOP senator had to leave to catch a plane, and so when the final vote was taken at 9:46 p.m., he was absent, and the final vote was 19-7, with three absent, two Republicans and one Democrat. But the senators already knew the bill wasn’t getting two-thirds in the House, so it didn’t really matter what the Senate did -- tax reform was going to be open to referendum.
So, the 10 House Republicans who voted “no” on tax reform ensured that a referendum could happen.
Those 10 “no” votes in the House came from Republican Reps: Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, (who is now running for the 4th U.S. House seat); Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; Steve Eliason, R-Sandy; Craig Hall, R-West Valley; Marsha Judkins, R-Provo; Phil Lyman, R-Blanding; Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton; Tim Quinn, R-Heber; Norm Thurston, R-Provo; Ray Ward, R-Bountiful; and Mike Winder, R-West Valley.
Depending on how one views the referendum effort, and the tax reform package, those 10 are either heroes or goats.
Now it appears the referendum will have the needed signatures to make the November ballot -- throwing the whole budgeting process (and a number of so-called “money bills”) into serious uncertainty this general session, which starts Monday.
It is a fiscal and political mess, for sure, for the governing legislative Republicans and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
On social media, a few House and Senate Republicans who voted for tax reform are already back-peddling -- congratulating the referendum effort for its citizen participating and saying the process in Utah -- legislators pass bills, but citizens can repeal them -- is working as intended.
UtahPolicy.com and Y2 Analytics polling shows there is one major reason for the success of the referendum and the defeat of tax reform: Putting the full state sales tax back on unprepared food.
That poll showed that 68 percent of Utahns were “somewhat” or “strongly” against the tax reform passed in the December special session -- and that was, of course, the base that the signature-gathers could draw upon in their repeal effort.
Now, it needs to be understood that the governing Republicans recognized early on that a lot of citizens would be concerned about that large part of the tax reform package -- putting the sales tax back on unprepared food.
And they moved to mitigate that by putting in the bill a generous $175-per-person sales tax rebate program -- capping off at $500 for a family of four. Each Utahn could get a check from the government for $125, each year, every year.
It is almost a certainty that no family of four would spent $500 in a year in the new, higher sales tax on unprepared food -- and low-to-middle-income families would very likely see an overall tax CUT just on the food tax alone, not to mention all the other income tax breaks put into the bill (a $160 million tax CUT overall).
But putting the sales tax back on food didn’t sell well. Not at all. (There is also a likely gas tax hike coming in tax reform, but the food tax is the real politically killer here.)
And it is likely that the referendum signature gathering would have failed if Harmon’s and several other grocery store chains didn’t open their stores to the referendum-backers, giving them space (and more importantly, access) to hundreds of thousands of grocery store buyers over the last several weeks.
And the food store owners wouldn’t likely have done that if putting the full sales tax back on food wasn’t part of tax reform -- several of them said so in media stories.
It will still take several days to count all of the signatures. But early counting shows the “verified” signatures at nearly 70,000 (116,000 needed) with 13 of 15-required counties already in the approval column.
More critically, the “conversion rate,” the percent of good signatures coming in, is at 90 percent -- unheard of in previous citizen initiative/referendum efforts.
Most likely that, too, comes because of the grocery stores -- people buying unprepared food in their local stores are homeowners, or settled apartment dwellers -- they are registered to vote, and registered at their correct home addresses -- the two main factors in throwing out unverified signatures.
In short, if the referendum does indeed make the November ballot, this is a political disaster for the GOP legislators and Herbert, who believed they could pass a very complicated tax reform package in a special session, one which would stand up to the referendum process -- but be much more secure if two-thirds of GOP lawmakers approved it, thus shutting out the referendum process in the first place.
So, to repeat, seven House Republicans voting “no” on tax reform cost the GOP leadership of this state greatly.
Sometimes a few votes really do matter.