NEWS

05 December 2019

  • Photos: Drizzly weather won’t be enough to cleanse Salt Lake Valley’s dirty air
    Laura Seitz, Deseret News

    Anna Romano, left of Salt Lake City, and Judy Fleming, who is visiting from Singapore, walk through Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on a drizzly Thursday. The women have been friends for 37 years since growing up together in Singapore. According to KSL’s Grant Weyman, a storm from Southern California that brought rain and snow to parts of the Wasatch Front will move out of the area by Friday morning. However, hazy conditions will linger until another storm brings rain and snow during the latter part of the weekend.

    Laura Seitz, Deseret News
    Max Malmquist, left, with the Audubon Society, and Bryant Olsen, with Tracy Aviary, search for a Williamson’s sapsucker in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on a drizzly Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. Olsen spotted the sapsucker yesterday and returned today in hopes of seeing it again. The sapsucker is the 150th bird species that Olsen has spotted in Liberty Park over the past 12 years.
  • Mitt Romney proposes bill to fight sending opioids, fentanyl through mail
    Adobe stock photo

    Investigations identify drugs being mailed to Utahns

    SALT LAKE CITY — Drug traffickers often use the post office and private shipping companies to send opioids, including fentanyl, to people across the country.

    Now, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., have introduced a bill to curtail the circulation of illicit drugs through the mail.

    The bipartisan legislation introduced Thursday would require the U.S. Postal Service to develop a comprehensive plan to combat the use of the mail in illicit drug distribution, identify areas for improvement, enhance coordination across departments and proactively meet new challenges.

    “After finding that the U.S. Postal Service does not have in place an overarching strategy to combat illicit drug distribution, we are introducing legislation that will fix that and help USPS be proactive and accountable in reducing the distribution of opioids,” Romney said in a news release.

    Noting Utah has a higher opioid death rate than the national average and that rural counties are disproportionately harmed, Romney said there must be a multifront approach to stop the flow of illegal drugs into neighborhoods.

    More than 98,000 people nationwide died of synthetic opioid-related overdoses, the majority of them related to fentanyl consumption, from 2013 to 2018. Nearly 6,000 Utahns died from opioid overdoses from 2001 to 2018.

    Those deaths tragically included two 13-year-old Park City boys, best friends, who died within 48 hours of each other in 2016. The deaths were attributed to a drug ordered from China and shipped to the U.S. called U-47700, known by its more common street name of “pink.”

    More recently, federal and local officials have worked together to investigate other cases involving drugs being shipped to Utah using regular mail delivery services.

    On Nov. 25, Dylan Keller Benson, 29, of Cottonwood Heights, was charged in 3rd District Court with drug distribution, a second-degree felony, and drug possession, a class B misdemeanor, after prosecutors say he received methamphetamine in the mail.

    According to an arrest affidavit, agents from Homeland Security were contacted after a package was intercepted by Customs and Border Protection. The package, sent from the United Kingdom to Cottonwood Heights, was intercepted at the Los Angeles Airport, the affidavit states.

    Undercover agents then continued the delivery of the package and arrested Benson when he went to the post office in Cottonwood Heights to pick it up, according to the affidavit.

    Homeland Security agents were investigating a similar case in October in Park City, according to a search warrant affidavit. In that case, Customs and Border Protection again detected a suspicious package using UK Royal Mail Service, the warrant states.

    “During the investigation, CBP utilized their border search authority to inspect the suspicious package that was labeled ‘PSP Game.’ While examining the contents inside the package, CBP officers located approximately 125 pink pills that tested positive for ecstasy,” according to the warrant.

    The package was being shipped to a residence in Park City. Formal charges were still pending as of Thursday.

    “We must fight the opioid crisis on all fronts, which includes stopping drug traffickers from exploiting our Postal Service to distribute deadly narcotics into our communities,” Peters said in a statement Thursday. “This commonsense bill would ensure that the Postal Service does everything it can to help address this epidemic and stay one step ahead of drug traffickers as the opioid threat continues to evolve.”

    The U.S. Postal Service Opioid & Illicit Drug Strategy Act would mandate that the plan be updated every two years to address new illicit drug threats and emerging trends. The postal service would be required to submit the strategy to Congress and to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and provide annual briefings on its efforts.

    Daniel Heins, United Postmasters and Managers of America president, said the bill is a smart step in the right direction.

    “To the extent criminals can use the mail to improperly distribute these dangerous substances is something all of us should be seriously working to prevent,” he said.

  • State School Board’s funding priorities: growth, 6% bump in per-pupil funding and optional extended-day kindergarten
    Adobe Stock

    SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education’s legislative funding priorities include the usual subjects of enrollment growth and a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit.

    According to the latest enrollment figures, some 666,858 students were enrolled in Utah schools this fall, up from 658,952 a year ago, or a 1.19% increase. Some $55.6 million in new funding is needed to fund growth for the next school year, according to board documents.

    The weighted pupil unit, or WPU, is the basic building block of education funding and gives districts and charter schools a high degree of flexibility in addressing specific instructional needs. A 6% increase would require an appropriation of more than $200 million in new funding.

    In the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a 4% increase to the value of the unit.

    But other priorities adopted by the board Thursday include an increase in funding for optional enhanced kindergarten, $5 million in new state funding for school busing and $18.2 million for a school leadership initiative.

    As the start of the 2020 General Session of the Utah Legislature approaches, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she is frequently asked about the board’s funding priorities.

    “I tell you what I keep saying: ‘Fund the plan, fund the strategic plan,’” she said. “I just want you to be mindful of your strategic plan and what you need to get there.”

    The plan, developed by board staff and board members and approved by the state board, has four major goals: early learning, personalized teaching and learning, safe and healthy schools, and effective educators and learning.

    Board vice chairwoman Brittney Cummins spoke in support of the board’s request for $18.6 million for optional extended kindergarten. The request comes as $2.88 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding for the Kindergarten Supplemental Enrichment Program is expected to expire.

    “I think early learning is important and some of this funding is going away. How do we maintain this program and help provide more access to students to this important resource?” Cummins said.

    The board’s business case for the funding says that without it, optional extended kindergarten programs and enriched programs in 46 schools “would be defunded and may be dismantled.”

    About 40% of Utah’s kindergartners start school unprepared and need additional support, according to board documents.

    To support early interventions for that 40% of incoming kindergartners, the enrichment program and the optional enhanced kindergarten program need a total of $26.2 million, an increase of $18.6 million.

    Dickson said the board needs to make a case for early childhood education funding similar to its request for the Utah Schools Information Management System, which included well-defined needs and costs, and conveyed a sense of urgency for upgrades.

    “I feel like we’re in that same space in early learning and especially around instruction in our early learning classrooms in literacy and mathematics. We know that. We have data,” she said.

    Another board priority that supports the strategic plan is obtaining funding for school leadership development grants for schools, a school leadership scholarship, and an internship and funding for a state-level school leadership specialist.

    According to the Wallace Foundation, “principals strongly shape the conditions for high-quality teaching and are the prime factor in determining whether teachers stay in high-needs schools.”

    Funding student transportation was identified as another of the board’s top funding priorities.

    Board member Cindy Davis said lagging state support of school busing costs has become an unfunded mandate.

    “Right now this is instructional dollars used for a mandate,” she said. “You need to fix this.”

  • Utah Utes rode 3 hobbled players to comeback victory over BYU Cougars
    Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) celebrates as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    Allen, Jones, Jantunen lead the way as Utah improves to 6-2

    SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s remarkable comeback for a 102-95 victory over BYU Wednesday night was a team effort — “everybody had a part in it” said coach Larry Krystkowiak — but three players in particular stood out in the Utes’ first win over their rivals in four years.

    Sophomore Timmy Allen scored 27 points, leading a second-half charge with an array of drives and moves to the basket. Freshman point guard Rylan Jones came up big in the clutch with a 3-point basket to send the game into overtime and eight points in the overtime. And freshman Mikael Jantunen, who came in averaging just 4.7 ppg, scored 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting in playing 31 minutes off the bench.

    It turns out that all three players were hobbling with injuries — Allen and Jones playing on sprained ankles and Jantunen playing with a bad knee that kept him out of practice for a couple of days this week.

    “It might be one of my favorite things about the game, seeing someone laying it on the line,” Krystkowiak said about how his players toughed it out despite their injuries.

    “You’ve got load management and all different things going on at the level above us — hopefully that doesn’t creep into our deal here,” he said. “Between Rylan and TA and Mikey. those guys kind of playing on one leg, means a lot to me and should mean a lot to our fan base. It was very fitting that those guys played well because they’re cut of the right stuff.”

    In the overtime, Utah (6-2) went with a small lineup that included Allen, Jones and Jantunen, along with reserve Jaxon Brenchley and Both Gach for the full five minutes. The 6-foot-6 Allen got the tip and Brenchley quickly drew a foul and made both free throws. Then after BYU tied it, the Utes ran off six straight points, all baskets at the rim with Jones making two layups and Allen the other, Jantunen scored in the paint. Then the Utes iced the game with four free throws by Jones and two by Jantunen. In all, the Utes went 5-for-6 from the field and 6-for-6 from the line in the overtime period.

    Krystkowiak said “we saddled up Timmy for more than 42 minutes” and of Jones, who played just under 42 minutes, he said, “Rylan is an absolute warrior and understands the game real well and obviously makes us coaches a lot better. He’s a special kid.”

    After the game, some words were exchanged in the handshake line between BYU coach Mark Pope and Utah director of basketball operations Chris Jones, the father of Rylan Jones. When asked for a comment Thursday, Chris Jones said he had “nothing to say” about the incident.

    The Utes come back for a Saturday afternoon game (3 p.m.) against Central Arkansas and then have a week before their next game against Weber State Dec. 14 in Vivint Arena as part of the Beehive Classic. After that, they’ll have just two games, Dec. 18 against Kentucky in Las Vegas and Dec. 21 against San Diego State in Los Angeles before starting Pac-12 play Jan. 2 against Oregon State.

  • ‘Horrific’ typo valued Wasatch County home at almost $1 billion. Now taxpayers may end up paying for it
    Adobe Stock

    County officials apologize, say error ‘should have been caught’

    SALT LAKE CITY — At the beginning of an emergency Wasatch County Council meeting last month, Council Chairman Danny Goode said a brief prayer ahead of what he knew was going to be a tough discussion.

    “Dear God, help us all,” he said.

    The Nov. 4 meeting was to address a clerical error that’s now creating a headache for taxing entities across the entire county — including one that could end up hitting taxpayers in their wallets over the next several years.

    The error? An erroneous overvaluation of a single home for almost $1 billion.

    The 1,570-square-foot house built in 1978 on 2 acres in an unincorporated area of the county was recorded in 2019 tax rolls with a market rate value of more than $987 million and an overestimate of about $543 million in taxable value. In reality, the property should have only had a 2019 taxable value of $302,000, according to county property records.

    That error — which the Wasatch County assessor explained possibly occurred when a staff member may have dropped their phone on their keyboard — has resulted in a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and revenue shortfalls in five different Wasatch County taxing entities. The biggest impact was on the Wasatch County School District, unable to collect nearly $4.4 million already budgeted.

    Wasatch County officials say they “deeply regret” the error and are reviewing policies and procedures to ensure it never happens again. But they’re also warning Wasatch County taxpayers they will likely see an increased tax rate over perhaps the next three years to make up for the lower amount collected in 2019.

    “An abnormality of almost $1 billion is a big deal, and it should have been caught,” County Manager Mike Davis told the Deseret News in an interview Thursday. “There are checks in place that it should have been looked at. We will modify those in the future and do a better job.”

    County Assessor Maureen “Buff” Griffiths called the error “horrific” and “bizarre” when she appeared before the County Council last month to explain how it happened.

    “I’m thinking it was a data entry that would be something like they dropped their phone on the keyboard and it kicked out all these numbers without verifying,” she said. “That’s how crazy it was.”

    Buff Griffiths estimates the error took place in May as her office was preparing tax rolls for a June deadline, yet it wasn’t caught until months later — after the tax rate was certified by the Utah State Tax Commission and property tax notices were sent out in July. It wasn’t discovered until October, when Clerk/Auditor Cal Griffiths said he studied a “top 25” list of taxpayers.

    “I saw this humongous number, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty big,’” Cal Griffiths told the Deseret News, explaining that he brought it to the attention of the assessor’s office, which then corrected it in the system.

    The homeowner — who, according to county property records, has a mailing address in Idaho — wasn’t even aware of the error until they were contacted by the assessor’s office, Cal Griffiths said.

    “They were none the wiser, thank goodness, and grateful that we amended it,” she said.

    But at that point, it was too late for the impact to the county.

    Budgets had already been approved expecting that windfall of $6 million, and the tax rate for the year had already been set anticipating that revenue would come in from that property owner, meaning taxpayers countywide paid slightly less in property taxes for 2019.

    From year to year, state law allows tax rates to fluctuate to ensure stability in government budgets — and property value fluctuations happen all the time as taxpayers appeal their values — but Danny Lytle, director of the Utah State Tax Commission’s property tax division said he’s never seen an overvaluation issue with as much impact as what’s happened in Wasatch County.

    “I’m not aware of any that is of this magnitude,” he said.

    It’s “virtually impossible” to say how Wasatch County taxpayers will be impacted to recoup the money that should have been collected, Lytle said, but he noted Wasatch County officials have the option to spread out the impact over perhaps three or five years if they choose.

    Davis said the council is likely to choose the three-year option, though that decision will be hashed out in a County Council meeting expected in January. Davis said county officials are working with the Utah State Tax Commission to figure out what to do.

    In Wasatch County’s budget, the shortfall is more than $1 million — which Davis said the county will offset with fund balance reserves to be recouped by rate increases in future years. The Wasatch County Fire District will be short about $253,000, the Wasatch County Parks District will be short about $138,000, and Central Utah Water will be short about $217,000, according to a tax correction notice circulated by the county.

    But the biggest blow is to Wasatch County School District, short about $4.4 million — which will have a “significant impact” on the district, according to spokesman John Moss.

    “Fortunately, when news of the projected one-year 21% increase in overall property value for Wasatch County was received, the district chose to remain somewhat conservative in building the 2019-20 school district budget,” Moss said in a statement to the Deseret News. “Because of these conservative projections, the impact of the lost funding will be managed by the district over the next few years, even though there will be some significant negative impact felt in select areas.”

    Moss said the district will need to “draw down” from financial reserves and reduce spending in some areas, including ongoing teacher in-service programs and other investments in professional development programs for staff members.

    “Teacher and staff salaries will not be impacted this year, he said. “However, some of the capital projects that were scheduled or proposed will need to be canceled or postponed due to lack of funds.”

    During last month’s emergency County Council meeting, council members sought answers to how this error could have happened, why it wasn’t caught, and how to ensure it never happens again.

    “I think it goes without saying we need to examine policies and procedures and quality control to look at this,” Davis told the council.

    Davis explained he wasn’t even aware of the error until the first weekend of November, after a citizen requested a property tax list and noticed the valuation looked way off. Davis said that’s when he launched his own investigation, and he discovered the Assessor’s Office error. That lead the County Council to call the Nov. 4 emergency meeting.

    Even though the assessor said her office corrected the error in its system, a search of the property in the Wasatch County online parcel map still shows the over $987 million market rate value.

    Asked how the over $6 million countywide revenue windfall went unnoticed, the county’s manager and assessor, as well as Utah State Tax Commission officials, told the Deseret News it was chalked up to growth in the booming county — which has been the third-fastest growing county in recent years.

    “Nobody was surprised the values were going up. Nobody,” Buff Griffiths told the Deseret News. “But we’re going to check it moving forward, that yes, the values are going up, but are they going up that much?”

    Davis said he initially did have questions about the $6 million projection, but he “didn’t dig” into it after the assessor’s office attributed it to growth.

    “I did ask the question,” Davis said, but then he let it go, thinking, “OK, as long as somebody’s checking into it. But obviously somebody didn’t.”

    “So I take some of the blame for that,” Davis said. “If I noticed something, I should have pursued it more, but I didn’t.”

    To be fair, Wasatch County is indeed experiencing rapid growth, Lytle said, but “it’s not an excuse for this mistake, this error.”

    The assessor said due to the county’s rapid growth, her staff has struggled to keep up, and she’s asked to “please get us some help in that office.”

    Lytle said the Utah State Tax Commission has been working with the assessor’s office to “make sure they understand the capabilities of their system” and to ensure the staff is trained to catch such mistakes.

    Buff Griffiths said she has been apologizing to taxpayers for the error.

    “It’s very unfortunate,” she said. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt our people again.”

  • Utah’s McAdams faces ‘two really bad options’ in likely impeachment vote
    President Donald Trump attends a luncheon with members of the United Nations Security Council in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

    The comments from Utah’s lone Democratic representative come after House leaders move ahead on drafting articles of impeachment, with a vote likely before Christmas

    WASHINGTON — Congressman Ben McAdams said Thursday he has “two really bad options” in a potential vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

    And the deadline to make his decision is looming as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced earlier in the day that articles of impeachment will be drafted, setting the stage for a historic vote likely before Christmas.

    The freshman Democrat representing Utah’s 4th District told the Deseret News he was heading into a morning committee meeting when he learned about the announcement.

    “I’m not surprised that’s the direction that the House is heading,” he said.

    Before a backdrop of six American flags, Pelosi stood at a lectern outside her speaker’s office in the Capitol — the same place where she solemnly launched the inquiry in September into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — to say the president’s actions warrant impeachment.

    J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
    Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters at her weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019.

    “Our democracy is what is at stake,” she said. “The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit. The president has engaged in abuse of power, undermining our national security and jeopardizing the integrity of our elections.”

    McAdams has been poring over transcripts and lengthy reports by both Democrats and Republicans of the House committees investigating the president. And, he wants to read the articles of impeachment once they have been drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing Monday, before making his final decision.

    “I was telling my wife just this morning, I think what I’ve got are two really bad options,” the lone Democrat in Utah’s congressional delegation told KSL’s Doug Wright. “One option is to do nothing, and I think the president’s behavior is wrong and we need to make that statement for the record and for history and for future presidents.

    “I’ve got another option that I think further divides the country, stokes these flames of partisanship and divisiveness, all for something that will never really see the light of day in the Senate,” McAdams said.

    He said neither option is “good for the country to moving forward.”

    If the House votes to impeach, the Senate will hold a trial to decide whether to remove the president, which will likely not happen in the Republican controlled chamber. Two presidents have been impeached and no president has ever been removed from office.

    Other members of Utah’s delegation had no comment on Pelosi’s announcement.

    Steve Griffin, Deseret News
    Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams answers questions during a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Millcreek, where he declared victory over GOP Rep. Mia Love in the 4th Congressional District on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018.

    McAdams is among more than 30 moderate House Democrats representing conservative districts that supported Trump in 2016 whose seats are targeted by Republicans hoping to win them back in next year’s election.

    Anti-impeachment television ads have been airing in his district for a couple of weeks and the Trump campaign sent out a statement shortly after Pelosi’s announcement blasting Democrats for a “blatant disregard of voters.”

    “Utahns are sick of this side show and want their representatives to get back to the issues that matter,” said Samantha Zager, spokeswoman for Trump Victory, a political action committee that raises funds for the president’s reelection.

    McAdams is aware of the campaign and said he is working on other issues and doesn’t sit on any of the committees involved in the impeachment proceedings.

    “I continue to keep working on the things people sent me here to do and I’ve never stopped working on those things,” he said as he headed into an evening meeting. He passed a first bill on financial fraud regulation last month.

    But McAdams hasn’t been completely ignoring impeachment proceedings. He is among several moderate Democrats who have urged his party to steer clear of findings by special counsel Robert Mueller and limit the impeachment articles to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

    Pelosi had supported the moderate wing of her caucus in resisting impeachment, which the more progressive Democrats had been pushing since Trump took office. But the party became more unified after a whistleblower complaint was filed about the infamous phone call.

    In their conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor” — to open investigations into a theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election and into political rival Joe Biden, whose son served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company when Biden was vice president.

    After two-months of hearings centered on the call, a 300-page report was released this week by the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees that accuses Trump of soliciting a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election to his benefit and obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate.

    “The president engaged in this course of conduct for the benefit of his own presidential reelection, to harm the election prospects of a political rival, and to influence our nation’s upcoming presidential election to his advantage,” the report stated. “In doing so, the president placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests of the United States, sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security.”

    But McAdams said voters can consider the consequences of 2016 election interference, as detailed in the Mueller report, while Congress should take action to ensure Americans the upcoming 2020 elections are safe and secure.

    “I am concerned about allegations that the president was inviting foreign interference into the 2020 election that could jeopardize the security of our elections,” he said. “We need to go into the 2020 election with the confidence that whatever happens in that election is the will of the people.”

    In her somber announcement, Pelosi invoked the Declaration of Independence, comparing Trump’s conduct with Ukraine to the rule of a king the Founding Fathers wanted to escape and avoid in the new country they wanted to form.

    “When crafting the Constitution, the founders feared the return of a monarchy in America and having just fought a war of independence, they specifically feared the prospect of a king president corrupted by foreign influence,” she said. “They, therefore, created a constitutional remedy to protect against a dangerous or corrupt leader: impeachment.”

    She said “the facts are uncontested” that Trump tried to get a foreign country to investigate his political rival.

    “The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit at the expense of our own national security by withholding military aid and crucial Oval Office meeting in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into his political rival.”

    While McAdams said the allegations against the president are serious, he blamed people on both sides of the aisle for turning the impeachment investigation into political spectacle.

    “I think some of my colleagues have been gleeful about this process since the day the president was elected,” he said. “On the other side, there are those where there’s not a thing he can do that they will hold him accountable for.”

    Pelosi said the decision to draft articles of impeachment is done “sadly, but with confidence and humility.” She described Democrats as “prayerful” and said “we will proceed in a manner worthy of our oath of office.”

    For his part, Trump urged the “crazy” House Democrats in a series of tweets to get on with impeachment, in anticipation that he would get a “fair trial” in the Senate.

    He later tweeted that his impeachment would not bode well for future presidents.

    “This will mean that the beyond important and seldom used act of Impeachment will be used routinely to attack future Presidents,” Trump said. “That is not what our Founders had in mind. The good thing is that the Republicans have NEVER been more united. We will win!”

    Correction: In an earlier version, a headline quoted Rep. Ben McAdams as saying he has “two really bad choices.” McAdams said he has “two really bad options.”

  • House Democrats want wealthier Utahns to pay more in income taxes
    Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    Minority party also seeks to replace state sales tax with gross receipts tax on businesses

    SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Democrats offered their own tax reform plan Thursday, calling for imposing higher income tax rates for those earning more than $150,000 and replacing the state sales tax with a gross receipts tax on businesses to add as much as $216 million more to state coffers.

    Their proposal comes as the Republican leaders of the Utah Legislature are preparing for Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special session for next Thursday to consider the plan being put together by the GOP-controlled Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force that cuts income taxes while adding new sales taxes to food, gas and some services.

    What Democrats really are hoping to do with their plan is to stop the special session in favor of taking a longer look at tax reform during the 2020 Legislature that begins meeting in late January, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said.

    “It’s clear to us the public is not excited about the task force’s plan that’s currently proposed,” King said. “We do need to reform our tax system, but we think we need to devote more time to getting this right. We owe it to the public to put our state on solid footing for the next century with a a tax plan that is fair, simple and not rushed.”

    Teachers and many others have crowded task force meetings to ask that action on tax reform wait until the regular legislative session. They cite concerns that include the impact of an income tax cut on schools, since the Utah Constitution earmarks those taxes for education.

    An effort to amend the constitution to remove that earmark, along with an alternative funding source for schools that relies on local school districts to raise an additional $98 million in property taxes annually within five years while providing some guaranteed state revenue, won’t be on the special session agenda.

    House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said it’s “simply not true” tax reform has been hurried. He warned the proposal from the Democrats would undo longstanding tax policies that benefit families and businesses “and strike a blow to the principles that have made Utah strong.”

    Task force co-chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also criticized the plan.

    “We don’t have a problem with income tax revenue. We have a structural imbalance because the general fund (made up largely of sales taxes) is not growing as fast as the population,” Hillyard said, adding while it would have been “nice to hear” about the proposal sooner, he was open to discussions that address the budget issue.

    The task force is set to meet on Monday to finalize the Republican plan intended to give Utahns an overall tax cut, although just how large that will be apparently is still being discussed by the governor, the speaker and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

    Last session, $75 million was set aside for a tax cut, but that amount has already been boosted to at least $100 million based on adjustments being made to limit the number of Utahns who would end up paying more taxes under the plan.

    Now, there’s likely to be extra money available for an even bigger tax cut, with new revenue estimates for the budget year that begins July 1, 2020, set to be released soon by the governor. Wilson has already said income tax collections are projected to grow 10 times faster than sales taxes.

    The Democrats’ plan would return the state to a progressive income tax system that imposes higher rates on higher earnings. Utah did away with that type of taxation a decade ago in favor of a single income tax rate, currently 4.95%.

    Democrats would either keep that rate in place or drop it to 4.64%, but only on earnings up to $150,000. Money made above that amount would be taxed at 6% up to $250,000; 7% between $250,000 and $600,000; and 8% above $600,000.

    Keeping the rate the same for Utahns making less than $150,000 would bring in an additional $466 million in income taxes, according to the data provided by House Democrats, while cutting the rate at the bottom of the brackets would still raise an additional $263 million.

    Replacing the 4.85% state sales tax with a 0.9% gross receipts tax on sellers and service providers means the state would collect less general fund revenue, just under $3 billion in gross receipts taxes from businesses compared to nearly $3.2 billion in sales taxes from consumers.

    Few states collect a gross receipts tax and some imposed the tax only to repeal it later. Adding a gross receipts tax in Utah was briefly considered and rejected last session when Republican lawmakers were looking for a fix to lagging sales tax collections as consumer spending shifts from goods to services.

    The fix they came up with, imposing new sales taxes on a wide array of services ranging from lawn care to legal advice, was scrapped amid protests from the business community in favor of leaving it up to the task force to find a more acceptable alternative.

    The net effect of the Democrats’ plan would be either a $13 million increase in state revenues if the tax rate for earnings up to $150,000 is cut or a $216 million increase if that rate stays the same. Up to 99% of Utahns would see a tax cut, according to Rep. Joel Briscoe of Salt Lake City, one of two Democrats on the task force.

    King said a progressive income tax plan means “most hardworking Utahns will still see a tax cut, but wealthier Utahns would be asked to contribute a little more,” while making more money available for both public and higher education.

    He said moving to a gross receipts tax “also gives most Utahns a huge tax cut on purchases, even as it preserves the solvency of the general fund” and labeled it “fairer and easier to understand and administer because businesses and activities would all pay a little.”

    As an attorney, King said he would pay new taxes under the Democrats’ plan — and doesn’t mind doing so.

    “This bugs me really a lot. We can’t seem to talk about taxes without whining, complaining or moaning,” he said. “I’m willing to do that and I think the people under our tax proposal that would be in my shoes should and are willing, generally, to do that. And if they aren’t, shame on them. Shame on them.”

  • Driver stranded on Utah freeway calls ride-share, leading to 5-car crash
    The occupants of a pickup truck that ran out of gas on I-15 near Springville on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, called a ride-share service to come pick them up, leading to a five-car crash on the freeway, according to the Utah Highway Patrol. | Utah Highway Patrol

    SPRINGVILLE — The occupants of a pickup truck that ran out of gas on I-15 Thursday called a ride-share service to come pick them up, leading to a five-car crash on the freeway.

    The pickup truck became stranded just after 4 p.m. near Springville, stopping in the left shoulder of the southbound lanes, according to Utah Highway Patrol. They used a ride-share app to summon a car to pick them up — but the driver of that car arrived on the opposite side of the freeway.

    The ride-share driver cut across all southbound lanes of the freeway to get to the stranded passengers and was hit by another pickup in the high occupancy lane, UHP said. The crash caused the ride-share car to overturn and come to rest upside-down in the second lane.

    A semitractor-trailer driving in the second lane slowed down suddenly to avoid hitting the car and was hit from behind by another semitrailer pulling double dump trailers, according to UHP. A second pickup truck, attempting to avoid the crash, then hit one of the dump trailers.

    The ride-share driver received minor injuries from the crash, police said. None of the others involved were injured.