State lawmakers urged to help poor with tax changes

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Advocates for the poor say Utah lawmakers need to ensure they’re helping out the state’s poor and low-income residents as lawmakers finalize a package of modest tax changes this year.

More than a dozen groups, including Utahns Against Hunger, AARP Utah, and Voices for Utah Children, called on legislators Friday to do away with a state sales tax on food and offer tax credits for the poor and retirees.

Some of those proposals appear to be poised to pass but others appear to have stalled out ahead of the final days of the 2018 legislative session. Senate budget chairman Jerry Stevenson said Friday lawmakers were still working to finalize their budget for the year, leaving it unclear which proposals would be funded.

Matthew Weinstein, with the child advocacy group Voices for Utah Children, said at a news conference Friday that legislators should help the poor with some of the $80 million Utah will reap because of a sweeping overhaul to U.S. tax laws last year.

Lawmakers want to use some of that money to cut Utah’s corporate and individual income tax rates to 4.95 percent, down from 5 percent.

Weinstein said most of that tax rate cut will go to households earning over $100,000, so it’s important to also consider measures that will help those earning far less.

He and other advocates endorsed a bill from Republican Rep. Tim Quinn to drop the 1.75 statewide percent tax on food, excluding candy, while raising the overall sales rate to 4.92 percent. Quinn, of Heber City, says taxing food is immoral and supporters of his plan say the grocery tax disproportionately hits the poor.

The bill has bipartisan support but has stalled in the Senate, where GOP leaders say they don’t favor the plan.

“We’d like to do the opposite,” Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Friday.

Adams said sales of products like cars and furniture drop off in a slow economy, making sales tax a less reliable source of income for the state. But food is a constant purchase for people, and by eliminating the tax, he said, the state would lose a stable source of income.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has also said he doesn’t like the plan.

Advocates for the poor also endorsed a plan Friday that stands a better chance of passing.

Republican Rep. John Westwood, R-Cedar City, has proposed creating a tax credit for families who’ve been in poverty for more than one generation and qualified for a similar federal tax credit. They’d receive an average credit of $240.

The proposal, expected to cost $6 million, is awaiting a final vote in Utah’s Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

Angela McKinnon, a Taylorsville call center worker who takes advantage of a similar federal tax credit for the poor, said Westwood’s plan would help lots of working families.

“I’m not an extravagant person. I’m not out spending my money on expensive things,” McKinnon said. “When I get this money, I put it in my bank account and I use to survive all year.

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