Falling Flat 

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Only hearts of stone have no sympathy for those charged with reforming Utah’s tax system. Then again, some of us might argue that those discussing solutions have all the creativity of a box of rocks.

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With more than 150,000 students poised to crash the gates of our public schools in the next 10 years, we need a reliable and predictable source of revenue the majority of people can agree is easily understood come tax time, fair to all (or, failing that, most), and broadly imposed. Good luck to them. And because this is Utah, tax reformers must also deftly confront the LDS Church and its charitable contributions and exemptions for children, as well as mortgage-interest deductions sacred to home builders and real estate agents.

nn

The first conversation was settled long ago, even when then-Gov. Olene Walker introduced the notion of tax reform. Mormon or non-Mormon, get used to it: The “tithing” deduction will rest safe and sound at the end of the day. Few forces in this state go up against the church and win. Insiders may tell you no one, not even the Eagle Forum, is out to protect limitless family deductions. But must anyone protect it? Finally, the fact that Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, former Senate president, is current president of the National Association of Realtors means loads of state lawmakers already know the score on mortgage-interest deductions.

nn

Meanwhile, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. continues his obsession with the flat tax, along with that elusive Holy Grail of all tax plans, the postcard-size form. He doesn’t like our standing as the state with the 35th-highest tax rate. And good Republican that he is, he no doubt professes a strong belief in the Laffer curve, which holds that higher tax rates eventually bring down revenue because they have the potential of scaring off businesses and the rich. There we go again, always worrying about the rich. Which is why Huntsman thinks getting rid of our 7 percent top income tax rate so that everyone pays a flat 5 percent is a good idea.

nn

For those of us long tired of worrying about the rich, there’s another source of tax revenue few have the guts to discuss. It’s time we had a gas with another gas tax.

nn

Granted, this idea’s already been laughed out of discussions. It’s also a demanding'some would say impractical'one, requiring that two-thirds of both state Senate and House of Representatives change the state constitution before gas tax money can fill our education coffers. Critics of an increased gas tax also say that, given the volatile energy market, it’s not a stable source of revenue.

nn

Considering the current price of gas, and with no foreseeable relief in sight, it would be interesting to hear those same arguments now. Utah already has an excise per unit tax on gas of 24.5 cents, on top of 18.4 cents in federal tax, most of it spent on transportation maintenance and building of new roads. We have no state or local sales tax on gas. We should.

nn

Americans, who enjoy the lowest fuel costs of the entire industrialized world, needlessly waste more fuel than any other nation. Our reliance on cars pollutes the air and results in more than 40,000 auto deaths annually'far more than lives lost to terrorist attacks. Cars also make us fat, contributing to more and more illness. Given these benefits, we don’t even need political arguments mentioning how oil revenues support terrorism or aggravate global warming. The gas tax sells itself. Too bad politicians will never buy it.

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