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Cracking the Tax 

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Everyone loves complaining about taxes. But, oddly enough, most of those complainers are allergic to examining taxes in detail. That’s because careful study of our federal and state tax systems will put you into one of three moods. If it doesn’t put you to sleep first, it might make you a class warrior second.

And if it does neither of those, study of our tax system will turn you into a raging cynic. Those sorts of cynics mutter about the ways they wish taxes were structured, but at the same time realize that nothing engenders compromise quite like building a system somehow representative of all interests.

So best of luck to the state’s freshly minted Tax Reform Task Force, a 15-member board that promises the most overarching changes to Utah’s tax system in, oh, let’s say at least 30 years. Oh yes, and there are “no sacred cows” as Task Force member Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said.

Time will tell if that is indeed the case. But if it is, hey, we might want to take advantage of this window and have some fun. In that spirit then, here are some recommendations.

First, abolish Utah’s tax on food. And this time we mean it. Utah’s lawmakers should too. It’s the most regressive, punitive tax this state has. Our better nature as a community should have the courage to admit this, but because our food tax is such a shameless revenue generator, we’ve never had the muster to kill it. Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri and West Virginia have all enacted legislation removing or reducing their food tax. It’s our turn.

Second, tax the hell out of car fuel. For economic reasons, let’s consider an exemption for truckers and other transportation vital to commerce. Meanwhile, even with oil at new highs, we should still consider an added tax on people who simply like to drive, and drive and drive. Salt Lake County already has one of the worst records for air quality in the nation. Greater reliance on public transit would help mitigate this problem. But more important, an added tax on fuel would simply spur more conservation. Just ask the Europeans, who scoff at how we go out of our way to make gasoline so cheap. While we’re at it, tax the hell out of cigarettes, which should cost at least $7 or more per pack. With society in ever-increasing agreement about this nasty, dangerous habit, no one need outline the reasons.

Third, tie Utah’s state income tax to a percentage of our nation’s more progressive federal income tax. Conservatives hate progressive taxes, of course, but remember, we’re using this rare window of opportunity. One of the nation’s best-kept secrets, according to Washington, D.C.’s, Citizens for Tax Justice, is that state tax systems are actually more regressive in nature than the federal system. That’s not as true as it used to be since President George W. Bush gave the wealthy such generous tax cuts, but it’s still largely the case.

Finally, let’s see just how much truth there is to the old saw that companies and businesses don’t like states with sizable tax bills. Fact is, an increasing number of companies relocate or choose locations based on an educated talent pool and quality of life. The arts? Education? We can tax, or not tax, lots of things. But some things will always be worth the cost of a tax.

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