Utah Voters Reject Tax Hike for Open Space

Published December 1, 2004

Despite being outspent by a 40-1 margin, opponents of Utah’s Initiative 1 carried the day November 2, as voters rejected tax and debt increases for the “open space” proposal.

Initiative 1 lost by a 55 to 45 percent vote. If it had passed, the state sales tax would have been increased by 1/20th of a cent to fund a $150 million bond that would have paid for open space preservation and other activities, including construction of convention centers and other buildings.

The initiative, sponsored by Utahns for Clean Water, Clean Air, & Quality Growth, would have cost the average Utah family about $14 a year, according to estimates.

Grassroots Approach Successful

The defeat of Initiative 1 surprised many observers because the campaign spending was so lopsided in favor of the initiative and similar initiatives had passed in other western states.

Initiative supporters spent close to $2 million, a large sum in a small state like Utah, on television advertising and mailers. Opponents had a budget of less than $50,000 and relied on earned media such as news conferences and TV and radio debates, as well as limited last-minute radio and newspaper advertising.

The Utah Taxpayers Association, which opposed the measure, took a grassroots approach, sending emails to several thousand conservative activists who then forwarded the emails to thousands of other Utahns. The Utah Farm Bureau covered the rural areas through its network of farmers and ranchers.

Supporters of the initiative, including the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy, claimed the Utah legislature did not care about clean air, clean water, and open space and had reduced funding for these efforts to just $700,000 a year. In response, the Utah Taxpayers Association identified more than $5 billion it said had been allocated for these purposes over the past 10 years, an average of $500 million per year.

The Nature Conservancy also tried to portray Initiative 1 as a conservative Republican effort by playing up prominent Republican supporters and downplaying prominent Democrat supporters.

Governor Led Opposition

Water quality was a major issue with supporters of the measure. Postcards mailed to women voters had a picture of a young child filling a pitcher with water from the kitchen tap, with the caption, “If our water is dirty, it won’t matter if your glass is clean.”

Supporters also downplayed the tax increase as costing a typical family the equivalent of just two movie tickets per year.

The tax increase had the support of many prominent Utahns, including former U.S. Senator Jake Garn, former Brigham Young University football coach LaVell Edwards, author Stephen R. Covey, retired Mormon Church authority Alexander Morrison, numerous business leaders, several hunting and fishing groups, many newspaper editorial boards, wealthy landowners who stood to gain financially from taxpayer-funded conservation easements, and both gubernatorial candidates.

Opposition to the tax increase was led by the Utah Taxpayers Association, Utah Farm Bureau and four other agricultural associations, Utah Association of Realtors, Utah Homebuilders Association, Governor Olene Walker, former Governor Norm Bangerter, former Congressmen Jim Hansen and Howard Nielsen, Utah Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon, and numerous state legislators and local government officials.

One week before the election, The Deseret Morning News, the state’s second-largest newspaper, switched its position from support to opposition.

“The initiative touts open space and other admirable concepts, but do citizens realize that $30 million of the $150 million will be used for such things as convention centers, fair grounds, and local government buildings?” Walker asked in an official statement questioning the proposal. “This initiative commits the state to assume local government funding issues when it already has such pressing needs as education, transportation, and prison growth.”

The initiative also required the state to pay property taxes to local governments.

“I question the wisdom of the state paying property tax on local government facilities,” the governor stated.

Problems Already Being Addressed

The Utah Taxpayers Association published a document identifying 13 problems with Initiative 1. A key argument was that the initiative duplicated current efforts at the federal, state, local, and private levels to protect the environment. The association also pointed out that Utah’s air and water quality are the best they have been in many years and are continuing to improve in response to the hundreds of millions of tax dollars that have been spent on water and air quality improvements in recent years.

Opponents of the tax increase also argued open space preservation already was being adequately addressed in Utah. The federal and state governments typically own and protect between 75 and 95 percent of all land in the state’s rural counties, and in urban areas open space preservation is a responsibility of local governments, which have made commendable open space protection efforts, opponents argued.

The Utah Taxpayers Association also argued voters should be insisting on tax cuts instead of small tax hikes, and that a tax increase equivalent to two movie tickets per family was still too much considering the state’s already high state-local tax and fee burden.

Possible Future Initiatives a Worry

Lack of accountability was also a concern. Unlike similar efforts in other western states, the initiative did not specifically say how the money would be spent. No specific projects or critical land parcels were identified in the initiative petition.

Walker also expressed concern that approval of Initiative 1 would encourage well-funded groups to make further attempts to raise taxes and spending by initiative, a prospect that alarmed many Utahns who used to live in California.

“This process has not served states like California and Oregon well,” said Walker, whose opposition to the initiative was crucial to its defeat. “It is prudent to determine the budget by looking at all needs and issues facing Utah, rather than addressing them in a piecemeal fashion.”

Initial polls had shown the public supporting the initiative by roughly 70 to 30 percent. On election night, exit polls indicated 54 percent approval. As soon as the polls closed, the state’s largest TV station, which had given the initiative favorable coverage and had received a large amount of advertising from initiative supporters, announced Initiative 1 had passed by a comfortable margin.

By the time all the votes were tallied, however, Initiative 1 had received a majority of votes in only two small counties and had been rejected in the other 27, going down to defeat.

Mike Jerman ([email protected]) is vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.