Flagged Bill: SB 19 – Appointment and Qualification of Members of the Utah State Tax Commission, Sen. Stephenson

utah republican senator howard stephenson
Sen. Howard Stephenson (R – Draper)

One of the little known but important commissions in the state is the Utah State Tax Commission, which is charged with settling tax disputes between individuals and organizations when a county assessor determines someone’s tax liability. Utah is somewhat unique in this regard, as only three other states use such a method – most other states instead opt for a department of revenue to work out such matters.

The need for such a commission arose from county auditors misusing their power and making advantageous tax decisions for political allies while harming political enemies. The need for a further removed system became apparent and the Utah State Tax Commission was born in 1930.

Lawmakers realized that one of the side effects of Utah having the four-person commission is that individuals charged with adjudicating tax issues are given the ability to use and abuse their power, just as the county auditors before them. That is why, for many years, Utah law has required that no two commissioners be from the same political party – the idea being that no deciding vote would be in the hands of one political party.

But this structure is increasingly causing problems in an age where more complex tax structures require a more complex understanding of the tax code.

It is for this reason that Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) is proposing SB 19 – Appointment and Qualification of Members of the Utah State Tax Commission.

The idea of the bill is a simple one: remove the partisan requirement to sit or not sit on the commission in an attempt to attract and keep qualified commission members.

Two former commissioners spoke to such an idea in November when the idea was floated to the Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee. Mark Buchi and Roger Tew, two former commissioners, told the committee that at no point in their long service on the commission did debates have a hint of partisanship, furthermore, the two felt that the requirement that commissioners be from different political parties was an artificial constraint that was no longer necessary. “We could be pushing otherwise very qualified candidates out because of this requirement,” Tew told the committee.

Stephenson told the interim committee that objections were raised by Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City), who would only accept the bipartisan flavor of the commission if the requirements to be on the tax commission were increased. When not acting as Senator, Dabakis is Chairman of the Utah Democratic Party.

Dabakis, however, tells Utah Political Capitol that he made no such concession. “I am unalterably opposed to the bill and that it takes away the party balance from tax commission appointments.” Debakis rhetorically asked “how does it help qualified people get appointed to take away the constitutional requirement for political balance? Doesn’t make sense.”

The “Dabakis Amendment,” as it came to be known by the interim committee, was added to SB 19, and dramatically increases the requirements necessary to be appointed and sit on the committee. If the bill were to pass, it will now be required that commissioners are CPA’s, tax attorneys, appraisers, and/or stem from professional organizations that deal with tax-related issues (requirements that were not part of the law prior).

Stephenson acknowledges that this policy could cost the state more in theory as the state will now specifically be asking of professionals to hold these positions, professionals who are specifically selected for their knowledge and expertise, and professionals who most likely receive a healthy salary in the private sector.

This legislation could reintroduce partisanship back into the process, but it is Stephenson’s contention that, by increasing the professionalism associated with the position, this problem will be eliminated. With the passive support of the Democratic Chair and the public support of the bill by the Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee, it appears that this bill is on track to become law.

“Political balance,” Dabakis added, “is very important boards and commissions is an essential part of the process. One that adds balance, diversity and fairness. Over the last generation, the GOP has played games with this balance.”

To contact Senator Stephenson, click here or call 801-572-1038.

Impact on Average Utahn:

High Impact   5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0   No Impact

Need for Legislation:

Necessary   5 . 4 3 . 2 . 1 . 0   Unnecessary

Lemon Score:

Sound Legislation 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Clunker

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