Flagged Bill: HB 78 – Marriage Defense Fund, Rep. Nelson

Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican - Grantsville)
Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville)

When filling out their tax returns, Utahns are given the option of checking a box to voluntarily donate to organizations such as the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Account, the School District and Nonprofit School District Foundation, or the Youth Character Organization Account. Now, one lawmaker wants to add a box for Utahns to donate to the State’s fight against marriage equality.

Representative Merrill Nelson (Republican – Grantsville) is proposing HB 78, to establish a “Marriage Defense Fund.”

HB 78 would, among other things, use these contributions from official state tax forms “to pay litigation and appellate expenses…for legal actions related to the defense and enforcement of Utah Constitution, Article I, Section 29, or any section of Utah Code, Title 30, Chapter 1, Marriage.”

In short, the fund would pay for any costs associated with defending the recently overturned Amendment 3, which barred Utahns in same-sex relationships from obtaining civil marriages.

The establishment of funds for controversial issues is nothing new in Utah. Often times, special funds are created by the state to allow individuals and corporations have a formal outlet to support the position of the state in legal battles that may take place.

The major difference here is that the option to contribute money is being placed on official state tax forms. From a policy standpoint, this sets a dangerous precedent.

Though people may not contribute to line items such as programs to end homelessness or create after-school programs, only a select few would raise objections to citizens having the option to do so—few would disagree that these programs are beneficial to the public and people should have an easy outlet to contribute.

However, the issue of same-sex marriage is far from agreed upon.

A recent poll conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune revealed that Utahns are evenly split on whether they are in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples. A Deseret News/KSL Poll showed similar results. All told, it’s clear that debate on the issue is far from over and Utahns of all backgrounds have strong, yet varying, opinions on the topic. By establishing only one point-of-view on official state tax forms, we would be politicizing the mere process of paying taxes—something we should just grumble about and simply do.

If successful, this check-a-box option would no doubt raise quite a bit of money from citizens who are opposed to same-sex marriages, and those same individuals will likely cheer the box’s existence…until such an option is used against them on some other topic down the road. That’s the simple precedent Representative Nelson would be setting: the Utah legislature can provide a quick, easy, and convenient way for citizens to pit themselves against each other.

Debate will rage over the amount the state should pay to defend Amendment 3 and, in no small amount of irony, the 1,300+ same-sex couples who wed in December will watch their own tax dollars used to fund the effort to strip them of their civil marriages. But these debates are generally regarded as hypothetical —”Should the state spend $2 million defending traditional marriage?” will not cause as much divisiveness as “Should your neighbor, whom you have known for the past 10 years, give $50 to strike down your marriage?”

The second half of Nelson’s bill would create a traditional fund that people can donate to. Again, this idea is nothing new in Utah or other states, and if citizens want to take the time and effort to contribute it is their right to do so. But, by placing the option to donate on a tax return, Nelson is taking us down a dangerous path.

Setting a precedent that official state tax forms can be used by some citizens to directly harm other citizens goes numerous steps too far. If this can be done, what’s to stop a legislator next year from putting a box on the form requesting contributions for other divisive issues?

To contact Representative Nelson, click here or call 801-971-2172.

Impact on Average Utahn:

High Impact   5 . . 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

You can track this, and all of our other flagged bills, by clicking here. Need an explanation of scores? Click Here.

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