Legislative 'you break it, you buy it'
Shopkeepers who sell fragile merchandise originated the warning, "If you break it, you buy it." It is a blunt way of telling customers who is responsible for any damages to goods in their place of business if they or their children create a mess.
That concise advice ought to apply to the Utah Legislature as well. In a move to protect the state's mining industries two years ago, lawmakers exempted certain classes of mining equipment from the sales tax. In so doing, they cut off about a third of Wellington City's municipal revenue.
Now that little town, population 1,400, is facing a budget crisis through no fault of its own. Had the municipal government wasted money, exaggerated its anticipated revenue, or simply felt the effects of recession like everyone else, there would be no cause for sympathy. This is different.
If cities are defined as "creatures of the state," then the legislature's stewardship of this particular creature leaves much to be desired. In effect, the cost of protecting an industry is being borne by citizens whose basic services must be cut to make ends meet. Imagine Salt Lake City losing 25 percent of its police force, or Ogden cutting out an equal percent of its administrative staff, or the mayor of any major metropolitan area riding a lawn mower through the cemetery because his town can't afford to hire seasonal help. That is in a nutshell the unintended consequence to Wellington because of the exemption.
Well, the customer who knocks a vase off the shelf faces an unintended consequence, too. Just admitting responsibility for the mistake by saying "I didn't mean to do it," doesn't cut it.
A bill in the last legislative session filed by Rep. Christine Watkins to repeal the exemption died an early death. It was seen as a tax increase. A suggestion to allow impacted cities to levy their own 1 percent tax is going nowhere. This fractional restoration of a tax that has been cut is also seen by some legislators as a tax increase.
What would be laughable, if it were not so scary, is that Wellington's biggest problem, because of the legislatures action, is making good on its loan payments to the Community Impact Board. So the state, in decapitating the city's revenue, is making it impossible to pay...the state. And the CIB claims that it can't do anything about the interest payments.
So there you have it. Maybe it is laughable...what else can we do.
Here's a novel idea. Why not assign the original sponsors of the exemption bill to get together and draft a solution for Wellington? They were quick enough to ride to the rescue of the mining industry. And why not have the lobbyists who pushed for the exemption in the first place turn around and push for a little help in this desperate case?
It would be a decent way to recognize responsibility. Bad legislation shouldn't remain on the books just because no one wants to admit to having studied it enought to understand its long term conseqences. But shortsightedness has often been the hallmark of the hallowed body that resides each January on Capitol Hill.
Why should they change now?