A citizen referendum filed in response to statewide tax reform passed by the state Legislature in December could have enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot, according to internal counts by referendum organizers and preliminary counts by elections offices.

The tax reform that passed during a special legislative session would raise sales taxes and lower income taxes, reducing total taxes by approximately $160 million. Some aspects of the reform have been widely criticized, including raising the sales tax on unprepared food from 1.75% to 4.85% and repealing certain sales tax exemptions.

Critics say the tax reform will negatively impact middle- and low-income families while supporters, including Gov. Gary Herbert, say income tax cuts will benefit everyone in the state.

On Jan. 9, Harmons Grocery announced its opposition to the tax reform and that it would support the referendum.

“Food is essential and should be affordable, Chairman Bob Harmon said in a statement. “Increasing the tax on food hurts everyone, but especially those in our community who are already struggling.”

The referendum needs at least 115,869 signatures throughout the state in order to be put on a ballot, including those of 8% of registered voters in at least 15 of the 29 counties in the state, Utah Elections Director Justin Lee said.

The deadline for organizers to submit packets of signatures to county elections offices was Tuesday at 5 p.m. 79,078 signatures had been verified as of Wednesday at 5 p.m., according to the state elections office. Lee said thousands of packets throughout the state still needed to be counted.

So far, 16 counties have reached the threshold for required signatures, Lee said, including Tooele, Box Elder, Duchesne, Emery, Grand and Washington counties. Other counties, like Sevier and San Juan, are right near the threshold and may reach it as more signatures get verified.

Signatures for the tax referendum have “had an extremely high verification rate,” Lee said. “It sits around 93% to 94%.”

To put that in perspective, the state elections division usually sees around a 75% signature verification rate. Anything over 80% is “very good,” Lee said. “So this is at a different level of validity.”

It’s hard to say how many signatures are left to verify since each packet could have anywhere between one and 50 signatures, Lee said.

But “we’re certainly talking about tens of thousands of signatures left to be verified,” he said.

County elections divisions have until Feb. 4 to verify signatures, the state elections director said. Those who signed the referendum will have up to 45 days to remove their signatures.

If there are still enough signatures after that point and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox determines the referendum meets all qualifications, then the tax reform will be placed on hold until Utahns vote on it in November.

“It’s certainly within the realm of possibility at this point that they have turned in enough signatures to break the threshold,” he said.

Organizers of the referendum say that internal tracking shows that they have collected about 152,000 signatures statewide, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

In Utah County, 440 signature packets were turned in on Tuesday evening alone, Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said, adding that around 260 packets had been turned in prior to Tuesday.

Deputy Clerk Josh Daniels said it was “shocking that that amount of the total came in just the last day.”

“I don’t think that there’s anything like this that has even happened in Utah history,” Daniels said. “This volume of signature-gathering in such (a) short amount of time — with all volunteer labor.”

Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, about a dozen people dropped off “just an overwhelming number of packets” in Harmons grocery bags at the Utah County elections office in Provo, Gardner said. Around 10 employees and staffers worked at different stations to get rough packet counts, verify signatures and fill out receipts for each packet.

“It was pretty methodical,” said Gardner.

Roughly 28,623 signatures had been counted by the Utah County Elections Division as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Gardner, 8,205 of which had been verified. The required signatures for Utah County is 21,608.

“If trends continue, we’re finding over a 90% acceptance rate thus far,” the clerk/auditor said. “So if that rings true, they’ll have well over the (approximately) 21,000 needed … to reach the threshold for this county.”

Gardner said people turning in packets didn’t belong to any particular party. There were registered Democrats, Republicans and independents in Utah County who supported the tax referendum, she said.

It will likely take the county two weeks to verify all the signatures, Gardner said, “just because of the sheer workload of our every day jobs on top of the petition” and other statutory deadlines the clerk’s office needs to meet.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, issued a statement on Wednesday addressing the momentum behind the referendum.

“We recognize the current tax reform plan created concern for some Utahns,” Wilson and Adams wrote, “and the legislature remains committed to crafting solutions Utahns can be proud of while ensuring our state continues to prosper.”

In December, Alex Cragun of Utahns Against Hunger said 1 of every 9 Utah households experiences food insecurity, meaning they regularly do not have access to or cannot afford nutritious food.

Even with a grocery tax credit for qualifying families being included in the tax reform, Cragun said he worries that low-income households would still be hurt, either due to being unaware of the credit or unable to wait until tax season for reimbursement.

“Our concerns are that people will fall through the cracks and will be harmed because of this tax policy,” said Cragun.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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