Utah can’t afford to waste the sales tax money Amazon starts collecting in 2017


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Utah could use an extra $200 million.

To fully fund the state Medical Examiner’s Office, for instance.

Or to fund the state’s public defender system.

Or perhaps to finally begin addressing sexual violence.

By no small coincidence, Utah loses about $200 million each year when online retailers decline to collect the state’s sales tax on purchases made by Utahns.

Utah won’t recoup all $200 million from its new agreement with Amazon.com, but it’s a start.

Now we need to be rigorous about how we use the money — and just as important, Utah needs to begin negotiating similar deals with other retailers.

Amazon.com, the biggest e-commerce company in the world, generated $105 billion in sales during 2015. It collects sales tax on items sold and shipped to 30 states — a list that expands to 31 on Jan. 1, 2017.

State tax officials negotiated a deal calling for Amazon to voluntarily collect Utah’s 4.75 percent sales tax on sales to Utahns, in return for a standard 1.31 percent discount to compensate Amazon for its efforts.

Charlie Roberts, spokesman for the Utah State Tax Commission, said he didn’t know how much sales tax money the Amazon deal stands to generate. And that’s where we need to start.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced the Amazon deal Wednesday, the same day he unveiled his proposed $16.1 billion budget for 2017.

Lawmakers being lawmakers, somebody’s going to make a grab for the Amazon money when the Legislature opens in January.

This year, for instance, they voted to subsidize a $53 million deep-water coal port in Oakland, California. A single wasteful proposal like that could eat up most the Amazon tax revenue — or, worse, spend more than Amazon collects.

So it’s important to understand how much revenue Utah can expect from Amazon.com. And it’s vital to spend it where it’s most needed.

The easy answer is schools, but Herbert already budgeted about $280 million in additional education spending, and a business group called Our Schools Now wants an income tax increase on the 2018 ballot for public school funding.

Millions of new dollars are flowing into Utah schools, and rightfully so. Enrollment is increasing and Utah remains last in per-pupil spending nationally.

But the medical examiner’s office is badly underfunded. Although Rex Iverson died in the Box Elder County Jail in January, the sheriff’s office had to wait until November for toxicology test results showing Iverson poisoned himself with strychnine. And despite a 25 percent budget increase this year, the medical office can’t keep up with the growing demand for autopsies, slowing homicide investigations across the state.

Sexual violence cost the Utah economy $5 billion in 2011 alone, according to a report from the Utah Department of Health and Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, but Herbert and state lawmakers act as if they’ve never heard about rape or sexual assault. It’s time to begin investing in prevention — it’s time to begin changing Utah culture.

And it’s time to create a system that provides indigent defendants effective representation in court. A $2 million study commissioned by lawmakers earlier this year isn’t enough; as the ACLU of Utah argued in its June lawsuit against the state, Utah’s public defender system isn’t just inadequate, it violates the Sixth Amendment.

Determine how much money we can expect from Amazon, identify where it can make the biggest impact, and insist that it’s used to address vital issues we could not fund before.

Then, as we strike similar deals with additional online retailers, we can continue to expand essential programs without resorting to tax increases — and that will make Utah a safer, healthier state.

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