Utah newspapers win taxing argument

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By: M.L. Stein Utah publishers managed to beat back a bill to eliminate newspapers' sales tax exemption but not before papers were attacked as worthless and irrelevant at a bitter legislative hearing during which one former representative accused the press of having "ruined my life."
Members of a House of Representatives committee that heard arguments on the issue even berated publishers for their Newspaper in Education programs, which were labeled as "just advertising pieces to influence parents of the children to subscribe to the paper."
"It was brutal," recalls one witness, Janice Keller, executive director of the Utah Press Association (UPA). "They told us we were worthless."
"We also were told we are a monopoly, which struck me as odd since they also complained we are no longer primary sources of information, having been replaced by TV and the Internet," adds Kevin Ashby of the Sun Advocate, a weekly in Price, Utah. Brett Bezzant, who publishes the New Utah papers in three cities, says some committee members insisted that "Utahans are not looking at newspapers for their news anymore and that newspapers have outserved their purpose."
Appearing before the committee, former Rep. Kelly Atkinson charged the press with ruining his life and destroying his family in reporting allegations of a conflict of interest when he was running for mayor of West Jordan.
"He went on to say that newspapers deserve to be taxed because of the damage they do to the public," Bezzant says. "But he turned out to be our best defense. A bill that comes out in retaliation against newspapers did not float well in the House."
The committee approved House Bill 80, which would have applied to subscriptions and street sales, but it lost on the floor 48-24. H.B. 80 was introduced by Rep. David Zolman (R-Taylorsville), who handed the committee a flier that termed the exemption a "subsidy" and argued that it was originally granted because newspapers were the state's main source of information. "Seventy-five percent of us get our daily information from either TV or radio news. The Internet is another common source of information." He also says that "60% of Utah residents who do not subscribe to a newspaper are subsidizing the 40% who do."
Bezzant adds, however, that government uses newspapers for public notices "and they turn around and tax the access to the information. It's not good policy to tax a source of information that helps the majority of Utahans."
Legislators were not swayed by the committee's vote. Nora Stephens (R-Sunset) says, "It is my understanding there are two papers that could absorb this, but the other 52 papers in the state would struggle."

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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher February 27, 1999) [Caption]

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