Utah Republican lawmaker wants to legalize lottery to help pay for property tax cuts

Dec 30, 2023, 8:07 PM

Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize t...

Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize the lottery in Utah to help offset the tax burden of older adults on fixed incomes. (Wilfredo Lee, The Associated Press)

(Wilfredo Lee, The Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Kera Birkeland has heard from several older constituents on fixed incomes who are struggling to keep up with rising property taxes, and the Morgan Republican has an unconventional proposal for relief: legalize the lottery in Utah.

The Beehive State is one of the few remaining holdouts in the United States that doesn’t offer some kind of lottery, along with Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii and Nevada. While the state’s politics generally favor unregulated business, the prevailing faith — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which is followed by a majority of state lawmakers, is opposed to all forms of gambling.

Utah and Hawaii are the only states that prohibit all forms of gambling.

But Birkeland said legislative researchers estimate the state is missing out on as much as $200 million in revenue from lottery tickets, which is currently going to neighboring states like Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona as Utah residents cross state lines to purchase tickets.

“I talked to a gentleman whose dad is 92 years old, and his property tax bill has gone up so much that he is having to put his house up for sale,” she told KSL.com. “He’s paid his fair share, why is he being forced out of his home to pay those taxes?”

The full details of the bill have not yet been made public, and Birkeland says she has yet to write a stipulation into the bill that would require tax revenue gained from lottery sales be used to offset the tax burden of older adults on fixed incomes.

“I am personally more concerned about senior citizens living on fixed incomes,” she said. “It’s not in the legislation, but something I’m looking into.”

The Utah Constitution prohibits “any game of chance,” so Birkeland’s proposal includes a constitutional amendment that would need support from two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers before being approved by a majority of voters in the upcoming general election.

Birkeland isn’t the first Utah lawmaker to try to change the state’s prohibition on gambling, and previous legislative efforts have failed to gain traction. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a federal law that barred sports betting in most states, and while several states moved to legalize betting, Utah was not one of them.

A state senator from Provo proposed a bill in 2021 to legalize playing “skill-based games,” but the proposal met resistance over concerns that it would open the door to gambling. A proposal to legalize betting on horse races similarly stalled in 2019.

Birkeland’s proposal is already getting pushback from one powerful Utahn. Although the governor doesn’t have the power to veto proposed constitutional amendments, Spencer Cox said during his monthly news conference last week that he is opposed to the idea.

“I’ve said many times that I think lotteries and gambling in general are taxes on people who are bad at math and they do more harm than good,” he said.

For her part, Birkeland is aware that passing the bill will be an uphill climb, but said she’s “up for a challenge.”

“I’ve ran a number of bills that try to cap property taxes and try to reduce government spending, and none of them ever go anywhere,” she said. “And so, for my colleagues, for individuals who are opposed to the lottery where the revenue would reduce property taxes, I’d say, ‘Then what?’ … I think that’s a really important conversation to have on Capitol Hill as we go into this session, because that is really the No. 1 concern of my constituents. And if we need to have the conversation around a lottery to elevate that and actually address the issue, then so be it.”

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Utah Republican lawmaker wants to legalize lottery to help pay for property tax cuts