Another attempt will be made to eliminate the state sales tax on food come January's Legislature, and an unlikely alliance of Democrats and conservative Republicans may be formed to push the idea.
The problem will be the same one as in times past - where do lawmakers make the cuts to compensate for the millions of dollars lost in revenue if the tax is repealed.With the defeat of the three tax-cutting initiatives in November's election, tax protesters announced their next fight would be against the sales tax on food. Utah not only has a high sales tax compared with other states, it also taxes food, while many other states don't. Taxing food is considered regressive, since even the poorest Utahns must pay the tax for the basic necessity.
Rep. Jed Wasden, R-Midvale, has prefiled HB12, a bill that would phase out the 5-3/32 percent state sales tax on food items over a three-year period. Wasden's bill would reduce the state sales tax by - and estimates vary on this -$60 million to $100 million.
Sen. Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, who has led the fight to repeal the sales tax on food for a dozen years, says she will file a bill that will raise the sales tax on non-food items slowly while the sales tax on food is removed. Her bill wouldn't cut sales tax revenue, just shift the burden. The sales tax applies to almost every retail purchase in Utah.
Other lawmakers may also file bills to remove the sales tax on food.
"I can see a coalition (between tax protesters, conservative Republicans and Democrats). A number of people have already suggested it. But I've also had a number of Republicans ask if they can co-sponsor my bill," Wasden said.
Farley said, "I've been contacted already by the tax protesters inquiring what I plan to do and if we can work together. Since my bill isn't really a tax reduction but a tax shift, I imagine they'll be less enthusiastic about my approach."
It's been a long fight over the years to remove the sales tax from food, always unsuccessful.
Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, introduced a doomed bill to eliminate the tax back in the early 1970s when he was in the Utah House.
After several other bills were voted down by the Legislature, citizens concerned about the tax obtained enough voter signatures to place an initiative petition for repeal before the 1979 Legislature. But state senators voted the bill down. Supporters then obtained enough signatures to put the measure on the 1980 general ballot. But voters, in the face of concerns about education funding, voted against repealing the sales tax on food.
Now the matter comes up again. And tax protesters and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers may find themselves on the same side of the sales-tax fight, the first time they've agreed yet.
Gov. Norm Bangerter, a Republican, doesn't oppose repealing the sales tax on food. But he doesn't see, in these tight economic times, where the state can make up the millions of dollars the tax brings in each year.
Wasden's bill would phase out the tax, cutting about a third of the revenue source each year for three years. By July 1, 1991, there would be no state sales tax on food purchased in an unprepared condition. The sales tax would still apply to restaurant sales or other prepared-food purchases.
Wasden's bill defines food as any item the U.S. government allows to be purchased with federal food stamps. It excludes non-food items, like soap and tobacco, and any alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine coolers.
There is no exact estimate on what such a repeal would mean to state revenues. Lee Shaw, State Tax Commission spokesman, said the commission estimates that food store sales of food items alone account for between $80-$100 million in sales tax each year. "But that is just a guess. Food stores also sell non-food items, like motor oil, and so we have to guess at what is food and what isn't."
Wasden disagrees with that estimate. "Last year I introduced a similar bill and the fiscal note (compiled by legislative accountants) was $77 million. The Utah Taxpayers Association says it would cost $60 million and that's the figure I'm going with," Wasden said.
He didn't pursue the bill last year, awaiting the outcome of the tax initiatives. "We couldn't have done this if they had passed," he said.