Facebook Twitter

FOOD TAX GNAWING AT HUMAN SERVICES

SHARE FOOD TAX GNAWING AT HUMAN SERVICES

Advocacy groups are grappling with a difficult decision: Should they support or oppose the move to take sales tax off food?

Traditionally, advocate organizations that try to protect the interests of the poor, the physically or mentally disabled, the elderly and others with disadvantages have supported removing that type of tax.It is a regressive tax, they say, because it places a disproportionate burden on people who have low incomes.

When I started reporting on Social Services a couple of years ago, human-service advocates frequently talked about removing that tax burden from the poor.

Now, they're not so sure.

It isn't that the tax has suddenly become less regressive. Most of the organizations still don't believe there should be a sales tax on food items. But they're caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The governor and key members of the Legislature have made it clear that removal of the sales tax - and the revenue it generates to the state - will result in program cuts. Some cuts might be in social services.

None of them find that thought appealing.

There's little disagreement that, far from cutting the programs further, funding needs to be expanded.

Even I'm tired of reading about underfunded programs - including the many columns I've written on the subject. But I can't simply dismiss it.

Frail elderly people should not have to wait to receive Meals on Wheels. Many of them can't wait. So they are placed in nursing homes - at even greater expense to the state. A meal several times a week is much less expensive than room, board and care.

About three-fourths of that cost is born by the federal government rather than the state government, but last time I looked, taxpayers supported the federal government, too.

Children who are at nutritional risk shouldn't be on waiting lists for help, either.

Neither should children who are multiply handicapped and in need of early intervention, or their families.

When I was young, I learned a little about family economics. When we had plenty of money, we did a lot of fun things. We took vacations, we went to movies and concerts, etc.

But if my father's business was in a seasonal slump, we scaled back. We played Scrabble instead of going to the show. We ate hamburger instead of steak.

Utah needs to learn how to do that, too, I think. When money is tight, surely you take care of the needs of the people first. If money's good, maybe you invest in a train. Or you grapple with a decision about what to do with a building. You might even give tax breaks to the ski industry.

I don't think it's even decent to do those things when the most vulnerable, disadvantaged citizens of the state are being told to wait for services.

Some corrective action has been taken. Gov. Norm Bangerter and key lawmakers have agreed to let the departments of Health and Human Services spend a portion of an $8 million request for basic human services that can't wait. (It's a portion because they are to spend roughly one-twelfth of the amount each month until lawmakers meet in January.)

And here the issue of removing sales tax on food rears up again. If voters decide in November to remove the tax, the additional spending may end because of lost revenue. Or lawmakers, facing cutbacks, may choose not to approve additional funding for human service programs.

That is the dilemma faced by advocate groups, who as members of the Human Services Coalition went to work and fought for the "can't wait" money.

They don't want to jeopardize the gain they made for programs. But they don't like regressive taxes, either.

I don't know what they'll decide. I don't even know how I'm going to vote.

I do know this: Just once, advocates told me, they'd like officials to talk about possible cuts somewhere besides people programs like health, human services, corrections, education . . .

I think politicians are onto a sure-fire thing, though. If they said they were just going to make up the difference by sunsetting some tax breaks or cutting out optional construction until the revenue picture got brighter, people might vote for the tax removal.