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TIME HAS COME TO REMOVE STATE SALES TAX FROM FOOD

A handful of Utah legislators have begun what is considered a long-shot effort to remove the sales tax from food.

It's an old issue. Twice before, Utah voters wisely rejected the idea. But this time it deserves support.State budget surpluses have accumulated in record numbers for the past decade. This year's $75 million excess runs the combined, 10-year total to $750 million. In the meantime, the state budget has swelled from $2.5 billion to $5 billion.

If this isn't a good time for the state to absorb the loss of sales taxes from food purchases, it's difficult to imagine the type of prosperity that would be necessary.

Fifteen years ago, this page opposed an initiative that would have removed the tax. At the time, Utah's economy was in recession, and state government was trying to shrink to make ends meet. The initiative was packaged with one that would have ended the property tax. Together, they could have crippled the state.

Five years ago, another food-tax initiative made the ballot. Again, this page opposed it for economic reasons. The 1980s were years of economic uncertainty in Utah, with more people moving out than in. By 1990, the state had yet to recover from those uncertain times.

But times change. While prosperity is by no means guaranteed in the future, the state's impressive financial picture year after year since the last initiative makes the practice of taxing food seem cruel. Without question, this is a tax that hurts the poor more than any other group. Everyone needs food. It is life's most basic necessity. Because the tax is levied as a flat percentage, those with the smallest incomes end up paying the largest share of it to stay alive.

Utah would have plenty of company if it eliminated the tax. Thirty-one other states have no tax on food.

So far, three Republicans and one Democrat are championing the cause. Three of them, Reps. Jordan Tanner and Steve Barth and Sen. Charles Stewart, favor a gradual removal. One, Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, wants to do it all at once. At this point, the merits of their individual proposals are less important than the fact that together they represent a bipartisan effort.

That effort has yet to gain momentum. But it should, once lawmakers examine the need.

Meanwhile, a petition drive has begun independent of the lawmakers. Its organizers hope to force another statewide referendum.

Removing the tax wouldn't be completely painless. By most estimates, it would cost about $110 million. But Gov. Mike Leavitt already has announced he wants to limit most state departments to a 2.5 percent growth rate next year. Given the state's economic growth, absorbing the food tax shouldn't require much belt-tight-en-ing.

After all, lawmakers last year sliced $90 million off property taxes without much pain. Removing the food tax likely would be at least as popular, and, under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a strong argument against it.