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Proceed on food-tax bill

Utah's lawmakers are close to a historic move that will help all state residents. All that remains is for the Utah House to follow the Senate's lead and pass a bill removing the sales tax from food.

By a 15-12 vote, the Senate approved SB31, a bill sponsored by Senate Minority leader Scott Howell, D-Holladay, and Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. The bill would eliminate the tax over a three-year period, softening whatever blow such a move would present to state coffers.The bill would give every Utahn filing a state income tax form a $40 "food tax credit" on the 2000 tax returns. For 2001, each citizen would get an $80 income tax credit. By 2002 the food tax would be dissolved completely. Obviously, the tax credits would cease at that time. Only the lower costs at the grocery store would reman.

There was a time when the state couldn't afford to absorb the estimated annual loss of $100 million in food tax revenue. That was during the 1980s - years of economic uncertainty in Utah with more people moving out than in.

But times have changed, and so should the position of state lawmakers on the food tax. Since 1989 the state has experienced annual budget surpluses. This is a time of prosperity and growth - both economically and in terms of population. Utah tax revenue growth is climbing at a rate of about $100 million a year, which means the $100 million loss from food tax revenue would not be nearly as critical as in the past. The time is right for this move. Lawmakers can't afford to wait.

The food tax penalizes those who need money most - the poor. According to the state Tax Commission, someone who earns $10,000 a year needs 25 percent of that for food. Of that 25 percent, $220 now goes toward paying sales tax.

No one can escape this tax. Everyone must eat. Food and drink are life's most basic necessities.

Utah needs to become the 32nd state to refuse to tax groceries. Of the 18 states that retain this tax, some at least have credit or refund programs that lessen the impact.

Lawmakers can make the needed change shortly. They should.