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Most Utahns don't want to revive food tax to help state budget

FRUIT HEIGHTS — On Monday afternoon, the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the air at the Sadler home in this sleepy Davis County bedroom community.

Florence Sadler had two warm, crusty loaves on the counter and two more ready to go into the oven. Baking bread is just one of the ways this mother of six keeps food costs — the third biggest item on her family's budget — under control.

"I bake because I love it, but also because it saves money," she said. "Doing it myself costs about 50 cents a loaf."

And there's no sales tax like there would be if Sadler bought bread at the supermarket. While Utah currently charges 1.75 percent tax on groceries, come January lawmakers will consider restoring it to the general state sales tax rate of 4.7 percent. The Utah Tax Review Commission has endorsed the idea, as have some legislators.

Should the Legislature buy off on the plan, consumers like the Sadlers say sacrifices would have to be made.

"We'd probably need to spend less on things we can do without," Sadler said. "Like recreation."

A homemaker who teaches piano and does substitute teaching, Sadler and her husband, Mike, a Salt Lake City School District principal, run a thrifty, cost-conscious home growing food in a family garden, raising chickens, keeping older vehicles going instead of buying new ones and doing a lot of shopping at secondhand outlets. While the bigger grocery bills that would accompany an increase would lead to some doing without, Sadler said she'd be willing to pay a little more if it means keeping critical state programs going.

"If that's what the state needs to do to keep money in education and other programs, I'm OK with it," she said.

Sadler's willingness to pay more at the grocery store if necessary goes against the findings of a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll in which 65 percent of Utahns say they definitely or probably oppose increasing the food tax. The survey of 408 Utahns, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found 33 percent definitely or probably approve of raising the tax. The poll has a 5 percent margin of error.

While former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. championed the elimination of sales tax on food and successfully lobbied the Legislature to enact incremental decreases in 2006 and 2007, some legislators see the tax as a potential source of stable revenue if it were restored to the previous rate. The plan would add an estimated $120 million to state coffers in the coming year, an attractive option to help bridge an expected state budget gap that could reach $1 billion. New Gov. Gary Herbert said he's committed to balancing the budget without raising taxes.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, pitched reinstating the tax last year, but his bill never made it out of a committee hearing.

Critics characterize the tax as regressive, a contention difficult to refute because lower-income families do spend a higher percentage of their earnings on food. McIff has tried to address that issue in both last year's bill and this year's with a proposed credit for low-income tax filers to offset the added cost of groceries.

Some social services advocates, who work daily to help those struggling with unemployment and other financial challenges, say the delayed payback doesn't provide relief where it's needed, namely, at the checkout register.

Davis County resident Aimee Tueller, shopping Monday with her daughter Kassidy at Bowman's Market in Kaysville, said her family would definitely feel the added cost of a higher tax.

"It would affect us a lot," she said. "Yeah, it's only pennies, but we can only spend so much."

In the meantime, the Sadlers will continue their frugal approach, regardless of what happens with the food tax.

"My husband and I both had family who learned, and passed on, the lessons of the Depression," Sadler said. "We're committed to self-reliance and savings."