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How Utah’s restored sales tax on food impacts grocery shoppers

Hayden, 2, peels a banana while shopping with her aunt Angie Berni at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Hayden, 2, peels a banana while shopping with her aunt Angie Berni at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Angie Berni says she spends an estimated $1,100 a month on food for her family of six, including a 17-year-old son with a staggering appetite.

“He eats the equivalent of about three people,” she said.

Berni, of South Jordan, was out grocery shopping Thursday, hours before the Utah Legislature held a special session to adopt a tax reform plan that restores the state sales tax on food, upping the rate from 1.75% to the full 4.85%.

Berni, a mother of four, said she didn’t know all the ins and outs of the Legislature’s tax reform plan, but she was aware of the proposal to restore the food tax, and she believed it should stay low.

Berni said her husband of 20 years makes a “fairly good income” nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way.

“When we were first married, he and I were working full time, we had a little boy, and things were really tight, so we were really, really aware,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of extra food at home.”

Groceries are rung up at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Groceries are rung up at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As someone who once lived on a tight budget, Berni said the added food tax could have a “huge impact” on Utahns living paycheck to paycheck while trying to feed their families.

“Everybody needs to eat,” she said. “It’s not like buying a car ... food is a totally different story.”

During her shopping trip to Ream’s in West Jordan on Thursday, Berni spent $81.18, including $2.36 in sales tax. She guessed she spends around $1,100 a month on food, which she said may seem high, but she noted they sometimes entertain friends and family and feed some of her kids’ friends.

Based off of Utah’s current sales tax rate on unprepared food of 1.75%, Berni probably pays around $19.25 a month in sales tax on food. With the rate restored to the full 4.85%, Berni will likely spend around $53.35 in state sales tax a month or about $34.10 more. That’s about $409 in state sales taxes more a year, equalling about $640 a year if she spends $1,100 a month on groceries. Those calculations don’t include the local portion of sales tax collected on food.

Depending on her household income and her four dependents, Berni’s family, however, could potentially qualify for an income tax cut and dependent exemptions that could total hundreds of dollars under the new plan.

The restoration of the food tax is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Legislature’s tax reform package, with Democrats and some Republicans reluctant to enact a policy some worry will more heavily impact low-income Utahns.

Proponents, however, have defended the tax reform package that — while raising sales taxes on food, gas and some services — also reduces the state income tax rate while providing a grocery tax credit for low- and moderate-income Utahns.

Additionally, in a new version unveiled earlier Thursday morning, the law would allow Utahns with dependents to get a “pre-bate,” or a one-time check for as much as $200 early next year on top of grocery tax credits to help offset the impacts of the food tax hike.

But Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, rolled her eyes at the “pre-bate,” saying it doesn’t quell concerns about the impact of the full food tax.

“We appreciate that there is an acknowledgment of the impact that this is going to have on low-income families,” Cornia told the Deseret News outside of the Senate chambers Thursday. “But it doesn’t matter how much a rebate is, or sort of all of these things that they’re doing to mitigate the increase of the income of the sales tax on food. The best mitigation would be to not increase the sales tax on food.”

Utahns who are living paycheck to paycheck aren’t going to realize the benefits until it’s too late, and only “if they know about it at all,” Cornia said.

“The bottom line is a sales tax on food disproportionately hurts low-income households,” she said. “The Legislature knows that, otherwise they wouldn’t be implementing this grocery tax credit. So maybe just don’t tax groceries.”

Rose and Gary Mesker shop for groceries at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Rose and Gary Mesker shop for groceries at Ream’s in South Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utahns Against Hunger calculated the impact of the food tax hike for a family of four, two adults and two school-age children, spending $150.30 a week on food under the USDA’s low-cost food plan. Under the current tax rate, a family spending that much on food are paying roughly $18.04 a month in state and local food taxes, or about $216.48 a year. Under the new tax rate, that goes up to about $36.68 a month, or about $440.16 a year, according to Utahns Against Hunger’s calculations.

Overall, Cornia said she wished lawmakers wouldn’t have considered upping the food tax at all.

“We’re disappointed,” Cornia said. “We know they can do better.”

Lawmakers have pushed tax reform — including well over $100 million in overall tax cuts — to address what they have called a “structural imbalance” within the budget as sales tax revenues continue to lag behind income tax collections as consumer spending shifts from goods to services.

But the changes don’t sit well with everyone.

To Gary Mesker, of South Jordan, and his wife, Rose, who were also out shopping at Ream’s on Thursday, that tax hike on food doesn’t seem “fair.”

“It’s regressive,” Gary Mesker said.

The Meskers are empty nesters, retired and living on a fixed income. Gary Mesker said he and his wife spend an estimated $500 a month on groceries, meaning he likely pays about $8.75 a month for sales taxes under the current rate. Under the new rate, they’ll spend an estimated $24.25 a month on the taxes, or about $291 more a year.

The Meskers, depending on their income, may qualify for a food tax credit. But Gary Mesker was unconvinced that the income tax cut or the tax credit is an adequate defense for the food tax.

“I think they should leave the food tax where it is and live within their means,” he said.