Two years ago, as a private citizen, Rosemary Lesser was part of a grassroots crusade that stopped the state legislature from raising the sales tax on food.

Now, as a member of that legislature, she’s leading a crusade to eliminate the tax on food completely.

The crusade from the outside of the House led to the crusade from the inside.

In December of 2019, Lesser spent hours volunteering at her neighborhood Harmons grocery store soliciting shoppers to sign a petition protesting SB 2001 — the recently passed tax reform law that allowed for the food tax to be increased.

Given that she was asking shoppers on their way to the register if they’d like to pay even more when they checked out, it was not a hard sell.

Within a month, signature gatherers like her had racked up more than 150,000 signers around the state — far exceeding the 116,000 necessary to put the matter to a public vote in November. Taking note, when the legislature convened in January of 2020 it repealed SB 2001 before it ever went into effect.

Along with everyone else involved, Lesser celebrated that triumph.

But it didn’t end there. The things she observed and the conversations she had with those Harmons shoppers stayed with her.

Not only did the vast majority not want the sales tax on food increased, they didn’t want it at all.

This was especially true of the careful shoppers, those with half-full carts, those who put stuff back at the register — the ones with too much month at the end of the money.

“I saw plenty of people with cash in hand parsing out how much they were going to be able to spend, and having to factor in the tax,” she remembers.

Then, through no grand scheme of her own, Rosemary became a member of the legislature she’d protested.

A year after she gathered those signatures, her phone rang. The Utah Democratic Party was calling. The representative from Rosemary’s district, 85-year-old LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff, died on Dec. 30, 2020. Rosemary was asked if they could put her name on the ballot to replace her.

She agreed, won the election voted on by state delegates, and two weeks later, just days before the start of the 2021 session, found herself a sitting legislator.

The timing for Rosemary — make that Dr. Lesser — was perfect. Just before the session started, adhering to a plan long in place, she retired from her practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist. In 30 years, she’d delivered more than 6,000 babies in Weber County, and thousands more before that when she served in the U.S. Air Force. Now she’d see about delivering legislation.

She closed her medical practice on Jan. 15. The legislature opened on Jan. 21.

“I retired for six days,” she says.

She got her feet wet during her first year in office, succeeding in working on several bills, most having something to do with medicine. When the session ended, she started thinking about what she’d like to accomplish her second year. The food tax was at the top of the list.

Among the things she learned in researching the subject was that 1) she is just the latest in a long line of politicians with the same idea, dating at least back to Gov. Scott Matheson in the 1970s, 2) the main reason the food tax hasn’t been eliminated is because it generates a ton of money, and 3) Utah is in a shrinking minority — one of just 13 states out of 50 that still tax food.

She also learned this statistic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Low-income families spend 36% of their income on food, compared to 8% for high-income families. Like lotteries, state taxes on food amount to a tax on the poor. 

She has found she’s not alone. Others, including Judy Weeks Rohner, a Republican new to the state legislature and the leader of the 2019 tax reform petition referendum, are proponents of eliminating the food tax. In addition to that, Gov. Spencer Cox’s 2022 budget proposal calls for a tax break for the underprivileged who pay sales tax on their groceries.

That’s a step in the right direction, says Rosemary, but in her view a more bureaucratic and complicated process than simply dropping the tax entirely.

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Her research also suggests that sales tax money pouring into Utah from online sales — a source of revenue that’s opened up just the past two years — more than compensates for revenue lost from a food tax.

“I understand the need to be responsible stewards of our resources,” she says. Utah needs to pay its way.

“But above all, there’s the moral aspect to all this,” she says. “Taxing a necessity like food, which is so burdensome on the poor in our community, that’s what struck a nerve with me.”

Getting rid of it, “Is what’s right for our state,” says the citizen-legislator as she prepares for the opening of the 2022 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 18, “And we can afford it.”

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