Poll: More than three-quarters of Utahns want state share of food tax removed
But the state’s voters are split if that’s tied to approving a constitutional change in education funding
Just how much does Marriott-Slatersville homemaker Lisa Conley support removing the state sales tax from food?
Her support isn’t just strong, she said, but “very” strong.
“It will help everybody out. With the food prices so high, every little bit can help,” the 59-year-old said, recalling not having sales taxes added to her grocery bill when she lived in Montana, one of more than three dozen states that don’t tax food.
“It makes a difference,” Conley said.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 76% of Utahns want to get rid of the state’s share of the food tax — that’s 1.75% of the 3% in sales taxes collected on food in Utah since 2008, The rest is distributed to local governments.
Just 19% of Utahns were were opposed to removing the state’s share of the food tax and 6% said they didn’t know how they feel.
Utahns are split, however, over whether they still support doing away with the state food tax if that means they first have to approve an amendment to the Utah Constitution taking away the earmark on state income taxes for education.
Just 47% of Utahns said they’d be willing to get behind the amendment already approved by the Utah Legislature’ that would allow fast-growing income tax revenues to be spent on more than schools.
At the same time, 43% said no to the deal lawmakers put together for voters last session — pass the constitutional amendment in next year’s general election, and the state sales tax will come off food in January 2025.
The poll was conducted April 25-28 for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics of 800 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
Conley said it may not be worth it for voters to pass the amendment to save at the cash register.
“Why do (voters) have to do that first? Are they connected?” she asked, calling the Legislature’s decision to link passage of the amendment to the removal of the state food tax “wrong” and “very confusing.”
Conley said she’s concerned about what impact the amendment would have on school funding. But what really gave her pause was finding out that the 1.25% sales tax on food collected for local governments would remain in place even if the amendment passes.
“Then I’m not sure about taking it off,” Conley said. “If it’s not going to benefit us that much and it’s going to make the school system less, then I don’t know. Maybe they should just leave it alone.”
Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry said the poll results “shows there’s going to need to be a lot of explaining” before Utahns vote on the constitutional amendment in November 2024.
“It’s too close to call at this point,” Perry said.
“It’s clear that Utahns support eliminating the sales tax on food. Every party, every demographic, seems to want that to go away. That’s a high level of support,” he said, adding it “goes down dramatically” when the amendment is part of the plan.
That’s true even for Republicans. Just over half of Utahns who belong to the state’s dominant political party are willing to go along with the GOP-controlled Legislature at this point, according to the poll, while only a third of the state’s Democrats support it.
Still, Perry said, tying the amendment to the removal of the food tax does make it more palatable. He pointed out the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in March found 50% of Utahn opposed the amendment itself and just 36% supported it.
Knowing the state sales tax will come off food if the amendment passes “clearly bumps up the support,” Perry said. Whether that will be the case as voters learn more from the amendment’s advocates and adversaries remains to be seen, he said.
“What they really want is for the sales tax to go away,” Perry said. “But how bad? What are voters willing to accept to get it?”
The sponsor of the constitutional amendment, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, was heartened by the poll results.
“As I look at these numbers, I’m very hopeful. Like, these numbers give me a lot more hope than I thought I would have at this point, to be honest. So I think these numbers are very positive for everyone in the state,” McCay said. “It’s a great place to be.”
The state senator said support would be higher if the poll question spelled out the funding guarantees in the proposed amendment, including for student enrollment growth and inflation, although changes could still be made before it appears on next year’s ballot.
“The new poll highlights that it is a hard decision but that when offered the opportunity to remove the sales tax on food, people are willing to give the Legislature flexibility with the earmark,” McCay said.
Without that flexibility to spend income tax revenues on other state needs now largely funded with sales tax collections, he said the state can’t afford to remove the state’s share of the food tax.
The state will make an effort to educate the public about the amendment before the vote, McCay said. What that will look like is still in the planning stages, but McCay said his experience is that voters who don’t understand a ballot question usually voted against it.
“It’s always hard on ballot questions to get the full word out,” McCay said. “Most people are willing to do the homework and get educated on the issues and try to make an educated decision.”
Rep. Rosemary Lesser said she supports eliminating the food tax but is still making up her mind about the amendment. She said her constituents worry about inflationary pressures but also “really do care about education. That is one of our primary responsibilities.”
The Ogden Democrat, who tried and failed during a floor debate last session to remove a provision linking the food tax removal to the passage of the amendment, said “there’s much more work to be done in this space.”
Lesser said she believes lawmakers need to “recognize that yes, the people do want the state portion of the sales tax removed. At the very same time, it is critically important that the Legislature recognizes the simultaneous commitment to education that we have.”