Advocates for poor wary of restoring food tax

Published: Saturday, Nov. 17 2012 1:25 p.m. MST

"What he's talking about is a shift. Somebody's going to pay the tax," Lockhart said. "I have a problem with that."

The Provo Republican said she is also uncomfortable with the bureaucracy needed to process the claims for the refundable food tax credit and the difficulty filing the paperwork would create for some Utahns, especially those who don't earn enough to file income tax returns.

"When you're talking about individuals in that income tax bracket, these are people who are looking for $10 this month," Lockhart said. "They're trying to survive."

The House strongly backed Huntsman's efforts to cut the sales tax on food over two legislative sessions, while the Senate reluctantly followed. Several efforts to reverse the reduction have surfaced since, but went nowhere.

House Democrats have not yet taken a position on the issue, incoming House Minority Whip Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, said.

"We're concerned about the changes," Cosgrove said. But he said there are pluses to making more money available to those most in need.

"This is complex," he said. "It has many, many potential impacts on people of low income."

The tax hike of approximately $140 million annually would have a serious impact on the average Utah working family, who would see their food bill jump by about $240 a year, according to Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a downtown nonprofit agency that provides services for poor people.

Voices for Utah Children raised the idea of an earned income tax credit for low-income Utahns at a legislative committee meeting last month. That prompted lawmakers to start asking questions about raising the food tax, said Tracy Gruber, Voices policy analyst.

"They were trying to get us to say increase the sales tax on food so we can get the EITC, which we're not willing to say," she said.

Gruber said it's imperative that Utahns recovering from the recession and trying to become self-sufficient don't bear the brunt of a tax increase. A tax credit, she said, would be one way to ease the impact.

"I think we are very cautious about the legislation," Gruber said. "We definitely discussed with Sen. Valentine the need to mitigate the damage for low-income Utahns if they were going to reinstate the sales tax on food."

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said she understands lawmakers' desire to stabilize the tax base. She also said she appreciates the effort to offset an increase with tax refunds and credits. But, she said, it would just be better to not raise the tax at all.

"Every time you pay sales tax or every time you go to the grocery store, it might not seem like a lot at the moment, but over time it adds up," Cornia said.

"I can't imagine a world where Utahns Against Hunger could support increasing the sales tax on food. It's just not going to happen," she said.

The Rev. Eun-Sang Lee of the First United Methodist Church said raising the tax would hurt his 180-member congregation, about a third of which live in government housing or on the street. From a Christian perspective, he said, how the poor are treated says a lot about a community.

In Colorado, where he worked before coming to Utah, there is no sales tax on food. Said Lee, "I really want to see that happen here."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy, dnewspolitics

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