For the past 20 years, repeated efforts have been made to repeal the Utah sales tax on food purchases. Once again the attempt will be made in the Legislature in January, possibly pushed by an alliance of Democrats and conservative Republicans.
The chances of passage are brighter than in many years, partly because of a tax-cutting mood that may be quite powerful among lawmakers when they meet in January, despite the defeat of tax limitation initiatives at the polls in November.The size of the tax revolt, the near-defeat of Gov. Norm Bangerter who pledged some tax limitation of his own, and the potential for a modest surplus in the state budget, all could give weight to eliminating the sales tax on food.
Many of the arguments for getting rid of the sales tax on food are persuasive. This page favored just such a step in the 1970's when the state was regularly running sizeable budget surpluses. But by the time the issue appeared on the ballot in 1980, the economy had started to turn sour. Without the cushion provided by a series of substantial surpluses, the question became not whether Utah should eliminate the tax on food for humanitarin reasons, but how Utah could afford the heavy loss of revenue.
According to the State Tax Commission, removing the sales tax on food could now cost the state anywhere from $80 million to $100 million. The state cannot afford to simply swallow that kind of loss; it would have to be recouped in other ways.
Totally removing the sales tax on food could cut heavily into the Utah Transit Authority budget. The UTA depends in large part on the income produced by a quarter-cent sales tax. Cities and counties that levy the local-option sales tax would be impacted. Salt Lake City, for example, could lose as much as $2 million.
However, most plans discussed by legislators would affect only the state sales tax, leaving UTA and local-option sales taxes still in place when it came to food purchases.
Several approaches are being suggested. Sen. Francis Farley, D-Salt Lake, would remove the sales tax on food but replace the lost income by raising the sales tax on other items. That approach would resolve one problem, but raising Utah's sales tax - already one of the higher sales taxes in the nation - could hurt big ticket purchases. Sales taxes on furniture, appliances, autos, and other big ticket items could get so high they would drive buyers across the borders into neighboring states.
Rep. Jed Wasden, R-Midvale, would phase out the state sales tax on food over a three-year period. His plan, however, does not contain provisions for making up the lost revenue.
Nationwide, 29 states exempt food from sales tax, while it applies in 16 others. Neighboring Idaho and Wyoming both charge sales tax on food; Colorado, Nevada, and California do not.
When the question of repealing the state sales tax on food made it to the ballot in 1980, the plan was defeated 322,000 to 254,000, even though Utahns heavily favored the idea in public opinion polls. They turned thumbs down because the state economy was beginning to falter and there were deep concerns about education needs. The same situation prevails today.
Gov. Bangerter does not oppose the principle of removing the sales tax on food. But he does not see how the state - in these tight economic times - can make up the millions of dollars the tax brings in each year.
That is precisely the problem. Until it can be resolved, eliminating the sales tax on food is out of the question.