What to do, if anything, with the sales tax on food will be one of the major issues in the Utah Legislature this year (see accompanying story).
The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows that two-thirds of those questioned by pollster Dan Jones & Associates want the sales tax removed from food.Thirty-two percent don't want that tax removed, and 2 percent don't know, Jones found in a survey taken Jan. 3-5 of 601 adults.
Jones also found that Utahns think the sales tax is the most fair of the major taxes - 38 percent said the sales tax is the most fair, 27 percent said income tax, 18 percent said property tax and only 5 percent said the utility franchise tax is the most fair.
Gov. Norm Bangerter suggests that lawmakers give a $19 million tax cut next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The governor doesn't recommend which tax or taxes should be reduced; he wants more legislative debate before letting his feelings be known.
Some Democratic and Republican legislators want the sales tax removed from food. But that would cost between $60 million and $100 million, money Bangerter says the state doesn't have.
Sen. Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Jed Wasden, R-Midvale, have each introduced bills that would reduce the sales tax over several years.
Wasden's bill would phase out the tax over three years, Farley's over four years. Both say anticipated revenue surpluses starting next year would allow that phase in without raising any other taxes or harming state programs.
Jones found citizens favor such a phase in rather than removing the sales tax from food all at one while raising the tax on non-food items to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, low-income advocates are asking the Legislature to remove sales tax on food.
The Fairness in Taxation Coalition, formed by Utah Issues and the Community Action Program, recently released an eight-point plan, including removing the sales tax on food, it said would save taxpayers more than $4.3 million.
Coalition officials said removal of the sales tax on food would save taxpayers an estimated $89 million (the state would lose $74 million and local governments would lose $15 million), but other aspects of the plan would make up some of that money.
"The sales tax on food is one of the most regressive taxes in our state's structure, taking a larger percentage of disposable income out of budgets of lower income households than from higher income households," the coalition's report said. "Removal of this tax would be progressive, fair and would benefit all taxpayers."
Bill Walsh, director of Utah Issues, said 29 states have a sales tax exemption on food. And the plan, he said, has been drawn up in a "revenue-neutral" way to avoid hurting necessary programs.
The remainder of the coalition's tax-cutting package calls for elimination of unspecified sales tax exemptions, at a savings of $60.6 million. New exemptions, like one proposed for ski resorts, should not be granted, it said.
To save another $40 million, the group said Utah should eliminate the one-third deduction in state income tax for tax paid to the federal government, which favors high-income Utahns.
The plan would instead create a one-third deduction in state income tax for earned income credit claimed on federal taxes. The coalition also suggests a substantial increase in circuit breaker property tax relief, an increase in fees for hazardous waste disposal, implementation of a graduated, per-ton tax on industrial air pollution sources and appointment by the governor of a low-income representative to the Tax Recodification Commission.