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Taxing Food

Lawmakers’ tentative plan meets resistance from advocates for Utah’s low-income residents.



Death and taxes. And almost as inevitable: groceries.

Utah lawmakers, recognizing the recession-proof need to eat, are hoping to beef up slimming sales tax revenue by further taxing food.

But early talks of raising Utah’s current three percent food tax are meeting pushback from advocates for low-income Utahns. A coalition of groups in an open letter to the Legislature said higher prices for bread, milk and eggs would only drive Utah’s struggling residents further into the red.

“So many of the individuals and families that we work with already struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table,” the letter, signed by nine groups including Comunidades Utah, AARP Utah, Voices for Utah Children and Utahns Against Hunger, read. The advocates also voiced their concerns at a Thursday morning news conference at the Capitol.

Utah lawmakers working on broader tax reforms say hiking the extra charge on groceries would help boost sales tax revenue that has thinned in recent years as online shopping gobbles up revenues previously born from in-store purchases.

“In hard times we all buy food, but we don’t all buy furniture and automobiles,” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser told reporters Thursday afternoon. To fund social programs, Niederhauser continued, “we have to have a predictable and stable revenue stream.”

The advocacy groups said taxing food is not the answer. They contend one in five Utahns doesn’t benefit from rate reductions designed to reduce the burden for Beehive State residents. They’re backing a push from Our Schools Now, urging lawmakers to bump up the income tax from 5 percent to just under 5.9 percent.

But the notion didn’t sit well with Niederhauser.

“That’s a tax on productivity,” the Senate leader said. “I can see gas tax increases or a user fee to pay for the roads. I think that’s going to need to be a big discussion going forward.”

Niederhauser and his colleagues are working on a tax plan that would reduce overall rates even as the food tax climbs, but revenue projections are not yet available. The Legislature is hoping to hammer out a proposal before their session ends March 9 to head off a ballot initiative seeking to raise income tax statewide to fund Utah’s growing schools.