Idahoans support exempting groceries from the state’s sales tax, and they deserve the chance to comment in a public hearing before the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation. Legislative leadership has consistently kept a standalone grocery tax exemption bill from getting a committee hearing, meaning that the people of Idaho have been prevented from standing in front of our state leaders to let them know how exempting the tax on groceries will benefit all Idahoans.
Legislative committee chairs have power to choose whether to schedule legislation on a committee calendar for a hearing, or not. When last year a simple bill to exempt groceries from sales tax and remove the grocery tax credit was introduced, the chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee used his sovereign power to let the bill die unheard; any discussion he presumably held with the governor, speaker of the House, and others happened out of sight of the people.
The grocery tax re-emerged as a remodeled income tax bill at the end of the session, and testimony was offered just two hours before the committee met, essentially excluding all but lobbyists and those who could drop everything to get to the Capitol to testify. We don’t consider this fair democratic process. After hurried passage through the Senate and House, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Butch Otter.
The governor believes that a grocery tax exemption is a bad idea, but we, and 59 percent of Idahoans, according to the Jan. 19 Boise State University Public Policy Survey, disagree. This is an across the board tax cut for all Idahoans. The grocery tax credit provides (for those who apply for it) some relief, but as food prices rise it falls further behind. Persons receiving food assistance are not eligible for the tax credit, even though food stamps don’t cover the entire cost of food.
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The sales tax contributes to the state’s General Fund, which in turn funds schools. This has been used as a reason to keep a tax which disproportionately punishes the neediest families, which is wrong. If it is necessary to rework the tax code, then that is our constitutional responsibility to ensure the fair opportunity of health and happiness for all Idahoans.
Our organizations represent consumers, low-income households, independent family farms, farmers’ markets, communities that border neighboring states, and politically engaged constituents. We are working together because we believe that exempting groceries from the state’s sales tax will increase food affordability for Idahoans, increase profits for our local farmers and food producers, and remove a competitive disadvantage for Idaho communities at our borders.
We call on the Idaho Legislature to revisit a grocery exemption with repeal of the grocery tax credit, subject it to the full legislative process, including opportunity for Idahoans to testify, and debate it in both houses. And we call on the governor to sign the bill.
Ann Ford is with the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils. She writes for it and the coalition of Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger and Idaho Farmers Market Association.