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Rep. Rosemary Lesser to push for end to sales tax on groceries

By Tim Vandenack - | Nov 26, 2021

Photo supplied

Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla speaks at a press conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, announcing plans to seek an end to the state sales tax on food. Utah Rep. Rosemary Lesser of Ogden, who was traveling and didn't take part in the press conference, plans to introduce the legislation.

OGDEN -- Back in late 2019, Rosemary Lesser joined many others across the state in pushing for a referendum to reverse a tax overhaul OK'd by Utah lawmakers that included a hike in the sales tax on groceries.

The controversial measure, approved during a special legislative session in December 2019, would have increased the tax on groceries from 1.75% to 4.85%. That, the Ogden woman and other critics charged, would have hit lower-income Utahns especially hard, notwithstanding other provisions lowering income taxes.

Ultimately, lawmakers repealed the overhaul, bowing to pressure from Lesser and other foes. Now, though, Lesser -- no longer just a civilian lobbying for change but a member of the Utah House -- wants to take things a step further. She's planning on introducing legislation during the coming 2022 session to do away with the 1.75% state sales tax on groceries altogether.

Cities and counties may impose a sales tax on groceries of up to 1% and 0.25%, respectively, which wouldn't be affected by the plans.

"For people on a fixed income, people who are in the lower economic groups, they're spending up to a third, sometimes more, of their income providing for these essentials," Lesser said. As such, the sales tax hits them harder than more wealthy Utahns, who don't spend such a large share of their income on food -- and that, Lesser says, is unfair.

Photo supplied, Utah House

Utah Rep. Rosemary Lesser

Last September, she publicly revealed her plans to push for an end to the tax in a letter to the editor in the Standard-Examiner. On Wednesday, a coalition of Democratic lawmakers and community advocates kicked the campaign to end the tax into gear, holding a press conference in Salt Lake City to get word out across Utah about the plans.

"Anything we can do to bring down food costs is going to help the people we serve," said Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit group that runs food pantries and backs the efforts. "We're trying to get people to realize this is possible."

The Rev. Kim James of the Ogden First United Methodist Church, actually located in Marriott-Slaterville, noted that Utah is one of a minority of U.S. states that tax groceries. "It's just not common sense to tax food," said James.

She's also on board with the push to end the tax, seeing it as a way to help those most in need, and took part in Wednesday's press conference. Utah Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost and Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla also took part while Lesser, who was traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, did not. The three lawmakers are Democrats.

According to the Tax Policy Center, 37 states and Washington, D.C., don't tax groceries. Utah is one of six states that tax food at a lower rate than other goods while seven states tax food at the same rate as other items.

A report released last month by the Food Security Task Force found that 10% of Utah households experience "food insecurity" and that more than 102,000 Utah families don't have the resources to buy the food they need. The task force looked into the issue per 2020 legislation introduced by Escamilla.

'AN UNPOPULAR TAX'

Eliminating the tax wouldn't necessarily take a big toll on Utah state coffers.

According to Lesser, Utah's state sales tax on food generates around $140 million per year. But she noted the change that went in effect in 2019 obliging online retailers to collect taxes on their sales has generated around $95 million per quarter of late.

At the same time, James noted the federal funding that Utah, like other states, has received to help counter the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that funding at the state's disposal, 2022 is the year for change, she maintains.

Tibbitts expects a lot of debate on the issue going forward. "I think this will definitely be something people will be talking about," he said. "It's an unpopular tax."

Lesser, meantime, thinks it's a proposal with bipartisan support. "Sometimes it's just a matter of timing and I think the timing is now," she said.

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