Though it seems unlikely to become law, it is encouraging that the Kansas House approved a plan to eliminate the statewide sales tax on groceries. Lawmakers recognized — at least last week — that the state shouldn’t be punishing the poor.
Kansas is one of only seven states that tax food at the same rate as other purchases. And Kansas’ current 6.3 percent statewide rate is the second highest sales tax on food of any state, just behind Mississippi.
That’s not where our state should be.
Taxing food is particularly regressive, because everyone has to eat, and the poor spend a disproportionate share of their income on food.
As Rep. Jana Goodman, R-Leavenworth, told The Eagle: “It’s kind of like taxing air. It just seems unfair to me to tax something people have to buy.”
Kansas tries to help low-income residents, seniors and people with disabilities by allowing them to receive a food-sales-tax refund when they file their taxes. But the refund amount is usually less than what they paid during the year, and a once-a-year rebate doesn’t really help families struggling to make it to the next paycheck.
A big challenge of eliminating sales taxes on groceries is the cost — up to $300 million a year. But there are ways to do it.
For example, Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, has a revenue-neutral plan that would phase out the sales tax on food over two years (and reduce the overall statewide sales tax by 1 percentage point) by eliminating most other sales-tax exemptions.
But the bigger challenge is political will. Lawmakers haven’t shown much concern in the past about taxing food, and their focus this session has been cutting income taxes and possibly property taxes.
In fact, Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax proposal would make it even tougher on the poor by making permanent the temporary sales tax increase and eliminating the earned income tax credit.
As a result, it’s unlikely that the grocery exemption will be included in the final bill the Legislature approves. Still, House lawmakers went on record last week acknowledging that taxing food is unfair and out of step with other states.