Elections

Will candidates deliver on promise to cut food sales tax?

A customer shops at the East Kellogg Wal-Mart on Nov 25, 2015.
A customer shops at the East Kellogg Wal-Mart on Nov 25, 2015. File photo

Legislative candidates from both parties say they support lowering Kansas’ sales tax on food.

But cutting or eliminating the tax will be difficult at a time when the state faces a nearly $75 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

Kansas has the second-highest state sales tax on food in the nation at 6.5 percent. When local taxes are included, the sales tax rate stretches to more than 10 percent in some areas, making it the highest in the nation.

The state is one of only six that taxes food at the same rate as other items, according to KC Healthy Kids, a group campaigning to lower the sales tax on food. Kansas eliminated its food sales tax rebate program in 2012 to help pay for cuts to income tax rates.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, the group’s state policy director, said Kansas’ higher food sales tax rate makes it tougher for some families to afford healthy options at the grocery store.

“Healthier choices often come at a little bit of a higher cost if you’re looking at buying fresh fruits and vegetables … so by reducing the sales tax on food or eliminating it, you can see how having a little bit more money to spend might result in people making healthier choices that right now they just can’t afford to make,” she said.

Healthier choices often come at a little bit of a higher cost if you’re looking at buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, KC Healthy Kids

The group sent a survey to lawmakers and legislative candidates asking if they would support reducing or eliminating the sales tax on food. They received 90 responses, and every one – Republican and Democrat alike – said they support some measure to lower the sales tax on food.

Cutting the sales tax on food by 1 percent would bring in about $66 million less in revenue annually for the state.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, who has sponsored bills to cut the food sales tax rate in the past, said the state’s budget shortfall shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inaction on the issue.

“We seem to have money for other issues that are not essential,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It’s essential that people have food.”

Kansas came close to lowering food sales taxes in 2015 as part of a larger tax plan, but lawmakers ended up scrapping that provision. Republican leaders had promised to return to the issue this year, but it lost momentum when the state faced another budget gap.

“Everybody is saying one thing, but when we address the issue, they come up with other reasons why we can’t do it now,” Faust-Goudeau said.

She said voters need to hold lawmakers accountable on the issue and added that the tax rate on food is a common complaint at public forums.

Kathy Damron, the lobbyist for KC Healthy Kids, said if the Legislature does embark on another debate about tax policy in the coming session, the tax rate on essential items, such as food, should be at the center of those discussions.

We seem to have money for other issues that are not essential. It’s essential that people have food.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita

Kansas’ food sales tax rate is significantly higher than in neighboring states. Nebraska and Colorado exempt food from sales tax, while Missouri taxes it at a rate lower than other items, at 1.225 percent.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, the House Tax chairman, said he’s hopeful that the Legislature will be able to lower the food sales tax rate as part of a larger tax plan in the coming session.

“I would hope that would be something we take a serious look at,” he said.

Kleeb said he thought the Legislature would be able to tackle the issue this year, but that budget numbers prevented that. If lawmakers end up raising other taxes next session, they may be able to lower the tax rate on food, he said.

But it might have to be a gradual reduction, he said.

“I don’t see how we can realistically – and probably responsibly – do anything but more of a slow glide starting out,” Kleeb said. “I think we’ve all seen what happens if you do too much too fast, so let’s do it responsibly and see what we can get done that way.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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