Ax the food sales tax

Kansas is the king of taxing groceries.
Kansas is the king of taxing groceries.

Kansas should be ashamed of itself for still charging full sales tax on food.

And it is, judging from how hard lawmakers tried to include a partial remedy in this year’s budget-and-tax deal.

Yet the 2015 Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback ended up making the bad situation worse, increasing not only this regressive tax but the state’s reliance on it to balance the budget.

The annual cost in state revenues of a full exemption – $100 million in 1990, when the statewide sales tax rate was 4.25 percent – was an estimated $392.5 million before the rate rose from 6.15 to 6.5 percent last month.

And with the state’s fiscal condition still shaky at best – and further ratcheting down state income tax rates the top priority of the governor and GOP legislative leaders – June’s promises to redouble the efforts to roll back or eliminate the state’s taxation of food sales risk being forgotten by January. But they shouldn’t be.

Kansas is among only seven states that tax food for home preparation at the full sales tax rate. The latest hike gave Kansas a combined state and average local sales tax rate of 8.59 percent, according to the Tax Foundation – the nation’s seventh-highest combined state and local sales tax rate. None of the states with higher combined rates charges as much as Kansas’ 6.5 percent rate on food statewide.

And though technically Mississippi still has the highest food sales tax among the 50 states, 7 percent statewide, the Tax Foundation puts its combined state and average sales tax rate at just 7.07 percent.

That makes Kansas the king of taxing groceries overall, though there are mostly rural places that still lack a county or city sales tax. People in the Wichita area pay combined rates ranging from 7.5 to 9 percent for food as basic as milk, bread, fruit and vegetables.

The poorest Kansans still may qualify for food stamps, and the food sales tax rebate program axed in 2012 was revived the next year as an income-tax credit. But those too poor to owe income taxes do not benefit. And the paperwork is a deterrent, whereas across-the-board exemption of groceries would benefit everybody at the checkout stand.

Kansas has talked about this long enough. Exempting food was even part of the debate that led to establishment of a 2 percent statewide sales tax in 1938. Yet the political will to correct that mistake has never prevailed any of the eight times lawmakers have raised the statewide sales tax since 1958. (Nine if you count the 2013 decision not to drop the rate to 5.7 percent as scheduled.)

Groups such as KC Healthy Kids and legislators such as Sens. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, and Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, haven’t given up.

Brownback now should make this cause his own as well, especially after having just raised the food sales tax while defending his exemption of income taxes for 330,000 business owners.

It’s wrong to keep leaning harder on consumption taxes to pay the state’s bills without making an exception for food.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman