Should Utah repeal its state sales tax on food? Here's why it likely won't happen

Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, speaks at a food tax press conference on the steps of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, speaks at a food tax press conference on the steps of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — About a dozen Democratic Utah lawmakers and poverty advocates — and one Republican — huddled in the cold outside of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday to call for a repeal of the state's food tax.

It's a proposal that has not found traction within the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature and its leadership, which this year prefers an across-the-board $160 million income tax rate cut, plus potentially $40 million more in additional targeted tax cuts in the form of an increase to the state's Social Security tax credit and possibly an earned income tax credit for lower-income Utahns.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, have repeatedly thrown cold water on the possibility of Utah lawmakers repealing the state's sales tax on food, saying most Republican lawmakers favor the other proposals. They've also said Gov. Spencer Cox's recommendation for a grocery tax credit hasn't gained traction.

But that hasn't deterred Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, and Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City, who are both sponsoring bills aimed at using the $160 million lawmakers have set aside for a tax cut this year for eliminating the state's portion of the sales tax on food. The bills would not affect local grocery tax that's collected by cities and counties.

"Now is the time more than ever to end the state portion of sales tax on groceries," Lesser said. "The effects of rising prices are felt by all of us, but especially Utahns on fixed incomes, people living paycheck to paycheck, and those who've had a sudden change in their financial situation."

This actually allows low-income families to receive the benefit immediately at the register when they need it.

–Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden

Lesser is sponsoring HB165 and Rohner is sponsoring HB203, both of which have not been prioritized for a committee hearing.

Time is running out for those bills. Tuesday marked the 15th day of the Utah Legislature's 45-day session.

Lesser said the debate around whether Utah should repeal its state sales tax on food has been ongoing between state leaders for almost four decades now. She argued it would be a simple change that could be enacted quickly with a "click of a coding button" — and would have the most immediate and useful impact for low-income Utahns with strained budgets.

"They are the ones who are spending the greatest percentage of their income on food," Lesser said, adding that even Utahns with federal assistance often aren't able to cover the cost of food.

"This actually allows low-income families to receive the benefit immediately at the register when they need it," she said. "Sometimes that small amount can make the difference between putting food away at the checkout counter in front of your children — that's kind of an embarrassing thing to do. Or make the difference between filling up your car with a tank of gas; $9 or $10 can make a big difference in the lives of individuals who are on a fixed income."

Asked whether there is any possibility of Lesser and Rohner's proposals advancing in the 2022 Utah Legislature, Senate leaders again told reporters in a media availability Tuesday most GOP lawmakers favor the income tax rate cut and more targeted tax cuts that are being discussed in the House.

Adams said one of the "challenges" with repealing the state's portion of the food tax "is the fact that it doesn't target that needy population." While he acknowledged many low-income Utahns would benefit from it, those Utahns who make more money would also benefit every time they go to the grocery store.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said repealing Utah's sales tax on food would also aggravate the state's structural revenue issues, noting Utah is required under the state constitution to only spend its income tax revenue on education while sales tax revenue funds social services programs.

By cutting that sales tax revenue, "you actually may cut services that are being asked for," Adams said.

"It hurts the very people we're trying to help," added Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George.

Democrats, however, continue to support the food tax repeal. Senate Assistant Minority Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said Senate Democrats "have always supported" repealing the tax, arguing it would more directly and immediately help Utah's most needy.

Rohner acknowledged she and Lesser haven't found much support from the Utah Legislature's GOP majority on their proposals. But she said they're not going to give up.

Rohner, who helped lead a referendum effort that successfully foiled the 2019 Utah Legislature's tax reform package, said this year's effort reminds her of that fight.

"I kept telling people," she said. "It's like that little train ... 'I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.' And we did it. And that's what I'm telling people now. ... I know we can."

Rohner urged Utahns who are supportive of repealing Utah's sales tax on food to contact their legislators.

"I know they listen," she said. "They did in 2020, and they will in 2022."

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