UPDATED: Rep. Quinn’s bipartisan food tax bill voted down in committee
March 5, 2018
Update: H.B. 148 was voted down 4-2 in committee on Monday, March 5.
By his own definition, Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, is a staunch conservative.
But the Republican who represents Park City in the Utah House of Representatives is going out on a limb with a proposed elimination of the state's grocery food sales tax. And for his idea, approved by the House, to have a snowball's chance in the Senate, he needed to enlist some bipartisan help.
Quinn's Democratic ally is Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake. Escamilla said that a policy such as eliminating the grocery tax is something she and her colleagues have been interested in for a long time, and that passing Quinn's legislation would add an instrument to Utah's toolbox in the ongoing fight against intergenerational poverty.
"If some of my colleagues, they feel some of the entitlement programs are problematic, well, this is helping families stay off state entitlement programs," Escamilla said. "If you make $100,000 a year, maybe (food taxes are not significant) … but if you're making $20,000 a year, then yes."
H.B. 148, in its amended form, would eliminate the state sales tax on groceries and increase the general sales tax on everything else. According to the bill's fiscal note, it would be roughly revenue neutral with a slight increase in later years. Quinn and Escamilla said the intent of the bill is to relieve some financial pressure from families that find themselves putting a larger portion of their income into basic nutrition.
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Utah is one of 10 states that tax groceries.
An amendment added by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, makes an exception for candy, which would still be taxed, and Quinn said that change to the bill was important in helping push it through the House committee where it originated. Afterward, the House voted to send it to the Senate, 42-27.
Local representatives Brian King, D-Salt Lake, and Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, both voted "yes."
Even with the bipartisan support it received in the House, however, the bill is still considered a long shot in the Senate. Quinn said several of his fellow conservatives indicated they don't consider the proposal good policy and don't see it as in line with conservative principles.
Republicans also make up the majority of the Senate Taxation and Revenue Committee, which will put the bill under the microscope. The state is also projected to swim in a $500 million budget surplus this year, potentially leading to a tax cut. And if that wasn't enough, Gov. Gary Herbert recently voiced his disapproval of the proposed policy in his February news conference with KUED.
"I don't know if that really helps those who are impoverished," Herbert said in response to a reporter's question. "We're probably better off, I believe, targeting those people who need help with food stamps, government assistance; not only do they not pay for the tax, they don't have to pay for the food."
Quinn recognizes the long odds facing the policy.
"Dead on arrival," said Quinn, on the projected fate of his proposal. "I've had some senators laugh that I even brought this bill forward."
At least one conservative gatekeeper in the Senate committee says he'll give the proposal a fair shake. Revenue and Taxation Committee member Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Taylorsville, said he's of an open mind about the proposal and could be convinced to vote it through. But he has concerns about tax revenue from out-of-state visitors that could be lost.
Hemmert also wrestles with the idea of exempting certain items, like Eliason's amendment stipulates.
"There's very few cut-and dry-issues and this certainly is not one of them," Hemmert said.
Quinn, who has stated he believes taxing groceries is a moral issue and not an ideological one, said that if his proposal is shot down in the Senate, he'll remain committed to the idea and that he wants to try again next session if re-elected.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the current status of H.B. 148 after March 5’s committee hearing.
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