- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Religious groups and advocates for the poor say a plan from Republican legislative leaders to raise the sales tax on groceries would hurt low-income families and drive them further into poverty.

Members of the Coalition of Religious Communities held a press conference Thursday urging legislators to reconsider the yet-to-be-released tax plan and met with lawmakers to make their case.

Rev. Vinetta Golphin-Wilkerson with Granger Community Christian Church in West Valley City said the poor and those on fixed incomes like the disabled and senior citizens would bear the brunt of the higher food tax.

“These people are one case of the flu, one cold, one flat tire, one car breakdown, one unexpected expense from not having money to make their rent,” she said.

Their plea came on the heels of another press conference by a coalition of groups working for low-income residents who urged legislators to make sure any tax plan they pass doesn’t burden the poor.

That group, including Voices for Utah Children, Utahns Against Hunger and the Utah Housing Coalition, said they weren’t taking a position on the food tax plan or several other proposals to revamp and raise taxes, but wanted to release their estimates of how they’d impact families.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser says the higher tax on food is needed because it’s more reliable than sales tax collected on other items. He says even in a recession, people buy groceries and Utah needs a stable revenue source to pay for programs that the poor rely on like Medicaid.

The Tax Foundation reports that most states exempt groceries from sales tax. Others tax it at a reduced rate, as Utah currently does, while a few tax food at the same rate as other goods.

Utah reduced its sales tax on groceries a decade ago to 1.75 percent from 4.75 percent.

Legislative leaders, under pressure to find more money to pay for rising costs of social service programs, schools and infrastructure, are working on a plan that reduces the state sales tax rate, while raising the sales tax on food to that same level.

Lawmakers have not specified what the new sales tax level would be, but said they want to settle on a number that’s revenue-neutral in the first year - meaning Utah initially would not collect more under the revamped sales tax than they would under the current rates. The idea behind that is to not immediately draw more in taxes but set the state up to collect more over time.

Without any specific proposal, it’s hard to estimate exactly how much money the higher food tax will bring to the state. Legislators say that if they raised the sales tax on food to the current sales tax level at 4.75 percent, it would give the state about $200 million a year. That’s about 1 percent of the total budget.

For poor households earning less than $25,000 a year, it would cost the average family about $68 more a year, according to estimates from Voices for Utah Children.


Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .



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