This appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:
Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter already knows why he should veto the Legislature’s bill lifting the 6 percent sales tax from food.
It costs almost $80 million the state does not have—and would undermine everything else in the budget, including the final rounds of Otter’s five-year public education reform package.
But at his press conference Monday, Otter wavered. If the governor does lose his nerve and allows the legislative handiwork to take effect, you can assume it was this argument he found irresistible:
“I think it’s immoral,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa. “I think it’s wrong to tax people on their food.”
That’s not exactly what the legislative proposal would do. Not all food purchases would be exempt—just those that currently qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps.
In other words, Crane would say it’s immoral to force people to pay sales tax on the milk they purchase for their children.
But it’s perfectly legitimate to compel those parents to add 6 percent sales tax to the price of cough drops they buy when their kids have a cold.
Crane says it’s immoral to force you to pay sales tax on a deli sandwich you purchased at the grocery store.
Buy the deli sandwich at a sub shop, however, and paying sales tax is just fine.
Taxing the soda you purchased in a can is immoral.
Buy the same soft drink from a fountain of a fast-food restaurant? Pay the tax.
Forcing you to pay sales tax on beer, wine and liquor is absolutely the correct thing to do.
But not if you buy mixers for alcoholic drinks in a grocery store.
It’s food. So as far as Crane is concerned, those are morally sanctioned purchases.
Pay the sales tax. It’s the moral thing to do.
Of course, unless you repeal the sales tax entirely, someone has to decide what’s exempt and what’s not. In this case, the politicians and the bureaucrats put a stamp of approval on individual choices.
Whatever its flaws, the current system leaves you in charge. Whether you spend your money on junk food or filet mignon, you get $100 back on your state income taxes to compensate for the sales tax you paid.
Let’s not forget: More than half of retail transactions are exempt from Idaho’s sales tax. So while you’re paying 6 percent on a new battery for your car, a farmer purchasing a replacement battery for his tractor gets a break.
Why is it ethical for the state to tax you on a new set of tires while others can cite a business exemption and avoid the tax on equipment they buy? As a matter of fact, why is it that virtually any industry capable of hiring lobbyists and building legislative coalitions is likely to escape the sales tax—while you are required to pay?
Moral questions don’t stop there. As far as anyone can tell, this whole notion of taking the sales tax off food came from Idaho’s politicians, not from the grass roots. Polling shows taxes among the least of Idahoan’s concerns. They’d rather see the money spent on education.
In fact, in 1984, the last time anyone asked Idahoans their opinion of the idea, people voted against a ballot measure that sought to lift the sales tax from food. Then as now, the state couldn’t afford such a tax break without wrecking public school budgets.
If you’re going to talk about morality, what’s the greater sin? Taxing someone on the purchases they choose to make—or not—or taxing them on the value of their homes? Property taxes do not make allowances for the percentage of the home you own. You pay taxes on debt. If you get too far behind on those taxes, you could wind up on the street.
If you think that’s an ethically challenged way to pay for government, what about income taxes? Why is it that people who work harder, strive more and create jobs are forced to pay more taxes than those who don’t? From a moral point of view, how can you justify it?
You can apply a lot of standards to taxation. Is it fair? Is it applied equally? Is it balanced? Is the money spent as taxpayers intended?
But it’s hard to see how one tax embodies morality while another is corrupt. Either way, it’s compulsory confiscation.
That’s how the tax-exempt cookie crumbles.