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Senate Republicans Do About-Face On Food Tax

Senate Republicans may hear the voice of former House Speaker Tim Armstead echoing in the halls of the Capitol.

The one-time Republican leader and now state Supreme Court Justice was a persistent advocate for eliminating the sales tax on food. He called the tax on groceries “immoral.”

Republicans were in the minority during most of Armstead’s tenure, so it took the majority Democrats to finally get behind the movement to phase out the six percent tax imposed by Governor Gaston Caperton and the Democrats in 1989.

The last bit of the tax came off the books July 1, 2013.  At the time, Armstead said, “For the first time in 24 years, our citizens can put food on their tables without paying this truly immoral food tax.”

Fast forward to today.

Senate Republicans are pushing a bill that would bring back the food tax. The plan, narrowly approved by the Senate Finance Committee this week, eliminates the state income tax over four years and offsets the revenue decline by increasing the sales tax from 6 percent to 8.5 percent and re-imposing the food tax at a 2.5 percent rate.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr (R, Putnam) is the driving force behind the bill.  On Talkline this week he defended the proposed food tax increase.

“Republicans did try hard to get rid of that years ago, and I think it was a mistake,” Tarr said.  “And the reason I think it was a mistake is because that is a very broad, very stable tax source that is also shared by people who pass through West Virginia.”

I’m not sure how many people “pass through” our state to buy groceries, but he is right that the tax is a reliable source of revenue because everybody buys food.

However, there are also problems with the tax.

It is regressive.  Lower income people who are not on food stamps must use a larger percentage of their income to pay for necessities, including food.  They would be impacted more than middle or upper income West Virginians.

The tax could make West Virginia less competitive with neighboring states.  Virginia is the only border state that taxes groceries. Its rate is 2.5 percent.

Governor Jim Justice, who is pushing his own tax plan, strongly objects to reimposing the food tax.  “I would not do that no matter what,” he told our Brad McElhinny.  “I absolutely do not see what we need to put that right in the face of those who are having the most difficult time.”

And finally, Republicans have super majorities in the House and Senate now. They can do pretty much anything they want.  But they might also want to remember their history.

Not too many years ago, Republicans were the distinct minority the Legislature.  Their voices were usually drowned out by the overwhelming will of the majority.  But then-House Minority Leader Tim Armstead was a tireless advocate for conservative causes.

And one of them was the elimination of the food tax.


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