The Douglas County Food Policy Council is right to advocate for eliminating sales taxes on groceries, even though the effort may be futile.
The council is a joint city-county board and one of its initiatives is the Food System Plan, developed with local focus groups and community forums. One of the plan’s five goals is to foster expansion of city- and county-led initiatives to make food more affordable, including reducing and eliminating the sales tax on groceries.
“I think one of the things we heard most as we did different listening sessions across the county was that affordability of healthy food was a big concern,” said Helen Schnoes, Douglas County sustainability and food systems planner and liaison to the council.
Sales taxes in general are the most regressive form of taxation, in that the tax burden increases as income decreases. And charging sales tax on groceries is the most regressive form of the most regressive tax.
The Douglas County Community Health Assessment estimates 17 percent of people living in Douglas County are “food insecure,” meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. One in 5 children live in households that are food insecure.
Most states don’t assess sales taxes on groceries. Kansas is among 13 that do. Of those 13, six charge a lesser rate on groceries. Kansas, Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota are those that charge full sales tax rates on groceries.
But getting state and local government to give up the revenue from the sales tax on groceries — in favor of taxes elsewhere — is a nearly insurmountable task. The Kansas Legislature controls the state sales tax rate and doesn’t allow local governments to exempt groceries from sales tax. Not that it would if it could.
In 2016, the city collected more than $5 million in revenue from local sales tax on groceries, according to sales tax reports. That was 13 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue and about 2.5 percent of the city’s overall revenue for the year.
“We can’t talk about that until we talk about lost revenue and how that would impact our budget and how we would work around that,” Mayor Leslie Soden said. “In reality, that would be detrimental to our budget.”
Ironically, the city just passed a .05 percent sales tax increase in order to raise $1 million per year for affordable housing initiatives. Arguably, more lower-income residents would have benefited from a break on sales taxes than will ever benefit from the affordable housing programs.
The Douglas County Food Policy Council is fighting the good fight, even if it is a fight it can’t win.