Lowering the Kansas sales tax on food is as popular as it is difficult in a state scrounging for every nickel to balance its budget.
On Thursday, supporters of a plan to cut taxes on groceries sounded off at the Kansas Statehouse with a plea to a Senate committee to advance a constitutional amendment that would reduce the rate.
The current state sales tax rate stands at 6.5 percent. Local sales taxes bring the total to more than 11 percent in some parts of Kansas. Under the proposal, the state sales tax on food would drop to 4 percent in 2019 and 2 percent in 2020. Local sales tax decisions would still remain the business of city and county politicians.
Staff from the Department of Revenue said such tax cuts would lower collections for the state’s general fund by $128 million in the first year and $246 million in the second year.
Casey Cordts, a pediatrician at Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, told the Senate committee that the state's sales tax makes it harder for low-income Kansans to buy healthy foods instead of cheaper, less-nutritious options.
He recounted one example where a child was dealing with significant weight issues. His family worked on a diet plan, but the boy’s mother said the family couldn’t afford the extra vegetables.
“A dollar or two back can be a couple extra vegetables a week,” Cordts said. “That can make a huge impact on a kid’s life.”
Brenda Johnson owns a small grocery store called Hometown Market in Bird City, a town of 400 in northwest Kansas. She told lawmakers that grocery stores near the state’s borders struggle to compete with stores in neighboring states that charge a lower tax rate.
She recently ran into someone preparing to head across the Nebraska border for a large grocery purchase.
“Just because it was minus that sales tax,” Johnson said. “They’re at zero percent.”
She said the sales tax on food makes small stores like hers less competitive and that losing grocery stores in small communities can leave people without a local option to buy necessities.
“For a grocery store to leave the town,” Johnson said, “it makes it even harder to survive as a town.”
Lowering the sales tax on food appeals to lawmakers across ideological lines, but the problem is balancing the budget.
Unless it’s part of a larger tax proposal, cutting the sales tax on food would also mean a sizable cut into state revenues. That challenge has led to similar proposals faltering in recent years.
If state revenues fell, that could jeopardize funding for state services such as education.
Rob Gilligan, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, did not urge lawmakers to defeat the proposal. But he said reducing the food sales tax should be part of a larger tax overhaul “where you looked at an appropriate taxation policy for the funding of all government services.”
Gov. Jeff Colyer said he likes lowering taxes but doubts there will be much action on the tax front after the major overhaul last year.
“I’ll look at anything the Legislature sends my way,” Colyer said. “But right now, I don’t see the Legislature passing a different tax proposal.”
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @KPRKoranda.