TOPEKA — Kansas' unusually high sales tax on groceries could come down as senators weigh a constitutional amendment aimed at easing prices for consumers and supporting grocery stores near the state's borders.
According to KC Healthy Kids, Kansas' 6.5 percent statewide sales tax is more than the four surrounding states charge.
The Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee considered a resolution Thursday that would allow voters to decide in November whether the state should lower food sales taxes to 4 percent in mid 2019 and 2 percent in mid 2020. The measure would have to pass the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority and get support from a simple majority of Kansas voters. Lowering the sales tax on groceries would cost the state $446 million over the next two fiscal years, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue.
Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin Democrat, brought the proposal. He and proponents argued Kansas' food sales tax makes it difficult for families to afford groceries, making it difficult to eat nutritious food and putting Kansas businesses at a disadvantage.
Brenda Johnson traveled from Bird City in Northwest Kansas to support lowering the food sales tax. She runs a small grocery store and competes with stores in Colorado and Nebraska, which don't charge sales tax on food. She said she overhears customers who come in to buy single items saying they plan to go across state lines for larger grocery purchases.
"Stories that I may hear from my customers as they're purchasing a gallon of milk is saying, 'Honey, we're just getting this gallon of milk. Tomorrow we're going to travel to McCook, Nebraska, to buy groceries,'" Johnson said. "After a 10-hour day, that's a devastating comment to hear that you've wasted your time for 10 hours for them to service themselves at groceries in a neighboring state," Johnson said.
Joey Hentzler, a campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, said needy families have to opt for cheaper foods when they can't afford healthy options. He said he met a Leavenworth woman who bought cereal for herself and her husband so they could afford fruits and vegetables for their child.
"Though 6.5 percent might seem like a pittance to most of us in this room, hardworking Kansans stretch and squeeze that pittance for every dime's caloric worth," Hentzler said.
Scott Thellman, a Lawrence farmer, said he ships 40 percent of his products — sweet corn, kale, pumpkins and other vegetables — to Colorado and Missouri because the lower sales tax means his fresh foods are more cost competitive with low-priced items.
Committee chair Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican running for Congress, said legislators have sought to lower the tax previously, but she hoped it would get more traction this year.
"We say that we want to help those in need," Tyson said. "This actually helps individuals that are living check to check or struggling to make a living. People that are counting every dollar — it makes a difference when you're paying almost 10 percent or more than 10 percent on your food."
Tyson said she would favor a bill lowering the food sales tax rather than a constitutional amendment so legislators can adjust if they cast the wrong net. The current proposal does not make clear whether restaurant food would be taxed.
Holland said he chose to introduce an amendment so legislators couldn't easily raise food sales taxes in tight budget years.
Gov. Jeff Colyer said he would consider any policy legislators passed but said the income tax hike they passed last year was still working itself out.