TOPEKA — Two Kansas lawmakers with diverging ideas for how to lower the state sales tax on food say "political guts" are needed to relieve families of the burden they face at the grocery store.
Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, and Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, have tried unsuccessfully to lower the 6.5 percent sales tax on food. In the final days of the legislative session, both proposed amendments that were ruled out of order in a debate on an unrelated sales tax bill.
Hodge's idea is to lower the rate by one cent while raising income tax on the 3,000 Kansans making more than $500,000 per year, or $1 million for a couple. Whitmer wanted to drop the rate for food to 5.4 percent by eliminating sales tax exemptions on luxury items, such as beauty salons, lottery tickets, pet daycare, newspapers and dating services.
The two discussed those ideas — and the decisions by Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa who serves as rules chairman for the House, to stymie them — an an episode of Capitol Insider, a podcast by The Topeka Capital-Journal.
"The question is who pays for government," Hodge said. "Is it your single mom that’s working two jobs that’s paying for groceries for a couple kids, or do people that are making the choice between a Maserati and a Ferrari?"
Hodge continued: "There’s people out there making a choice between two and three meals per day, not the Ferrari and Maserati. That’s what I’m trying to get across to people."
Whitmer said he isn't a fan of Robin Hood tactics that take money from the rich and provide for the poor. But he is concerned about people who are struggling on a fixed income.
"This is one of the areas where that’s an essential," Whitmer said. "People need to buy groceries. When we have the second-highest sales tax on food, that impacts. And if there’s anything we can do to help lower taxes on people who need the relief the most, gosh, you’d think it’d be something relatively simple."
Although Hodge said he didn't question being struck down in a parliamentary procedure "by non-germane Blaine," he and Whitmer expressed frustration with their failed efforts to bring the issue up for debate.
Hodge said when he talks about it with people in his district, they ask him how to register to vote. Whitmer agreed there was universal support for lowering the sales tax on food, referring to himself as "a right-wing crazy conservative" who otherwise is an ideological opposite to Hodge.
"Let’s just vote," Whitmer said. "And if you’re afraid to be on the record voting against it, well maybe there’s a reason. Maybe it’s because you shouldn’t be voting against it. But either way, let’s just have the debate."
Party leaders on both sides have resisted the issue, Whitmer said, because they are wary of a pending court decision on public school funding. They want to conserve any available cash streams in case the court orders more money is necessary to meet constitutional standards of providing adequate and equitable education.
"For me," Whitmer said, "until we get out of this situation where we’re in lawsuits, it’s going to be hard to address sales tax when you have 52 percent plus of your budget that’s being allocated or reallocated or re-appropriated."
Hodge interjected: "Used by children. Is that what you want to say?"
"When we abdicate 52 percent of our responsibility to another branch of government, it makes it hard for us to cut taxes," Whitmer said.
Hodge said the state has the revenue to lower the food sales tax, but "it just is a matter of the political guts to do it." Either the money or the cuts are there, Whitmer said, but "there is no political will."