Cutting Food Sales Taxes: Right Intention, Wrong Policy


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Earlier this year, governors in West Virginia and Arkansas signed legislation to lower their states’ sales tax on food, a policy both had championed.  West Virginia lowered the state’s sales tax on food from 3 to 2 percent and Arkansas’ was reduced from 2 to 1.5 percent.

Unlike most states, West Virginia and Arkansas were doing just fine budget-wise, so the tax cut was “affordable” and did not come at the expense of critical and core public services, which are often sacrificed for tax cuts.  Pursuing cuts to food sales taxes also set Mike Beebe (AK) and Earl Ray Tomblin (W.VA) apart from other governors who pushed for regressive tax cuts that primarily benefited upper-income households and businesses.

West Virginia’s Tomblin recently upped the ante, too, asking lawmakers during a special August 2011 session to end the state’s sales tax on food altogether, given the state’s finances were continuing to perform well.  The House and Senate heeded the governor’s request and agreed to phase out the remaining two percent sales tax on food by July 1, 2013. 

The phase-out is contingent on the health of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which must be equal to or greater than 12.5 percent of the General Revenue Fund at the end of 2012. If that goal is met, the sales tax on food will be reduced to one percent on July 1, 2012 and totally eradicated on July 1, 2013.

While West Virginia’s decision to eliminate the sales tax on food is certainly more beneficial to more families than other states’ efforts to eliminate corporate and personal income taxes, there are smarter, more targeted strategies available to lawmakers seeking to improve the fairness of the sales tax and support working families.

As an updated ITEP brief explains, targeted tax credits are a preferred alternative to exempting products, such as food, from the sales tax base. 

Sales tax exemptions have two main disadvantages as policy. First, they make the sales tax base (that is, the total dollar amount collected from taxable items) much narrower, and reduce the yield of the tax.  Second, they make the exemptions available to all taxpayers, regardless of need or income.  For example, the poorest 40 percent of taxpayers typically receive only about 25 percent of the benefit from exempting groceries while the rest goes to wealthier taxpayers who can more easily afford to pay the grocery tax.

Targeted credits, on the other hand: are designed to apply to specific income groups deemed to be most in need of tax relief; are available only to in-state residents; can be less expensive than exemptions, and; do not affect the stability of the sales tax as a revenue source.

Rather than wholly eliminate the sales tax on food, West Virginia lawmakers could have followed the model of 24 states which have wisely enacted a state Earned Income Tax Credit to ensure the tax cut will primarily benefit low- and moderate-income families, those who need help the most and spend a larger proportion of their incomes on food.  Alternatively, a refundable food tax credit, implemented in Kansas, Oklahoma and Idaho, which helps offset sales taxes paid on food, would be a more preferable policy as it is also 1) targeted to taxpayers who need it most and 2) less disruptive to the state’s revenue – two characteristics of the smartest tax policies.

Photo via Judy Baxter Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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