If state leaders are serious about eliminating the sales tax on groceries, they must do it in a responsible manner that does not hurt education or other essential programs that rely on the revenue, according to the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
With that goal in mind, Senator Penny Williams is authoring legislation that would repeal the state sales tax on food while replacing most of the lost state revenue with adjustments to other fees and levies. The measure would put the question on a statewide ballot for voter approval.
"Everyone wants to repeal the sales tax on groceries. The disagreements begin when you start talking about how to do it. If we want to implement it responsibly, without draining hundreds of millions of dollars out of our public school classrooms or our road construction programs, we have to be willing to make some tough decisions," said Senator Williams.
Several legislators have announced plans to repeal the grocery tax, but none has addressed how the state will absorb the $190 million in revenue losses that will result from such a reduction. Some have suggested that state growth revenue will be sufficient to cover such a budget hit, but Senator Williams said those legislators apparently haven't taken a look at a lengthy list of outstanding financial obligations that must be paid in the coming year.
"It's going to cost us at least $230 million just to keep from defaulting on all of our obligations on bond issues, road construction, health care and other initiatives. I'm certainly not opposed to using some of the growth revenue on a tax cut, but anyone who thinks there's going to be enough to bear the full weight of repeal hasn't been doing their budget homework. The only way we can eliminate the grocery tax without defaulting on our debts or cutting services like education is with revenue neutral legislation," said Senator Williams.
The Tulsa legislator calls her grocery tax repeal bill "a work in progress," saying she is exploring a number of options for adjusting fees and levies to soften the budget impact of her legislation. The list of options includes possible changes in the cigarette tax and the gasoline
tax, and the creation of a tax on luxury items. She said she is also exploring the elimination of some sales tax exemptions.
"The key, of course, is creating a piece of legislation that the public can support. Last year's tag bill is a perfect example. It cut tag fees responsibly, without gutting funding for the public schools. Not everyone in the Legislature and the executive branch favored that approach, but
voters approved it overwhelmingly," said Senator Williams.
"If anything, that experience taught us that voters are looking for responsible solutions, not just campaign slogan legislation that gets tossed aside because it is undoable. I think we can eliminate the grocery tax responsibly if we approach the issue with an open mind."
The proposal by Senator Williams will be considered when the Legislature returns for its annual session on Monday, February 5th.