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Wow … a couple of Democrats could be the key to grocery tax relief

Wow … a couple of Democrats could be the key to grocery tax relief

Wayne Hoffman
January 30, 2015
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January 30, 2015

Three weeks into the legislative session, Republican Jeff Siddoway is sticking to his promise to block any tax cut that might come to his committee, unless he gets the education funding he's after. Siddoway, the chairman of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, certainly seems to have all the power.

But I'm actually starting to think the Dos Equis most interesting men in the Senate—the ones who quietly wield all the power on Siddoway's committee—are Democrats Grant Burgoyne and Elliot Werk.

That might shock some people who'd never imagine Boise Democrats in the power positions. But here's why the politics is on their side: There are nine members on Siddoway's committee. While Siddoway won't hear a tax cut bill, he probably won't stall on legislation to raise fuel taxes for roads.

Siddoway has made no ultimatums about proposals that would come to his committee to raise taxes as he has proposals to lower them. The moderate Republicans in the Legislature who have the numbers to push through a tax hike may not quite have the numbers on Siddoway's Senate tax committee—at least not without help from the Democrats.

Burgoyne and Werk could form a coalition with conservative Republicans on the committee and refuse to move a gas tax bill until they get the kind of tax policies that would benefit their constituents. And I suspect they're sensitive to the fact that low- and middle-income Idahoans will take a disproportionately high hit if fuel taxes are raised. That makes them the swing members of the committee.

All of this brings me to the tax on groceries. Burgoyne and Werk could view an increase in the gas tax as an impact that could be mitigated through an adjustment in the way food is treated under the state sales tax. Remember that in Idaho, groceries are taxed at the same 6 percent as everything else. Unlike our neighboring states, which do not tax food (Utah charges a lower sales tax for groceries), Idaho has been taxing groceries since the sales tax was implemented in 1965.

To reduce the impact of this tax, lawmakers developed the "grocery tax credit," which Idahoans can receive when they pay their income taxes. It's a goofy system that forces Idahoans to do without the money they need today to pay their bills.

Moreover, the tax on groceries is about equal to the amount of money rebated via the grocery tax credit. In other words, it's not like the state is meeting any funding objectives or paying for government programs with the grocery tax.

Burgoyne and Werk can play a huge role in eliminating the tax on groceries, and the timing is nearly perfect. Knowing that the stars are aligning to raise gas taxes, they can simply say no. Or not yet.

I'd be happy if they'd say no to a gas tax increase forever, but holding out for a repeal of the sales tax on groceries would be a huge political win for them. It would also be a huge win for Idaho taxpayers, who are oddly compelled to give up 6 cents for every dollar they spend on groceries, only to get their money back some months later.

Siddoway certainly has a lot of power to chill any tax cut plans. But not all of it. Hard to imagine, but a couple of Boise Democrats could hold the real keys to providing relief to Idahoans in 2015.

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