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Ending W.Va. food sales tax was a long-held GOP goal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, held up a 15-year-old can of pork and beans with a penny taped on top during a news conference Monday at the Capitol.

Armstead discovered the can in the desk of the late Delegate Dick Henderson, who died in 1998, and the minority leader has kept it in his office all these years. Henderson had passed around cans of pork and beans with pennies attached to show the need for scrapping West Virginia's sales tax on food. The tax was finally eliminated Monday.

"I'm not sure you'd want to open this up and eat them now," Armstead said.

West Virginians will save $162 million a year without a food tax, compared to eight years ago when consumers paid a 6 percent tax, he said. The food sales tax has been reduced over time, and was fully eliminated Monday.

Armstead said Republicans played a "crucial role" in making that happen. West Virginia still might have a sales tax on food, he said, if not for the House GOP's dogged push to eliminate the tax.

"For the first time in 24 years, our citizens can put food on their tables without paying this truly immoral food tax," Armstead said. "Republicans have fought for more than a decade to eliminate the food tax, and this tax cut for our citizens is a direct result of the dedicated an unrelenting efforts of Republican legislators."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's news release Sunday about the elimination of food tax did not mention GOP lawmakers' longtime opposition to the food tax.

The Legislature enacted a 6 percent tax on groceries during a special session at the request of Democratic former Gov. Gaston Caperton. House Republicans voted against the tax.

Between 1994 and 1996 -- at the time Henderson was distributing the cans of pork and beans -- House GOP members introduced bills to reduce and eliminate the tax, but the legislation didn't pass.

In 2005, former Gov. Joe Manchin called a special session and proposed reducing the sales tax on food "by an amount not less than 1 percent." House Republicans introduced amendments to Manchin's bill to abolish the food tax altogether, but the GOP proposals failed. Democratic leaders said eliminating the tax completely would blow an unfixable hole in the state budget.

The following year, House Republicans tried to move to the House floor a bill that would eliminate the food tax, but the motion was defeated along party lines.

In November 2006, state lawmakers, at Manchin's request, voted to decrease the food tax to 4 percent in 2007 and 3 percent in 2008.

In 2011, Tomblin signed a bill that dropped the food tax to 1 percent in July 2012 and would phase out the tax completely on July 1, 2013 -- Monday -- provided the state's Rainy Day Fund was one-eighth as large as the state general revenue fund. The state met the benchmark last December.

"Our citizens are struggling to make ends meet, and this tax cut will provide them with much needed help in feeding their families," Armstead said. "Every dollar we put back into the pockets of working West Virginians and our retired citizens helps them balance their own budgets, improves the quality of their lives and enhances our overall economy."

Late Monday, state Democratic leaders put out a statement that struck back at Republicans' claim of credit for elimination of the food tax.

"I'm disappointed that the Republicans keep trying to have it both ways. They do nothing but criticize the Democratic majority in the Legislature, except when they're rushing to take credit for landmark legislation that could only be passed by that same Democratic majority," said House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, noted that he introduced the bill that eliminated the sales tax at Tomblin's request, and state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio invited Republicans "to join our efforts instead of taking credit for what we have already achieved."

Armstead said the tax cut wouldn't necessarily lead to a sharp decline in revenue.

He said many West Virginians who live in counties that border neighboring states that don't have food sales taxes have been buying groceries out of state. Those shoppers, he predicted, will now buy food closer to home, bolstering West Virginia's economy.

Most states do not impose a sales tax on food. Virginia is the only state that borders West Virginia that has a tax (2.5 percent) on food, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators.

Armstead's colleagues said the food sales tax was a burden on seniors and other West Virginians on a fixed income.

"A food tax is a terrible, regressive tax," said Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell.

The elimination of the tax applies only to food that is to be prepared at home. Prepared foods, food from vending machines and soft drinks will still be taxed.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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