Ogden advocates, those in need express relief after food tax hike plan fizzles

Monday , March 06, 2017 - 7:45 PM

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Advocates for the poor could breathe a sigh of relief late Monday.

A push to raise the sales tax on food that gained steam as the Utah legislature was preparing to wrap up faded away just as quickly.

“That’s good news for us,” said Maresha Bosgieter, director of Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah. Utah lawmakers “must’ve gotten a lot of feedback in order to shelve it.”

Monday afternoon, The Associated Press reported that Utah legislators had planned a public hearing for Tuesday night on a multipronged proposal — never formally unveiled — that called for a hike in the sales tax on food, from 1.75 percent to 4.4 percent. As part of the measure, the sales tax on other goods would have dipped from 4.75 percent to that same 4.4-percent level, according to the AP.

Soon after that, though, AP reported that the sales tax shuffle had been scrapped, with the Salt Lake Tribune citing reluctance among lawmakers in the Utah House. The legislative session ends Thursday.

The last-minute measure — similar to a proposals broached in 2011 and 2012, according to the Tribune and KSL — had sparked plenty of concern among the poor and their advocates in Ogden. Lucy Washakie, a grandmother of eight here who taps food stamps and other resources to feed the kids, had called on lawmakers to visit her and others who rely on public assistance as they’re waiting in line at food banks.

“It’s just not a good feeling,” she said. “I wish they would step in our shoes and see how it feels.”

The aim, broadly, of the legislation was to stabilize sales tax collections in Utah, helping assure sufficient resources for social service programs, even in an economic downturn, the AP reported. But in Ogden, critics, contacted before news of the controversial proposal’s demise, worried the increased cost of food brought on by the 2.65 percentage-point hike would make it even tougher for those with limited resources.

“Of course, it’ll have an impact,” said Jesse Garcia at the Ogden-Weber Community Action Partnership, which operates a food pantry and other programs for those in need.

Those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, he said, would potentially have to seek increasing help from food pantries, putting pressure on those organizations, which face their own limits. 

“We’re limited to what we get. We have good deliveries at times. Sometimes not so much,” Garcia said.

Utah had a lower share of people living in poverty in 2014 relative to the entire nation, with 11.7 percent here compared with 15.5 percent in the United States as a whole, according to the Utah State Health Assessment for 2016 completed by the Utah Department of Health. The 11.7 percent figure represents 339,900 Utahns, including 118,789 under the age of 18.

Still, there was plenty for the critics to worry about.

Bosgieter said an incremental cost hike could have caused some to turn to cheaper processed foods, forgoing more costly fruits, vegetables and fresh meats. She also panned talk of implementing an income tax break for the poor in conjunction with the tax change to help them offset costs of the food tax hike.

Looking forward, Bosgieter doesn’t know quite what to think.

“Hopefully it’s off the plate for next year. I don’t know,” she said.

Meanwhile, people like Washakie — who holds a part-time custodial job — note there’s no shortage of people who struggle to get enough food.  She has legal guardianship of her eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 14, and visits food banks, uses the Women Infants and Children program and food stamps, and pulls out of her own pocket to make sure they have enough to eat.

“There’s so many people who are hungry out here. You can see the homeless all over. It’s sad,” she said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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