Friday, January 9, 2015

Poll shows public support for lowering sales tax on ‘healthy’ foods

By Jim McLean
KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — A Kansas City-based nonprofit organization says a recent poll shows widespread support for exempting some foods from the Kansas sales tax.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, state policy manager for KC Healthy Kids, says a poll conducted for the Kansas Health Foundation showed that 86.6 percent of Kansans supported exempting fruits and vegetables from the state sales tax.

The Wichita-based foundation is the primary funder of the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service. The foundation also helps to fund KC Healthy Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing obesity among children.

The poll was designed by RTI International, a North Carolina-based research firm, and conducted last summer by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.

Jones-Wisner says KC Healthy Kids will lead an effort in the upcoming legislative session to fully or partially repeal the state sales tax on groceries. If Kansas lawmakers balk at the estimated $390 million cost of exempting groceries, she said the group will attempt to win passage of a sales tax repeal on fruits and vegetables.

“We plan to engage with lawmakers about both proposals during the session,” she said, noting that the group has not yet calculated the cost of a partial repeal.

Kansas has the nation’s second highest sales tax on food, trailing only Mississippi’s 7 percent levy. In some Kansas communities, the combination of state and local sales taxes can add as much as 10 percent to grocery bills.

High sales taxes “limit people’s access to healthy food,” Jones-Wisner said.

Kansas’ obesity rate has risen steadily in recent years, increasing to 30 percent from 13.5 percent in 1995, according to a brief produced by the health foundation. Getting more Kansans to substitute fresh fruits and vegetables for high-calorie processed foods would help lower rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A 5 percent reduction in the state’s obesity rate could lower health care costs by as much as $2 billion over 10 years, according to a Trust for America’s Health report cited in the brief.

Public support and potential health benefits aside, the state’s growing budget problems likely will make any sales tax exemption a tough sell. State income tax cuts enacted at Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging have slowed revenue collections and created a $280 million hole in the current year’s budget.