Lawmakers, consumers celebrate elimination of WV tax on food - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Lawmakers, consumers celebrate elimination of WV tax on food

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Republican members of the West Virginia Legislature are celebrating the end of a two-decade fight to eliminate the state's sales tax on food.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said at a news conference July 1 that his party has worked since 1989, when the tax was implemented, to eliminate the "immoral, wrong" tax that hurts seniors and working West Virginians.

"One thing the Republicans have worked on for nearly two decades in the Legislature has been the elimination of the food tax," Armstead said. "We've always felt this tax is immoral. It's wrong to tax individuals for the necessities of life and that's exactly what we've done for 24 years. We've taxed our seniors and our working West Virginians merely for putting food on their tables."

In 1989, then-Gov. Gaston Caperton called a special session of the Legislature, before the regular session even started, to look at several tax initiatives, including a 6 percent sales tax on food. That legislation passed the House 77-22.

Then, in 2005, then-Gov. Joe Manchin called a special session of the Legislature to address several matters, including reducing the sales tax on food to "an amount not to exceed 1 percent." However, Vic Sprouse, who was at that time a Republican state senator representing Kanawha County, took the issue to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, arguing that the governor can set the agenda for special sessions, but it's the Legislature's duty to dispose of that agenda as it sees fit. The court agreed. Following the decision, House Republicans offered House Bill 401 to fully eliminate the tax effective Jan. 1, 2006.

In the 2006 session, Republican lawmakers again moved to discharge a bill to fully eliminate the food sales tax. However, the motion was defeated on a vote of 31-66, mostly along party lines. But Manchin again called a special session, this time to consider a two-cent gradual reduction in the tax—one cent each in 2007 and 2008. Republicans again moved to fully eliminate the tax, but that motion was defeated 31-62.

The fight to eliminate the tax continued in 2011, when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed legislation to reduce the tax by a half-cent effective Jan. 1, 2012. Republican lawmakers negotiated with Democratic leadership and adopted a gradual full elimination in exchange for changes to the rainy day fund reserves. On Aug. 23, 2011, Tomblin signed a bill calling for the tax to fall 1 percent July 1, 2012 and to be fully eliminated July 1, 2013, if certain benchmarks were met.

Republicans project $162 million in tax relief for state's residents, and note grocery stores in border counties will no longer have to compete with neighboring states that have lower or no sales tax on food. Bridget Lambert, president of the West Virginia Retailer's Association, said a family of four can expect to save $52 a year now that the food tax has been eliminated.

"West Virginia retail merchants are very pleased to see the elimination of the sales tax on food," Lambert said. "This is a process that started back in 2005 at 6 percent and this will be the fourth decrease we've been through in that time frame."

Each time the food tax was reduced, computers in retail stores across the state had to be reprogrammed, costing both the company and the consumer. Lambert said stores have been preparing for the tax elimination and companies are happy to see the elimination.

"There is no negative to this," Lambert said. "We're very positive and we're glad to see it come about."

Although the Republican Party is celebrating what it sees as an end to its long fight, some of the state's Democratic lawmakers have questioned who really deserves the credit for working to eliminate the tax.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, took his concerns to Twitter.

"No more food tax in WV starting today. Thank a #Democrat for that," he tweeted. He followed that up with: "Armstead and the GOP are disingenuous. The GOP had nothing to do with ridding the state of the Food Tax."

House Speaker Tim Miley said he wants to see Democrats and Republicans work together for the betterment of West Virginia--not bicker over who gets the credit.

"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," Miley said.  "It's a new day in the West Virginia House of Delegates, and I call upon the Republicans to join me in focusing on ideas and results instead of their Washington-style politics of old.  This should be a day for acknowledging how eliminating the food tax benefits West Virginia families, not for bickering over who gets the credit."

But no matter who gets the credit, consumers are glad to see the tax go.

"I like food and I like saving money," said Veronica Lewis of Ripley.