By Mannix Porterfield
West Virginia buyers passed through checkout lanes of grocery stores Monday without paying a single cent of food tax for the first time in two decades, and Republican lawmakers claimed most, if not all, of the credit.
The final 1 percent of the tax was eliminated, ending a tax on groceries that had been in effect since Gov. Gaston Caperton came to power in 1989 and found finances so distressed the power companies were threatening to shut off the electricity at the Capitol.
Over the two decades that followed, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, noted, the GOP caucus repeatedly tried to wipe out the food tax in one full swoop, only to have their efforts blocked by the Democratic leadership.
“Without the efforts of the Republican caucus in the House and Senate, we would not see this tax being eliminated today,” Armstead told reporters at a news conference.
“I’m convinced of that. Without the efforts we have made to keep this on the forefront, it would have been likely that this tax would not have gone away.”
In a news release, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin pointed to his days as Senate President when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was governor, saying the two “initiated the phase-out” in 2005 of the original 6 percent tax.
There was no mention of the long-running Republican effort.
“I’m not surprised at that,” Armstead said.
“I’m not bothered necessarily by what the governor says about it. I think the people of West Virginia know we’re fighting for them.”
As a visual aid, Armstead held up a can of pork and beans with a penny stuck on the lid, a device the late Delegate Dick Henderson, R-Kanawha, used years ago to dramatize the importance of scrapping the food tax.
And, Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, wore one of the original “18” stickers, demonstrating in an earlier campaign how that elimination of the tax meant that West Virginians would get that many days of “free food.”
“People have to buy groceries to sustain life,” she said.
“It’s not discretionary spending. We’re one of the poorest populations in the country. We have one of the oldest populations in the country. And I think it’s been wrong for the state to take money out of senior citizens’ pockets and our working families who struggle to make ends meet in West Virginia.”
Each incremental 1 percent rollback in the food tax, by all estimates, denies state coffers between $25 million and $27 million, but Sobonya said this isn’t lost revenue, because consumers will spend money saved elsewhere at the regular 6 percent sales tax.
“This money is not going to disappear from our economy,” she said.
“If you study economics, that money will go into buying children shoes, or entertainment. That money will stay in our economy.”
Sobonya and Delegate Carol Miller, also R-Cabell, represent a border county, and that is another argument advanced by the GOP for scrapping the food tax. Consistently, they have maintained that border merchants lose sales when West Virginians cross the state line to buy tax-free food.
“Our message has been the same for over 20 years,” Miller said.
“A food tax is a terrible, regressive tax. When people have money in their pockets, they will spend it.”
Lawmakers had revived the 6 percent tax in 1989 when Caperton called them into special session during his inaugural address. Most Republicans in the House voted against it.
Compared to 2005, when the tax stood at that level, Armstead said, West Virginians as a whole will save $162 million a year when purchasing groceries.
Manchin asked the Legislature to whittle 1 percent off the tax in 2005, prompting then-Senate Majority Leader Vic Sprouse to successfully challenge the governor’s ceiling. A year later, the House voted 66-33 to declare GOP amendments seeking full elimination of the tax out of order. All Republicans and Delegate Tom Louisos, D-Fayette, voted with the losing side.
Then, in 2006, largely along party lines, the House gunned down a move by then-Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan, to discharge HB4088 that would have fully scrapped the tax. Trump said the $450 million surplus would have covered the lost revenue three times over.
Lawmakers agreed to Manchin’s reduction to 4 percent after rebuffing GOP efforts to fully wipe out the tax in 2007. One year later, the GOP returned with the same idea, but again the Democrats kept such a bill shackled inside a committee.
The House leadership flexed its muscle again in 2011 and refused a Republican amendment to a Senate bill.
Tomblin in 2011 asked for a one-half cent reduction, but Armstead said the GOP convinced the House leadership to adopt the gradual elimination in exchange for alterations in the Rainy Day Fund.
“I’ve always felt this tax is immoral,” Armstead said.
“It’s wrong to tax individuals for the necessities of life. That’s what we’ve done for 24 years. We have taxed our seniors, our working West Virginians, for merely being able to put food on their tables. We’re extremely happy to see the full elimination of the food tax in West Virginia. This is a very exciting accomplishment.”
Tax Commissioner Mark Matkovich said the end of the food tax is part of “a larger effort to make the tax system fairer, efficient and balanced for both families and businesses.”
“If the Republicans had not taken on this cause and had not fought for it for 20 years, we would still have a food tax today,” Armstead said.
“Probably all of it.”
Later in the day, state Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio imparted a shot at the Republicans, saying the majority party has achieved “many great things” to improve life in the state.
“Republicans ought to join our efforts instead of taking credit for what we have already achieved,” he said.
And, new Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, likewise scolded the Republicans.
“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.
Miley invited the GOP to join him with fresh ideas to improve the state “instead of their Washington-style politics of old.”
“This should be a day of acknowledging how eliminating the food tax benefits West Virginia families, not bickering over who gets the credit,” the speaker added.
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