The Buzz

The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Junk food or junk taxes?

11/11/2013 3:22 PM

11/11/2013 4:27 PM

On Sept. 1, Texas exempted snacks from the state’s sales tax.

Granola bars, crackers, chips, popcorn, nuts — unless candy-coated, strangely — are now sales-tax-free in the Lone Star State.

The exemption doesn’t apply to individual servings, like you might purchase from vending machines or at convenience stores. Those are still taxed.

But big, honking, family-sized bags of hard pretzels and trail mix are now a few pennies cheaper at the checkout stand. Which only means, I guess, that Cheetos will be the centerpiece of every Texan’s Thanksgiving Day meal.

I don’t cover Texas politics, so I can’t know for sure why lawmakers decided to offer new incentives for delicious-but-empty calories. There’s some chatter that convenience stores wanted salty snacks to fall into the same category as other tax-exempt foods because it would make the paperwork easier.

Also, one of the biggest snack-food companies in the world has its headquarters in Plano. Maybe that played a role.

Special-interest exemptions are part of the tax code in every state, of course. Every year, lobbyists in Kansas and Missouri keep quite busy protecting and expanding tax breaks, exclusions and credits that help a business or industry.

Property taxes are higher for some, lower for others. Income tax deductions are adjusted. Grocery store food is taxed differently than prepared food.

Tax codes are a confusing mess, unfair almost by definition: Some taxpayers are advantaged, some are not.

Yet enacting a simpler, more equitable tax code is always a difficult political reach. Early in his administration, you’ll recall, Kansas City Mayor Sly James convened a municipal revenue commission — which labored mightily, only to recommend a few minor changes to the city’s overall tax system.

This isn’t a surprise. Tax codes are tough to disassemble because lawmakers

like

handing out loopholes and exemptions. Deciding who get helped, and who gets hurt, is the definition of politics.

When he vetoed a major tax cut in Missouri this year, Gov. Jay Nixon repeatedly said he supports targeted tax relief for specific businesses and industries. Which only means, I guess, that he’d rather the governor pick winners and losers than the legislature or the people.

Nixon is scheduled to be in town today to talk with the Chamber of Commerce about tax reform and economic development. Maybe he’ll suggest tax reform that’s targeted to the broad middle class, instead of favored companies.

Or maybe he’ll bring a big bag of Cheetos instead.

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