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'Temporary' food tax expires after 25 years

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, still has the symbolic can of beans with a penny on top - a gift from the late Dick Henderson, who served in the House of Delegates until his death.

In the 1990s, Henderson and other Republicans fought to reduce taxes on the poor. West Virginia's 6 percent tax on food was at the top on the list.

But Democratic leaders refused to let go of a tax they imposed in 1988 as a "temporary" measure.

Public officials always have an excuse to spend the public's money. By expanding programs, Democrats expanded the state's reliance on the food tax, even as revenues from other sources rose.

Eventually, however, the food tax became an embarrassment.

When Gov. Joe Manchin took office in 2005, he and then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin initiated a phaseout of the tax.

State officials have since slowly lowered the tax over time. Eight years later, on Monday, the state eliminated it - 25 years after the Legislature approved it as a stopgap measure.

People will continue to pay the 6 percent tax on prepared food, vending machine food and soft drinks.

"For too long West Virginians have been burdened by a regressive tax on one of life's basic necessities," Gov. Tomblin said in a press release. "The elimination of the food tax allows families to keep more of their hard-earned money."

Had the tax remained at 6 percent, the state would have continued to take $162 million a year out of the pockets of West Virginians and out of the state's economy.

That is serious money - more than $1.6 billion over a decade.

While food purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards - food stamps - was exempted from the tax, the money still came out of the household budgets of people who rank 47th in per capita income. Nearly one-third of the income in this state comes from Social Security and other benefit programs.

Legislators did right in eliminating the food tax, but it should not have taken 25 years to do it.

Tomblin, in marking the demise of this terrible and regressive tax, noted that the improved financial management he has promoted in his years in government helped make it possible.

That is true. The fact that West Virginia is now one of 29 states that fully exempt food from state and local taxes is a bipartisan achievement.

Had Democrats listened to Henderson and his fellow Republicans 20 years ago, taxpayers would have saved billions over the years.


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