OpEd: The lessons learned in Grocery Gate
We have three takeaways from Grocery Gate (with a reusable non-plastic bag, of course).
One, bill-making is an imperfect science. Though in this case, Democrats should have paid more attention to detail.
Two, a strong, two-party (at least) system is needed for checks and balances. Thank you, Republican lawmakers, for howling about this one.
Three, someone in state government (apparently without a teenager) actually sat down and decided that five bagels count as a “prepared meal,” but not six.
To unravel this, go back to June when Democrats were trying to balance the state budget for the next two years without raising the income tax. One remedy, which passed, was to raise the sales tax from 6.35 percent to 7.35 percent on restaurant meals and prepared meals sold at other places, including grocery stores.
But when the state Department of Revenue Services produced a policy statement of guidelines for retailers of what to tax higher as of Oct. 1, the net was much wider than legislators say they intended.
For example, salad greens in a container up to 8 ounces, Popsicles, and popcorn — only if heated — would all be in line for the extra 1 percent tax under the policy issued in August.
Republicans noticed this (perhaps because earlier in the year Gov. Ned Lamont briefly floated the idea of a grocery tax) and issued statements of outrage on what they called the grocery tax. But keep in mind, the Republicans left the heavy budget lifting to the Democrats by offering no recommendations as they have in previous years. Their answer is that the majority Democrats wouldn’t have paid heed anyway. But two years ago when the state Senate was evenly divided, the parties did come together to create a budget, albeit 123 days late.
Would Democrats have noticed the over-reaching DRS policy if not for the Republicans? Who’s to say. But this week the Senate Democrats jumped on board with a letter to DRS Commissioner Scott Jackson saying they were “shocked” that what meals and beverages could be covered by the sales tax broadened “significantly.”
Another turn to Grocery Gate came last Friday when the state Office of Fiscal Analysis projected the broader tax would bring in $158 million over this fiscal year and next, nearly 40 percent more than lawmakers anticipated.
By Tuesday Gov. Lamont announced that the surcharge on prepared foods would be scaled back before Oct. 1.
So now the Grocery Gate debate shifts to how to make that happen. Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano insists this must be done in a special session; Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney wants it to go back to the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding committee, and the governor and his budget director say a revised tax policy statement can be worked out internally.
Sometimes the solution might be the simplest: Add the 1 percent surcharge to whatever meals and food items are presently taxed. And don’t let this happen again.