Starting Jan. 1 the good news for South Carolina grocery consumers is that they'll pay a penny less in sales tax on most food items, dropping the rate from 5 cents on the dollar to 4 cents.
The bad news is that unless state lawmakers renew the cut in the first part of the year - and a balky Gov. Jim Hodges signs it - it will expire in six months. For that half year, a typical family of four will save about $78.
The new law is also proving to be a colossal headache for small retailers and convenience stores, especially those that don't accept food stamps. They have had only 17 days to reprogram their registers and retrain their clerks. And some of them haven't even been notified of the change.
This isn't a problem for large supermarket retailers because the tax break applies to the same food items that are now tax-free under the federal food stamp program, so their scanners and registers are already programmed.
The confusion for smaller merchants apparently stems from some pettiness on Hodges' part. The food tax cut was not his bill. It was a GOP bill. In fact, the governor and many Democrats in the Legislature were lukewarm toward it which is why it's only a six-month pilot project. Republicans obviously hope the measure will be too popular with the public not to extend it, perhaps permanently.
Although the tax cut, part of the budget bill, was passed in June, Hodges put off signing it until Nov. 21 ostensibly, he says, to wait on economic forecasts. Official word from the state Revenue Department that it had become law wasn't posted for retailers until Dec. 14 - hence, the shortness of time merchants have to implement the change.
Compare how Hodges handled the food tax cut bill which he doesn't like with how he managed one he did like - last fall's sales tax holiday just before schools opened. He signed that bill June 30 and notices went to merchants July 10, giving them 24 days to prepare. That's a week more than grocery merchants are being given.
As governor, Hodges should work to make change easy for his constituents, not difficult.
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