Originally created 02/04/03

Lawmakers mulling reviving the grocery tax



ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers are talking about reviving a state sales tax on groceries to pay for a tax cut for homeowners.

A 4 percent statewide sales tax on take-home food sales could net up to $700 million a year - more than enough to pay for a property tax relief plan that Gov. Sonny Perdue first proposed scaling back because of the state's budget problems. He later relented, but wants lawmakers to help him find the money to make it permanent.

A grocery bill proposed in the House on Monday would bring back the sales tax on groceries in 2005. Georgians haven't paid state sales taxes on take-home food since 1998, when the Legislature eliminated them.

The grocery taxes would come back only if voters approved the idea on ballots next year, with half the money earmarked for property tax relief. Sponsors say the measure would give Georgians a choice to have a tax cut on groceries or a tax cut on property taxes.

The bill's author, Rep. Richard Royal, suspects people would rather pay grocery taxes.

"We should let people vote on this. We know property tax is the most unpopular tax we have," said Royal, D-Camilla, who leads the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee.

The proposal is a departure for Democrats who helped dismantle the statewide food tax under former Gov. Zell Miller. At the time, Democrats said people should not be taxed on items as essential as food.

But now some Democrats say people don't notice the tax break. Most customers are still charged local sales taxes on food, and they pay closer attention to their annual property tax bill than to their grocery store receipts.

"When we did this, most people didn't know they got a tax cut," Royal said.

The lone Republican sponsor, Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, said the measure would answer Perdue's call to permanently fund a property tax cut. Scott called sales taxes more fair than property taxes because people can control how much they spend.

"Too few people are making up the majority of the tax base," Scott said.

Perdue's office did not immediately comment on the proposed grocery tax referendum, but House Republican Leader Lynn Westmoreland said he was glad to see Democrats suggest a permanent way to pay for property tax relief.

"We're getting all different ideas, and that's important," he said.