The Senate Tax Committee just wrapped up its hearing on HB 588, the grocery tax relief bill, but with a member missing and the Senate going on the floor in moments, it delayed its vote until Tuesday. “It deserves the time for the committee to debate the bill,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. Committee Chairman Brent Hill said he’s asked legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith to prepare projections to show the committee what’s expected as far as state revenues for the next five years, “to see how we can afford this.” The bill would increase the grocery tax credit next year to $50 for the low-income and $30 for everyone else, from the current $20, and then increase it by another $10 a year until it hits $100 for everyone, economic conditions permitting. “Even though there are ways out, I don’t think we want to get into something that we might have to repeal next year,” Hill said. “I just came from a meeting in the pro tem’s office where we talked about projections for next year, and if I appear depressed, that’s probably the reason why. You should see me when I’m in a good mood.”
Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told the committee, “I’ll just be blunt when I say I don’t think it’s exactly what anyone wants. I know it’s not exactly what I want. I think it’s what’s realistic. … It helps all Idahoans in bite-sized fiscal pieces with grocery tax relief.”
Most who testified at the hearing spoke in favor of the bill, though several anti-hunger advocates said they wished the measure didn’t exclude people who receive food stamps from the credit, because food stamps don’t generally cover poor families’ entire food costs.
Ruth Schneider of the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger said, “While I continue to have concerns about excluding those on food stamps, I urge you to move this piece of legislation forward. … This is a concrete step we can take for addressing hunger in Idaho. We can do this, and we can do this this year.” The group circulated petitions for just three weeks, in 16 different legislative districts around the state, and picked up 1,600 signatures in favor of the bill, Schneider told the senators – with most concerned that Idaho is the only state in the nation that excludes the poor from its current grocery tax credit. The bill changes that. “I can tell you people are concerned and want this changed this year,” Schneider told the committee. “We are counting on your leadership to make this happen.”
Hill praised those who testified – many of whom said they’d prefer to have no tax on food, but recognized that the state can’t afford that this year. Last year, Hill said, many people urged the panel to take the sales tax off groceries entirely rather than increase the credit. “That wasn’t one of the options we had,” he said. “As you all know, we walked away without anything.”