A remarkable number of Republicans are not leaping onboard with Governor Kristi Noem’s embrace of the Democratic proposal to repeal South Dakota’s unusual and immoral tax on groceries. Speaker Hugh Bartels (R-5/Watertown) frames his opposition in a ridiculous misrepresentation of the popular will:
House Speaker Hugh Bartels said that when he has discussed the grocery tax repeal with the governor’s staff, his message has been that constituents are not calling for it.
“I’m waiting until the budgeting process is done,” he said, adding “You’ve got to weigh the option of unfunded programs and tax cuts” [Amancai Biraben and Stephen Groves, “South Dakota Governor’s Grocery Tax Repeal Hits GOP Pushback,” AP, 2023.01.17].
Is Bartels even talking to his constituents? A KELO-TV/Emerson/The Hill poll last October found 47% of voters supporting full repeal of the food tax and 32% supporting a partial reduction of the 4.5% tax. Only 22% of voters supported continuing to tax food the same as other purchases.
Apparently worried that Governor Noem is too busy campaigning for President to whip her caucus in line to support her signature campaign promise, the Democratic caucus has put forward two bills to appeal to balky Republicans and the 32% in that October poll. House Bill 1095 would tax food sales at 2.5%; House Bill 1096 would lower the food tax to 3.5%. Both bills are prime-sponsored by Democratic Representative Oren Lesmeister (D-28A/Parade) and Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) and have a light mix of Democratic and Republican sponsors. I suppose having back-up plans is nice, but given the chance to finally see a Democratic policy priority enacted after two decades of Republican resistance, Democrats should be pouring all their energy into getting the whole enchilada, not signaling that they’ll settle for just a few beans.
The Republicans counting beans and saying we can’t afford the $102 million to $124 million a year to cut the food tax could turn to the other tax breaks the state hands out. The state gives up $1.44 billion in tax revenue it could collect on agricultural equipment, livestock, cattle feed, fertilizer, semen, and other favors to special interests. That’s 14 times what Governor Noem says her food tax cut will cost. Surely the Legislature could find a few industries that could bear that tax burden more easily than the moms and dads buying peanut butter and Wonder bread for their kids’ lunches.