Minn. lawmakers crunch down on snack tax bill

8:28 PM, Mar 13, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It seems that one person's snack is another's major food group. So when you start talking about taxing snacks in Minnesota, you can create quite a stir.

On Wednesday at the State Capitol, the idea ran into the political deep fryer, so to speak.

State Rep. Jerry Newton entered that politically treacherous territory Wednesday in an effort to bring some clarity and simplicity to the sales tax system in the state.

That's one of the goals of the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, a 24-state consortium Minnesota belongs to.

"The way our system is set up. It's very difficult, especially for small store owners to know what's taxed, what's not taxed," Rep. Newton, a Democrat from Coon Rapids, told KARE.

"Take, for example, a thing like your chocolate. All chocolate is taxed, except if it happens to be a Kit Kat because that's got flour in it!"

Newton, who bought two small grocery stores after retiring from the U.S. Army, floated the idea of taxing small 8-ounce bags of potato chips, corn chips, seeds, nuts, pretzels, cheese curls and popped popcorn commonly sold as snack items.

His bill, House File 1249, would also cover ice cream novelty items, licorice and donuts.

The proposal ran into stiff, bipartisan resistance during a hearing Wednesday in the House Tax Committee.

"Channeling my family and the people I represent, will you Democrats just please leave us alone!? Just go away!" Rep. Pat Garofalo said, calling the snack tax the latest in a series of ideas he can't stomach.

"In the last couple of weeks we've seen (proposals to) increase taxes on haircuts, hair stylists, alcohol, cigarettes, anything fun, anything remotely interesting to the middle class!"

The GOP House Caucus used a kinder, gentler approach on Facebook posting an ad that read, "Democrats want to tax your kid's lunch."

Rep. Greg Davids wondered aloud about how retailers in border areas of his district would be impacted by higher prices on some snack items. Then, to laughter, he said it was a personal issue.

"It was one thing to go with potato chips, sticks, pretzels and cheese puffs, but I will never vote to have my pork rinds taxed," Rep. Davids quipped.

"You're talking about my lunch!"

Some members of the committee said they weren't comfortable using tax policy as a tool to shape eating behavior.

"Looks like we're wandering into the world of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and I don't think that's a good thing," remarked Rep. Tom Anzelc, a Democrat from Balsam Lake Township on the Iron Range.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, a Maple Grove Republican and former House Speaker, said he'd rather approach the obesity from the exercise and activity side of the ledger. He said that's why he bucked his own party last session, pushing for universal physical education in schools.

"We should encourage people to have the activity and to do things to improve themselves," Rep. Zellers said.

"Don't tax them, try to tax them out of obesity, because this isn't going to work and it's a bad idea."

But Rep. Diane Loeffler, a Minneapolis Democrat, said it would be worth considering at some point taxes on junk food as a weapon against serious medical conditions.

"We have kids as young as 10 and 12 developing forms of diabetes that we never saw in people, until they were at least age 40 in the last generation."

Rep. Tina Liebling, a Democrat from Rochester, noted that the state does use cigarette taxes as a means to curtail smoking, so it would be a conversation worth having at some point after more intensive study of which snack foods should be subject to such a tax.

Several members of the panel brought up the fact that many of those snack items are made in Minnesota, so making them less affordable could affect jobs.

Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Plymouth Republican, mentioned the Barrel of Fun cheese puffs, part of a product line made in Perham.

"Did you know -- I just found this out today -- they produce the cheese puffs that are sold in all Target stores across the nation? Right here in Minnesota." Rep. Anderson said.

The Holiday convenience store chain also came out against the idea, saying it would have clerks guessing even more.

"Pork rinds are listed but no other meat-like item, so I don't know if that would include beef jerky or Oscar Mayer Lunchables," Steven Rush, the legal counsel for Holiday Stores, told lawmakers.

"I don't whether to tell my client to tax those items."

The panel voted to lay the bill over for possible inclusion in another bill, rather than voting it straight up or down.

The snack tax attack was not a total surprise to the author of the bill.

"I know that once people are on camera they tend to do the show business thing," Rep. Newton said with a smile.

"But I don't mind being a target it in fact this will help move this forward, and get people thinking about the streamlined sales tax issue."

(Copyright 2013 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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