A ban on local grocery taxes helps Washington consumers

On Election Day in 2018, Washington voters passed an ordinance to curb local governments’ efforts to pass additional taxes on grocery items, including meats, beverages, produce, dairy, grains, and more.

The 55-45 percent vote was no doubt a win for the consumers, but so far reaction to the local tax ban has been negative. Why?

For one, most media coverage focused on the soda industry’s support of the measure, no surprise there. But considering most news media reported this and voters supported it anyway, what does that mean about the initiative itself?

Overall, this was primarily a ballot question on funding and taxation, not on a particular public policy. Voters are usually cautious in supporting new taxes, and are more likely to support proposals that would ban certain taxes.

The disparity that occurs in food prices between city and county jurisdictions are high enough to give plenty of people a headache.

Depending on the county and city you live in, Washingtonians must pay between 7 and 10.4 percent in sales tax, including the state sales tax of 6.5 percent.

According to the Tax Foundation, Washington has the 4th highest combined sales taxes in the country, averaging out at 9.18 percent.

For the average family, that means nearly a tenth of every grocery bill must be paid in taxes. Not to mention property taxes, federal income taxes, fees, and more. The list is endless. If asked whether they should be increased, it’s hardly surprising voters decided against it.

An argument can be made that autonomy to tax is being taken away from local jurisdictions, but a discriminatory tax regime across county or city lines won’t do anything to help consumers.

As we have seen in places such as Philadelphia or Chicago, consumers are more likely to travel across those lines to buy what they want at a bargain. One analysis found that while sales on sugary drinks fells in Philadelphia after the soda tax was passed, sales on those same beverages jumped 38 percent at stores outside jurisdictions.

In the name of pursuing health policy, why should we force residents to travel across city or county boundaries to buy their groceries?

Not everyone agrees with this sentiment, of course.

In neighboring Oregon, former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg dropped $1.5 million into the campaign to strike down a similar local tax ban. That effort ultimately didn’t pass, meaning cities and counties will be free to pass their own grocery taxes at will.

For Washingtonians on the north bank of the Columbia River, buying groceries in Oregon is almost a sacred ritual, owing to its 0 percent sales tax. Now, emboldened by the ability to pass local taxes and encouraged by health crusaders like Mr. Bloomberg, cities and counties may look to raise additional revenue.

As such, Washington residents should be both proud and relieved. They won’t be seeing their grocery bills climbing any time soon, and that’s because they voted with their wallets on Election Day. They should be praised rather than condemned.

Yaël Ossowski is a journalist, consumer advocate, and deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center

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About Yaël Ossowski

Yaël Ossowski is a journalist, activist, and writer. He's currently deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter and chief Spanish translator at Watchdog.org, and worked at newspapers and television stations across the country. He received a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) at the CEVRO Institute in Prague. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria.

U.S. Midterm Primer: What’s at stake for consumer choice?

The Consumer Choice Center doesn’t take positions on any specific political campaigns or elections, but there are at least some interesting state-level ballot proposals happening around the country that could overwhelmingly benefit consumer choice.

In the U.S. federal system, state residents are eligible to vote on certain popular initiatives and state constitutional amendments that will have a major impact on daily life for citizens and consumers.

CANNABIS

Michigan and North Dakota will both vote to legalize cannabis at the state level in separate ballot initiatives. Legalizing cannabis would be a boon to the economy and consumer choice, removing cannabis sales from the black market and allowing governments to both regulate and tax it safely and securely. That’s a huge win for consumers in those states. The same applies to medical cannabis on the ballot in Utah and Missouri. Allowing legitimate medical patients the ability to use cannabis to cure their ailments legally will help potentially thousands of consumers.

GROCERY TAXES

In Washington State and Oregon, there are separate ballot proposals that would prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing additional taxes on grocery items. That would favor all consumers, and help ensure that hard-working American families won’t be forced to pay higher prices for what they already consume, or be forced to shop across city and county lines in order to find the most affordable food. Because they’re regressive, grocery taxes end up hurting lower income houses the most. By capping local jurisdictions’ abilities to raise taxes on groceries across the board, the proposal would ensure Washington and Oregon consumers won’t be subject to discriminatory tax hikes at the local level.

If Seattle is any indication, which passed a city-wide soda tax last year, consumers would be cautious. The soda tax was intended to lower consumption of sugary beverages, but considering the city now estimates it’ll collect $6 million more in taxes than they anticipated, more people are actually buying sodas than before or the numbers are wrong. Data we have from Cook County, Philadelphia, and Mexico consistently shows that higher soda taxes push people to seek alternatives with even more sugar or to shop across state lines to get their sugary drinks. Soda tax measures are well-intentioned, but end up hurting the poor.

ENERGY AND VAPING

Similarly, California’s Prop 6 would require voter approval for all future vehicle tax and fuel fees, as well as cancel the 2017 fuel taxes enacted by the state legislature. Such a proposal ensures consumers have a voice on the fees tacked on for those who drive cars and rely on transportation.

A ballot proposal in Florida seeks to ban both offshore drilling and vaping indoors in the same proposition. The fact that these questions are coupled together is unfair to Florida’s citizens and consumers. Vaping is proven to be less harmful than smoking and shouldn’t be treated the same as tobacco.

NET NEUTRALITY AND INTERNET REGULATIONS

Not up for a vote but still very important issue are a number of states considering their own net neutrality Internat regulations. As we saw in California, state legislatures and executives are considering passing their own rules for Internet regulation. Allowing each and every state to impose their own Internet rules would burden consumers and harm innovation.

More than that, state-level Internet regulations will threaten the vast entrepreneurial and tech space that is growing across the country, and push companies to set up in jurisdictions that promise true Internet freedom rather than state-imposed regulation of content and delivery of Internet services.

FEDERAL ISSUES IN CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICTS

Along with state ballot proposals, the entire U.S. House will be up for election, as well as two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Important issues on our radar include the future of fees and taxes imposed on the airline passengers, proposals to ban single-use plastics, self-driving car and truck regulations, national cannabis decriminalization, health care freedom, and many more.

Be sure to follow the Consumer Choice Center on social media, subscribe to our newsletter and join CCC as a member, and consider making a donation if you believe our work is important for lifestyle freedom, market access, and consumer choice.

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About Yaël Ossowski

Yaël Ossowski is a journalist, activist, and writer. He's currently deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter and chief Spanish translator at Watchdog.org, and worked at newspapers and television stations across the country. He received a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) at the CEVRO Institute in Prague. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria.