Kansas Rolls Back Food Sales Tax


By John Celock

Kansas lawmakers have taken steps to roll back the state’s sales tax on food by one percent starting in 2020.

The state House of Representatives voted Friday to advance legislation that includes amendments rolling back several sales tax exemptions starting this year with a one percent decline in the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax on food coming in 2020. The move came amid debates over sales tax exemptions for YMCA gym memberships, an exemption that was taken away and then returned by the House. The move to reduce the food sales tax has been debated since the state raised the tax in 2015.

“The amendment I am bringing today is a way for us to look at the $6 billion in sales tax exemptions and save money for hard working Kansans,” Rep. Kristey Williams (R-Augusta), the sponsor of the tax cut amendment said.

Williams’ amendment would eliminate the sales tax exemption for towing services, detective agencies, self-storage, pet care, non-residential cleaning and collections agencies, along with putting the one percent food sales tax cut in place. The elimination of the exemptions would cover the costs of the sales tax cut.

Williams’ amendment included eliminating the sales tax exemption for gym memberships at YMCAs and local government owned gyms. The House later voted to reverse that decision and restore the exemption, following a debate that centered on the importance of YMCAs and that the primary users of YMCA gyms are youth, senior citizens and the poor.

“To me the people who frequent these types of gyms are the types who are feeling the impact of the food sales tax,” Rep. Susie Swanson (R-Clay Center) said.

Kansas lawmakers raised sales taxes in 2015, including the food tax to help close a budget deficit. The 6.5 percent state sales tax on groceries has been long criticized, with opponents noting it is the second highest in the nation after Mississippi. The statewide tax does not include local sales taxes which pushes some food sales tax bills above seven percent. Opponents note that it is sending people to neighboring states to purchase groceries.

Several lawmakers have attempted to roll back the food sales tax since 2015, with Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita), a deciding vote on the 2015 tax hike, on Friday making a third attempt to roll back the tax by one percent this year with the end of several sales tax exemptions. Whitmer’s attempt to tack such an amendment on to a bill to extend the STAR Bonds economic development program was defeated after lawmakers said that bill should be limited to the economic development program only.

The amendments Friday came in a bill related to local collection of sales taxes in Marion County.

Whitmer’s amendment on Friday would have had an immediate food sales tax cut with the elimination of sales tax exemptions on limo services, tanning, bingo cards, day spas, tattoos and dating services. It was similar to Whitmer’s previous amendment but did not contain several exemptions like lottery tickets.

Whitmer said that his amendment would not conflict with discussions in the House Taxation Committee regarding ending certain exemptions. He said it would address the need to reduce food sales taxes.

“We can lower food sales tax for those who desperately need a break on their groceries,” he said.

Whitmer also said that the amendment would allow him to address his role in helping pass the 2015 tax hike. Whitmer and Rep. Blake Carpenter (R-Derby) were the final votes to pass the 2015 bill.

“This is to make amends for a sales tax vote that I regret,” he said.

Whitmer’s amendment failed 55-65 amid discussions that the exemptions were not vetted by the Tax Committee.

Williams said that exemptions contained in her amendment were all vetted by the Tax Committee and were backed by the panel. House Tax Committee Chairman Steven Johnson (R-Assaria) endorsed Williams’ amendment.

Lawmakers rejected an amendment from Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) to implement the cut immediately in a 60-61 vote.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) said that several of Williams’ proposed exemption eliminations would hurt low income people around the state, including those on towing services and the YMCA membership. Williams said that the YMCA’s would still have property tax exemptions and YMCA programs would be exempted from sales taxes and that the YMCAs would also not be charged sales taxes on their own purchases.

Ward said that Williams’ amendment was part of a broader move.

“What we are doing is setting the groundwork on whether services should be taxed in the sales tax,” Ward said.

Ward also questioned whether or not the 2020 date would be used, saying he could see lawmakers reversing themselves.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman (R-Dighton) said that the exemptions targeted by Williams were needed due to economic shifts that have caused downturns in sales tax revenue.

“Our economy is moving from a goods based economy to a service based economy,” Hineman said.

The amendment from Rep. Jeff Pittman (D-Leavenworth) to repeal the YMCA exemption garnered debate with supporters saying that they were helping an organization that helps low income individuals and provides a sports outlet for children. Rep. Linda Gallagher (R-Lenexa) noted that 48 states provide sales tax exemptions for YMCAs.

“It is well known that sports can reduce childhood obesity,” Gallagher said. “The YMCA is a leading community based network committed to improving Kansas’ health.”