The worst kind of public policy is the kind that picks winners and losers. Washington voters have an opportunity to move tax policy in the right direction by approving Initiative 1634, which would prohibit local governments from levying unfair and discriminatory taxes on groceries and specific grocery items. Initiative 1634 may frustrate tax-hungry local lawmakers, but can act as an important safeguard for consumers and taxpayers, who won’t have to worry about politicians picking and choosing the kinds of food and grocery products they want to tax.
This is an issue that’s seeing a rare alliance of business groups, labor unions, and taxpayer groups like us at the National Taxpayers Union. But in this case, many organizations representing a wide range of constituencies from across the political spectrum are united in opposition to this tax threat to consumers - which highlights the importance of this initiative.
Arbitrary taxes on groceries are a prime example of misguided tax policy that unnecessarily burden the most vulnerable of our society. Taxes on food or beverages are regressive, meaning that the added cost disproportionately harms lower-income consumers compared to wealthier ones. After all, higher-income earners may not feel the sting of a grocery tax, but the burden of heavier costs on everyday essential items would definitely be felt by middle class consumers and families with fixed or limited budgets.
Sound tax policy requires the tax code to be neutral. Taxes should be fair across the board and not a means of choosing winners and losers. Lawmakers have grown increasingly likely to use the tax code as a weapon, taxing products that they view as “bad” to try and influence consumer behavior. As it stands, there is little stopping local lawmakers from taxing any product they choose - which could change on a whim depending on the day. That means they could target meat products, frozen dinners, or others just for being judged “unhealthy” or “not environmentally friendly.”
If public officials intend to weaponize taxes, taxpayers and consumers need to be ready to guard against this threat. That is why Initiative 1634 is so important. The measure would act as a shield against whatever type of local grocery tax that politicians may choose to launch at taxpayers in the future. And as lawmakers look for new ways to fund pet projects in their jurisdiction, it would completely take the prospect of further tax hikes on groceries off the table - something all Washington residents should enthusiastically support.
Initiative 1634 is an important measure for taxpayers and consumers, but will surely not be the end of winners-and-losers tax policy in Washington. The initiative would not prevent the state government itself from enacting discriminatory statewide taxes, and would not impact current grocery taxes already enacted by local governments. And as we have seen in some instances in Washington, grocery taxes are a real threat, which is why this dangerous loophole must be closed.
The issue of winners-and-losers tax policy never seems to go away. But approving this measure will send a clear message to local officials that taxpayers have reached their limit when it comes to discriminatory tax schemes aimed at groceries. No matter how those schemes are crafted, Initiative 1634 is well-crafted protection, and a step in the right direction, for the people who pay government’s bills.