Alabama still taxes groceries because its lawmakers won’t admit this truth: When push comes to shove, they are more worried about revenue and re-elections than they are the people they serve.
There’s no other explanation. Along with Mississippi and South Dakota, our state is one of The Terrible Three — the only three states that still charge sales taxes on groceries. Other states have figured it out. Or, bluntly, other states have found the courage to do the right thing.
The state’s sporadic efforts to right this wrong are well documented, and their stories are predictably similar. By and large, Democratic lawmakers introduce legislation that would remove this regressive tax that creates an unfair burden on the state’s low-income residents. Often, those Democratic proposals include methods for replacing the lost revenue to the state’s Education Trust Fund. And the proposals die, thanks to Republican concerns about fiddling with funding for schools and a reluctance to end tax breaks for the upper crust.
In other words, politics fouls it up. Alabama should be ashamed.
One of this year’s efforts belongs to state Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who has introduced legislation that would allow cities and municipalities to either reduce or remove sales taxes from groceries. In essence, England is proposing that since the Legislature can’t conjure up the resolve to stop taxing groceries statewide, the Legislature should allow cities and municipalities to do so if they desire. England wrote this proposal, according to the Alabama Daily News, because the Tuscaloosa City Council wanted to remove grocery sales taxes within its city limits but can’t because of Alabama’s restrictive tax regulations.
Unlike the recent passage of the Rebuild Alabama Act and its controversial gasoline-tax increase, England’s legislation isn’t likely to become law. It’s not fueled by a heavy-handed campaign from the Republican Party’s state leadership, and its relationship to the Education Trust Fund is a hurdle too many lawmakers simply won’t attempt to jump. But the best option remains the one the Legislature has repeatedly considered and discounted.
There is no bigger proponent of this proposal than Alabama Arise, the Montgomery-based nonprofit that advocates for the state’s low-income residents. At its core, it offers a simple solution: eliminate the statewide sales tax on groceries and replace the lost revenue to Alabama’s budgets by ending the state income-tax deduction for federal income-tax payments. That tax break, Alabama Arise says, “overwhelmingly benefits the richest households.”
Which gets us back to where we started. Killing a tax break for Alabama’s richest residents is a non-starter — or has been for too long. Those rich Alabamians hold immense political power in our Republican-dominated state, and the taxes those rich Alabamians pay at the grocery don’t cause them much concern. But income-tax deductions? They care about that. Until our lawmakers shift their priorities to the people most dependent on the leadership they supposedly provide, this Alabama shame will persist.