Kansas legislative and executive leaders must realize that a shift to consumption taxes must be accompanied by relief from its disproportionate harm to low-income households.
While Kansas legislative leaders and the governor praise the shift from income taxes to sales taxes, they ignore the severely regressive effect of sales taxes in Kansas. That is, a sales or consumption tax affects low-income families in greatest proportion relative to their incomes. The primary reason for the harshness of the Kansas sales tax is its application to food purchased in grocery stores. Few states tax food, and many of those that do apply a lower tax rate to food.
During the debate over a proposed sales tax increase in Wichita last year, I gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau regarding expenditures on various categories for five different levels of household income. My findings were that if the city raised sales tax by one cent per dollar, the lowest income class of families would experience an increase nearly four times the magnitude as would the highest income families, measured as a percentage of after-tax income. Others produced similar results. This is the regressive nature of sales taxes.
At the national level the Fair Tax is a program whereby income taxes are replaced by consumption taxes. Proponents believe it would be a positive factor for economic growth. In recognition of the regressive nature of sales taxes, the Fair Tax plan includes a “prebate” to compensate households for the sales tax paid on necessities like food. In effect, there would be no tax on food and other necessities, up to the poverty level.
During the legislative session this year, Kansas Legislative Research told legislators that increasing the sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.50 percent would generate $164,200,000 in additional revenue to the state. This implies that a one percent increase in the sales tax rate would generate about $469 million in revenue. (This is based on static analysis, and therefore does not account for the changes in behavior that the higher sales tax would induce, however large or small the effect.)
It’s thought that the present sales tax on food results in about $390 million in tax collections. While these two values — 469 and 390 — are not equal to each other, the $469 million figure is close to the gap between revenues and expenses. (The tax bill the legislature passed will raise about $400 million, but it is widely believed the governor will have to make an additional $50 million in cuts.)
So what would have happened if the legislature had raised the sales tax by one cent per dollar and eliminated the sales tax on food? The answer is the sales tax in Kansas would be less regressive.
I modified my worksheet to allow for adjustment of the sales tax rate for general purchases, and for food separately. I gathered the results for three scenarios and present the results in a chart. I use the sales tax rates that Sedgwick County residents would experience. This includes a one cent per dollar county-wide tax in addition to the statewide rate. (Most counties and cities add to the statewide rate. The unweighted average sales tax rate for Kansas cities is 7.835 percent, based on Kansas Department of Revenue figures.)
The blue line, labeled “Sales tax at 7.15% on all purchases” is the current tax in effect in Sedgwick County. Note that the lowest quintile of households pay nearly seven percent of their after tax income in sales taxes. For the highest quintile the value is less than two percent.
The gold line (“Sales tax at 7.50% on all purchases”) represents the rates that will be in effect after July 1. Note that the vertical distance between the blue and gold lines is larger for low-income households than for high-income households, again illustrating the regressive nature of sales taxes.
The red line (“Sales tax at 8.15%, food at 0%”) illustrates the situation had the legislature raised the sales tax by one cent per dollar and eliminated the sales tax on food. Notice that the vertical distance between the red and gold lines is greatest for lower-income households, and becomes less as income increases. This means that under this policy, the sales tax is less regressive. But the Kansas Legislature did not do this. Instead, it implemented a sales tax changes that increases its regressive nature.
Kansas has a food sales tax refund program. It has been altered several times in recent years. Even if households can — and do — claim it, it doesn’t cover their likely cost of sales tax on food. At a rate of 7.50 percent, the lowest quintile of households pay an estimated $263 in sales tax, which is far above the maximum refund.
Kansas legislative leaders have said that food sales tax could be an issue to tackle next year. One proposal this year had the tax on food falling to 4.90 percent. That is welcome, and would reduce the harsh regressive nature of Kansas taxation. But Kansas would still have a high tax rate on food. Kansas legislative and executive leaders must realize that a shift to consumption taxes must be accompanied by relief from its disproportionate harm to low-income households.