Clay Wirestone: Kansas Republicans claim they want to cut the food sales tax. So why haven’t they? (Column)

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Kansas Republicans pledging to cut the state sales tax on groceries are like O.J. Simpson pledging to find the real killer of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

The former football titan, who was tried but found not guilty in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, notoriously promised to track down whoever actually committed the heinous crimes. More than a quarter-century later, we’re still waiting. In the same way, the Kansas GOP has reminded everyone that our state’s high tax on food is very, very bad and must be changed. Gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt has weighed in, along with former lieutenant governor candidate Wink Hartman.

“In light of the state’s current budget situation, carefully constructed tax relief that benefits all Kansans by eliminating or at least significantly reducing the sales tax on groceries is possible, necessary and overdue,” Schmidt wrote in a letter to Senate President Ty Masterson and Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman.

If only we could figure out who was responsible.

What group of people could have possibly raised sales taxes to 6.5% back in 2015, as part of a desperate gambit to preserve former Gov. Sam Brownback’s disgraceful income tax-cutting “experiment”? What group could have then steadfastly avoided doing anything about it for the next six years, especially once it became apparent that doing so would fulfill a Democratic governor’s campaign pledge? Partisan warfare outweighs helping others, after all.

Goodness gracious, I hope we find those people soon. Perhaps O.J. can help us look for them. I’d suggest starting in the House and Senate chambers at the Statehouse, but who knows where the investigation might take us.

A half-billion challenge

Let’s dig a little deeper for clues.

The sales tax on groceries brings in a hefty chunk of change — $450 million per year by Gov. Laura Kelly’s estimation. She’s the one whose announcement of a new push to end the food tax was undercut by Schmidt and Hartman the week before.

A half-billion here and a half-billion there; pretty soon you’re talking about real money. As Kansas rebuilt amid the ruins of Brownback’s experiment, lowering the sales tax would have meant increasing taxes on the rich. (A quick note: I worked on just these tax issues during my time as communications director at Kansas Action for Children.) Who in the Statehouse serves the wealthy and well-connected, rather than those who are struggling?

These elusive people had more options during the past two years, once it became clear that state revenue had rebounded. But proposals to lower the sales tax on food were either lumped together with odious proposals benefiting the wealthy or rejected outright.

“For too long, Kansans have been paying more for groceries than people in almost every other state,” Kelly said at her event Monday. “This legislation will save the average Kansas family $500 or more a year on their grocery bill.”

So which leaders decided to use the food tax as a political wedge, rather than treat it as a colossal mistake?

Suffering for ideology

Our intrepid investigators may soon suspect the same people have targeted needy Kansas families for years, creating poverty and pain.

Medicaid expansion? Forget it.

A refundable food sales tax credit? You must be joking. 

Don’t even mention the minimum wage.

Both children and adults have suffered for ideology. Ideology held by, well, someone in Topeka. All the better to persuade middle class voters that the poor aren’t like them, and all the better to keep poor folks on the edge — and away from wielding political power.

Wait, what’s this? O.J., please take notes. It’s a news release from House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins claiming the Kelly administration has skirted state law on the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program. Also known as cash assistance for low-income families with children, the program was once referred to as welfare. Hawkins rages about a memo from the Department of Children and Families that temporarily loosens restrictions for those receiving aid.

“Struggling Kansas businesses should not have to compete for workers with the welfare system. Period,” Hawkins puffs, seemingly proud that he doesn’t answer to constituents grappling with poverty, but the business owners looking to exploit them.

As I wrote earlier this week, the shamefully named HOPE Act has choked off access to safety net programs across the board for Kansans, all with the supposed goal of putting more people to work. The law has been a colossal and continuing failure. It kicked thousands off TANF to struggle in grasping poverty. Who could have been responsible for such meanspirited policy? And doesn’t it make sense that the same folks would be behind this state’s exorbitant sales tax on groceries?

I sure hope O.J. can help Kansas Republicans solve this case. Like his search, I’m not sure it’s much of a mystery at all.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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