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Lawmaker worries food tax ballot question could affect tobacco tax

Mehrad Vosoughi

A top statehouse Republican is raising concern about a proposed ballot question to remove the state sales tax on food.

South Dakota is one of 13 states that tax food you buy at the store.

Initiated Measure 28 aims to change that. It says the state may not tax the sale of anything sold for human consumption, except alcoholic beverages and prepared food.

If approved, one lawmaker worries it will also remove the state sales tax on tobacco.

Republican Rep. Will Mortenson is the House Majority Leader. He worries that "anything sold for human consumption" includes tobacco products.

 “I don’t know that that was the intent of the sponsors, but the way they drafted it makes it clear that we wouldn’t have any taxes on tobacco, whatsoever,” Mortenson said. “We’d be the only state in the country that says we shouldn’t tax tobacco at all.”

State lawmakers expect the tobacco tax to bring in $42.5 million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year. That’s on top of the approximately $124 million dollars the state will lose if voters approve the measure.

Sales and use tax is the primary source of revenue for the state. Mortenson worries the tax cut will affect budgets for schools, nursing homes and law enforcement.

The Legislative Research Council told ballot question backers their original proposal may be "overly vague."

The group recommended a rewrite of the ballot question to say, “the retail sale of any food or food ingredient for any purpose is exempt from any tax imposed by law.”

Supporters of repealing the state sales tax on food have tried for decades but have stalled against the Republican-controlled legislature.

“Tobacco isn’t a consumable—in terms of a food product. You don’t consume it to live," said Rick Weiland, the backer of the food tax ballot question.

He said Republicans are misconstruing the definition of consumption.

“This is just more of the same of them trying to come up with whatever they can to confuse people and discourage people from supporting it,” Weiland added. “The fact of the matter is 66 percent of people want the tax taken off of groceries. Period. End of story.”

IM 28 was approved for the November ballot last month. Lawmakers can change the language if it’s placed into state statute. That’s unlike constitutional amendments.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.