Two years ago, as a private citizen, Rosemary Lesser was part of a grassroots crusade that stopped the state legislature from raising the sales tax on food.
Now, as a member of this legislature, she is leading a crusade to eliminate the food tax altogether.
The crusade from outside the House led to the crusade from within.
In December 2019, Lesser spent hours volunteering at her neighborhood Harmons grocery store asking shoppers to sign a petition protesting SB 2001 — the recently passed tax reform law that allowed for a food tax hike.
Since she asked shoppers on the way to checkout if they wanted to pay even more at checkout, it wasn’t a hard sell.
Within a month, signature collectors like her had racked up more than 150,000 signatories statewide, far exceeding the 116,000 needed to bring the issue to a public vote in November. Taking note, when the Legislature convened in January 2020, it repealed SB 2001 before it even came into effect.
Along with everyone else involved, Lesser celebrated the triumph.
But it didn’t stop there. The things she observed and the conversations she had with those Harmons buyers stayed with her.
The vast majority not only did not want the sales tax on food to increase, they did not want it at all.
This was especially true for cautious shoppers, those with half-full carts, those putting things back at checkout – those with too many months at the end of the money.
“I saw a lot of people with cash in hand analyzing how much they were going to be able to spend and having to factor in taxes,” she recalls.
Then, without much of a plan on her part, Rosemary became a member of the legislature she had protested against.
A year after collecting these signatures, his phone rang. The Utah Democratic Party was calling. Rosemary District Representative LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff, 85, died on December 30, 2020. Rosemary was asked if they could put her name on the ballot to replace her.
She accepted, won the election voted by state delegates and two weeks later, just days before the start of the 2021 session, found herself a sitting legislator.
The timing for Rosemary — do that Dr. Lesser — was perfect. Just before the start of the session, in accordance with a plan that had been in place for a long time, she retired from her practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist. In 30 years, she had delivered more than 6,000 babies in Weber County, and thousands more before that while serving in the US Air Force. Now she would deliver the legislation.
She closed her medical practice on January 15. The legislature opened on January 21.
“I retired for six days,” she says.
She got her feet wet during her first year in office, managing to work on several bills, most of them having to do with medicine. At the end of the session, she started thinking about what she would like to accomplish for her second year. The food tax was at the top of the list.
Among the things she learned while researching the subject is that 1) she is just the latest in a long line of politicians with the same idea, dating back at least to Governor Scott Matheson in the 1970s, 2) the main reason the food tax hasn’t been eliminated is because it generates a ton of money, and 3) Utah is part of a shrinking minority – one of the 13 out of 50 states that still tax food.
She also learned this statistic from the US Department of Agriculture: Low-income families spend 36% of their income on food, compared to 8% for high-income families. Like lotteries, state taxes on food amount to a tax on the poor.
She discovered that she is not alone. Others, including Judy Weeks Rohner, a Republican new to the state legislature and leader of the 2019 tax reform petition referendum, are supporters of eliminating the food tax. On top of that, Governor Spencer Cox’s 2022 budget proposal calls for tax relief for disadvantaged people who pay sales tax on their groceries.
It’s a step in the right direction, says Rosemary, but in her opinion a more bureaucratic and complicated process than simply abolishing the tax altogether.
His research also suggests that sales tax money pouring into Utah from online sales — a revenue stream that has opened up in the past two years — more than makes up for lost revenue due to a food tax.
“I understand the need to be responsible stewards of our resources,” she says. Utah must pay its share.
“But above all, there is the moral aspect of it all,” she says. “Taxing a necessity like food, which is so burdensome for the poor in our community, that’s what got to me.”
Getting rid of it “is what’s good for our state,” the citizen-legislator says as she prepares for the opening of the 2022 legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 18, “and we can do it.” to allow”.