Michigan lawmakers voted Wednesday to prohibit local taxes on food, drinks and gum in a pre-emptive strike against any municipality that might consider levying a tax on soda and other sugary and artificially sweetened items.
No local government in Michigan is now considering such a tax. But majority Republicans said it is possible, pointing to Philadelphia and the Chicago area as places with soda taxes. Similar taxes have been approved in San Francisco and Oakland, California.
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Legislation to ban local excise taxes on food and beverages won bipartisan approval 31-5 in the GOP-led Senate, just two weeks after it was introduced. The Republican-led House could pass an identical fast-tracked bill as early as Thursday, after a committee approved it Wednesday.
Michigan generally exempts food, food ingredients and drinks sold at grocery stores from the state sales tax. The tax is applied to food and beverages prepared by restaurants. The state has separate excise taxes on beer, wine, liquor and cigarettes.
The Senate bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Peter MacGregor of Rockford, said local soda taxes are "a revenue grab" and he wants to make sure no Michigan counties and cities follow suit to "destroy local economies" and "hurt a huge segment of our population."
"It could really hurt the direction our state is going in," he said. "I want people to invest in our state still."
Some Democrats voted against the legislation.
Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor said it would have "absolutely zero immediate practical impact" since no local governments are proposing such a tax. Municipalities are struggling to address infrastructure needs and unfunded retiree pension and health care liabilities, she said.
"We should be working together ... to give our local communities the tools to strengthen municipal finance because standing here to take one more tool away just puts them in an even tougher position," Warren said.
The measure is supported by business groups along with advocates for the poor, who spend a higher portion of their income on food. It is opposed by local governments and health groups.
In testimony submitted last week, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said 20 percent of all cancers are caused by poor diet, physical inactivity, excess weight and too much alcohol consumption. Taxing sugary drinks is likely to create an economic disincentive and reduce consumption, subsequently decreasing obesity and the risk of cancer, according to the group.
"It is at the local level where governments can build upon state laws to create policy solutions to best meet the needs of their constituents. Local control is essential for good public health," wrote Andrew Schepers, a Michigan-based lobbyist for the Cancer Society.
But Republican Rep. Lee Chatfield of Levering, who chairs the panel that passed the House pre-emption bill Wednesday, said taxing a basic staple such as food "could literally take food out of children's mouths." While other states have policies to prevent the taxation of food, House GOP lawmakers believe Michigan would be the first state to bar local taxes on all foods.
Next week is the earliest the Legislature could finalize the measure and send it to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature.
Senate Bill 583: http://bit.ly/2xZ45N3
House Bill 4999: http://bit.ly/2xRdDuj
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