by Walter Rubel, Las Cruces Sun-News
Feb. 3, 2018

An attempt to tax food in New Mexico based on its health and nutritional value, or lack thereof, died Friday in its first committee hearing.

Senate Bill 129 would have categorized foods based on their acceptance under the federal Women, Infant and Children program. Foods accepted under the WIC program would remain tax-free, while those not accepted would be subject to gross receipts tax.

It was tabled Friday in the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee on a 4-2 vote.

When the New Mexico Legislature voted to exempt the GRT on food in 2004, they meant for that to apply to real food, said Pirtle, who is a farmer by occupation.

“When we exempted food, I think the intent was for it to be for actual foods,” he said. “I don’t think you or I think of things that are prepared or processed or high sugary types of things.”

He noted that the number-one purchase in New Mexico for those using federal assistance is for soft drinks, and nearly 20 percent of purchases are for soft drinks, candy and snacks.

“These things are alarming when we start to think about diabetes and health,” Pirtle said. “The health risks from obesity are pretty major. High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are among the other illnesses when we allow these things to be purchased.”

The bill was opposed by representatives of several different groups, including AARP, the Center on Law and Poverty, the New Mexico Chile Growers Association, Catholic bishops and the National Association of Social Workers.

Fred Nathan of the group Think New Mexico said that tying the tax to the WIC program made no sense, since it was specifically designed for women who had just given birth and young children. For example, nuts aren’t allowed, even though they are nutritious, because they pose a choking hazard, Nathan said.

“Changing this would be an an Orewelian mess for grocery shoppers,” he said. For example, if someone wanted to buy the food needed for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the bread would be tax-free if it is whole wheat, taxed if it’s white; the peanut butter might be taxed and the jelly definitely would be.

Pirtle said that tying the foods to WIC was as simple a system as they could find. Stickers could be placed on grocery shelves letting shoppers know what is taxed and what is not, he said.

“It becomes extremely hard to define what is healthy and what is not,” he said.

Bill Jordan, of New Mexico Voices for Children, said the additional tax would hurt those who could least afford it.

“Adding a 7 or 8 percent tax is not a solution for obesity,” he said. “New Mexico also has a problem with childhood hunger. Adding a $100 million tax a year is not a solution to hunger.”

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, the committee chairman, opposed the bill on more libertarian grounds.

“I just have a problem with people telling other people what to eat and what to drink,” he said. “I just think it ought to be up to us.”

Pirtle said the Legislature has been talking about the state’s health problems for years, but never does anything about it.

“This is really just to get the conversation going,” he said. “It seems like we come up here every year and say there’s a problem.”

None of the groups who opposed the bill came to him ahead of time to try to find solutions, he said.

“It is not a mystery why diabetes and obesity are prevalent in our state,” Pirtle said. “We don’t have good eating habits.”

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