ALBUQUERQUE – A proposal to reinstate a food tax in New Mexico is drawing strong opposition from the Roman Catholic church and anti-poverty groups over concerns the plan would raise grocery prices largely on the state’s poor.
Speaking to a group of anti-poverty activists in Albuquerque, Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester announced this week he will oppose any effort to restore a food tax in New Mexico, especially since the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country remains one of the nation’s poorest.
“This ‘Tortilla Tax,’ as many have labeled it, only shifts the burden onto the poor and working families,” Wester said.
“What makes this idea even more obscene is that New Mexico ranks second highest in the nation for children living in hunger and the first highest for children living in poverty,” he said.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said his proposed restoration of the food tax would be offset by exemptions for the poor and reductions to gross receipts taxes on sales and services.
Those are components of an ambitious bill – still being drafted – to overhaul the state’s tax structure with an eye toward invigorating New Mexico’s lagging economy and employment.
“If you look holistically at the entire package then you understand that folks that are struggling will still not be paying tax on food and the tax rate on everything else you buy is going down from the average of 8 percent down to 4 percent, as part of a larger comprehensive reform,” said Harper, the outgoing Republican chairman of a major tax policy committee.
He said his plan would not apply to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, who account for more 20 percent of the state population.
The proposal, which has not been formally submitted, comes as state lawmakers prepare to tackle a budget that is expected to be tens of millions of dollars below expected revenues because of an oil downturn. Some lawmakers have said they would propose all sorts of new tax plans to offset the state’s declining revenues.
Wester said such tax reform still would burden low-income families.
“To me, it seem like the upper class will be paying less for computers and tablets,” Wester said. “But low-income families will be paying more for food. That’s unacceptable.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has previously said she would veto any plan aimed at raising taxes on families.
“The governor has never supported raising taxes – especially on food and gas,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.
In 2010, former Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed a proposed food tax passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature. That proposal would have reinstated the tax on groceries and food staples at rates levied by cities and counties.
Opposition to the food tax then drew protesters who brought tortillas to the statehouse to demonstrate the rising cost of food under the tax plan.