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Fresh food tax exemption on the table for Missouri lawmakers

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Above image credit: Missouri legislators have filed dozens of restrictive abortion bills, including two that would outlaw abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy rather than the current 21-weeks and six days. (Wickimedia)

Missouri lawmakers might sweeten the pot for consumers who want to eat healthy and for the growers who provide the food.

Legislators return to Jefferson City today to reconsider nearly three dozen measures that Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed in this year’s regular session. The veto session could extend to Friday.

One of the bills up for reconsideration is a Senate bill that would exempt sellers at farmers’ markets from charging sales tax on their products. The exemption would apply only to operations with sales of less than $25,000.

As a Democrat, Nixon is facing a General Assembly where Republicans hold enough seats to override his vetoes — many of which involve health issues. Yet area lawmakers from both parties say it appears unlikely the Legislature will override Nixon at every turn.

Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican, said there is a good chance the Legislature will override the governor’s veto of the farmers’ market sales-tax exemption. Kraus is chairman of the Senate committee that approved the measure during the regular session.

Low cost, good chance

Kraus and Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat, agree that among bills dealing with fiscal matters, those with relatively small price tags have the greatest chance of success in the veto session. They say the farmers’ market bill could fall in that category.

Justus says some of the budget measures, such as the farmers’ market tax bill, might have laudable goals. “But when you package them all together,” she said, “we cannot afford to do it as a state.”

Republicans and Democrats have sparred over the fiscal implications of tax-cut legislation enacted in May over Nixon’s veto.

The Missouri Department of Revenue has estimated the farmers’ market exemption would cost the state about $228,000 in lost revenue based on annual sales revenue at Missouri farmers’ markets of about $14.5 million. Local governments would also lose some proceeds.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state budget division said Missouri has about 2 percent of the 7,175 farmers’ markets nationwide that generate about $1.2 billion in annual sales.

Tax debate

Many of the disputed issues involve the state budget, including a slew of last-minute tax-exemption measures — the farmers’ market measure among them — that Nixon vetoed on the grounds they were fiscally irresponsible. Republicans said some merely clarified state policy and others helped the state remain economically competitive.

Collectively, Nixon said, the measures would cost state and local governments as much as $776 million annually starting in the current fiscal year.

In a letter to lawmakers, Nixon also said the bills appeared “to be part of an ongoing effort by the General Assembly to enact special exemptions and credits that pick winners and losers through the tax code and shift a greater tax burden to the majority of taxpayers who are unable to utilize such loopholes.”

A month later, for similar reasons, the governor vetoed a House measure that would increase the collective amount of credits that state taxpayers could claim for contributions to food pantries and organizations catering to women with unplanned pregnancies.

More topics

Other health-related measures on the agenda for the veto session include bills that would:

  • Regulate so-called e-cigarettes, where a battery-powered heater vaporizes liquid nicotine. Provisions include a ban on sales to minors, but Nixon objected to a provision that would prevent the state from regulating e-cigarettes like tobacco products.
  • Require a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion. Current law mandates a 24-hour waiting period. Proponents have said the extended period would just give women more time to digest material they receive at clinics. Nixon said the extension would serve “no demonstrable purpose other than to create emotional and financial hardships for women who have undoubtedly already spent considerable time wrestling with perhaps the most difficult decision they may ever have to make.”
  • Impose additional requirements, such as requiring two sets of fingerprints, on people who apply to be health insurance “navigators” through the federal Affordable Care Act. Proponents of such regulations argue these are consumer-protection measures. Nixon said the legislation contained a drafting error with an incorrect reference to a federal law.

On the farmers’ market bill, one local supporter of urban agriculture opposed the $25,000 ceiling. It could invite some creative bookkeeping to stay below the threshold, said Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City.

“To some degree,” she said, “I wasn’t completely bummed out when it did not pass, frankly.”

Uncertain outcome

Lawmakers say the governor’s success rate is difficult to predict, with members of both parties subject to a variety of pressures and sentiments.

For instance, Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, recently wrote to constituents that, despite his support of the tax bills during the regular session, he was only going to vote to override one of the vetoes: the farmers’ market measure.

Barnes said he was worried about the fiscal impact of the measures as a whole and about drafting errors.

Observers have also suggested that some lawmakers could oppose the governor because of what some contend was his poor response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer.

As Senate Minority Leader, Justus said no consensus emerged on the various bills at a recent caucus meeting.

“Everyone was all over the place,” she said.

Mike Sherry is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio. He is based at KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism. 

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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