Religious leaders and advocates for the poor rallied Tuesday at the Capitol against a move to double the sales tax on food in order to lower sales taxes on other items.
They accused legislators of acting like Robin Hood in reverse.
"It robs from the poor to benefit the rich," said Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities.
Three years ago, the Legislature pressured by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. lowered the state's sales tax on food from 4.75 percent to 1.75 percent. On Monday, the Senate passed and sent to the House SB270 that would set the state sales tax rate at 4.35 percent on all goods, meaning the rate on food would more than double but would decrease a bit on other items.
"There are families who will benefit from this. And those are the families that buy lots of jewelry and lots of Jeeps, lots of furniture and Ferraris," Hilton said. "Those of us who buy food and toilet paper stand to suffer and pay the price."
Bill Tibbitts, director of the Anti-Hunger Project at Crossroads Urban Center, said SB270 would increase the taxes a typical family pays on food by $240 a year.
"To get that $240 back" through savings on lowered taxes on other items, "you would have to spend over $68,000 on nonfood items. Most families cannot afford that," he said.
Leaders from Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, Jewish and Muslim groups signed a letter against the tax increase and delivered it to legislative leaders, along with a petition from 1,700 people opposing the tax hike.
The Rev. Curtis L. Price of First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City said, "This is legislation that attacks the most vulnerable people in our state. And we stand together and feel this is a moral issue."
After the rally, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she personally opposes raising the sales tax on food, but she doesn't know whether enough support exists to pass it in the House despite her personal opposition.
"For anyone who buys food, it is not revenue neutral" and is a tax increase, she said.
Senate President Michael Waddoups opposes SB270, but it passed that chamber Monday, with all but three Republicans voting for it. Every Democratic senator present voted against the bill.
Tuesday's rally also attacked HB282 by Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, which would also raise the sales tax on food and lower it on other items. However, that bill, scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, would give an income-tax credit to the poor to help them pay the increased tax on food.
Steve Erickson of Crossroads Urban Center said many people don't file taxes because they are low income, so they wouldn't receive the credit.
"It won't offset, by any stretch of the imagination, the increase" in the food tax, he said.
Erickson presented a long list of items and services he says receive sales-tax exemptions of more than $400 million a year from manufacturing machinery to hearing aids to tickets to college sports events.
"These are options that the Senate should choose long before they [raise] the sales tax on food," he said.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sponsor of SB270, told the Senate this week that restoring higher sales taxes on food would stabilize state revenue because people have to buy food even in tough economic times.
"We're running our state on sales tax only, so it's a very volatile tax and we made it more volatile by taking the food out of the base," Adams told the Senate. "This may not be politically correct â¦ but it is financially correct. It is the right thing for the state of Utah and the right thing for our future."