CHATTANOOGA - Lifting grocery bags onto the back seat, Tammy Brackett disagreed with Gov. Phil Bredesen's contention that lowering Tennessee's highest-in-the-nation average tax on food is less important than giving additional money to public schools.
"Excuse me, but it is a big deal," said Brackett, 40, a rail company employee. "I work, sometimes 50 or 60 hours a week. This is ridiculous. I don't agree with him. I'm sorry."
Brackett said in an interview outside a suburban Chattanooga grocery store that she spends about $150 a week on groceries for her husband and herself. That includes the state's 6 percent sales tax on food and an additional 2.25 percent sales tax in Hamilton County.
Tennesseans pay an average of an 8.35 percent tax on food, the highest in the nation, according to Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a lead organization in a coalition of groups - including advocates for the poor and the AARP - that want to reduce and eventually eliminate the food tax.
Bredesen, a Democrat, is opposing any cut in the food tax as he pushes to triple the state's 20-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to provide an additional $219 million annually for K-12 schools and higher education.
Despite a projected state budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars, the governor has said the state cannot afford to reduce the sales tax on food. Each 1 percentage point of state food tax represents $80 million. Each penny of the cigarette tax represents about $540,000.
Bredesen, a self-made millionaire, contends that reducing the tax on groceries is not the best way to help financially struggling Tennesseans. He argues a food tax cut would help the wealthy as much as the poor.
"If I were poor and had my children and my family, I think I'd rather have good schools for my kids to go to than a buck less a week or something on my grocery bill," Bredesen told The Associated Press months ago.
Bredesen more recently said he was open to considering "responsible" food tax reduction proposals.
Brian Miller, the executive director of the taxation group, said eliminating the tax on food would save Brackett $600 a year. His group contends annual savings for a family would equal their monthly grocery expenses.
"It depends on a family size," Miller said. "The food tax costs 8.35 percent of all their month's groceries. If you have an average grocery bill of $100 a month, you are going to save $100 a year."
Legislation backed by some Republicans would gradually eliminate the state sales tax on food without an alternative revenue source. Another measure with bipartisan support among state lawmakers would reduce the state sales tax on food by half, to 3 percent, while adding another 44 cents to the state cigarette tax. Miller said passage of that measure this year would hopefully be a "first step" toward a larger reduction in future years. Some Democratic lawmakers favor an option of eliminating the food tax on select grocery items, such as milk and eggs. Senate Republicans suggested a plan to create up to a two-month sales tax holiday on grocery shopping at the end of the year. The fair taxation group has said 35 states already do not tax groceries. Dick Williams, a Tennesseans for Fair Taxation board member and state chairman of Common Cause, said he and other supporters of the reduced food tax are "not advocating an either or" with Bredesen's education proposal. "We would not want to see anything that the governor is proposing not done just because of a lack of funds," Williams said. Tennessee PTA President Evelyn Pelletier said the association's governing board is backing Bredesen's initiative and does not have a stake in the food tax. "If we don't put more funding into education then we are going to be spending it on indigent people," Pelletier said. As students left Orchard Knob Elementary School, Beonta Oliver, 26, walked with her 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter on their way home. Oliver, who works as a product packer, said she spends at least $300 a month on groceries for her family. She said food is a major expense for her and reducing the tax would help. "It is not that big a deal to him (Bredesen) because he can afford it," she said. Another grocery shopper in suburban Chattanooga, Barbara Cockrell of East Ridge, said after driving a short distance to a Bi-Lo store in Rossville, Ga., where there is no state sales tax on groceries, that Tennessee should follow Georgia's lead. "I feel like they ought to take the tax off groceries," said Cockrell, a retired nuclear technologist. "Gotta eat." Cockrell said she spends $200 or more a week on groceries and drives to Georgia partly because of the tax savings. "We are looking for cheaper ways to get by," she said. "It may be driving a little bit but I do." (AP) On The Net: Tennesseans for Fair Taxation: http://www.yourtax.org Tennessee Border Sales Tax Map: http://www.yourtax.org/facts/border-drain.php3 AP-CS-04-06-07 1759EDT