By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON, MA - Deval Patrick is no longer in office and House leaders have shown a strong resistance this year to anything resembling a new tax, including increased excises taxes on flavored cigars. But proponents of lifting the sales tax exemption on candy and sugary drinks are not giving up.
Rep. Kay Khan and a handful of Democrats testified Tuesday before the Revenue Committee in favor of legislation that would apply the state's 6.25 percent sales tax to candy and soda, a shift they say would generate an estimated $52 million in new revenue for the state and carry added health benefits for the public.
Patrick unsuccessfully tried for years to convince lawmakers to remove candy and soda from the blanket sales tax exemption on food in Massachusetts. Khan said that given the known health risks associated with a sugary diet, including diabetes among children, lifting the sales tax exemption would draw attention to the health concerns.
"I think we need to join the crowd of other states that are doing this," Khan said.
Khan's bill (H 2575) would direct the new tax revenue from candy and soda to the state's Wellness Fund to finance competitive grants for physical activity programs in public schools.
"I know everyone enjoys them," Rep. Cory Atkins said about candy and soda, "But cases of diabetes is increasingly alarming among young people."
Greg Costa, director of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said his members oppose the "selective taxation of food products," arguing that a tax on candy and "sugar-added" drinks like soda and sports drinks would be confusing for grocers to collect and for consumers to understand what is taxed and what isn't.
"There's no doubt the intent of the drafters of these bills seems quite appropriate, but this really is about taxing a selection of the population that may not affect everyone," Costa told the committee.
Proponents of candy and soda taxes were unable to advance their plans with Patrick in office and face a likely higher bar with Gov. Charlie Baker in charge. Baker opposes new or higher taxes, which means tax hike advocates would likely need to amass support from two thirds of House and Senate members in order to overcome a likely Baker veto.
Keith Mahoney, senior director of public affairs at the Boston Foundation, said Massachusetts has the fourth highest rate of obesity among low-income two- to four-year-olds in the country at 16.4 percent. That rate is nearly 3 percent higher than Mississippi, one of 34 other states that tax the sale of candy and soda, he said.
"Our legislation is a starting point to changing the dynamic where a product that contributes to poor health is exempt from a tax that could fund preventative measures that would lower our health risks and costs," Mahoney said.
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who represents cranberry industry stakeholders, questioned whether the tax would apply to cranberry juice, which despite having added sugar can also have health benefits. Mahoney told him the Department of Revenue could craft regulations to deal with products such as cranberry juice. Other juices with natural sugars would remain exempt, under the bill.