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Food tax bill gets chewed up by Senate commitee

SANTA FE — A bill seeking to reimpose New Mexico’s food tax but only on unhealthy items — and excluding flour tortillas — was derailed Friday in a Senate committee after running into broad opposition.

Representatives of the New Mexico Chile Association, the state’s Roman Catholic church and other advocacy groups were among those who spoke against the measure, with some saying it could hurt low-income families. Not one outside group or individual testified in support.

Fred Nathan, the executive director of the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Think New Mexico, which proposed and lobbied for the 2004 repeal of New Mexico’s food tax, said the bill would be an “Orwellian mess” for grocery stores to administer.

“The tax would not be limited to unhealthy foods,” he said, claiming nuts would be among the items subject to gross receipts tax under the proposed bill.

However, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, the measure’s sponsor, said the legislation would address high rates of obesity, among other health issues.

“When we think of food, I don’t think many of us think of things … that are high-caloried and high in sugar,” Pirtle said during Friday’s hearing of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.

The panel ultimately voted to table the legislation, Senate Bill 129, on a 4-2 vote. It’s unlikely to resurface during the 30-day session that ends Feb. 15.

Sen. Clemente “Meme” Sanchez, D-Grants, the panel’s chairman, expressed opposition to the idea behind the bill.

“I just have a problem with telling people what to do — I’m a little bit of a Libertarian when it comes to that,” Sanchez said.

The measure debated Friday would rely on federal food guidelines for pregnant women and young children to determine which items should be taxed. It would also add flour tortillas and meat, poultry and fish to the list of non-taxable food items.

In addition, the bill would compel a state agency to request a first-of-its-kind federal waiver in order to limit the use of food stamp benefits to those same designated food items. As of December 2017, there were about 460,000 New Mexicans who get such benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A legislative analysis of the bill estimated it would generate more than $80 million in revenue for the state general fund in the coming fiscal year.

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