Meals tax bill still simmering: Introduced legislation would allow local governments to levy added sales tax on food and beverages in restaurants
By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill to give localities the option of enacting a meals tax is again not seeing any progress in the state legislature, the local delegate who introduced it said.
“I’ve had it out for four or five sessions,” said Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, “but it hasn’t gotten the support from municipalities.”
The bill would allow local governments to levy an added sales tax (meals tax) on food and beverages sold at restaurants, providing county and municipal options to raise extra revenue.
Virginia allows the option and Bluefield, Va. has a 5 percent meals tax, in addition to the state sales tax.
Shott said he initially was urged by municipal government groups to introduce the legislation, but the support from those groups did not materialize.
Shott said he doesn’t fully understand why municipalities have in the past not supported the bill, which would allow them to add up a 3-percent meals tax.
Counties would be given the initial option and the proposal would go before the voters to decide how much the tax would be and how the revenue would be spent. It would also be split with the towns and cities in a county.
If a county commission did not choose to pursue the tax, cities then could do so.
“If approved, it (the meals tax) would provide a resource,” he said. “A lot of revenue could be generated from out of state along the turnpike and that would benefit our local economy and governments.”
Shott said it’s important to understand it’s a local option and would only be enacted if voters approve it on a referendum.
“In all fairness, part of the problem this year is that nobody knows what will happen with the state budget and the existing sales tax,” he said. “There is some concern to see what the sales tax will be before adding another tax on that.”
Gov. Jim Justice has proposed an increase in the state sales tax, which would remain on food and beverage sales. The meals tax is extra.
Shott said when that issue is resolved, “we will have a better chance of getting it considered next year.”
The bill never made it on the agenda this year, he added, and it’s a “little late now.”
“We’ll put it in next year if it has some support,” he said.
Shott’s fellow delegates from Mercer County said they have mixed feelings about it.
“I’m generally not in favor of it,” Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said, adding that he may support it, but not with a simple majority vote, as Shott’s bill indicates.
“If it went to 60 (percent of the vote) I still wouldn’t be excited about it, but I would support it,” he said. “I’m not exactly excited about it when people want to tax themselves.”
But if that happens, he said he would be willing to go along with it.
Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said he will support it, considering it’s a local option tax.
“I was on that bill and I did support it,” he said. “We are trying to avoid any tax increase but if we want it, we have always promoted local control. If a particular locality wants to do that, I am in favor.”
If the voters want it, he said, then he has no problem with it.
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett said he doesn’t understand the lack of support.
“I am fully supportive and think it is an amazing option for counties,” he said. “It is also a permissive option that allows county commissioners to adopt it or not. It makes perfect sense, but our legislature doesn’t typically look at things that make sense.”
Puckett said counties like Mercer struggle to have enough revenue to make ends meet.
“There are only so many cuts that can be made at the local level due to our continual costs with daily operations and, of course, our jail bill,” he said. “We are limited in what we can do (to raise revenue).”
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed the meals tax local option.
Bluefield, Va. Mayor Don Harris said the town collects about $1 million a year in the meals tax. The Town of Tazewell has a 7 percent meals tax.
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