Arkansans to Vote on Abolishing Food, Medicine Sales Tax

Worried state and local governments are looking to the Arkansas Supreme Court to block a vote on a popular ballot measure that would eliminate the state's sales tax on food and medicine.

The state's highest court could rule as early as this week.

Polls show widespread support for the measure, sponsored by the Libertarian Party, which backers say would wipe out a regressive levy that falls hardest on the poor.

Opponents, however, say it would gut funding to run much of state and local government because it makes no provision for replacing $435 million in lost revenue.

"We'll either replace it, or we're going to have devastating losses to the most basic of services, including the capacity to answer the telephone when we dial 9-1-1. It's that simple,'' Gov. Mike Huckabee said.

Arkansas is one of 10 states that taxes groceries at the same rate as other items, though others tax food at some level. Lawmakers have rejected legislation to remove the sales tax from food at least twice in the past decade.

Backers of the repeal measure submitted more than 100,000 signatures to certify it for the ballot, 30,000 more than required. A poll this summer found more than 70 percent of Arkansans surveyed favored exempting groceries and nonprescription medicine from the sales tax.

"I believe we're still a free people. We have a right to limit government,'' said Karl Kimball, president of the Committee to Axe the Food Tax.

A coalition called Arkansans to Protect Police, Libraries, Education and Services sued to strike the initiative from the Nov. 5 ballot. APPLES contends the ballot wording fails to convey the scope and magnitude of the proposal.

During recent oral arguments, however, skeptical Supreme Court justices questioned if the essence of the APPLES argument went to the merits of the proposal.