Political notebook: Tennessee Democratic lawmakers mount push to eliminate state’s 4% grocery store food tax

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with state Capitol reporters Nov. 15 as the Republican chief executive wrapped up his 2023 budget hearings with departments and agencies.
Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with state Capitol reporters Nov. 15 as the Republican chief executive wrapped up his 2023 budget hearings with departments and agencies.

NASHVILLE — Freshman state Rep. Aftyn Behn, D-Nashville, and Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, said they are introducing legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly's 2024 session to eliminate the state's 4% sales tax on food purchased in grocery stores.

"Whether you're a teacher, a truck driver or a small business owner — we all have to pay our taxes," Behn said in a statement. "There are no loopholes for parents buying back-to-school clothes; there are no loopholes for families buying Thanksgiving turkeys. Small businesses don't have high-paid lobbyists to get them huge tax breaks."

Behn noted a recent progressive Economic Policy Institute report showed more than 60% of corporations filing in Tennessee pay "zero in state corporate income tax," a figure she said includes "27% of all billion-dollar corporations."

Costs for eliminating the sales tax on food have been estimated at about $288 million annually. Behn said that can be covered by requiring "mega corporations pay what they owe."

She said in a subsequent news conference her office has received hundreds of calls and emails in support of eliminating the tax.

"From Chattanooga to Memphis, Tennesseans desperately want this.," Behn said. "Earlier today, the governor gave a nonanswer when asked about the grocery tax. Well, I have an answer for Gov. Lee. Tennesseans all over the state know that this will work. They want it, and we have the way to make it work. We're proposing a solution that not only eases the financial burden on Tennesseans, but also ensure that corporations pay what they owe in taxes.

"It's time to level the playing field," she said. "To my Republican colleagues and the governor, it's time to end the grocery tax."

Lawmakers this year approved a three-month grocery tax holiday that ended last week. Tennessee is one of 13 states that continues to tax sales of food in grocery stores, seen as a regressive tax because food takes up a larger share of income the poorer a family is.

Asked by reporters last week about eliminating the grocery tax, Lee said state government should look every year at ways to reduce taxes.

"There are a number of different taxes," Lee said. "The good news in Tennessee is that our citizens are taxed at a lower rate as a percentage of their personal income than any of the 50 states in America. We are a very low-tax state. And Tennesseans pay less in taxes than most other citizens across the country.

"But, there's always another opportunity to put hard-earned money back in the pockets of Tennesseans, and we'll look to do that," the governor continued. "There are a lot of different taxes, and we'll look at them. Every year, we vary which is the best approach."

And the Behn/Oliver approach to expand corporate business taxes?

"I don't know about the bill itself, I haven't seen any language on that," the governor said. "Obviously, until bills start to make their way through, they don't come to our desk to review. I think, again, I'll just say that we ought to look at every tax law in our state and find out to make sure that if it benefits Tennesseans, benefits Tennessean businesses and individuals as well. We'll look at every one of them."

According to the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Administration, sales taxes account for 55.6 cents of each state-generated tax dollar.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee signs bill providing three-month sales tax holiday on food, tax breaks for businesses]

Lawmakers have quarrelled over cuts to the sales tax on groceries for years.

AI threat

A recent examination by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks Nashville as No. 10 among 50 major U.S. metropolitan areas where the artificial intelligence boom poses the greatest threats to people's jobs.

Memphis held the No. 13 spot on AI disruption, while the impact from AI on Atlanta was pegged at No. 28.

Neither Chattanooga nor Knoxville made the population cut. The Chattanooga metropolitan area ranks 111th nationally by population, while Knoxville's metro area ranks 64th, according to macrotrends.net.

The Chamber of Commerce said it looked at the AI data following a World Economic Forum estimate that 83 million jobs could be automated worldwide by 2027. Goldman Sachs places the estimated job losses even higher with a loss of 300 million jobs globally.

The Chamber of Commerce said it looked at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, focusing on the 10 most "at-risk occupations" identified in the World Economic Forum study to determine the number of susceptible jobs in major metropolitan areas across the nation. The most "at-risk" occupations include accounting, bank tellers, factory and retail workers, record keeping and cashiers, traditional security roles, software engineers and doctors.

Those categories face the "largest potential job losses "due to AI.

"Despite AI's potential to save employers on labor costs, increase productivity and spur overall economic growth, it can also lead to the disruption or loss of millions of jobs throughout the next several years," the Chamber of Commerce said.

Lee holiday

Lee and first lady Maria Lee announced the dates for the state's official Christmas celebrations: Christmas at the Capitol and "Heaven and Nature Sing" tours of the Tennessee Residence.

"Maria and I look forward to continuing the Tennessee tradition of generosity throughout the holiday season," the governor said in a news release.

The annual Christmas at the Capitol celebration takes place at 5:30 p.m. CST Monday. The event is open to the public and will feature the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, the Choir Room Choir, the 129th Army Band and a visit from Santa.

This year's Christmas tree is a 35-foot Norway spruce. It's being donated by Dexie Goff of Springfield, a retired Army veteran.

The governor and first lady will be joined by the evening's guests of honor from My Friend's House, a Middle Tennessee nonprofit that offers temporary, short-term residential support for at-risk boys ages 12-18 in the state's custody.

In partnership with the first lady's Tennessee Serves giving initiative, the Lees invite guests to bring donations of canned fruits and vegetables, baby diapers and wipes to donate to Sevier County Food Ministries.

The Tennessee Residence will be open for Christmas tours from Dec. 1-3 and Dec. 7-10. The governor's office said this year's décor theme, "Heaven and Nature Sing," portrays the larger-than-life magic experienced during the holiday season, the beauty of Tennessee's natural landscapes and the "joy of the coming of Christ and the salvation of the world."

All mansion tours are self-guided, free to the public and require a reservation.

Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will be at the Georgia Capitol on Dec. 7 to host the Capitol Christmas tree lighting.

During the ceremony, Gov. Kemp, first lady Marty Kemp and their three daughters will provide remarks on the importance of generosity and well wishes this holiday season. Additional special guests will include the Atlanta Boy Choir, Clark Howard and others.

Georgia poll

A new poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, University of Georgia and UGA's School of Public and International Affairs shows 2024 presidential front-runners Joe Biden and Donald Trump are neck and neck so far in Georgia.

Forty-five percent of voters said they would vote for Trump. Another 44% said they would vote for Biden. The margin of error for the poll was plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points.

The University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs conducted the early poll in which more than 1,000 likely Georgia general election voters participated in a live telephone survey between Oct. 26 and Nov. 3.

Respondents shared concerns about both candidates. More than 56% of Georgians disapprove of Biden's performance, and some poll participants voiced concerns about Biden's age during a second term. Likely voters also expressed concerns about Trump's felony charges. Nearly 40% of Republicans said they won't vote for a political candidate convicted of a felony crime, and almost 70% of Georgians said Trump shouldn't have pressed state officials to overturn his 2020 defeat in Georgia.

Survey results show Biden's 2024 campaign has less support than his 2020 run among independent and Black Georgia voters. Thirty percent of independents and around 78% of Black voters said they would vote for Biden. Democrats in Georgia generally gain at least 90% support from Black voters.

The poll also found 70% of voters believe the nation is on the "wrong track," and the vast majority see the economy and government spending as the two most important issues going into the election.

Trump was indicted by a Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury on racketeering, conspiracy and other charges in August following a more-than-two-year investigation by District Attorney Fani Willis into potential 2020 election interference in that state.

(READ MORE: Tennessee, Georgia Republican and Democratic lawmakers spar over Trump, Biden legal issues)

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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