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OPINION: Where is 5 doughnuts a meal? Connecticut

OPINION: Where is 5 doughnuts a meal? Connecticut

With the year’s fourth quarter about to begin, the leaders of the great state of Connecticut (the fifth state, “The Land of Steady Habits,” etc. etc. etc.) have been haggling over what constitutes a “meal,” which is subject to the sales tax, and what is still considered mere “groceries,” which have traditionally been exempt from that tax.

Who’d a thunk it?

But it has come down to that, and under the new budget, come Oct. 1 the tax on meals will go up by one point, from 6.35 percent to 7.35 percent.

However, that’s the least of it, because some items will go from tax-exempt to 7.35 percent in one step. Surprise!

Common sense tells us that when you sit down at a restaurant and eat, that’s a meal; but when you go to a grocery store and buy a dozen eggs and a bag of flour and a jar of peanut butter and a box of Cheerios, that’s groceries. These days, though, a “grocery store” can also be the source of a “meal.”

In fact, state law does tell us that a meal consists of food “ready for immediate consumption” — with or without the “spirituous, malt or vinous liquors, soft drinks, sodas or beverages” often served therewith (Thanks, CT Mirror) — but now the state tax department is telling grocery retailers that some bulk items formerly considered groceries are now taxable as meals. Maybe. Sometimes.

And that means they won’t go up one percentage point; they’ll go from tax-free to taxable at 7.35 percent, overnight.

Examples: A loaf of bread qualifies as groceries, but a cooked chicken is a meal. A whole pie? Groceries. A tray of cooked pasta? That’s a meal. A head of lettuce? Groceries. Less than 8 ounces of salad greens? A meal. A dozen doughnuts? Groceries. Five or fewer doughnuts? A meal.

We can be excused if we can’t follow the logic here — because there doesn’t seem to be any.

Republicans last week were making a point of this and were even willing to go into a special session to fix it. Democrats said the GOP was making a big stink out of not very much. The governor was promising to issue new clarifying language to clarify the old clarifying language.

Whatever. It just seems wrong, as a general principle, to tax food — except when it’s clearly a luxury item, such as a sit-down restaurant meal. It’s a regressive tax. Maybe it’s not in the Constitution, or the Declaration, or the Magna Carta, or even the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it just seems wrong. (It could be in Paul’s Second Letter to the Norwegians, I guess, but I’d have to check.)

Anyway, according to the Tax Foundation, 14 states tax groceries, although not necessarily at the full sales-tax rate: Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. The rest show better sense.

Furthermore, I can only imagine what the info-tech folks at any big supermarket will have to go through to check every one of the 40,000-plus UPC codes in their computer — including the ones for nutmeg, although that’s almost certainly a grocery item, even in the Nutmeg State — against the list provided by the Nutmeg State’s Department of Revenue Services.

Reach Glenn Richter at