Littleton Grocery Tax Repealed
by Ari Armstrong, November 5, 2003
"We pulled it off!" Frank Atwood said after Littleton voters approved a plan to repeal the city's sales tax on groceries. The 1% tax raised about $600,000 per year for the city, or about 1.4% of the city's $44 million budget. Atwood and other supporters of the repeal argued the tax placed an unfair burden on the poor and hurt local businesses.
Jim DuBose, Elwood Johnsen, Frank Atwood, Marty Bold, and Dick Lemoine celebrate early election results late November 4.
The repeal measure won with 62% of the votes, with 6,763 voting in favor and 4,135 voting against. The population of Littleton is about 40,300.
Frank Atwood, a Libertarian activist, joined a diverse group to support the measure. "It takes teamwork," Atwood said: "Without a team, no one of us... could have pulled it off. I'm really humbled by the significance of teamwork." He added, "The number of voters on one level is small, but on another level it is so intimidating for one person."
The core "tri-partisan" team consisted of Atwood, a Libertarian; Marty Bolt, a Republican; and Elwood Johnsen, a Democrat. Dick Lemoine and Jim DuBose were also central to the effort. In addition, Atwood got some help from other Libertarian Party members. According to Atwood, Rand Fanshier, Mike McKinzie, and Severin Schneider "helped in getting LP members to collect signatures with us and get the issue on the ballot. It's hard work circulating petitions. For me it was really tough, so it was wonderful to have LP members help on it."
Atwood also supported four candidates for city council -- Tom Mulvey, Doug Clark, Joseph Trujillo, and Scott Goldie -- though only Mulvey won. Atwood supported those candidates partly because they also favored repealing the grocery tax. "We batted 400 this year," he said, counting the passage of the initiative and the election of Mulvey.
The proposal stated, "Shall an ordinance reducing, effective January 1, 2004, the tax imposed upon the sale, use, storage or consumption of food and food products which are to be consumed off the premises of the vendor, unless prepared by the vendor at the place of sale for immediate consumption by the purchaser, from one cent to one-half cent and repealing said one-half cent effective January 1, 2005, be approved?"
Atwood said, "I'm grateful for the Montrose people who led the way." On July 15, 72% of voters in the Western Slope town voted to keep a 3.5% tax on groceries. A variety of reasons may have led to greater support in Littleton: a multi-party team supported it, the tax in Littleton was smaller and a smaller percentage of the city budget, Montrose politicians threatened to propose a property tax increase to offset the grocery tax, and the Littleton proposal involves phasing out the tax over two years. Libertarians in Montrose, who supported the tax repeal there, had previously lost a battle to block smoking bans.
Atwood also said he appreciates the help of Douglas Bruce, the author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, who offered advice in crafting the language of the proposal.
In many ways, an election is mysterious, Atwood said. He wasn't able to predict the outcome. He didn't want to "jinx it with too much optimism." Donations were spent partly to purchase 300 yard signs, which "gave us respectability and visibility that I didn't realize they would achieve before," Atwood said. All the efforts contributed to success, but which actions had the biggest impact isn't always obvious. Atwood pointed to a general problem: "Half the money is wasted, but you never know what half." Nevertheless, some activities were clearly more useful. He said calling people who hadn't voted was "far more useful than standing on a street corner waiving at people to vote."
Frank Atwood and Severin Schneider campaign to repeal the grocery tax in Littleton.
Atwood was sometimes surprised by the difficulty in persuading people to vote down the tax. He figured both liberals and conservatives would favor repealing the grocery tax: liberals because the tax burdens the poor, conservatives because they want to reign in spending. Apparently, Atwood's intuition was broadly correct. Nevertheless, "out of the woodwork, people came to tell me how mean I am to the city -- and this is only 1%! It's still a toughie," Atwood said.
Will the effort to repeal grocery taxes extend to other cities? Atwood isn't sure. According to an August 25 column by Kit Miniclier of the Denver Post, "Colorado is one of 26 states that specifically exempts food for home consumption from the state sales tax. Some of the state's biggest cities and smallest towns also have decided that taxing food is a bad idea. Among them are Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Fairplay, Keenesburg and the old mining town of Victor... But a majority of Colorado's 270 municipalities and 64 counties tax groceries anyway, taking advantage of the fact that local governments can decide for themselves, subject to voter approval, to impose the tax. Of those 270 municipalities, 214 levy various forms of sales taxes on their citizens, but only 42 specifically exempt groceries. Meanwhile, 48 of Colorado's 64 counties levy sales taxes. Only 18 of the 48 exempt groceries."
Atwood said local activists might try to build on the victory in future years: "I think we'll be back."
Atwood concluded, "The only liability with winning an election is that your wife tells you being married to a Libertarian is tough enough, and now she's married to an insufferable Libertarian."