Lawmakers consider proposing tax on coffee - VTDigger

Lawmakers consider proposing tax on coffee

David Deen

Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, is chair of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Lawmakers are considering taxing coffee as a way to pay for the federally mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain.

The idea surfaced just recently in the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee, according to Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, the committee’s chair.

The panel has been looking at ways to raise money for water quality improvement in the lake. State Treasurer Beth Pearce says the state needs to find revenue to pick up part of the $2.3 billion price tag.

Deen said coffee contributes to water pollution via human urine.

Wastewater treatment plants are unable to treat urine affected by coffee, because it contains caffeine and that chemical eventually ends up in waterways.

Deen said coffee has become “a compound of emerging concern” in scientific literature, while at the same time wastewater treatment plants are under pressure to reduce their discharge.

Deen said the committee isn’t sure how much money would be raised or whether it will try to implement the tax. The committee is still weeding through dozens of revenue ideas to fund water quality improvements, he said.

“We’re looking for change in the cushions,” he said.

If the committee does endorse a coffee tax, Deen said it would be a mill rate tax at the wholesale level, not on consumers at the retail level. He said the committee has not determined all the details. Oregon lawmakers have introduced a bill for a wholesale coffee tax of 5 cents a pound.

Paul Ralston, the president of Vermont Coffee Co., opposes the idea. He said a wholesale tax would directly impact Vermont roasters, not consumers, making it difficult for him to compete with out-of-state brands like Starbucks and Peet’s when selling across state lines.

When people buy a cup of coffee from a café, consumers already pay the state’s rooms and meals tax, Ralston said. Additionally, he said, because coffee is regulated as a food at the state and federal levels, taxing coffee would end a longstanding tradition in Vermont not to tax unprepared food.

“Right now coffee roasters all over the United States are in fear of Donald Trump’s proposed (20 percent) import tax from Mexico, because we buy a lot of coffee from Mexico,” Ralston said. “We thought this was a crazy Republican idea. The idea that it might be a crazy Democrat idea is unique to Vermont.”

He added: “Even broaching it, it just scares me. It scares me that as a state we’ve become so desperate for revenue that we’re really reaching into the real deep dark places in Vermont.”

Deen said the committee has welcomed other proposals. “The idea came up mainly because we’re not the only state in the Union that’s considering some type of tax, fee, surcharge — whatever you want to call it — on coffee,” he said.

He stressed that the idea is still young: “We’re at such an early level of discussion (that) it doesn’t even appear in writing anywhere.”

Erin Mansfield

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