Assembly shoots down grocery sales-tax exemption question

The Juneau Assembly handily shot down a proposal that could have removed the 5 percent sales tax on groceries during a work session Monday night.

After returning to the issue, which the Assembly took up earlier this month, Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski motioned to have the city attorney draft an ordinance that would put the matter on the ballot this fall. Had Gladziszewski’s motion (and the subsequent ordinance) passed, voters would have been able to decide whether to raise the city’s general sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in order to make groceries tax exempt.

The motion failed with a 3-6 vote.

Gladziszewski and Assembly members Kate Troll and Jess Kiehl — who together made up the failed “aye” vote — argued that taxing people for groceries is regressive and detrimental to Juneau’s low-income families.

“It’s fundamentally wrong,” Troll said. “It’s regressive, and it’s hurting the people who can least afford it.”

Those who voted against it argued that raising the general sales tax to 6 percent — a necessary move to offset the revenue loss from exempting groceries — would be unfair to seniors, who lost their across-the-board sales last September. They also argued that putting another question about sales tax on the ballot might confuse or frustrate voters.

[Juneau Assembly considers making sales tax permanent, talks marijuana tax]

Come October, voters will be asked whether to extend the temporary 3 percent sales tax, which helps run the city government, for another five years; whether to extend that 3 percent sales tax permanently; and whether to raise the sales tax for marijuana products from 5 percent to 8 percent.

Mayor Ken Koelsch and several other Assembly members, argued that asking too many questions about sales tax might cause the electorate to vote against all of the sales tax ballot questions.

“If you get confusing language on the ballot and somebody is angry that we’re going to 6 percent, they’re going to vote against everything,” Koelsch said. “If we’re going to put one thing on that ballot, it has to be extending the 3 percent temporary to 2021.”

Speaking in favor of Gladziszewski’s motion, Kiehl said such arguments were underestimating Juneau’s voter base.

“It seems to me that we haven’t gone far wrong yet asking Juneau voters to make a decision,” he said. “We’ve got a really smart electorate, and I just don’t believe they’ll have a hard time with three questions. … They’re not a hard three questions.”

Mental health

Also during the work session, Bartlett Regional Hospital officials provided the Assembly with an update on their proposed Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit.

The CAMHU would add 28 beds to the hospital for children and teens dealing with trauma, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol addiction, or developmental disabilities. Sally Schneider, Bartlett’s chief behavioral health officer, said that this unit would be crucial for Southeast Alaska because the region doesn’t have anything like it.

“The earlier the intervention the more likely you have good outcomes,” she said, explaining that children and teens whom the CAMHU would serve are currently having to travel to Anchorage for treatment.

[Bartlett CEO shops mental health facility to Chamber]

Schneider said that the hospital still has a lot of work ahead of it before its ready to break ground on the CAMHU. Bartlett officials will be back before the Assembly with another progress report in September.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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