By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- A bill that would exempt free food samples from the state's 6 percent use tax passed the Idaho House 68-0 and has moved to the Senate.
The bill would ensure that any producer, farm group or grocery store that offers customers free samples of food doesn't have to pay the tax.
"This legislation is really needed to protect our farmers' markets, our ag producers and those that sell agricultural products and give out free samples or free tastings of those foods," said Idaho Heartland Coalition Executive Director Roger Batt.
Under current Idaho law, any business that consumes, stores or uses tangible personal property is supposed to pay a 6 percent use tax.
"It becomes really onerous on business owners to try to keep track of those samples and it doesn't make sense for our industry," said Batt, who is guiding the bill through the legislature for the IHC, a coalition of ag and natural resources groups that seek regulatory reform.
The Idaho Tax Commission didn't actively enforce the law in the past when it came to free samples but the state's food and drink industries became concerned when the commission sent letters to Idaho wineries two years ago asking them to pay the tax on any free samples they provided the past three years.
Some of the wineries spent $1,000 on accountants to go through their records and determine they had to pay $10 in tax, Batt said. The wine and grape industry authored a successful bill last year that exempted free beverage samples from having to pay the tax, and this year's bill would cover all food samples.
"If I'm a person that produces elk jerky and I'm giving away free samples of jerky in a farmers' market, I no longer would have to pay a use tax on that," Batt said. "If I slice off pieces of apples so people can taste them, no tax. If I'm the Idaho Dairymen's Association and I cut off pieces of cheese for samples, no tax."
Arlie Sommer of Purple Sage Farms, which sells a variety of food at farmers markets in Idaho's Treasure Valley area, was glad to hear about the bill.
"Sampling is a huge tool for direct marketers of food," she said. "It's a tool we use to expose people to food. Exempting samples from the tax seems like an important thing for food producers."
The bill's sponsors are asking the legislation to become effective immediately after the governor signs it, just in time to cover free samples offered at farmers' markets.