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'Snack Tax' Gets Attention

Gordon Walters has been trying to fix a small but irritating injustice for 18 months. He has traveled throughout Louisiana, buying Diet Cokes at about 400 convenience stores and turning in the receipts to prove that he and other working stiffs are being overtaxed for snacks, according to a report in The Advocate newspaper.

Representatives of the state Department of Revenue opened a news conference last week by thanking Walters for his diligence in exposing the tax snafu. Then they promised to stop convenience stores from charging a 4-percent state food tax that Louisiana voters abolished three years ago.

When Walters got his turn at the microphone, the semi-retired appliance repairman did not say, "You're welcome." Instead, he told the suits they haven't been doing their jobs.

A citizen should not have to prove, purchase by purchase, that hundreds of stores are ignoring tax laws, he said. "I should have just had to raise a flag" and let revenue agents take it from there, he said. Instead, "It took me a year and a half to get somebody's attention."

That was a slight exaggeration. State tax collectors did not ignore Walters all that time. They tried to contact the stores. But they didn't do a lot else in the 18 months since Walters noticed that he wasn't getting his full "Stelly tax cut" at convenience stores.

Former State Rep. Vic Stelly sponsored the ballot initiative, passed by Louisiana voters, that raised income taxes and, in return, ended state sales taxes on necessities -- utilities, prescription medicine and "food for home consumption."

When the sales tax went off the books in 2003, the Department of Revenue changed the definition of "food for home consumption" to include single servings of drinks and snacks.

That means stores should only charge local tax on such purchases. But many smaller stores missed the change or just ignored it.

In January 2004 Walters noticed he was being charged about 10-percent tax on his Diet Cokes at convenience stores in his north Louisiana town. He sought clarification at the Monroe office of the Department of Revenue and got only a recitation of the law. He took his case to the main Revenue office in Baton Rouge, buying Diet Cokes along the way to gather evidence.

He got some action on his receipts, the newspaper said, and the agency sent out more fliers about the tax cut. Some officials also said they recently posed as undercover shoppers themselves.

But only last week did the department launch a major effort to get stores to comply. Revenue Secretary Cynthia Bridges promised widespread undercover purchases and more intense audits. She urged consumers to squeal and warned violators they could lose their right to sell liquor.

"We're going to be in their face more often," Bridges said.

But Bridges could have taken those steps long ago. "How long was it going to go on -- five years? 10 years? -- before someone stood up?" Walters said. "Why am I the only one who noticed?"
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