Fact check: Youngkin's grocery tax math doesn't add up

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The Republican candidate for governor claimed the grocery tax cut would save Virginians '$1,500 in year one' at a debate Tuesday night.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin claimed Tuesday that his proposal to eliminate the state's 2.5% grocery tax would save Virginians $1,500 annually. But for most Virginia families, it wouldn't even save them a tenth of that.

In a debate with Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin promised to massively cut taxes in Virginia without cutting funding to vital state programs.

"On day one, I will cut taxes. I'll eliminate the grocery tax, saving Virginians, all in, $1,500 in year one. We will reestablish excellence in schools, investing in teachers and facilities and charter schools, and we'll fully fund police," he said.

The grocery tax repeal is one of the few concrete policy proposals Youngkin has made as part of his "day one game plan."

There's just one problem: His numbers don't add up.

Virginia's grocery tax is just 2.5%. A separate, higher sales tax applies to hot prepared foods and alcoholic beverages.

To save $1,500 a year, a Virginia family would have to be spending $60,000 annually on groceries. But the state's median household income in 2019 was just $74,222 — meaning an average Virginian would have to spend over 80% of their paycheck on groceries alone for Youngkin's math to make sense.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spent $4,643 on "food at home" in 2019. That amount increased to $4,942 in 2020, as families ate less "food away from home" as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation.

At that rate, an average family would save just $123.55 annually under Youngkin's proposal — about 8% of what he claimed every Virginian would save.

A campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this story.

McAuliffe, Youngkin's Democratic opponent, also supports eliminating the grocery tax.

While the grocery tax cut would not save most Virginians much money, it would mean a significant loss of state revenue.

State Del. Mark Sickles (D), who chairs the House Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions and is vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, tweeted during the debate that this would mean a major hit either to the state's general fund or to localities, schools, and transportation.

In the same tweet, Sickles called Youngkin a "know-nothing rich guy."

The legislature estimated in 2016 that elimination of the grocery tax would cost Virginia about $600 million per year.

Virginia currently has a record budget surplus, though much of that was due to a one-time influx in pandemic relief funds from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan.

This is not the only massive tax cut Youngkin has embraced. In April, he told a conservative radio host he was focused "on not just getting our income tax down, but how we can, in fact, eliminate it." His campaign has since claimed that goal was more "aspirational" than a real proposal, but he has not disavowed the idea.

Budget analysts have warned that such an approach would be devastating for Virginia's economy.

A Center for American Progress Action Fund analysis found that eliminating the state's income tax "would completely upend the lives of all Virginians" and that "working families that rely on essential state services would be most affected."

The liberal advocacy group said such a move would erase $14 billion for education, $10.3 billion for health and human resources, and $3.2 billion for public safety and homeland security.

All told, eliminating Virginia's income tax would reduce its biennial revenue by about $31.5 billion — roughly 72% of the state's general fund revenue.

In an email, McAuliffe campaign spokesperson Renzo Olivari said that as governor, McAuliffe "will put more money back in Virginians' pockets in a way that doesn't decimate funding for schools and roads like Glenn Youngkin's plan would do."

"In recent weeks, three independent studies have outlined how devastating Glenn's economic plan would be for Virginia's education — cutting billions in funding and tens of thousands of educator positions from our schools at a time when we should be investing in our future," Renzo added. "It is clear Glenn's economic agenda will be dangerous for Virginia."

On July 31, the Washington Post's editorial board wrote that Youngkin's plans would run Virginia's economy "into a ditch."

Virginia's gubernatorial election will take place on Nov. 2.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.