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Snack Tax Ends--Along With Much Frustration : Revenue: Owners of small stores were most confused by the universally unpopular levy, which applied to such items as Twinkies but not to doughnuts.

December 02, 1992|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gus Harris, the co-owner of Oak's Jr. Market on West Jefferson Boulevard in Jefferson Park, has been choking on the intricacies of the California "snack tax" ever since it was enacted 15 months ago.

Candy, he said, was easy to figure out--tax it all. Bottled water was a little harder--tax the small bottles, don't tax the big ones, he assumed. But when it came to those darned crackers--saltines, Cheez-its, Triscuits--he lost it.

"After a while, it was just guesswork," Harris said. "Total chaos."

With little fanfare, Harris and millions of other confused grocers and shoppers were liberated Tuesday from the infamous state tax that turned Twinkies into a taxable item, but left doughnuts as non-taxable food.

By an overwhelming majority, voters repealed the unpopular measure in the Nov. 3 election. The tax, which was officially ended Tuesday, was so universally despised that there was no organized opposition to its repeal.

For most shoppers, the death of the snack tax, which strove to nickel-and-dime away part of the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, caused barely a ripple in their day.

Jefferson Park resident Dorothy Bryant didn't bother to check whether she had been taxed on her purchase of two sodas and an ice cream bar, explaining that she never figured out what exactly was taxable in the first place.

Bryant said that the few cents extra she ended up paying for candy and chips over the last year had a minimal effect on her family's finances.

But she said that it was an annoying inconvenience that could catch her unprepared at the worst times, such as when she would give one of her children a quarter to buy a bag of chips.

"Most of the stores around here want their two pennies," she said. "That can be a problem when you don't have it on you."

All of those pennies have added up for the state. Budget officials estimate that the demise of the tax will cut state revenues by $540 million over the next 18 months.

But the big deficit number had little meaning for shop owners, such as Harris, who had to endure the complaints from customers and the frustration of trying to figure out the difference between snacks and food.

Harris said that besides all the confusion, the tax also cost him plenty in goodwill. "I got all kinds of complaints," he said. "The kids complained most of all."

Sometimes, he said, he would let the tax go for children, but he added: "Those pennies can add up."

For some grocery stores with computerized cash registers and scanners, the transition to snack tax life was relatively simple. For operators of smaller businesses, it was often a maddening journey through tax hell.

Some never figured it out.

Moy Ly, owner of Echo Park Donuts, said she had never heard of the snack tax and thus never taxed the candy, potato chips or anything else in her store except cigarettes. She thought it was great news anyway that the tax was repealed.

Bill Nelson of the Goody Shack on South Hoover Street took a different tack. When the tax was passed last year, he simply decided not to charge his customers for it. Now with its repeal, he says he doesn't have to change a thing.

"I never talked about that snack tax," Nelson said. "This hot dog is still a dollar and this soda is still 65 cents. I don't care nothing about its repeal."

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