COLUMBIA -- Have you ever looked at the receipt from the grocery store and wondered why some items are taxed at one rate and others at a different rate? Or why one store charges different taxes than another just down the street?
Roger Sterling has, and he wants some answers.
"Little things like that drive you crazy," the Summerville man said.
He spent $17.50 at the Walmart on North Main Street in Summerville on June 10 and was charged three different tax rates: 2 percent from Berkeley County on a 4-pack of Activia, a gallon of milk and a bag of Cheetos, 8 percent on an item from the sports department and fried chicken wings from the deli and an additional 2 percent on the wings from the town's hospitality tax.
The quick answer on deciphering the taxes on a grocery store receipt is: The sales taxes you pay in South Carolina depend on what you buy and where you buy it.
The Post and Courier Watchdog spent two days trying to get answers, sent more than 15 e-mails and made
some 20 phone calls, including spending 13 minutes and 35 seconds on hold with Walmart only to be told to try back later.
Here are the facts: The state does not charge a sales tax on unprepared food, but a local government might. The state sales tax rate is 6 cents on the dollar for prepared food and items you don't eat purchased at a grocery store, such as paper plates or dish soap. In addition to that sales tax, local governments with voter approval can tack on extra pennies to pay for road projects or generate more cash for services. Some places also impose a "hospitality" tax for prepared food at the grocery store, and remember that alcohol and beer also are subject to a tax.
The hodgepodge of rules means that a hot dog and a soda in one part of a grocery store can cost more in taxes than if the items are sitting on a shelf in another part of the store. A higher tax rate kicks in -- including the state's 6-cent sales tax and a town or city's hospitality tax -- for hot dogs and soft drinks made and purchased at the deli than for the same items found packaged and unprepared in the aisles.
Adrienne Fairwell, public information director for the state Department of Revenue, said when in doubt, shoppers should ask the store to explain why they're being taxed. If something doesn't add up, Fairwell said to call the Revenue Department.
"That's what we're here for," she said.
Sterling, the Summerville shopper, said state lawmakers considering revamping the way residents are taxed need to keep in mind the entire burden taxpayers shoulder.
"At every twist and turn, it's more," Sterling said.
Lawmakers appointed the Tax Realignment Commission to study taxation in the state and recommend changes to see that the taxes are "adequate and equitable." Last month, the commission suggested that lawmakers put a statewide tax back on unprepared food at the grocery store, in addition to taxing water, electricity and prescriptions as part of a plan that calls for a lower overall sales tax rate.
No changes will be made to state taxation policies unless approved by the Legislature, which reconvenes in January.
Nancy Purdue of Summerville said she was "stunned" when she moved from New Jersey to learn South Carolinians are charged tax on food. When lawmakers decided to eliminate the statewide 3-cent sales tax on groceries in November 2007, Purdue said she waited for the food tax to go away, not realizing that local government would continue to tax the blueberries and eggs and oranges she bought at the Publix in Central Avenue in Summerville.
Paying taxes on food is a hardship, Purdue said, especially for senior citizens who live on Social Security.
The whole tangled mess of grocery store taxes leaves Purdue with a bad taste.
"I feel like we're being hoodwinked," she said.