A version of this appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on September 9, 2006.
Who says politicians don't have a sense of humor?
Why just this week I met one for breakfast and here's what he said about splitting the tab,
"You pay for the food," he suggested. "I'll get the tax. That should make it about even."
Hah. What a comedian.
Actually, he wasn't far off. When you lard up a restaurant bill with a 10.5 percent tax and a 15 percent to 20 percent tip, you can easily turn a $15 breakfast into a $20 meal.
And an elected official into Steve Martin.
Lots of people are not amused by our exorbitant meal taxes.
Take the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, for instance. This group insists that a willingness to overtax prepared foods - everything from a fat filet mignon at Ruth's Chris Steak House to a skinny rotisserie chicken at the supermarket - hurts working parents.
"They say it's a luxury tax," says Julia Ciarlo Hammond, the association's director of government relations. "But it's not anymore."
Busy families eat lots of meals on the go. Each time they grab a sandwich at the deli counter, a hot dog at 7-Eleven or a take-out salad from the grocery store, city coffers get fatter.
Here in the allegedly "low-tax" state of Virginia, we enjoy the highest meal taxes in the nation, according to the association. Makes you wonder, whatever happened to Southern hospitality?
According to a comparison chart of meal taxes compiled by Hammond, if you love paying for the privilege of not cooking, Southeastern Virginia is the place for you.
In fact, she says, the top seven meal taxes in the country are found in the Old Dominion. Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton and Portsmouth are tied for first place, with 11.5 percent tariffs. Richmond is next, at 11 percent. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake are right behind, at 10.5 percent.
The state levies a 5 percent sales tax on the food. The remainder is a local levy. Maybe it's time our region got a slogan. How's this: "Hampton Roads. We even tax your napkin."
Hammond says New York City has an 8.63 percent meals tax. San Francisco has an 8.5 percent rate. And Los Angeles slaps only 8.25 onto dining out.
Meal taxes are in the news this week because a Meals Tax Task Force (say that three times fast) in Virginia Beach has reported back to the City Council.
According to a report in The Pilot, the group didn't call for rolling back the city's astronomical tax. It simply couldn't. The city is addicted to the millions generated by the tariff.
The group did, however, conclude that the tax shouldn't go any higher.
That's something, I suppose.
The task force also suggested that the City Council support a piece of proposed legislation that would force cities to hold referendums before hiking meal taxes any higher.
Delicious idea. And not always a losing proposition.
Most Virginia counties go to referendum in order to raise meal taxes. Hammond notes that four Virginia counties did just that in recent years. Two approved tax hikes. Two turned them down.
So it seems that if a convincing case is made for higher taxes, even Virginia voters will hold their famously anti-tax noses and vote yes.
Earlier this week, The Pilot said the Beach council was expected to formally accept the task force report next week. A la carte, though.
It probably won't jump on the referendum bandwagon.
City officials insist they won't raise the rate. But they don't want to have to ask permission of taxpayers if they change their minds.
That's delicious. Funny, too.