(Nov. 19, COPY EDITOR'S COLUMN) All of the tales about ghosts, headless horsemen and vampires floating around on Halloween scored low on the chilled-spine scale compared with a true story I read online a couple of days later.

The Courier, a newspaper that serves Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, reported that the Iowa Department of Revenue had decided to levy a sales tax on pumpkins. Normally, a majority of food items sold in the state at retail are tax-exempt, but the rationale here was that most people buy pumpkins to use as decorations, not to eat.

The new levy was a surprise to many farmstand growers, who didn’t hear about it until the newspaper interviewed them about it. Some said they had already sold a lot of pumpkins and would just have to take 5% from their profits to pay the state.

To soothe consumers who actually planned to eat their pumpkin, the state offered exemption forms that they could fill out and show at checkout to avoid paying the tax.

But what did Iowa expect consumers to do who were planning a mixed application?

What if the consumer was going to carve the pumpkin but scoop out the seeds and bake them with garlic and butter? Or what if he was going to remove some of the flesh to make pumpkin cookies but still use the outer shell to make a jack-o-lantern? Or what if she was going to use the whole pumpkin for a pie — except for the seeds, which she wanted to use to make a holiday centerpiece?

Iowa actually offers eight pages of instructions online to retailers and consumers to help them navigate a maze of exemptions, like how to determine whether a holiday fruit basket, a container of lettuce salad or a bag of trail mix are taxable.

As far as the pumpkin tax went, maybe the state should require each vendor to set up state-inspected, standardized scales and to post a tax table listing all possible uses and combinations and permutations of all possible uses, along with the resulting amounts of tax owed.

And then, what if the consumer bought the pumpkin with the intention of eating it but then ended up not getting around to it — as I do too often with produce of many kinds? Sitting on the counter, it probably added some charm to the kitchen, which might make it taxable. So should the consumer then be required by law to send the state the tax amount for which he originally received an exemption — along with, of course, another form?

It might sound like I’m getting carried away, but there are income tax regulations nearly as ridiculous.

Fortunately, Iowa has a reasonable governor who reversed the policy and ordered the Iowa Department of Revenue to offer refunds to anyone who paid the pumpkin tax, according to the Associated Press. Still, it will be a hassle for people to get that money back.

Without the governor’s intervention, the next thing you knew, Iowans could have had to fill out a form to attest that the popcorn they bought would not be strung to adorn their Christmas tree. Nor any of their carrots used for a snowman’s nose.

If left unchecked over time, such policies as the pumpkin tax can expand and morph into uncontrollable monsters, the same way the federal personal income tax grew from an original 1% rate in 1913 with a four-page Form 1040 — including instructions — to 35% with a 143-page 1040 today.

Nevermind the highest marginal rate was 91% when President Kennedy got Congress to cut it drastically — to 70% — with a 1964 law.

While the tax has come down much further, its complexity has increased. The income tax code grew from 26,300 pages in 1984 to 67,204 pages in 2007. It has swollen by more than 21,000 pages just since President Bush took office in 2001, according to the Cato Institute.

I don’t want to see the same kind of thing happen in the arena of food purchasing. I don’t want to see it in having to figure out what is exempt food or nonexempt food under a standard state sales tax as in Iowa — and filling out exception forms — nor in regard to other food tax proposals like a “fat tax” surcharge on “unhealthy” foods.

Just as I don’t think it’s any of the government’s business what I do with my pumpkin, I also don’t want the government telling me I have to pay a fine if I want to eat a couple of cookies. Maybe I have a metabolism that can handle them, maybe I’ll exercise them off, and maybe I’ve been a good boy and eaten my recommended 13 servings of fruits and vegetables today.

Even if I haven’t, I should be free to suffer (or enjoy) the consequences of my own actions.

If all of us don’t work hard to keep nipping such regulations in the bud across the country, one day we all might have to start hiring professionals to file our food tax returns.

Now, that would be scarier than “The Blob.”


On a personal note, I would like to thank everyone — staff members, guest columnists, letter writers and cartoonists — who has contributed to the opinion page during my tenure as its designer. They all have made it more thought-provoking and fun.

After 6½ years at The Packer, I am leaving to take care of some family responsibilities, including a business that my grandpa started more than 50 years ago.

I would like to thank everyone here for being so wonderful to work with the past 6½ years. They are personable, conscientious, talented, hard-working journalists and other professionals, who have taught me a lot and have helped make this the best job I’ve ever had. I leave behind many friends.