A state tax on junk food?

Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, has done what his party's leaders absolutely will not do: He has proposed a specific tax increase to offset some of the spending cuts favored by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Mr. Munford, vice chairman of the Assembly Taxation Committee, wants to tax fast food, sweets and treats purchased in restaurants and convenience stores at a rate of up to 5 percent. Eleven other states have such a levy, although some limit the tax to vending machine purchases.

"I am trying to find new revenue and so I'm thinking, why not tax junk food and other such discretionary spending that contributes to obesity?" he said last week.

Mr. Munford's idea, as expected, already has drawn a great deal of derision. Such responses are the reason Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, are keeping their lips zipped about which taxes they'd like to see created and/or increased.

They want to minimize public debate and head off criticism of whatever tax plan they propose, so they're inclined to keep negotiations secret for as long as possible. They would even have the public believe that they haven't made up their minds about whether they want to raise taxes at all.

This is politics at its worst. Bills that are not subjected to lengthy and vigorous discourse always have unintended consequences.

So Mr. Munford deserves a fair amount of credit for bringing his idea into the open in the legislative session's first week instead of its last. He wants the public to hear his ideas. Good. Let the debate begin.

But Mr. Munford's proposal is a bad idea. First and foremost, taxes should be levied to pay for legitimate functions of government. They should not be assessed to try to manipulate the public's behavior. Choosing what to eat is a personal decision in which the government shouldn't meddle.

Second, diet is only one contributing factor to obesity. Sedentary lifestyles and portion sizes have more to do with obesity than food choice alone. Placing a punitive tax on double cheeseburgers, soft drinks and ice cream won't spur anyone to get off their couch and go for a walk.

Third, deciding which foods would be subject to Mr. Munford's tax is problematic. The tax is intended to be applied to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Yet many fast-food restaurants offer healthy choices, such as salads and grilled meats, and disclose their nutritional information, while many sit-down restaurants offer huge meals with more calories than a typical person needs in an entire day.

Besides, consumers already pay a tax when they eat out: the sales tax.

An additional 5 percent tax would hurt sales at Nevada eateries. That would cost more people their jobs. And you can be sure that whatever revenue projections are tied to the tax won't come to fruition if the bill ever becomes law.

There's a lot to like about Mr. Munford's willingness to buck his party's leadership and bring something to the table. There's just nothing to like about his plan.