It's still just a proposal, but Nassau County is talking about taxing your Quarter Pounder or Whopper.
Anxious to find additional money to combat falling revenues during the economic downturn, the county included a 2 percent fast-food tax in its budget plans for next year.
According to Nassau's multiyear budget plan submitted to a financial monitoring panel last month, a fast-food tax would bring in $11.8 million in 2010, when the county's budget gap is projected to be $72.3 million.
However, such a tax would require state authorization. County officials acknowledge it is unlikely the State Legislature will approve the tax, noting Nassau can't even get this year's financial requests, including a cigarette tax, through Albany's current gridlock.
The proposed fast-food tax would be part of County Executive Thomas Suozzi's "Healthy Nassau" initiative, to encourage people to eat healthier, just as his proposed cigarette tax is intended to reduce smoking, officials said.
"In the best of all possible worlds it's better to try to discourage unhealthy behavior instead of relying on property taxes," said Suozzi, who added he'd rather see a cigarette tax first. "We're just trying to figure out the way to solve the problems without wrecking the county and without raising property taxes."
Asked whether even healthy foods sold at fast-food restaurants - such as salads - would be caught by the proposal, Suozzi's spokesman Bruce Nyman said it was too early to be that specific. "No one has taken it that far," he said of the plan.
Deputy County Executive Thomas Stokes, who is putting together next year's budget, said the fast-food tax plan would impose an additional 2 percent tax on top of the 8.625 percent sales tax already charged on meals from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and similar restaurants. The tax would not apply to independent pizza places or Chinese food restaurants.
He defines fast-food restaurant as "any franchised outlet of a restaurant chain that derives 30 percent or more of its revenues from the sale of prepared, ready-to-eat food, and which serves one or more menu items that contain more than 0.5 grams of trans fat or 5 grams of saturated fat per serving."
Stokes said Pennsylvania already has a fast-food tax. Officials in other parts of the country have considered similar taxes, and Oakland, Calif., three years ago assessed fees on fast-food restaurants to help pay for the cleanup of their litter.
But while other governments may see fast food as a revenue generator, Suffolk does not. County Executive Steve Levy "has no intention of proposing or advocating such a tax," a spokesman said.
In Nassau, the legislature's budget review office reported that a fast-food tax would bring half the $12 million projected and warned, "Many view fast-food taxes as regressive since they disproportionately impact some of the lowest income groups."
Nationwide, the average American eats three meals a week from fast-food establishments, according to research reported by ABC News last year.
"We absolutely positively oppose" the 2 percent tax, said Rick Sampson, of the The New York State Restaurant Association. "Why should those consumers who purchase fast food be penalized?"
Dunkin' Brands, owner of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, also opposes the tax. "We understand that many state and local governments are facing budget deficits due to the tough economic environment, but imposing taxes on consumers and small-business owners is not the way to solve these problems," a spokeswoman said.