SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ A proposed tax on some snack foods to help ease California's $14 billion budget gap would put the bite on the pretzel-and-chip crowd but exempt the wealthy who nibble caviar and brie, critics say.

The proposal is part of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to balance the budget, estimated at $55 billion.

Representatives of the elderly, business, minorities, labor and consumers oppose the legislation. They call the tax unfair because it hits the poor the hardest, and unmanageable because of the confusing mix of products it affects.

''Many people in California can only afford crackers and other snack foods. We cannot allow people already living on the financial brink to be pushed over the edge by a new tax on food,'' said Grace Galligher of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations.

California's sales tax is a minimum 6 cents per dollar, depending on the area. Most major cities have an additional half or full cent for transportation.

The snack tax proposal, sponsored by lawmakers of both major parties, would offset a relatively small amount of the deficit - $234 million annually - by ending the sales tax exemption on candy and some snack foods. It uses such factors as nutrition and packaging to select affected products.

The proposal also would extend the sales tax to newspapers and magazines, drawing vigorous opposition from publishers.

The measure is awaiting a vote before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The extension of the sales tax is part of a ''proposed package of spending cuts and tax hikes that is tough, but fair,'' Wilson said.

The action would affect only non-essential items, adds Wilson spokesman Franz Wisner.

Federal law prohibits sales taxes on any essential items that are eligible for purchase with food stamps.

A co-author, state Sen. Ken Maddy, said the measure ''in a sense is a necessary evil.''

''It's a necessity, in this budget crisis year, to look for every sales tax exemption we can,'' said Maddy, a Republican who serves as the Senate minority leader.

Opponents, who formed a coalition called Californians Against Food Taxes, insist the proposal is unfair because it hits foods consumed routinely by the poor and middle-class.

''The country club spread or lobbyist reception menu of brie, caviar and French bread will be untaxed, but the average person's party of chips, cookies and pretzels will be taxed,'' said Brad Sherman, chairman of the state Board of Equalization, the agency which collects the sales tax.

''A tax on food is more than unpalatable. It devastates the quality of life for low and middle income Californians and is especially hard on seniors and others with fixed incomes,'' said Gaea Swinford of the California Association of Nutrition Directors for the Elderly.

In California, food has traditionally ''been exempt from the sales tax because it is considered essential,'' said Herb Arenas of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. ''Taxing some food opens the door to taxing all foods. That would be bad for consumers, the economy and business.''

California has exempted all unprepared food from the sales tax at least as far back as 1941, and has exempted candy since 1972, state tax officials said.

Opponents say the plan would create an administrative nightmare, for instance taxing chips but not dip. The situation will confuse both business owners trying to collect taxes and state tax officials, they said.

''Granola bars would be taxable, but loose granola would not be. 'Snack' pies would be taxable, but full-sized boxed pies would go untaxed,'' Sherman said.

The definitions of snack food may sound confusing, but they follow industry standards, said Johnnie Rosaf, an aide to another bill co-author, state Sen. Wadie Deddeh.

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