by Chaya Tong, Georgia Recorder
When Laura Strausfeld was a law student, she went to the drugstore to pick up a box of tampons, throwing a chapstick in on the way. Glancing at the receipt, she noticed that the tampons had a sales tax. The chapstick, however, did not.
What Strausfeld had noticed was the so-called tampon tax, a sales tax levied on menstrual products that has since been eliminated in many states around the country. Outraged by the inequity of the tax, Strausfeld went on to found the nonprofit Period Law, which works to repeal taxation on menstrual products across the country. Period Law, along with other national and local advocacy groups, stood in support of eliminating the tax this past legislative session in Georgia. But women in Georgia continue to pay the tax on menstrual products, and will continue to do so – at least until next year.
Senate Bill 51, which would end the sales tax on menstrual products in the state, did not advance out of the committee this year, but is still alive for 2024 when the Legislature reconvenes next January.
If Georgia eliminated its 4% sales tax on menstrual products, it would become the 29th state to dispose of the so-called tampon tax. But the GOP-controlled Legislature has balked at efforts to tax period products at the same rate as food and medicine. Though the bill did not make it out of committee, it did at least rate a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, leaving the door open for lawmakers to support lifting the tax in the future.
“These products are not luxury items, but states like Georgia are taxing them as luxury items,” said Lacey Gero, manager of state policy at the Alliance for Period Supplies, a national network of nonprofits dedicated to ending what is known as period poverty, which is when someone lacks adequate access to essential period products.
“Period supplies are not luxury items, and they should not be taxed as such. In states like Georgia, we’re seeing that the products are being taxed at the same rate or similar rate to decor and electronics or makeup and toys,” Gero said.
The issue is not new. Rep. Debbie Buckner introduced an exemption bill in 2018, 2019 and 2021. All have proved unsuccessful.
“The information and the proof about why it is an unfair tax has been presented time and time again,” Buckner said. “That sales tax on top of the cost of the products – that is meaningful because women do not make the same level of salaries that men do. It is a medical necessity for them to buy the product and there’s nothing comparable that men are taxed for or that they have to buy.”
In this year’s Senate finance hearing for SB 51, Sen. Nabilah Islam, a Lawrenceville Democrat who sponsored the bill, pointed out that groceries, prescription goods and personal medical devices including candy, soda and Viagra are all exempt from Georgia’s sales tax. If passed, the bill would exempt menstrual products from the sales tax under non-prescription medical devices. Of the non-prescription medical devices listed by the FDA, Islam said, menstrual products are the most used.
Some progress has been made to help with the costs. Georgia was one of the first states to set aside money in the state budget for public health and public education to distribute period products to low-income women and girls. Last year, the Legislature increased spending for education to include elementary schools in addition to middle and high schools. This year, lawmakers are increasing the amount for public health departments so that they can distribute products to homeless shelters and other community support resources. Yet, the state still levies a state-wide tax on menstrual products.
Twenty three states have passed legislation eliminating the tax on feminine hygiene products. Five states do not have a sales tax at all, for a total of 28 states without period product taxes. Of the Southern states, Florida eliminated its tax in 2017 and Louisiana followed suit in 2021. In Texas this year, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled his support for removing the tax. Missouri lifted the tampon tax earlier this month. National drugstore chain CVS Health has paid the applicable sales tax on menstrual products since 2022 in states that still levy it, including Georgia.
“It really is a bipartisan issue and that’s why we keep pushing it in Georgia. We realize that Georgia has had trouble passing this bill, but we have faith that they will,” said Michela Bedard, executive director at PERIOD, a global nonprofit. “Georgia should be credited with already taking steps to put money in the budget to pay for period poverty, so this is something that’s already on their mind. We just want to finish the project.”
This year’s attempt to lift the tax failed in part due to a parliamentary question whether bills affecting revenue can originate in the Senate. Some legislators argued that bills proposing to raise revenue need to be started in the House, but that sequencing doesn’t apply to taking money away from tax collections.
“We’ve got significant support, bipartisan support, but we continue to be blocked from having hearings in the House and getting it moving,” said Claire Cox, co-founder of Georgia STOMP (Stop Tax On Menstrual Products) and chair of the Georgia STOMP board. “There’s a lack of understanding of what’s not moving in the House. There’s interest in the Senate.”
Though it received support in the Senate, repealing the tax does face strong opposition from one powerful state legislator.
“Like many issues of importance to Georgians who are under considerable financial stress, the Republican majority did not allow a vote on this bill,” said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat who co-sponsored SB 51. “As I understand it, there has been opposition to the bill from a high-ranking Republican female legislator in the House. That’s where the compromise of the money in the budget came from … she appears to be a main reason the bill has not gotten farther.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, favors a budgetary approach, allocating money directly to distribute period products to low-income women. Jones argues that eliminating the tax would have negligible effect on individuals in addition to costing the state treasury around $13 million a year. Georgia does not make a distinction in its tax code between what people need and what people want except for exempting food and drugs, Jones said, citing necessary products the state continues to tax like diapers.
“If you only tax the things that people want when you have an economic downturn, it’s state government, personnel money coming in to pay for the other things that people need, like Medicaid or all the public education,” she said.
The question, Jones said, is not if people need menstrual products but would exempting them from the state sales tax would actually make a difference?
“I don’t think it would make a serious difference. What makes a difference is giving someone the products that they need free of charge,” she added. “If I’m poor, saving three or four dollars a year makes no difference. What I need is the products in my hand.”
Proponents of this year’s legislation say that period products should have been made exempt from taxation back when the state exempted groceries and medical necessities.
“I talked to the people who were in the room when they took the tax off of groceries and there were no women in the room,” Buckner said. “The men in the room just didn’t think about it. They don’t use the products.”
“These products are a medical necessity. They are required monthly. They amount to a decent amount of money on a monthly basis for people on fixed incomes,” she added.
Advocates also cite the fact that Georgia has a record high revenue at the moment with a $6.6 billion surplus. The so-called tampon tax would amount to less than 0.01% of the state budget and would save women and girls an estimated $6.1 million dollars.
Though setting money aside in the budget is important and an admirable step in the right direction, proponents say, it does not address the issue of equity.
“[The Legislature] it’s male dominated. Our strongest supporter for the elimination of period poverty is also very strongly against giving tax breaks, and those two things in Georgia have gotten very conflated and made the conversation difficult about the inequity, the discriminatory nature of the sales tax as a separate issue from addressing period poverty,” Cox said. “Conflating the poverty issue with the discriminatory issue misses the point completely.”
Suzanne Herman, attorney and legal director at Period Law, says that allocating money in the budget for menstrual products and lifting the sales tax on them are not mutually exclusive. She points out that continuing the so-called tampon tax is a matter of fairness, especially in Georgia given the fact that Coca-Cola, which is headquartered in the state, is exempt from the sales tax.
“It’s not a coincidence that soda is untaxed under Georgia’s exemption for groceries whereas in a lot of other states, you don’t see soda having a sales tax exemption,” she added.
Georgia’s menstrual product tax isn’t just inequitable, Herman said, it’s unconstitutional.
“It is an unconstitutional tax and it’s a principled argument of discriminatory practices. There’s money that Georgia and women have been paying for years and years that is unconstitutional federally, probably under the state Georgia Constitution as well,” she said. “It really signals to women that their health and dignity in this sense is not prioritized.”
Correction: This story originally overstated the number of times legislation to lift the tax was filed in recent years.
This story was written by Chaya Tong, a contributor to the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.
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