By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Lawmakers are weighing whether to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales and use taxes starting June 30.
The “tampon tax” unjustly burdens people who menstruate, supporters say. Critics point to the possibility of $6.5 million in lost annual revenue, just to save approximately $5 per person in annual taxes if they used a box of tampons per month.
In the House, bills to exempt taxes on these basic health necessities are sponsored by Reps. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, and Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods. Elder said he expects a hearing on the House bills in the Tax Policy Committee yet this month, after an April 10 meeting scheduled on the bills was adjourned before discussing them.
The Senate effort is backed by Sens. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, and Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak.
Items like aircraft parts, newspapers and collectible coins are important enough to be exempted from sales tax, Elder said. “Clearly, feminine hygiene products are a necessity” and should be added to the list.
“There’s a long list of exemptions, and the unifying theme behind all of them is they tend to be things considered a necessity,” he said. “We don’t want people to pay an additional tax on things they need to have.”
There’s a mistaken belief that efforts like this are fundamentally unfair, as it’s thought only women would benefit, Elder said.
“I’m a married man, and all of those expenses are purchased through a joint checking account,” he said. “I’m paying this tax just as much as my wife is. No one should be thinking of this as one gender getting something that another’s not.”
Access to menstrual products is a genderless issue because not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman, said Christine Mwangi, the founder and president of Be A Rose, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization that distributes free menstrual products to underserved populations.
“Having this tax removed will really send a message that people who menstruate matter, especially to those who have been tasked with the important job of making laws that are equitable,” Mwangi said.
People with little income are already “trying to access so many other needs,” Mwangi said. “Feminine hygiene and menstruation management should be minimized as a barrier to them finding their feet in life situations.”
The tax alone isn’t necessarily a difference-maker, said Amy Stephenson, a co-founder of Helping Women Period, a Lansing-area nonprofit providing menstrual products to homeless and at-risk people. But there’s no need for it, considering the inequality of having to buy menstrual products in the first place.
“I don’t mind paying the tax; I can afford it, even though I think it’s discriminatory,” Stephenson said. “The cost of the item alone is significant, so the tax just adds an additional burden to items (people) can barely afford — or not afford — to begin with.”
Ten states with income taxes, including Illinois, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, already have such an exemption. Past efforts by Michigan and at the federal level to increase accessibility have stalled.
Brinks introduced a “tampon tax” repeal bill in 2017, when she was a state representative; it never made it out of the House Tax Policy Committee. A similar effort failed in the Legislature in 2016.
In Congress, a bill to allow menstrual products to be purchased using tax-free health spending accounts passed 277-142 in the House in 2018, but the Senate didn’t take action before the term ended.
While the congressional effort is a viable solution, it likely wouldn’t affect the people that need it most, Stephenson said.
“It would be helpful in reducing the unfair burden,” Stephenson said. “But with the account, not everybody has that, and probably the most vulnerable members of the population do not.”
Opposition to such exemptions is generally along financial lines. Exempting menstrual products would have a $6.5 million annual impact, reducing revenue to the state’s School Aid Fund by $4.8 million; to the General Fund by $1.05 million; and to constitutional revenue sharing with local governments by $650,000, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.
The financial effects are why the proposal calls for the School Aid Fund to be “held harmless,” by annually transferring the amount of lost School Aid Fund revenue from the General Fund. But because bills can’t appropriate money, the Legislature would have to approve such a transfer every year.
Stephenson said the amount of revenue lost would be “very minor,” especially considering the numerous other items that are exempted.
“When you look at the revenue we’re losing from some of the other items, it seems ridiculous that (menstrual products) are still being taxed,” she said.
Beyond finances, Mwangi said, political action on the topic may be slowed because of the stigma of discussing menstruation.
“Menstruation has been depicted in the media as something dirty; as something that people don’t want to talk about, whether they’re the one experiencing it or it’s someone they know,” she said. “Any problem that arises connected with this topic is not addressed, because there is not a platform where people feel confident talking about menstruation.”
Brinks said she thinks that discomfort has been a key factor in legislators not taking the tax repeal effort seriously.
“It’s high time that people as adults in the policymaking arena have the maturity to have a conversation like this,” she said.
But with a growing number of women in the Legislature, Brinks said she’s optimistic they will “speak with one voice” to repeal a tax “inherently unfair to women.”
Mwangi said she hopes for change too, given the repeated legislative efforts and the growing acknowledgement of menstruation in media and activism.
“People who don’t have access to (menstrual products) miss work, school and attendance and credibility in vocational institutions,” she said. “This is an issue of basic human rights.”