Legislators Try Again To Dismantle Michigan's 'Tampon Tax'

May 10, 2019

Every year in Statehouses across the country there are bills that lawmakers call zombies—different versions of a bill they reintroduce year after year that just won’t pass.

This year, one of Michigan’s returning zombies, is a bill to end the so-called ‘Tampon Tax.’

What is the ‘Tampon Tax?’

Most states in the U.S. exempt medically necessary items from sales tax, including things like Viagra and ChapStick, yet most state tax codes don’t consider feminine hygiene products “Medically necessary.”

Critics say this is unfairly taxes women for a medically necessary product—people call it the ‘tampon tax.’

An average woman has a period for over 2,500 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years of using feminine hygiene products, which can add up. And, as the topic of periods and menstruation becomes less taboo governments across the world are beginning to legislate around the topic of “period equity.”

There’s been a groundswell of international support to abolish the tampon tax in a few countries, and the concept is becoming increasingly popular here in the United States as well. Canada ended its tampon tax in 2015 and was joined in 2018 by India and Australia.

Here in the United States California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that the official budget he’ll present to state lawmakers will include a proposal to abolish sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers, Nevada became the 11th state to end the ‘tampon tax’ in last year’s midterms and the ‘tampon tax’ has already been struck from the tax code in multiple states.

The states that already explicitly exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax include: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. 

If Michigan were to abolish its 6% tax on all feminine hygiene products, it would be the 11th state to make the move toward granting tampons and pads tax exempt status.

Why is it a zombie bill in MI?

Similar bills have been introduced by a host of State Representatives and Senators, but none have had much success passing out of committees or reaching the statehouse floor for a vote.

Former State Senator David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) introduced a 2016 version of the bill trying to end the tampon-tax alongside Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor). Their bill advanced the farthest, passing out of the Senate Finance Committee. But, it was never brought to the floor for a vote.

He talked about coming up short trying to buy tampons in a floor speech.

“You're standing at the counter at CVS, $4.99 bucks in your hand, you pull out a $5 bill, expecting to get a penny back. But instead, we end up having to search our pockets for some spare change. And why is that?” asked Knezek.

He goes onto explain the state doesn’t tax prescriptions or other medically necessary items. Knezek continues as his colleagues on the Senate floor talk over him before the Senate President tells everyone to listen.

Because Michigan's tax code was largely created by men, tampons and other products have been classified as luxury items. And I doubt that you would find one woman who would classify having a period as a luxury.

‘Excuse me, Senator Knezek. May, I please have the attention of the members of the Senate?’”

Knezek voiced what many advocates for previous versions of the bill also murmur when discussing why the bill is a zombie—that the law hasn’t changed here in Michigan because the people making the laws aren’t personally impacted.

Amy Stephenson runs, Helping Women Period, an organization in Lansing that provides pads and tampons to low-income people, for free.  She said, this year there’s more gender parity at the Statehouse and that makes her hopeful.

“The hurdles that the past or what they've always been the people at the table making the decisions have no concept or no firsthand experience about why this is an issue. And so the stigma around it, the relevancy to the people making the decisions, and were the main barriers that wouldn't even get into the committee or even for the detailed discussion. It wouldn't get very far. That's what we hope is changing.”

One of the people, giving Stephenson hope, is State Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak). She’s a freshman Democrat and one of the seven female senators that brought the number of women serving in the Michigan senate up from 4 to 11 this year.

McMorrrow said for her it’s about fairness.

“It's frustrating when you dig into the numbers because we do exempt medically necessary products like canes and walkers and corrective shoes and prescription drugs. And for women, this is a medically necessary product. We are all going to have our period once a month on schedule for many, many years and decades and when you find out that women on average are using 17,000 tampons throughout our lifetime, it adds up. And it really disproportionately affects low income women who struggle to afford these products sometimes.”

Why can’t it pass?

There’s one major stumbling block. Previous versions of the bill have all died on the floor or even before that in committee.

Exactly the reason for that, depends on who you ask. The biggest listed reason is because exempting feminine hygiene products would mean the state of Michigan would lose just over $5 million in sales tax revenue each year, that’s according to a fiscal analysis done on the Knezek-Warren bill back in 2016.

Losing $5 million in sales tax would mean money would be lost from the General Fund (approximately $800,000 per year), the School Aid Fund (approximately $3.7 million per year), and revenue sharing with local governments (approximately $500,000) per year.

In other states that have reconciled with whether to eradicate the ‘tampon tax,’ potential loss of revenue  that could impact funding of other government programs has been the main hurdle in passing the legislation.

Senator Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), a co-sponsor of this year’s bill, said that’s not something to be taken lightly but she thinks, at its core, it’s an unjust tax that disproportionately affects women.  

“Anytime we talk about changing the tax structure in a way that might reduce revenues for the state, it impacts what we're able to pay for as a state. So we certainly should consider that. But, again, if it's an unfair text to half of the population, we should find a different way to make sure that we can pay for the essentials that our state values and that our constituents require from us,” said Brinks.

The man with the power to decide if this year’s bill lives or dies in committee is Senator Jim Runestad (R-White Lake). He determines whether the bill will be given a hearing in committee, after which, the committee would vote it through and it refer to the Senate floor, or it would die again in committee. 

He said, it’s tough to predict the bill’s future right now because legislators have much bigger fish to fry within the state budget before they get to smaller appropriations matters like this.

“And right now, everything is in flux and in limbo. And so we don't know what the numbers are going to be what is going to be the numbers that the legislature is going to put forward, so you don't want to put something in there that's going cause a hiccup across the board. Until we know what a lot of that is down the road, it's going to somewhat depend on what the support of the committee,” said Runestad.

Amy Stephenson, who runs Helping Women Period, said she’s encouraging lawmakers to pass this year’s bill regardless of the impact on State sales tax revenues.

“I would respond that if we're already going without revenue from Viagra and ChapStick and other items that, in my opinion, are not critical to a person's hygiene. We can afford the $5 million and it shouldn't be on the backs and uterus’ of people who are having a period. ”

The big question going forward for this zombie bill will be two-fold-- whether more women in the state legislature will impact the bill’s chance to pass, or if five million in reduced sales tax will be too much of a cost for state lawmakers to bear.

If it passes, Michigan will be the 11th state in the U.S., with sales tax, to exempt feminine hygiene products.  

Follow Abigail Censky on Twitter: @AbigailCensky