Opponents of Ga. ‘tampon tax’ vow to press lawmakers in 2020

By: - September 9, 2019 9:10 am

A mound of menstrual products were collected at a recent “period party” held by Macon Periods Easier. The group donates the items to schools, community recreation centers and shelters. Submitted

Deborah McCarthy’s school district chipped in some money for tampons, pads and other period products, and when that didn’t cover the requests coming from her high school’s menstruating students, she would dip into her own wallet.

And then this year, the Bibb County school nurse found help – a lot of it. She banded with others to form a group called Macon Periods Easier, which throws “period parties” where attendees come bearing menstrual gifts. Mounds of products are collected and then distributed at local schools, community recreation centers and homeless shelters.

Deborah McCarthy (left), a school nurse at Northeast High School in Macon, is part of a group called Macon Periods Easier that collects period products for schools, community recreation centers and homeless shelters. Contributed photo

“This is something that’s natural and it’s going to happen, so our goal is to be there and make sure they’re able to take care of those needs,” McCarthy said.

The Macon school nurse said she is fully stocked up – for now – but she knows this isn’t the case at many other schools in Georgia.

And as simple as it sounds, having such basic aid available at school can mean the difference between some low-income girls attending class or staying home a few days, McCarthy said.

One of her students, she said, had five sisters and her mother struggled to keep period products on hand.

“During the time of their period, they wouldn’t go to school,” McCarthy said.

So when Georgia lawmakers added $1 million to this year’s state budget to purchase feminine hygiene products for all public middle and high schools, McCarthy was among those who celebrated. About 116,000 girls are expected to benefit.

Another $500,000 was also set aside to buy products for public health departments, where low-income women can access them.

“I think it’s important for all people in this state to know this issue exists, it’s real, people are addressing it all over the country and Georgia has taken at least this step forward in saying that it’s an issue and it’s important,” said Claire Cox, who founded the Macon-based Georgia Women (And Those Who Stand With Us).

It’s a significant amount of cash, but it is quickly diluted when spread across all of Georgia’s school districts. And it’s likely to become even smaller now that Gov. Brian Kemp has ordered state agency heads to cut 4% from their budgets, although how much exactly will be trimmed remains to be seen.

Advocates are pressing state lawmakers to spare this new program from the budget reductions, because they say allowing the program to proceed as is will be the only way to truly assess the need.

They also say they’ll be back next year to continue pushing legislators to end the so-called tampon tax in Georgia.

“Putting products in schools is incredibly impactful and incredibly important, but it doesn’t reduce the need for us to address the tax issue,” said Adele Stewart, a co-chair of Georgia STOMP (Stop Tax On Menstrual Products) and a member of the Junior League of Atlanta. The Junior Leagues of Georgia is part of Georgia STOMP’s coalition.

 ‘What is the problem?’

The idea to set aside money came out of a push this year for Georgia legislators to stop taxing period products, since it’s a tax that paid almost exclusively by women.

Legislation, House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat, would put an end to the state’s 4% tax on tampons, pads, menstrual cups and other products that women regularly rely on.

Advocates note that Georgia’s tax law already exempts disposable medical items that do not require a prescription, often pointing to blood glucose test strips and insulin syringes.

That measure is still in the House Ways and Means Committee and remains alive for the next year, but proponents have a formidable critic – the highest ranking female lawmaker in the House.

Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones opposes a proposal to eliminate the state sales tax on period products. Georgia House of Representatives photo

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton, proposed the state funding for period products as an alternative to ending the state tax, which she dismisses as a “solution in search of a problem”

“You just need to be careful when folks jump on the bandwagon of something and you have to think, ‘What is the problem?’” Jones said in an interview. “I think the problem is (access for) low-income folks, whether it’s accessing diapers or feminine hygiene products – things that we would consider, in a modern society, to be a necessity.

“And I would rather use that funding to solve a problem than to satisfy someone’s definition of what’s fair,” Jones said.

There are about 3.2 million women in Georgia who are of menstruating age, according to a state fiscal analysis.

Jones noted ending the tax would have cost the state millions – about $9 million this year – but would have only saved women $2.52 a year, if women spend $63 a year on tampons, pads and other items as the state analysis assumed. That kind of meager savings, Jones argued, would not suddenly make these products more affordable for low-income women.

And Jones said the justification for repealing the tax could be applied to other products that are taxed in Georgia: Does a tax on incontinence products unfairly affect the elderly and disabled? And if menstrual items shouldn’t be taxed because they are necessities, what about toilet paper?

‘We’re not going to quit talking about it’

Two states – California and Rhode Island – eliminated the so-called tampon tax this year. Two others – Louisiana and Maine – came close. Proposals to end the sales tax have been pitched in nearly 22 states this year. Even so, 35 states still tax these items.

Proponents note that the issue has attracted bipartisan support elsewhere. In Virginia, a Republican-controlled legislature sent the state’s Democratic governor a bill that reduced the tax instead of ending it altogether.

“It’s not just a blue state thing. It’s not just a Democrat thing,” Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who is a vice president at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and the author of the book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

“It’s something that everybody is able to understand and appreciate, that this is an example of some real indifference to women’s bodies and our lives and that change is possible,” Weiss-Wolf said.

Weiss-Wolf, who is a founder of the nonprofit Period Equity, said a big barrier for scrapping the tax is often concerns about the budgetary impact. But she argues that the lost revenues can be offset by a tax that is more equally spread across the population, and she has an idea for Georgia: Start taxing tattoos and piercings.

Cox, whose group is also part of Georgia STOMP, said the revenue lost by ending the tax is a small price to pay to right a wrong – even as state lawmakers consider budget cuts.

“That is 0.01% – $9 million – of the state budget that is borne solely by menstruators in this state is the inequity involved here, and that doesn’t go away during a budget crisis,” Cox said.

“It’s just being compounded through all the years that it’s been in existence,” she added. “So we’re not going to quit talking about it.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct title of Adele Stewart. 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.