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What Do Tampons Have To Do With The Tax Code?

Roman Tiraspolsky / Adobe Stock

The pandemic has caused huge revenue shortfalls in state budgets across the Mountain West and the country, renewing heated debates over taxes. That's true in Wyoming, too, though one tax issue before lawmakers is "still something that, you know, gets whispered about."

So says Jen Simon, and she's talking about periods. Simon is with the Wyoming Women's Action Network, and she says cultural stigma prevents important public policy discussions around, for example, the affordability of feminine hygiene products.

"If you can't actually afford products, you might not go to school on those days, so you might miss out on part of your education," she says. "You might not be able to go to work on those days, so you might work to miss out on income. And it's really incredibly problematic."

So what does someone's menstrual cycle have to do with a debate about taxes?

For the Wyoming Legislature, it came up in January during a Senate Revenue Committee meeting. Republican Sen. Affie Ellis https://youtu.be/qj3WVavhpzk?t=220" target="_blank">presented a bill to exempt menstrual products from the state's 4% sales tax. The bill didn't even make it out of committee.

"On the Senate side, I knew that the bill would likely not advance," she says. "Wyoming has significant budget issues that we're dealing with right now, and so any loss or foregone revenue collection, I knew it'd be a challenge."

If it had been signed into law, Wyoming would have joined a minority of states in the U.S. that exempt menstrual products from taxes.

Laura Strausfeld is with Period Equity, a non-profit legal organization that is working on what they call menstrual equity.

"And by that we mean working to make sure that menstrual products are free and accessible and safe," Strausfeld says.

Traditionally, menstrual products have included things like tampons, pads, and liners. In recent years, other products like the menstrual cup and even period underwear have become more popular with people seeking out environmentally friendly options. Prices range from around $10 a month for tampons to roughly $35 for a menstrual cup.

But in most states one thing is the same: "They still tax menstrual products," Strausfeld says.

In the Mountain West, Nevada is the only state to specifically get rid of the tax. That was back in 2018. Strausfeld says she'd like to see more states do that, especially since the problem also disproportionately impacts people on a limited income.

"Because they're purchased in small quantities," Strausfeld explains. "They can't be purchased in bulk and online. And the prices are higher in places where poor people buy these products. So I challenge anyone to find a more regressive tax than the tampon tax."

Is it more complicated than that? Katherine Loughead thinks so. She's with the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan tax policy research organization. She says taxing menstrual products does make sense.

"An ideal sales tax is one that has a broad base, but as low of a rate as possible in order to cover government services that are provided," Loughead says. "Now, a lot of goods have been exempted over time, often for political reasons.

Those goods run the gamut - from hair loss products and private jet parts to gun club memberships and doughnuts. And Loughead says making those exemptions is not the best approach.

"Because that results in a sales tax base that picks and chooses different things," she says. "It's a smaller base, and that leads to higher rates over time.

And then there's the timing. We're in an economic downturn right now.

"Now, of course, is a time when we are seeing a lot of revenue uncertainty, and so it does make sense to be extra cautious about what we are doing to the tax code," Loughead says.

And so in Wyoming, at least, the discussion has died down to a whisper once again.

Though it's possible if it picks back up, the debate won't be just about taxes. Across the pond, Scotland recently became the first country in the world to make menstrual products free to anyone who needs them.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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