By Sarah Davin
Vermont continues to lag behind other states in lifting the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, and as the current legislative session draws to a close, a bill to change that is likely to stall again.
On January 15, the Vermont House introduced H.29, a bill lead-sponsored by Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), which would remove the state tax on feminine hygiene products. Currently 12 states do not tax products women, trans, and non-binary people need during their menstrual cycles. Seven states, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, have specifically exempted feminine hygiene products. In 2017, Vermont did have a bill to remove the tampon tax, H.43, but it expired while waiting to be reviewed by the House Committee on Ways and Means. With the legislative season drawing to a close in May, it seems likely that voting on H.29 will be deferred to next year.
There appear to be two primary obstacles to passing H.29: the House’s resistance to passing a bill that would mean the loss of sales tax revenue, and it being lower down on a list of bills considered important. Till elaborated, “H.29 is unlikely to pass this year. The argument against removing the tax is that it narrows the sales tax base. The more you narrow the base, the higher the tax rate needs to be. Unfortunately, the Ways and Means Committee has not been very receptive to adding any sales tax exemptions.” According to Till, the estimated lost revenue from passing H.29 and removing the tampon tax would be $650,000, annually.
In addition, this process is slowed by the number of bills the Vermont House has to process each year. Till, also an obstetrician/gynecologist, indicated that the House sees more than a thousand bills in a two-year session and that a small percentage of those bills are passed. Till explained how the process has affected H.29, saying, “The lead sponsor from last session was not reelected so I brought the bill forward again. It is not unusual for ideas to take multiple sessions to get seriously considered.”
The sales tax on feminine hygiene products is notable because while many necessities and medical products such as bandages, aspirin, and even Viagra are tax exempt in Vermont, products related to menstruation such as pads, tampons, and diva cups are not. “This is a basic need for probably most women, and we tend not to tax things that are basic needs like food and clothes, and so this is an interesting exception to that,” commented Cary Brown, executive director of the Commission on Women. With more than half of Vermont’s population being female, and each individual woman spending a majority of her life having periods, the expenses stack up.
According to the Vermont Commission on Women, “The average woman will spend $1,773.33 on tampons in her lifetime, if she also uses panty liners for backup, that adds another $443.33 to her lifetime cost. The state and local option sales taxes amount to $124.13 on tampons, and another $31.03 in tax on panty liners per lifetime.” In addition, a study published this year by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that two out of three low-income women in the U.S. couldn’t afford menstrual products at least once a year.
“The burden is all on women to manage this situation and pay for the underlying supplies,” said Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington), an additional sponsor of H.29. “It’s not something you can get through healthcare coverage or freely through infrastructures of schools or employers, though I think that’s beginning to change a little bit on a voluntary basis. On top of that reality, we’re also taxing it, and for most of us, it feels like a medical necessity.”
Taxing feminine hygiene products not only exacerbates the already challenging practical reality of being able to access these products but also sends a message to the half of Vermonters who use these products that their very bodily functions are taxable. This isn’t just about taxes, this is about acknowledging the needs of women’s bodies as equal to the needs of men. “They are expensive as it is, asserted Kristen Vrancken, an organizer of Women’s March Vermont, “and to add this tax feels very punitive—and it is punitive.”
According to Colburn, change could be on the horizon. “I think that for whatever reason the [Ways and Means] Committee hasn’t seen it as a women’s health issue or a critical issue. I do get the sense that heading into next session that maybe more vocal support for the bill to help the committee leadership to see it differently, perhaps.” Vrancken voiced her concern that removing Vermont’s tampon tax could be overlooked, “This is certainly not a small issue, but one that could get swallowed by competing concerns.”