Tinkering is a mistake

The Nevada Legislature may vote to remove the sales tax from feminine hygiene products. This has been getting considerable shallow and poorly informed news coverage. As a result, the measure is coasting to passage with little scrutiny. There’s nothing wrong with the measure. The big problem is that it’s too small and limited. But first, let’s start with some of the misconceptions about the bill.

News outlets like the Sagebrush at the University of Nevada, Reno and KVVU in Las Vegas have repeated the claim, “Products considered necessities are exempt from sales tax in the state.” In fact, there is no such state policy. Quite the contrary—when the sales tax was first created one of its attractions to legislators was that it would tax broad product lines like groceries and very expensive lines like pharmaceuticals and cars.

Further, journalists are using shorthand terms “pink tax” and “tax on tampons.” That misrepresents the situation and is pretty poor journalism in this period when the public is having to sort out alternative news, fake news and news. There is no tax on tampons—there is a sales tax that applies to a whole array of durable goods that happen to include tampons and other items—including, by the way, condoms.

That leads us to claims of sexism. The Las Vegas Review Journal and other entities have reported things like this: “Jazz Sheffer and several other young women who testified from Las Vegas said the tax was ’sexist’.”

That’s not the case. In the 62-year history of the Nevada sales tax, there is not a single sheet of paper in the archival record suggesting that any member of the legislature sought to single out women by applying the tax to feminine hygiene products. The tax may be unfair, but that is very different from suggesting sexist intent.

Over the years, some Nevadans became impatient with taxing necessities and either went to the legislature or to ballot petitions and got the sales tax lifted from some necessities. Those were small rebellions against the state policy of taxing necessities, but the policy itself is unchanged. Some variants of the word necessary appear six times in the sales tax statutes. In none of the six is it used to propound a policy of opposition to taxing necessities. And those statutes still tax innumerable necessities in addition to feminine hygiene products and male birth control.

In 1970, Nevadans voted to remove the sale tax on pharmaceutical drugs. In 1979, it was food, in 1986 prosthetic and other medical devices, and this past November voters removed the sales tax on still more medical devices. And they’ve barely scratched the surface. Necessities from clothing to soap are still taxed.

When are state legislators going to learn that these piecemeal measures don’t solve the problem, that the sales tax can’t be reformed? The problem is the sales tax itself, not its various applications. It’s unfair, unpredictable, unreliable. In hard times, when a stable state tax is most needed, it collapses. A state government relying on it is sanity-challenged, and Nevada should know this better than most, given the repeated state budget crises it has caused the state over the decades.

Tinkering with the sales tax is not the answer. Repeal is.