When Colorado Representative Susan Lontine proposed legislation to eliminate the state tax on tampons and other feminine-hygiene products, she saw it as a matter of basic fairness. But she says the debate over the bill has devolved into a partisan issue whose opponents seem flat-out angry about the idea.
"I've gotten some nasty phone calls and e-mails," notes Lontine, a Democrat. "And unfortunately, my Republican co-sponsor" — Senator Beth Martinez Humenik — "has, too. They've talked about how this is a waste of time, how we should be working on other things. Just meanness."
The legislation, formally known as House Bill 17-1127, is on view below in its entirety. Its summary reads: "The bill creates a state sales tax exemption, commencing January 1, 2018, for all sales, storage, and use of feminine hygiene products. The bill further specifies that local statutory taxing jurisdictions may choose to adopt the same exemption by express inclusion in their sales and use tax ordinance or resolution."
In Colorado, many products that are viewed as necessities, including most groceries, aren't taxed. Supporters of the feminine-hygiene-related tax exemptions point out that these items are equally essential for a large number of women, and they've managed to get such legislation passed in at least twelve states.
"I've been watching this happen around the country," Lontine says. "Then, last year, all of the Colorado legislators I spoke to began receiving e-mails from our constituents with the subject line, 'My period isn't a luxury.' After that, I had some research done into it and began working on a bill."
Shortly after unveiling the legislation, Lontine began receiving pushback. "I got a lot of why-don't-you-do-this-for-men-or-that-for-men. But to me, there really is no comparison between these products and products for men that they have to have."
A variation on this complaint cropped up during the bill's first committee hearing earlier this month, with Representative Polly Lawrence, a Republican from Roxborough Park, wondering why products needed by senior citizens weren't included. Lontine sees that as "a valid point. But I don't think you can do everything at one time. I just chose to work on this one specific area. If someone else wants to do that, it's fine."
As for the suggestion that the bill represents favoritism toward women, Lontine isn't buying it.
"Women have been discriminated against since the beginning of time," she says. "In this day and age, they continue to make less than men, and we have situations where manufacturers of products charge higher prices for the versions they market to women than the ones they market to men. I had some folks look at a couple of typical things: razors and shaving cream, for instance. We checked Target and Walmart and King Soopers, and every single time, the shaving cream and razors marketed to women were priced significantly higher than the ones for men, and for less of a product."
This tactic is referred to as "a pink tax," Lontine goes on. "It's not really a tax, but it's about how women are being charged higher prices for things. If you go to a dry cleaner, they always charge more to do a woman's shirt than a man's shirt. Women pay more for haircuts, too. So to say we're carving out something special just for women — well, men already get treated special. And men are also paying for this. If they've got wives or daughters in their house, they're paying more for feminine-hygiene products, too."
The bill isn't revenue-neutral, but just how much it would cost is a complicated matter. A fiscal analysis estimated that $1.2 million less in taxes would come in during 2017-2018, and $2.4 million less in 2018-2019 if the legislation becomes law. Because Colorado is collecting more in taxes than it can legally keep under the provisions of TABOR (the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights), these amounts would reduce the size of mandated tax refunds rather than cutting into official revenue.
Whatever the final price tag, Lontine acknowledges that "we're struggling with our budget right now. We're in a bind fiscally. But I don't think it's fair to make money off of women for this."
The bill is still alive at this writing, having escaped from the aforementioned committee by a 7-6 vote that was cast along party lines. The solid wall of Republican opposition strikes Lontine as incongruous, given that "typically my friends on the other side of the aisle think tax cuts are great." She adds, "I don't want to impugn anybody, but it seems to be that helping out women has become a partisan issue, and that's a sad commentary."
Next for the bill is a trip to the appropriations committee — and if the legislation emerges intact, it can pass the state House even if no GOP reps decide to back it, since Democrats hold the majority there. Prospects are tougher in the other chamber, where Republicans are in charge. "I don't know about its fate in the Senate," Lontine concedes, "but I'd like it to get to that point, at least, so we can have a broader conversation."
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Thus far, most people with whom Lontine has spoken on the issue "get it," she allows. "But there will always be some people who are petty and tell me I'm being frivolous and other things — like one gentleman who told me I was doing this for a 'minority of the population.'"
Of course, there are more women in the world than men — and a huge number of them use feminine-hygiene products.
Here's the bill.