From The Daily UW

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Washington state’s unemployment claims rivaling the number seen in the 2008/2009 recession, every cent counts at the grocery store. Now, about half of the state population can rest a bit easier when it comes to their next round of errands.

We’re talking about menstrual products — tampons, pads, cups, and similar items. Last Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5147, which will provide “tax relief by exempting menstrual products from retail sales and use tax.”

The bill, effective July 1, will make Washington the 18th state to exempt menstrual products from retail taxes. The bill was unanimously passed by the State Senate on March 7. Three days later, the House of Representatives approved the bill in a 95–2 vote.

“This is great news for the women of Washington who now will get to keep the more than 3 million dollars they’ve been paying in tax each year on medically necessary products,” Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) said in a press release.

Wilson has worked on this bill for years, first introducing the idea in 2016 when she served in the House and then in the Senate the next year. The main drive for this bill was to combat the discriminatory assumption that menstrual products are not essential. To put this in perspective, male-marketed products like Viagra are not taxed.

The inclusion of menstrual products in the retail tax also puts those who are financially compromised at risk. With 14.3% of Washingtonians ages 0–17 and 10.6% of Washingtonians ages 18–64 living below the poverty line, those who menstruate are put under further hardship.

“When there’s a surplus of 1.5 billion dollars, it’s hard for anyone to justify continuing a tax as discriminatory as this,” Wilson said in the press release. “It’s especially unfair to women who are low-income or experiencing homelessness, and all the work on this bill has been worth it for their sake alone.”

While Wilson pushed the bill through the Senate, much of the driving force behind the movement came from the Washington Tampon Tax Task Force, which is part of the menstrual rights advocacy group PERIOD.

“I think it’s symbolic,” task force member Reem Sabha said. “When you’re taxing something that is essential for … half the population, it sends a message that that bodily function is … something to be ashamed of.”

In between classes this year, Sabha, a graduate student at the UW, along with undergrad Dena Sabha and Kamiak high school students Jinyang Zhang and Ramya Arumilli, called and emailed senators, wrote letters, and sent out petitions.

A key part of the bill’s success was adapting to the preferences of different senators. In 2019, the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee supported SB 5147, but the Ways & Means Committee opposed it until state revenue projections increased.

“We got a lot of support from both parties,” Sabha said. “With more Republican legislators, if we framed it as a tax repeal, making the tax code less regressive, it was a very compelling argument for them.”

While the exemption of menstrual products from sales tax is a major step toward gender equity in Washington state, the Tampon Tax Task Force is already working on its next plan.

“I think we’re all really excited on the passing [of the bill],” Zhang said. “But now that that excitement has faded and we’re moving into the next legislative session, we’re planning on working on the bill SB 6073.”

This bill aims to provide free menstrual products in public school bathrooms. Although it gained traction in the Senate, it has yet to pass in the House. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) will introduce the bill in the next session.

In the meantime, the Tampon Tax Task Force continues to raise awareness for menstrual equity through a petition, urging senators to pass both bills by 2021.

“There are still 30 other states that still tax menstrual products,” Sabha said. “So we’re hoping that Washington repealing [the tax] will provide more of an impetus for other states to repeal it as well.”

By Nicole Pasia