THIS IS A dangerous thing to say, because it’ll tempt legislators to pass something even worse, but this could be the best example there is of how insane, how unhinged from reality, how throw-whatever-they-want-at-special-interests South Carolina’s tax code is: One of the things you can buy tax free during our annual back-to-school sales tax holiday is a wedding gown.
A wedding gown.
What’s next on our back-to-school shopping list? Diapers?
Well, actually, yes. Among the items you can pick up tax-free starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday are baby diapers (cloth or disposable). And baby bibs. And baby clothes. And baby shoes.
And this relates to going back to school … how?
No, this isn’t new. The wedding gowns and diapers and other baby goods have been on the list since the whole crazy “holiday” was created in 2005. And it isn’t news — at least not to anyone who follows my occasional rants about how the state of South Carolina attempts to manipulate shoppers during the first weekend of August.
But every year, we keep having the “holiday,” and every year these non-school items are back on the back-to-school no-tax list, so I’m thinking that I ought to make fun of them every year.
Along with the back-to-school wedding veils. And the back-to-school beach capes and coats and fishing boots and hunting vests. And garters and garter belts and corsets and corset laces.
Clearly, school has changed a lot since I was a student.
Alas, bridesmaids dresses are not tax-free. Nor are engagement rings. Or wedding cakes. Or baby strollers. Or baby beds.
Why, you can’t even buy a college-student bed tax free, although you can buy sheets and pillow cases and comforters and towels tax-free.
Legislators say the purpose of the annual Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday is to give a break to parents struggling to ready their children for the start of classes. It’s not.
If it were, it would apply only to items that parents need to purchase to send their kids back to school: the notebooks and pencils and backpacks and school clothes and even dorm-room supplies that are on the no-tax list. But not the wedding gowns and veils or diapers or garters or the many other items that just don’t quite fit on that back-to-school shopping list.
If the purpose of the tax holiday were to make it easier for struggling parents to get their kids ready for school, there would be a cap on purchases, like the other 15 holiday states have. Either on the total any shopper can save on taxes, or the total price of each item that can go untaxed. A $500 dress to wear to school? Really?
If the purpose were to make it easier for struggling parents to get their kids ready for school, it wouldn’t be available to me and other non-parents.
But making the distinction between parent and non-parent would be ridiculously difficult for retailers (proof of school-age children required to qualify for the exemption?), so the only way to limit the tax break to parents would be to just send them all a check. The Legislature doesn’t want to do that, because it would be expensive, it would be welfare-like, and it would make it perfectly clear just how piddling this gift is. (Even the maximum projected savings, $3 million, divided by 750,000 South Carolinians younger than 25, gets you just $4 each; assume half of them aren’t in school, and you’re up to $8.)
Besides, sending back-to-school checks to parents would eliminate the other big benefit of the holiday: giving a great gift to retailers. Or at least making them think they’re getting a great gift.
Retailers say the tax holidays encourage people to buy more stuff than they otherwise would, which is good for our economy — assuming they can afford what they buy. But numerous studies have found that the holidays simply change when people shop. To: all at once. The anti-tax Tax Foundation says that some retailers raise prices during the holidays, and suggests that what retailers actually get out of the holiday is a free advertising boost.
The Washington think tank argues that the holidays “create complexities for tax code compliance, efficient labor allocation, and inventory management” and “involve politicians picking products and industries to favor with exemptions, arbitrarily discriminating among products and across time, and distorting consumer decisions.”
Now, I don’t mind using the tax code to distort consumer decisions. I just want to make sure we’re distorting them in ways that advance our common values: jacking up cigarette taxes, for instance, to deter teen smoking, or giving tax breaks to companies that create good-paying jobs in poor areas. Our sales-tax holiday doesn’t even try to do that.
The main thing the holiday accomplishes is to create a constituency for itself, to go along with the constituencies for our other 110 or so sales tax exemptions. That reduces the chance that the Legislature will ever get rid of any of the exemptions. And that means our state will continue to exempt as many purchases as it taxes, which is the main reason our sales tax ranges from 6 percent to 9 percent, among the highest in the nation.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.