Thursday, April 26, 2018
Politics

Romano: State laws add to the cost of being a woman in Florida

Depending on your point of view, this is a story about money. Or politics. Or feminine hygiene products.

And the truth is, it involves all of those and maybe a few others. But at its core, this is about something simpler.

This is a story about injustice.

And it begins with a lone, 23-year-old woman from Tampa running a nonprofit organization that tries to get feminine hygiene products into domestic violence and homeless shelters.

Carlee Wendell created For The Love of Women last fall after seeing a Facebook post about tampons being handed out to homeless women.

In the course of her research, she made a disconcerting discovery:

Feminine hygiene products are subject to sales tax in Florida.

Bunion pads aren't. Neither are lip balms, wart removers or a male pattern baldness treatment. And yet tampons and sanitary pads are taxed.

In the broadest sense, the state taxes anything considered a luxury. Which means Florida appears to consider a menstrual cycle as voluntary.

"I don't take gender inequality and injustice very lightly,'' Wendell said from her attorney's office Friday.

"And this amounts to me having to pay the government every month for having my period.''

So Wendell has initiated a class-action lawsuit that seeks to repeal the state's tax on feminine hygiene products, as well as refund money to anyone who has purchased products in the past three years.

The state's stance is not unusual. And, as it turns out, neither is the lawsuit. Forty states have been taxing women's products, although a half-dozen are in various stages of repeal. Lawsuits also began popping up after a column in Cosmopolitan magazine shed a greater light on the issue.

There's even a chance the law could change in Florida ahead of Wendell's lawsuit. State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, instructed Senate staff to begin drafting a bill after his office received hundreds of complaints this spring.

"When we first started receiving the emails, I think the senator was surprised,'' said Rachel Perrin Rogers, the chief legislative assistant in Simpson's office. "He said, 'I didn't even know they were taxed. That doesn't make any sense.' ''

A preliminary study by Senate finance staff indicates a repeal could cost the state as much as $15 million annually. And that means the lawsuit could generate tens of millions in refunds if successful. The suit currently asks for refunds from retailers such as Target, Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, which would then seek relief from the state.

Even if the state makes changes to the tax laws, attorney Dana Brooks Cooper said the class action suit will go forward to seek refunds.

"I don't think they'll have trouble getting it passed because the current situation is indefensible,'' said Brooks Cooper, of the firm Barrett, Fasig & Brooks of Tallahassee. "We're talking about a substantial amount of money that women have already paid.''

Changing the law and pursuing refunds are the obvious goals of the lawsuit, but Wendell says it's also important to point out the institutionalized inequality involved.

"People aren't comfortable discussing periods, and I understand that,'' she said. "But these products are medically necessary and it's insulting to women to say they're not.''

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