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A tax that's seldom waived

If you feel moved to honor Uncle Sam this Fourth of July by buying an American flag, Florida law offers some support for your patriotism: It exempts your purchase from state sales tax.

Trouble is, no one appears to have told the people who sell the flags.

Since July 4, 1974, state law has decreed that no sales tax shall be charged on the purchase of U.S. or Florida state flags. The flag tax exemption joins commercial crab bait and alcohol sipped at wine tastings among the odd collection of things the state says shouldn't be taxed when sold.

But being recorded in the voluminous Florida statutes and being practiced at the cash register appear to be separate things, at least in the Tampa Bay area.

Of six stores in Tampa and St. Petersburg where the Times recently bought American flags, every one charged sales tax. Although the Legislature's Florida Tax Handbook says $1.5-million in potential tax revenue is lost annually because of the flag exemption, the only merchants who had heard of this legal quirk were those who ran flag shops.

"I found out about it (the exemption) only two months ago, and that was because my wholesaler told me about it," said Betty Overman, office manager for A-Banners and Signs in Tampa.

Susan Dellinger, manager of the Wal-Mart in west Tampa, chuckled at the thought of combing the statute books to find the exemption.

"The Florida state tax book is like 900 pages," she said. "To go through there and find out that the flag is exempt is, well, pretty hard. I don't think any retailers know about it."

Barbara Bradbury, a saleswoman at Party Land, a party supply shop in St. Petersburg, agreed, but explained that "flags aren't really our specialty."

An employee at Sears in St. Petersburg's Tyrone Square mall who refused to give her name said the store honors the tax exemption, adding that it is nearly impossible for Sears to charge sales tax on flags because when the cashier rings up such a sale, the computer automatically excludes sales tax. The flag sales tax, she said, would be included only if the cashier manually overrides the system, ignoring the tax exempt status.

But a reporter who purchased a flag at the store was charged sales tax anyway.

At a Kmart on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, manager Mary Bullock said she knows flags are supposed to be tax-exempt, but that "maybe they charge (sales tax) on the little ones and not on the big ones with poles."

Also, she said the sales tax might be added by mistake because Kmart's pricing computers _ which cover stores nationally _ are in Detroit. Variations in state taxes must be changed at individual stores, she said.

Larry Bowman, owner of two Hallmark shops in St. Petersburg, said he wasn't aware of the tax exemption either, but said that as soon as he finishes upgrading his cash register system to use only bar-coded price tags, he would include the flag sales tax exemption in his pricing software.

Even the tax collector, it seems, isn't sure about who is and isn't complying with the exemption. Florida Department of Revenue spokesman Chuck Springston said that because the exemption doesn't cheat the state, it's a little harder to uncover.

He said that a person erroneously taxed on a flag can request a sales tax refund from the store, and that the store can then adjust its books.

Still, Springston said, few people actually call to ask about the exemption.

"But we do get some calls around this time of year," he said.

What Old Glory will cost you

Here are the flags purchased by the Times, along with their prices and the sales tax charged.

Montgomery Ward, Tampa Bay Center, Tampa: 2-by-3-foot U.S. flag set. Price: $2.99; sales tax: 19 cents; total: $3.18.

Kmart, 2915 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa: Medium-sized hand-held flag. Price: 97 cents; sales tax: 7 cents; total: $1.04.

Wal-Mart, 1501 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa: 3-by-5-foot flag to be used with flag pole. Price: $9.96; sales tax: 65 cents; total: $10.61.

Party Land, 2010 Tyrone Blvd., St. Petersburg: Large hand-held flag and bag of toothpick flags. Price: $2.75 and $1.25; sales tax: 28 cents; total: $4.28.

Sears, Tyrone Square Mall, St. Petersburg: 3-by-5-foot polyester flag set. Price: $9.99; sales tax: 70 cents; total: $10.69.

Lynn's Hallmark Shop, Tyrone Square Mall, St. Petersburg: Small hand-held flag; Price: 95 cents; sales tax: 7 cents; total: $1.02.

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