Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, right, urges lawmakers to approve her measure to exempt tampons and other feminine hygiene products from sales tax as co-author Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, looks on, Wednesday, June 22, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. The bill, AB1561, was approved by the Senate Governance and Finance committee. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Rich Pedroncelli—AP
By Jennifer Calfas
March 15, 2017

It may seem unfair, but women in most U.S. states have to pay a tax for having periods.

Tampons and other feminine hygiene products are considered “luxury” items by a majority of states, and so are subject to sales taxes. As a result, women who menstruate pay millions each year in taxes that don’t apply to men—and many are demanding reform.

Lawmakers in California say they’ve found a unique solution: getting rid the tax on tampons and making up the budget shortfall by raising a tax on hard alcohol.

“Liquor is a choice and a luxury, and human biology is not,” California State Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia said in a statement last week. “There is no happy hour for menstruation. Our tax code needs to reflect the fact that it’s not ok to tax women for being born women.”

“No one can claim liquor is a basic necessity of life,” she added. “It’s basics before booze and ladies over liquor.”

The bill, called the Common Cents Tax Reform, comes after California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have eliminated the state’s tax on feminine hygiene products (among others) last fall. At the time, he called tax breaks “the same as new spending.”

The “tampon tax” isn’t actually a separate tax on these products. Most states tax “tangible personal property” but make exceptions for “necessities,” which often include groceries purchased with food stamps, some clothing and medicine — but not tampons.

California’s sales tax is the largest of any state’s, ranging from 7.25% to 9.75%, depending on the city. Lawmakers say the tax on tampons costs women in California about $20 million a year.

To offset that lost revenue, the new bill would raise the excise tax on hard liquor under 100-proof by $1.20 more per gallon — increasing from $3.30 per gallon to $4.50 per gallon. (The tax hike won’t affect beer or wine.) The state’s tax rate on alcohol has not changed since 1991.

Garcia, who introduced the bill with California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher on March 9, told MONEY the tax hike would add just two more cents per cocktail.

A powerful alcohol lobby in California has prevented tax hikes for liquor in recent years, Garcia said. But after studying the state’s tax code, she and other lawmakers found it would be the best area to target as a funding mechanism to alleviate Brown’s concerns over tax breaks.

They estimate the bill would raise $72 million in new revenue for the state.

“It comes down to values: What do we value and what do we value more?” Garcia said to MONEY. “Are we going to fight to have a tax code that’s fair and gender neutral, or we going to cave to the alcohol lobby?”

“I should not be taxed for being born a woman,” Garcia added. “It’s bad enough already being underpaid, undervalued and underappreciated.”

Eight states — Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Illinois — have made tampons and sanitary products tax-exempt. Several other states, including Alaska, New Hampshire, Delaware and Oregon, don’t have any state sales tax.

“This is a regressive tax on essential products that women have had to pay for far too long and lifting it is a matter of social and economic justice,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said while signing legislation to eliminate the tax in July 2016.

The cost of a pack of tampons varies around the country. Garcia’s office estimates that women in California spend about $7 per month on these items.

Though action to eliminate the “tampon tax” must occur on the state level, the fight has received attention on a national scale — from former President Barack Obama.

“I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items,” said Obama, referring to feminine hygiene products, in an interview while in office last year. “I suspect it’s because men were making laws when those taxes were passed.”

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