AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Starting Thursday, Colorado will no longer tax feminine products and diapers, further energizing a group of young Texas women who have been working to accomplish the same in the Lone Star State.

Houstonian Zoe Kass, 18, is part of the Texas Menstruation Equity Coalition, which was formed with the goal of eradicating the sales tax on essential menstrual products. 

“Non-necessities are tax exempt, but why are we ignoring menstrual products? And that really speaks to who’s in power and whose voice is being heard in politics,” Kass said. 

Like most teenaged women, period products are a routine purchase for Kass. But she cannot fathom the reason why Texas collects a sales tax on things like pads and tampons, which are a necessity for anyone menstruating, despite outlining exemptions for a host of other medical products.

“You can’t go to school if you’re free bleeding everywhere,” she said. “It’s happened to me. It’s not fun … you have to go change, you’ve missed all of your classes.”

Kass and the founder of their coalition — Sahar Punjwani, a University of Chicago student from Houston — have been fighting to eliminate the “tampon tax” for years. The group has taken their fight to city councils across Texas and all the way to state lawmakers at the Capitol.

While their efforts have yieled some progress — like the Austin City Council approving a measure to offer free menstrual products at city-owned facilities — they’re still primarily targeting the state’s sales tax.

Without any legislative action, Punjwani and Kass are getting creative with their approach: protesting the “tampon tax” by requesting a refund through the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

Through the help of pro-bono attorneys at Baker Botts LLP, a renowned Houston-based law firm, the women are hopeful that the state’s top accountant will find menstrual products classify as “wound care dressings”, which are already exempt according to the tax code.

(4) Sales or use tax is not due on the sale of wound care dressings.

(15) Wound care dressing — An item that absorbs wound drainage, protects healing tissue, maintains a moist or dry wound environment (as appropriate), or prevents bacterial contamination.

Section 3.284 of Title 34 of the Texas Administrative Code (i.e. “Rule 3.284”)

“That wound care supplies exemption has been extended to everything from band aids, to eye patches, corn cushions and wound care supplies for animals,” said Ali Foyt, a Baker Botts tax associate. “So with this refund claim that we’re asserting on behalf of the Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition, we argue that feminine hygiene products are already exempt under the comptroller’s own rule, just as so long as it is rationally applied.”

If their argument that period products are wound care doesn’t hold, Foyt believes there’s also an argument to be made under the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“If the comptroller refuses to extend its exemption to feminine hygiene products, that would qualify as impermissible gender-based discrimination,” she said. “Because other gender neutral products, and some male specific products, do receive exemption.”

So far, their argument hasn’t held. In February, the comptroller’s office rejected Punjwani’s request for a refund on the sales tax she paid for a single box of tampons. They appealed this decision and requested a hearing. If that doesn’t work, Foyt said they plan to take this to the courts.

Legislative efforts to eradiate sales tax on menstrual products

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has been advocating to codify a sales tax exemption for menstrual products, as well as other essential hygiene items like diapers. In the 2021 legislative session, her bill got further than the other two bills she had introduced in previous sessions.

“It’s hard to say why it hasn’t gotten over the finish line,” Howard said. “I think it does have to do with the fact that we are predominantly-male still at the legislature.”

She also believes it comes down to a matter of equity in the state’s tax laws, noting the impact it has on low-income households during a time of skyrocketing inflation, rent and other typical monthly costs.

“There have been studies that have shown that there are girls who do not go to school on certain days when they have their periods, because they do not have access to supplies. And though that’s hard for a lot of people to grasp, that’s a reality for those that have very limited incomes.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin

If any, she says the most vocal opposition has usually been about how eliminating this tax could effect the state’s bottom line. But heading into a fiscal year where the Comptroller has estimated a record surplus of money in Texas’ budget, Howard hopes now is the time to get this legislation passed.

Getting rid of the sales tax for period products would cost the state roughly $21 million each year — about $42 million for Texas’ two-year budget — according to the Legislative Budget Board’s estimates.

Howard argues it’s a drop in the bucket, considering the whopping additional $27 billion — yes, billion — Texas collected from mostly sales tax. In total, lawmakers will head into back to the capital city with $149.07 billion in general funds to work with in the 2023 legislative session.

“Look at this with a more dynamic fiscal approach where you’re looking at, okay, you may have that direct loss, but what will you gain? Because they’ll be using that extra cash they have in their pockets for other things,” Howard said.

Kass and other members of their coalition have worked with Howard on her legislation, which she plans to reintrodue again during the next session.

Both hope that the more this natural bodily function is discussed, the further it will reduce stigma and perhaps mobilize the change they want to see.

“I used to be very embarrassed to talk about periods,” Kass said. “We need to start talking about these things…so we can have these conversations about getting rid of the tax on menstrual products, because that’s not gonna happen until we’re comfortable.”