By: Arielle Percival

“Let’s talk about periods.” That statement is typically not heard at a dinner table, or in any social setting for that matter. And by periods, I’m not referring to punctuation; I am referring to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Not until 2015 (and even still today), the topic of menstruation was widely taboo. It was not discussed, and those who don’t menstruate probably prefer that it stays that way. I understand. Having a mature, appropriate conversation about a natural bodily function that affects nearly half the population can be difficult. But therein lies the problem. Since periods were never discussed, neither was the fact that California assessed a sales tax on these products, commonly referred to as the “tampon tax.” To clarify, the tampon tax is not an additional tax on tampons; it refers to the fact that there is no sales tax exemption for menstrual products.

The tampon tax is not isolated to California—over 35 states do not exempt menstrual products —which spurred a nationwide question: If nearly every state with a sales tax exempts “necessities” then why are women taxed on something they need to function in society for almost 40 years of their life? Are menstrual products not necessities? Adding fuel to the argument for eliminating the tampon tax, supporters looked at California’s and other states’ tax codes. They saw menstrual products were the only gender-specific item subject to sales tax on the books. Making matters worse, when trying to see if there were any items generally male-specific, the closest comparable was Viagra—which in California, as a prescription drug, is not subject to sales tax. There was clearly an inequity in the tax code, so California lawmakers moved to make things right.

Enter AB 31, the third iteration of legislation first proposed in 2015. California was one of the first states during the “Year of the Period” to introduce legislation to eliminate the tampon tax. It was nearly successful. However, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill reasoning the exemption equated to new spending which needed to be discussed during budget-approval because the exemption would cost the General Fund $20 million. To put things in perspective, the Governor’s budget estimates the total revenue for the 2015-16 budget was $117.4 billion. Time passed, new iterations of the bill were proposed, and in 2019 AB 31 was introduced.

AB 31 created an exemption for menstrual products for five years. By creating a sales tax exemption for menstrual products—specifically tampons, pads, menstrual cups, and sponges—it eliminates the gender inequity in the tax code and provides consumers savings at the register. For some, these savings may be unnoticeable, but for others struggling to make ends meet, it could mean not having to sacrifice dinner for health and hygiene.

Fast forward to June 2019, the tampon tax was finally eliminated when the exemption was included as a budget trailer bill—SB 92. But there was some not-so-good news: the exemption is only for two years, not the five years initially proposed. After two years, the Legislature must decide whether to renew the exemption or allow it to sunset. While the journey of working towards exempting menstrual products comes to an end, it may only be temporary.

On the other hand, this could be the first step in a permanent exemption for menstrual products. The fate of the exemption will likely become more apparent when the Legislative Analysts’ Office (LAO) makes its recommendation to the Legislature in 2021. SB 92 requires the LAO to make a recommendation based on whether the exemption is meeting the bill’s goal of increasing access to menstrual products, the effect on the General Fund, and other factors. Overall, although one can be hopeful that there is finally an exemption and that it will ultimately be renewed, SB 92 seems more like a temporary veneer where the government is going to see how the exemption fits within the budget. Then if it likes it, decide to implement a permanent set. And if the Legislature decides not to extend the exemption then it’s back to square one.

You can listen to my full conversation about the tampon tax repeal with Thomas Gerhart on the In Session podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever podcasts are downloaded.