'Where do you draw the line?': North Dakota House advances tax exemption for baby diapers, but not tampons
The Republican-dominated House passed seven bills that would add to the state's list of tax-free items. Only one proposed tax exemption didn’t make the cut.
BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives gave the green light to sales tax exemptions that would benefit new parents, farmers, the coal industry and drug manufacturers, but women buying tampons won’t see the same relief at the checkout lane.
Goods sold in North Dakota are subject to a 5% tax, plus local taxes of up to 3%. The revenue brought into the state through sales and use taxes — between $800 million and $1.1 billion a year — is critical to the operation of government programs.
Over the years, the Legislature has exempted dozens of products from sales tax, including most food, prescription drugs, medical devices and farm equipment.
The Republican-dominated House hasn’t balked at the chance to add to the list of tax-free items in recent weeks, passing seven such bills onto the Senate.
Only one proposed sales tax exemption didn’t make the cut.
House Bill 1282, sponsored by Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, D-Fargo, would have added North Dakota to the majority of states that don’t collect sales tax on feminine hygiene products. The chamber voted 33-56 on Friday, Feb. 17, to kill the legislation, which would have cost the state an estimated $700,000 a year in tax revenue.
Four days later, more than 90% of representatives voted to approve House Bill 1177, which would carve out children’s diapers from sales tax at an estimated cost of $800,000 a year to the state. The popular legislation brought by Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin, carried the endorsement of North Dakota Right to Life and other anti-abortion advocates.
Those who supported both bills were left disappointed by the chamber’s inconsistent actions on the similar pieces of legislation.
“To me, it’s another message that if it’s a women’s issue, it’s not a valid issue,” Dobervich said.
Olson, who voted for both proposals, said the House’s rejection of the tampon sales tax exemption is unfortunate and she wishes the arguments for the bill could have been stated more clearly.
The first-term lawmaker said she couldn’t think of any taxed items besides tampons and pads that are “only used by just one segment of the population.”
Dobervich and Olson contend that the feminine hygiene products are a necessity for women, and they should be treated like other tax-free health essentials.
House Majority Leader Mike Lefor was one of 50 Republicans to vote for tax-free diapers and against tax-free tampons.
The Dickinson lawmaker said he supported the diaper sales tax exemption because it benefits young families that are “just getting started out in life” during a period of high inflation. He rejected that the opposition to Dobervich’s bill suggests a disregard for women’s issues.
The House receives lots of requests for sales tax exemptions, and it can’t grant them all, Lefor said.
“We say ‘yes’ to some, but we have to say ‘no’ to some because if we did ‘yes’ to all of them, where do you draw the line?” Lefor said.
Dobervich noted that the House has not been overly selective this year when considering tax carveouts for several influential industries.
The chamber has recently passed proposed sales tax exemptions on grain bins, components needed for bioscience research and materials used to build hospice facilities, biofuel refineries and coal processing plants.
“We did tax exemptions for other industries,” Dobervich said. “So, why not women and their families?”
Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, voted against House Bills 1177 and 1282 because he believes lawmakers shouldn’t be removing individual items from sales tax collections. The chairman of the House Finance and Taxation Committee said sales tax exemptions should primarily be used to incentivize new business activity.
“To start carving out individual products from the sales tax base I think is contrary to what sales tax is there for,” Headland said. “It’s to provide state revenues, and the broader that sales tax base is, the fairer it is.”
Dobervich said she intends to bring back the tampon tax exemption in 2025 when the Legislature meets for its next regular session.