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A Bold Step Forward from Diapers

Our latest tale of legislative drama starts from diapers.

Literally.

House Bill 2414 in this year’s legislative session proposes to enact a general excise exemption for diapers.

The bill recites that diapers are a large expense for Hawaii families with small children and are essential to babies’ and toddlers’ health as they each require about fifty diaper changes per week, or roughly two hundred diaper changes per month.  However, according to the National Diaper Bank Network, one in three families struggle to afford clean diapers for their children.

Our general excise tax, the bill supporters point out, is highly regressive, meaning that people on the lower end of the income spectrum spend comparatively more of their hard-earned dollars on general excise tax.  This problem has been known for several decades but has been met with inaction for the most part.  It’s been well known that in this state, lots of things that are considered necessities of life are subjected to the GET, including food and medical care.

So, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii had an interesting comment about this diaper bill.  “While the Chamber supports making a general excise tax exemption for the manufacture, production, packaging and sale of diapers, we believe the bill does not go far enough.,” it said.  “The Chamber respectfully asks the committee to consider an amendment that would make a general excise tax exemption for the gross proceeds or income from the manufacture, production, packaging, and sale of food and medicine.  Food and medicine are the most important and basic life necessities in this world, and still some struggle to provide those items for their families. We believe including food and medicine into the general excise tax exemption would further help families in need.”

Similar comments were made by the Hawaii Restaurant Association, Hawaii Food Industry Association, and Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

Apparently, that was enough to spur the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development, and Tourism into action.  On March 18, the committee voted to amend HB 2414 to add an exemption for food and medicine.  The text of the amended bill was not released by our publication deadline.

An exemption for food and medicine would indeed be a bold step forward.  It would undoubtedly have a massive revenue cost, but a massive impact as well.

To be sure, such exemptions have been proposed in the past and have mostly fallen to the wayside.  Lots of arguments have broken out, not only here but also in other states that have similar exemptions in their sales tax, about what kinds of food and medical care are “necessities,” presumably deserving of the exemption, versus “luxuries,” which presumably are not.  For example, would you exempt a doctor’s fee for performing plastic surgery?  Would your answer be the same if the surgery was necessary to put a person back together after getting in a car crash?   If a line needs to be drawn somewhere, how do you draw it?

But—and this may be the point the Senate Committee is trying to make—the difficultly in drawing that line shouldn’t be an excuse for not doing anything about the problem.  We have a social problem in that our tax system is regressive.  It hits people harder when they have less of an ability to pay it.  How do we address that problem in a fair and thoughtful manner, as opposed to simple-mindedly saying that we should enact more and larger taxes that really beat the heck out of those who have some money?

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