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A proposed ballot measure hopes to remove sales tax from feminine hygiene products

In the atrium of the Leflar Law Center at the University of Arkansas sits a table with a black tote on top of it. A flyer taped to the tote reads “Feminine Hygiene Should Be Free.” Maggie Osborne is a second-year law student volunteering at the table this afternoon.
“We are taking the actual tampons and we’re donating them to the local women’s shelter," Osborne said. "Then we’re taking the receipts and mailing them to the capitol in hopes of getting a refund for the tax difference. It’s more symbolic, because it wouldn’t be a lot of money. In Texas, they were able to repeal the tampon luxury tax by doing this at the law schools in Texas, so we’re hoping to have a similar effect here in Arkansas.”

Menstruating products, like tampons and pads, are taxed on average more than 9% across Arkansas, which can add up to about $11,000 over a lifetime. That’s according to Katie Clark, the founder of the Arkansas Period Poverty Project based in Little Rock. Clark said that her organization spent years trying to work with lawmakers to pass legislation to exempt these sorts of products from being taxed, but kept running into roadblocks.

“There’s a lot of education and awareness that also has to happen," Clark said. "And so I think that’s something we learned from legislative session, is that we needed to educate our legislators on the issue of period poverty. I think a lot of us don’t think about it. We think about poverty, but we don’t think about other aspects of that, except for like food insecurity.”

Clark said the group started in 2018 to promote menstrual equity in Arkansas through donations, education, and legislation.

“And so we’ve started doing a lot more education around menstruation and menstrual hygiene and period pain and menstrual disorders and things like that through our social media and through interviews with medical experts and sharing those out on social media and doing webinars.”

During the 2021 legislative session, Clark began working with lawmakers to pass bills removing some barriers to getting period products. The group worked on two bills: one with Republican Representative Aaron Pilkington of Knoxville and one with Democratic Representative Denise Ennett of Little Rock to introduce bills. House Bill 1065, Representative Pilkington’s bill to exempt these products from sales tax, died in the Revenue and Taxation House Committee. Representative Ennett's bill passedto allow schools to use preexisting funds to purchase period products and provide them at no cost to students.”

Again, in the 2023 session, Clark worked to pass legislation to remove the taxation of products, with no luck. So, she decided to go a different route.

“Being able to go the ballot measure route I think is a really great opportunity," Clark said, "because it allows us to get into the communities and talk with voters and be able to share this with them and be able to raise awareness at the community level about period poverty and why it’s important.”

One community that is excited to help and participate is the Women’s Law Student Association at the University of Arkansas. Erin Wadley is the president of the group, and she says she first saw the amendment on X. David Couch, whose name you may recognize from his work on the Freedom of Information Act constitutional amendment, is also involved in this amendment and posted about it online.

“And I was so inspired that that was something that he was passionate about and he was working on and my next thought was, ‘How do I support this?’” Wadley said.

Wadley makes the distinction that while the University of Arkansas Law School has no stance on this proposed amendment, the Women’s Law Student Association is in support of it and has already started working to raise awareness for it. Ciara Callicott is a first-year law student and said she founded a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of the issue of poverty in all forms, including period poverty.

“It was really kind of kismet because I reached out to Erin that same week about this idea, and I’ve done some work with Arkansas Period Poverty Project in the past, and so they connected me with Period Law," Callicot said. "Period Law actually worked in Texas to get the sales tax repealed.”

All ballot measures in Arkansas must be submitted to the Attorney General. Their job is to look over the ballot title, the popular name, and the text of a proposed measure to find any deficiencies in the text or anything that may be considered ambiguous or misleading. In the initial ballot measure submitted, Attorney General Tim Griffin opined that the language was ambiguous. Clark, again from the Arkansas Period Poverty Project, says they needed to clarify what hygiene and grooming products would not be included in this tax exemption.

“So, we needed to state things like shampoo, soap, razors, conditioner, or lotion would not be included [in the exemption]," Clark said. "Apparently it wasn’t specific or clear enough as to what was included under ‘feminine hygiene products’ and what was not included. They asked that we take a step and clarify that.”

And so, a new version of the ballot measure was drafted — with the specificity. And they also decided to add another specific product to their ballot measure: diapers. Clark said when this tax exemption was first being considered as a piece of legislation, their group and coalition decided to focus solely on period products.

“We’re the Arkansas Period Poverty Project," Clark said. "we’re going to stay in our lane and focus on period products. That’s what we do.”

But with a ballot measure, they reconsidered and brought the idea to their coalition and their social media followers.

“And about 72% of them said that they wanted diapers included. We looked at other states and Texas included that with their most recent bill that went into effect September 1. Louisiana and Florida are the same. We figured if other states in the region who have similar political views are also exempting diapers, that that would strengthen it.”

It’s worth noting that this reporter is the parent of a newborn child, which means buying quite a few diapers. But as Callicot points out, purchasing diapers still tends to impact women more than men.

“Something that people talk a lot about — specifically constitutional scholars — when talking about this tax and how it is unconstitutional is that the discriminatory intent is usually placed in the fact that they’re called ‘feminine hygiene products,'" Callicot said. "In Arkansas, we have a big maternal health crisis going on. There are a lot of mothers who are [purchasing diapers] on their own, so buying something like a diaper can be something that women disproportionally experience.”

And as Wadley points out, babies aren’t the only ones who use diapers.

“What about your parents?" asked Wadley. "Or what about your grandparents? That goes beyond maybe just of how we think of children [using diapers]. Or women for that matter, because not only women menstruate. There’s a lot of people who do, so opening the scope of that I think really just brings that community and broadens that to provide for honestly everyone in our state.”

When a bill is brought forward in the legislature, it’s sponsored by lawmakers who are attached to a political party. Citizen-initiated constitutional amendments do not require a legislator to sponsor it, which means it can be nonpartisan. Clark said that element is important to her and her group.

“We’re a nonpartisan organization. We worked with Republicans and Democrats. One thing we’ve said is that people have periods on both sides of the aisle, in both political areas, it’s something that we all experience, and I do think that this isn’t really a political issue. It’s something that we’ve seen have bipartisan support in Texas and Louisiana and Florida. We aren’t part of the Democratic Party, we’re not part of the Republican Party, we’re really just a community group focusing on communities and families in Arkansas who are struggling.”

On October 10th, the attorney general approved the ballot title. Next up, they have to collect more than 71,000 signatures of registered voters in Arkansas by July of next year. Clark said that will take a lot of work.

“But I think we have a lot of people who are really passionate about this issue in multiple areas of the state. I think it’ll just be a lot of strategizing and planning of how can we get at least one person and every county every weekend to be out somewhere at like farmers markets or things like that. It’s definitely going to take a lot of strategy and planning, but I think we can do it. Again, I’m blindly hopeful.”

Clark and her group have until July 4, 2024 to collect and submit all those signatures to be included on the November 2024 ballot.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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