One of the rites of late summer here in Georgia, where school starts amid the dog days of the season, is back-to-school shopping. Though a boon to retailers, it is a tradition largely dreaded by kids who aren’t eager to surrender their summer fun, and by parents fearing the sticker shock of new clothes that will soon be outgrown and an ever-pricey list of school supplies and high tech gadgetry.
In recent years, Georgia parents got a bit of a windfall in late July from the annual tax holiday weekend, allowing them to buy clothes, computers, supplies and various other items without being levied sales taxes. The goal was to give folks a bit more buying power during a time many were obligated to deck out their students for the school year, all while helping retailers bring in a bit more profit.
But the tax-free weekend is gone this year, ended by a legislature that did manage to give yacht owners a break when they get their craft repaired in Georgia, and tax credits to music producers and video game makers. Each is designed to generate business growth, a worthy goal even if one can argue their merits. But when it comes to passing any kind of break for regular folks who pay taxes, this wasn’t the year.
Georgia had offered the tax holiday for 13 of the last 14 years, all but in 2011 when the state was forced to cut its budget to the bone. Shoppers came to rely on it and scheduled much of their pre-school buying for that weekend, though some school districts and teachers don’t always offer required supply lists in time for the occasion. Nevertheless, consumers always like saving, be it a few pennies or a lot of dollars, any chance they get.
But lawmakers listened to budget analysts from groups on both the right and left who claim the tax holiday did little to really spur sales, just piled them into one three-day shopfest. Meanwhile, estimates showed it cost the state treasury up to $70 million in uncollected revenue.
Local governments also were losing out on sales taxes as well, to the tune of some $30 million, in a time when many are already having to make tough decisions on budget cuts and tax hikes due to unfunded mandates and diminished funds from the state and federal levels.
Retailers welcomed the influx of shoppers, some of whom took advantage of the tax break even if they didn’t have children entering school. Purchasing a laptop computer worth several hundred dollars without sales tax, for instance, can save a nice chunk of change.
The problem with pulling the plug on the tax holiday is akin to any benefit, break, tax cut or entitlement: Once you offer it, it’s more painful to pull it back than if you never started it in the first place.
We see this playing out on a much larger scale in Congress’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, that has been in place for most of the decade. Millions were able to purchase health insurance through its exchanges, and even as the program teeters under its own flaws and costs skyrocket, those who were able to buy health insurance where they had none before aren’t eager to give it up. Hence, the protests, shouting matches at town hall meetings, angry letters and other invective hurled at Republican lawmakers seeking to redo the program.
Once government offers a benefit — be it Social Security, health insurance or even a short-term tax break — it’s hard to yank it back out of taxpayers’ hands. Trying to amend any such program is political death, as now seen in Washington. Any effort to reform an entitlement while people are benefitting from it is like trying to change the tires on a car as it speeds down the highway.
Georgians work hard to pay their taxes, which go to fund any number of needs at all levels, and when they can get a little bit of it back, they feel it’s well-deserved. That holds true whether it’s something as major as life-saving health coverage or as small as a few dimes off a pack of pencils, some tube socks and a spiral notebook.
Most agree the sales tax weekend did little to spark extra sales or boost the economy. Ultimately, it was more of a feel-good policy than a serious long-term benefit, candy treats with little nutritional value.
Perhaps this will serve as a lesson to legislators to do a little less pandering with hollow giveaways and focus more on big-picture policy changes that will offer real help to taxpayers in the long run. Instead of leaving budgets short of the revenue from those tax holiday sprees, why not funnel more of those state dollars into the schools themselves where it will do the most good? While saving a little on backpacks is nice, it would be of more comfort to know your child’s teacher is better paid, that classrooms have the infrastructure and technology to boost learning and that schools in impoverished urban and rural areas have what they need to succeed.
For rest of us, a sensible tax policy that fairly distributes the burden while putting money into other vital services like public safety, transportation, family services and rural hospitals beats a few dollars saved three days a year on stuff some might not need anyway.
The tax-free holiday was nice while it lasted, but lawmakers concluded there was a better use for that money. If they can make strides toward spending it and other tax revenue more wisely, we’ll all be better off for it — and not just when the August credit card bills arrive.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.