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May 20, 2023

Some of the more ridiculous items included in South Carolina's annual back-to-school sales tax "holiday" are ski clothing, wedding dresses, swimsuits and tuxedos.

Perhaps you’re tired of hearing our annual rant about the back-to-school wedding gowns? Well, you’re probably not as tired of that as we are of South Carolina’s annual back-to-school tax gimmick, which would be bad enough even without that silly set of examples state officials peddle, starting with those tax-free wedding gowns. Just what every third-grader needs.

Even some of the state-recommended purchases that elementary, high school or college students might actually find useful have little if anything to do with school. Think wedding gowns, again, and veils. Along with formal non-wedding gowns, tuxedos, diapers and costumes. And those bizarre pairings marvelously made for mockery: Hunting and ski clothing are exempt, but sports equipment isn’t; purses and handbags are exempt, but change purses and wallets aren’t; shower curtains and liners are exempt, but shower curtain hooks and rings aren’t; shoes of almost every imaginable variety are exempt, but shoelaces aren’t.

Of course, state law doesn’t technically mandate a back-to-school event. That’s just what then-Gov. Jim Hodges called it back in 2000 when he borrowed the idea of making parents feel like he was giving them something worthwhile — you know, instead of a smarter tax system that would reduce our need for a “holiday” from what would become some of the highest sales taxes in the nation.

It’s also the clear theme of the event, one that’s impossible to miss in the S.C. Revenue Department’s marketing — marketing! — and in the coordinated marketing by retailers who are happy to take credit for state-subsidized savings, no matter how small, and take advantage of the buzz our state employees create for them.

The anti-tax Tax Foundation, which like us finds these sales tax holidays ridiculous, notes that they “do not promote economic growth or significantly increase consumer purchases (but) … simply shift the timing of purchases,” “encourage spending to be concentrated in a limited window at a time when supply chains are already strained” and “involve politicians picking products and industries to favor with exemptions, arbitrarily discriminating among products and across time, and distorting consumer decisions.”

All of which is to say that the “holiday” that starts Friday is a great deal — for retailers. And politicians who might be able to claim credit without doing anything useful. For the rest of us? Well, that’s less clear. Yes, clear-headed purchasers can save money if they stack their sales tax exemptions — which in our state can be worth as much as 9% — on top of significant sales promotions. If they can find any on the holiday weekend. They can also save money, as The Post and Courier’s David Slade points out, if they already need to purchase a pricey item that rarely if ever gets deep discounts — like that wedding gown, or a new computer.

At least based on the debate that occurred at the time, providing a taxpayer-supported break on high-end products that have nothing to do with school wasn’t lawmakers’ intent when they passed the law. Besides the whole pandering-to-parents part, the intent was to provide a tiny reduction in the cost of actual back-to-school supplies.

The problem — besides the fact that the event was created to begin with and still exists — is that legislators never tweaked the law as the problems became apparent. Or as they saw the less-irresponsible way other states treated it. And the Revenue Department has never fixed those ridiculous shopping lists — which are not complete lists of what’s tax exempt this weekend but rather the items bureaucrats decided to highlight. Again: wedding gowns and veils. And hunting and ski clothing.

The department’s exempt list does say that pens, pencils, art supplies, earbuds and other “school supplies” are exempt only if they’re used for school; it says computers aren’t exempt if they’re used for “business.” But no one’s required to check, and with the exception of a business that tries to purchase dozens of new computers and get the sales tax knocked off, there’s no reason to believe there’s any enforcement.

It would be easy enough for lawmakers to amend the law to its original promise and intent, starting with clothing. Of the 15 states that provide tax-free weekends for clothing, South Carolina is the only one that exempts any piece of clothing purchased, regardless of the price. Nearly all the others cap exempt items at a reasonable $100 or less, which strikes us as plenty to spend on a single clothing item for school. The fact that our lawmakers haven’t adopted a similar cap is evidence that this law has nothing to do with parents and everything to do with the retailers who make generous campaign donations.

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