Our Opinion: State should restore tax-free weekend for back-to-school buys

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In a role reversal rich with political irony, Tar Heel Democrats are scoring populist points by scolding the state’s Republicans for raising taxes.

The North Carolina Democratic Party slammed the GOP last week for eliminating our state’s back-to-school sales tax holiday. The Republican-controlled General Assembly repealed the tax-free weekend in 2013, and while legislative leaders have trimmed the state income tax rate from 7.75 percent to 5 percent in that time, they’ve also raked in revenue through increases in administrative service fees.

Democrats are wise to make hay of the hidden hike — the tax-free weekend was popular, and families are feeling more of a pinch in the pocketbook when shopping for new school clothes, computers, backpacks and supplies than they did five years ago.

A 2017 Tax Foundation study found that sales tax holidays don’t increase purchases or promote growth. While it’s likely true that consumers shift shopping habits to take advantage of the tax-free weekend and don’t spend considerably more than they otherwise would overall, the data fails to account for the real-world need to keep up with the Joneses.

Virginia and South Carolina have tax-free weekends — both states observed the tradition Aug. 3-5 this year. Most Tar Heels are within an hour or two’s drive from our neighbor to the north or south. Especially in counties along the state lines, shoppers flee North Carolina to take advantage of back-to-school savings in border boomtowns. How does that affect our economy?

Ending the holiday amounts to a regressive tax. The back-to-school bonanza benefited needy families, the middle class and teachers most; folks on the upper end of the income chart would just as soon skip the long lines and crowded stores. When money is no object, convenience is what counts.

“Cutting the tax-free weekend is just one more example of how North Carolina Republicans have repeatedly put the best interests of corporations and their wealthy donors over our state’s working families, students and teachers,” state Democratic Party executive director Kimberly Reynolds said in a statement. “North Carolinians deserve representatives who put public education first. That’s why they’re headed to the polls to elect Democrats this November.”

Understanding the benefits of job creation and investment, we break ranks with Reynolds on the class warfare bit. While she’s right that sales tax on essential supplies disproportionately affects the poor, our state needn’t soak the rich in order to give struggling families a break. There’s plenty of pork-barrel spending in the state budget just itching to be trimmed. We can have our income tax cuts and our tax-free weekend too.

Families with two, three or more children in school can spend thousands of dollars on back-to-school clothing, supplies and electronics. Cutting their total bill by 7 percent was a big deal.

Teachers, too, relied heavily on the tax-free weekend to stock their classrooms. Each educator spends an average of $500 per year on class supplies, and some spend far more. That’s at least $35 in new taxes our teachers have been forced to absorb.

Not only did lawmakers reject Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to provide each classroom with a $150 supply stipend, they’re also determined that the state must make a profit on teachers’ out-of-pocket pain. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Cooper doesn’t have the power of the purse, but he’s calling on community members to support our teachers by participating in his second annual classroom supply drive. Every State Employees’ Credit Union branch is accepting school supply donations, and we’re also collecting in The Wilson Times’ front lobby through Aug. 17.

Ending an established, expected tax reduction has the practical effect of increasing collections, so we don’t blame the N.C. Democratic Party for taking Republicans to task over their backdoor tax hike. It’s an eminently valid criticism and shows legislators who harp on shrinking government and lowering levies to be inconsistent at best and insincere at worst.

The Times endorses neither candidates nor parties, but we’ll call out hypocrisy wherever it rears its ugly head. We’re proud to support the sales tax holiday, a back-to-school tradition unceremoniously scrapped for no good reason.

Lawmakers should restore the tax-free weekend without delay. They’ve missed their chance to save parents and teachers money this summer, but it’s never too late to admit mistakes and share the savings.