State governments tighten their grip on sales tax holidays

Back-to-school shopping at Staples.

Yoon S. Byun | Boston Globe | Getty Images
Back-to-school shopping at Staples.

Millions of shoppers will have a chance to stick it to the government over the next few weeks, as 17 states and Puerto Rico prepare for their respective sales tax holidays. Yet in several places across the country, these events will be noticeably more muted this year — if they’re held at all.

After initiating exemptions for its residents in 2004, Massachusetts will sit out its annual sales tax holiday for the first time since 2009. Government leaders cited budgetary constraints as the reason for its decision.

Florida will once again offer exemptions on clothing and school supplies, but it will be harder for shoppers to capitalize on these deals. The Sunshine State is trimming its event from 10 days to three, and eliminating computers as a qualifying purchase.

And in Louisiana, which earlier this year passed some “fairly substantial” changes to its sales tax rules, the government will offer a reduced tax rate of 3 percent, said Charles Maniace, director of tax research at Sovos Compliance. That compares with its typical 5 percent rate.

“This is the first time that I can recall a sales tax holiday with a limitation on the rate,” Maniace said. States typically add caveats to the items that are exempt — for example, limiting them to school supplies or clothing — or put in place a certain spending limit, to help plug the hole in lost revenue.

For Louisiana, which also has a $2,500 threshold for qualifying items, the revised criteria mean the most a shopper can save is $50, Maniace said. Yet even as the offers become less meaningful to shoppers’ wallets — particularly in an age of widespread 40 percent discounts — Manaice said consumers nonetheless look forward to these annual breaks.

“There’s a certain satisfaction that shoppers get in not paying sales tax that can’t be measured qualitatively,” he said.

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