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Jan Moller, head of the Louisiana Budget Project, and state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, await Thursday, May 31, 2018, the vote against legislation that would have increased a tax break for workers with families.

Anyone who’s casually following the legislative session might be tempted to lump the so-called “tampon tax” bill in with the season’s less-than-serious initiatives, like proposed laws to prevent the product commonly known as almond milk from being labeled as such, and to restrict lawyers’ billboard advertisements because they make truckers feel targeted.

To dismiss the idea, though, is to miss a point that’s not silly at all.

Yes, there is an air of gimmickry around a proposal by state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, to eliminate state sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers. Talking about such things in public is attention-getting, to be sure.

But the underlying argument behind Morrell’s proposal, which is part of a larger movement in states around the country, is legitimate. Louisiana already exempts items it deems necessities — groceries, utilities and prescription drugs (including Viagra, Morrell pointedly said) — from state sales taxes. The idea behind adding tampons, pads and diapers to the list is that purchasing them is not optional and that taxing them imposes a lopsided cost on women.

We’re not talking about tons of money here in lost revenue — just an estimated $10 million a year, although Morrell conceded that it could be higher. That won’t make or break the state budget, and the incremental tax won’t make or break most family budgets. For those who live close the margins, though, it could make a difference.

And that’s why the proposal should be taken seriously, and why it’s good news that lawmakers seem to be ready to do that.

It’s a rare day when the Louisiana Legislature sees fit to ease the burden on those who need it most.

Although Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards ran and won on the issue, lawmakers have rejected his attempts to raise the minimum wage incrementally. They’ve also given no serious consideration to efforts to increase transparency in an attempt to reduce a significant pay gap between men and women.

When it was obvious that Louisiana needed new revenue in order to fund basic services, avert the fiscal cliff and dig out of the hole that Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal left behind, the Legislature turned to sales taxes, which are known to hit lower-wage workers disproportionately because they spend a larger share of their income on consumer goods than those who are in a position to save. Edwards, who had wanted to rely more on income than sales taxes, noted that at least the exemptions for basic needs made the idea less regressive than it would have been otherwise.

These exemptions, students of state government will remember, were part of the Stelly Plan, the state’s last serious attempt to come up with a stable, equitable tax structure. Backed by a bipartisan coalition headed by Republican Gov. Mike Foster and adopted in 2002 by voters, the Stelly Plan was aimed at creating predictability and growth as the economy expands. It also acknowledged that some people can afford to pay a bit more and that those who struggle could use a break.

Subsequent generations of politicians — including Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Jindal (with the help of a “yes” vote from then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards) — rolled back the plan’s modest income tax increases that were designed to offset the sales tax cuts. These short-sighted income tax cuts were a major contributor to the shortfalls that followed.

Now that the fiscal cliff is finally averted, the state Senate has decided that the tampon tax cut may be a good thing. Morrell got nowhere in previous attempts to pass it, and it almost died Wednesday when senators didn’t muster the two-thirds support needed to put it on a statewide ballot. But Morrell amended the measure to make it a statutory rather than a constitutional change, which meant it only needed a simple majority. The Senate then voted 29-5 to send it to the House.

Prospects there are unclear. The House is more politically conservative than the Senate, which suggests any progressive measure would be a harder sell. But it’s also more tax-averse. And even if the bill somehow passes, it would hardly count as any sort of grand scale, Stelly-style reform.

Still, lawmakers these days are clearly reluctant to have a broader conversation about taxation. In the current environment, piecemeal — and yes, arguably gimmicky — measures like this are probably the best anyone can expect.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.