Although some of the bills that we comment on affect civil liberties at their face value – either positively or negatively – the reason that we read every single proposed bill, and comment on 300+ pieces of legislation every year, is because the devil is in the details.

Obviously, sales tax doesn’t inherently violate civil liberties, but its selective application to certain products does. This session, bills regarding sales tax on nonfiction books, feminine hygiene products, and lobbying services demonstrated this exact issue, and how inequity in tax collection can violate First Amendment protections, gender rights, and the right to exercise political speech.

Nonfiction Book Sales Tax (H 5158)

H 5158, introduced by Rep. Arthur Corvese, would clarify the current tax exemption that exists for the sales of books by their authors to apply to works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Currently, the Division of Taxation and the Council for the Arts, the agencies responsible for implementing this law, distinguish between the two, interpreting the exemption for “an original and creative work” to only apply to works of fiction. In addition to raising serious First Amendment issues through this distinction, the agencies provide no guidance for what constitutes a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction; how, for example, would a non-fiction, graphic autobiography such as Persepolis be viewed? We testified in support of this important bill and filed a lawsuit last week to challenge the state’s implementation of the current law.

Tampon Tax (H 5307)

Although the list of items exempted from sales tax in Rhode Island is extensive and disparate, including horse food products and promotional literature for boat manufacturers, one class of product is noticeably absent and thus subjected to this tax: feminine hygiene products. In fact, Rhode Island law treats them as “luxury items.” We testified in support of H 5307, introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello, which would add feminine hygiene products to the items exempted from sales taxes. As these products are purchased predominantly by women, the practical result is a sex-based tax on items that, we feel confident saying, no Rhode Island woman views as a luxury.

Lobbying Tax (H 5151, Article 5, Section 9)

Article 5, Section 9 of the proposed FY 2020 budget includes, amongst other potential taxes on “services,” a proposed 7% sales tax on “lobbying services.” We argued in both Senate Finance and House Finance Committees that this tax amounted to a direct levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We further noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it, such as public relations or political consulting, the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. The proposal also allows the “dues” of organizations engaged in lobbying services to be taxed. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself.