Michigan governor proposes sales tax break on school supplies

A school-supply aisle in a department store with a sign that says “school list: check”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a sales tax break on school supplies, but her plan is a nonstarter with Republicans. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Crayons, notebooks, computers, and other back-to-school supplies could be a little more affordable this year under a tax-break proposal from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but Republicans say it’s too little and too late.

Whitmer’s plan would suspend Michigan’s 6% sales tax on school supplies, and is similar to tax holidays recently enacted by other states including Illinois, Florida, and Virginia,

“Getting this done would lower costs for parents, teachers, and students right now, and ensure that they have the resources needed,” Whitmer said Tuesday, when she announced the proposal.

It’s unlikely to pass before the start of school. 

Wednesday is the Legislature’s only scheduled session day this month. No votes are expected, and Republican leaders aren’t motivated to support the incumbent Democrat’s election-year proposals.

Republicans dismissed the proposal as election-year pandering.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth of Farwell called the proposal a publicity stunt. He noted that Whitmer vetoed three Republican bills that would have cut other taxes.

Whitmer’s November opponent, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, reacted to the proposal on Twitter.

“School supply lists came out a month ago,” she tweeted. “Shopping is done, many shelves are bare. Too little too late from the most out of touch Governor in the nation!”

Most schools open after Labor Day in accordance with a 2005 state law, but many districts apply for waivers that allow them to start sooner. Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest, opens Aug. 29. Some, including in Flint and Holt, already are back in session. 

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Whitmer’s proposal comes amid reports of rising costs for school supplies. Last month, the auditing firm Deloitte estimated that families will spend about $661 per child on back-to-school clothes and supplies this year, 8% more than last year. 

A Michigan family spending that much would save about $40 in sales tax under Whitmer’s proposal. 

“Families are dealing with a lot of pressures right now,” Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said. “We’re seeing things move in the right direction with gas prices going down and employment going up, but families do need help especially at this stressful time of the school year. Any help we can provide them through a suspension of the sales tax as they’re preparing to send their kids to school will make a big difference.”

Leddy said legislative leaders can add session days to the calendar and pass the tax suspension before most students return to school. The proposal should have wide bipartisan support, he said, because it would help families in every legislative district.

It would be up to the Legislature to specify what items are subject to the sales tax holiday and whether there are caps.

One proposal was introduced in the House in 2019 but never advanced. It would have suspended taxes on clothing priced at less than $100 per item, computers costing less than $1,000, computer accessories costing less than $500, and other school supplies costing less than $20.

Supporters of the idea say they wish Whitmer had proposed it sooner so the Legislature had time to act.

The tax break could be enough to sway parents who are on the fence about buying school supplies like new backpacks and lunchboxes, said state Board of Education member Ellen Cogen Lipton.

“It’s about more than the actual products themselves,” Lipton said. “It’s the whole back-to-school tone that (having new school supplies) sets. It creates such excitement in students.”

Tracie Mauriello covers Michigan education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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