As Summer Break Ends, a Tax Break Begins

All items of clothing, including shoes, $100 or less are exempt from sales tax in Virginia this weekend. (By Jeanna Duerscherl -- Associated Press)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

As Sophie and Abby Smith, 11 and 9, unloaded a cart of bags filled with highlighters, lunchboxes, notepads and backpacks into a minivan outside Target in Leesburg yesterday, their mother unfurled a two-foot-long receipt and began calculating.

Grand total saved on about $300 of tax-exempt back-to-school goodies: $15. "That's enough to go get hamburgers or something," Karen Smith, 46, said. But, she added, "I have four kids, so a little bit goes a long way."

Virginia's second statewide sales tax holiday is helping the Smiths and other families with their back-to-school shopping lists. Today and tomorrow, shoppers will continue to be exempt from the 5 percent state and local retail sales tax on school supplies priced at $20 or less and clothing selling for $100 or less. A similar break starts today in the District, where shoppers have nine days free of the 5.75 percent retail sales tax on school supplies and clothing priced at $100 or less.

The Virginia tax holiday, which received unanimous approval in the General Assembly last year, is scheduled each year for the first Friday through Sunday of August. Shoppers are projected to save about $3.8 million, according to the state.

"It's something a lot of our surrounding states are doing. This is a boost for both retailers and consumers, " said Joel Davison, public relations manager at the Virginia Department of Taxation. "It is also to help families shop for back to school, although anyone can take advantage of the purchases that are exempt." The department hopes to keep Virginians from heading out of state to take advantage of similar exemptions and to lure shoppers from elsewhere to the state, Davison said.

Maryland residents might be among the cross-border shoppers. The 2007 General Assembly did not pass legislation authorizing a back-to-school tax break, though it had done so in past years.

"With the budget deficit, they didn't want to lose about $5 million in tax revenue," said Joseph Shapiro, spokesman for the Maryland comptroller's office.

In Leesburg yesterday, Donna Watson, 46, of Purcellville, dragged her unsmiling brood, ages 11, 14 and 15, across a strip-mall parking lot in the noontime heat. They were off to Costco, Wal-Mart and some outlet stores, attacking in one swoop their hefty list of new clothes, sneakers and school accessories.

"I'm out today to beat the crowds," Watson said, hustling her children toward a grocery store. Those crowds, she said, included several friends and neighbors who planned to hit the shops at 8 a.m. today. "It's nice to pay a bit less. Especially since gas is so expensive."

Did the tax break tempt some to throw something extra into the cart?

"Oh, gosh, yes," said Smith, of Leesburg. Her daughter Sophie, a rising sixth-grader, absolutely required a fancy pink magnetic pencil holder to decorate her first locker, Smith said.

But despite news releases and signs posted on shop doors, not every back-to-school shopper was aware of the tax break.

Upon learning about it from a reporter as she threw notepads, compasses and rulers into a cart at Target, Evelyn Hale, 44, of Round Hill, said: "I think they should put it [the tax savings] toward road use."

Then, after a moment's pause, Hale pulled out the school-supply lists for her son Merritt, 13, and daughter Margaret, 10. Merritt had whittled his list from five pages of supplies per class to a single page of penciled scrawlings.

"It is ridiculous," Hale said of the number of required school items. "So, yeah, this is wonderful!"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company