In New York City, the introduction of a tax-free shopping week in 1997 was almost like a new holiday, drawing hordes of bargain hunters out of the New Jersey malls and back into the downtown Bloomingdale's.
Retailers in the city reported an increase in sales of more than 75 percent.
Maryland lawmakers are hoping the same shopping madness will infect residents if the General Assembly passes a bill to eliminate the state's 5 percent sales tax on some clothes and shoes for one week in August, just in time for the back-to-school rush.
"Let's do something for the average Joe," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard), a sponsor of the measure, as he testified before a Senate committee yesterday. "This would be a chance to do something we rarely do, which is give them something they can feel and touch."
If approved, the measure would erase the sales tax on all clothing and shoes priced under $100--not including accessories--for the week ending Aug. 17.
In addition to New York, Florida and Texas have tried such inducements to lure shoppers off the Internet, away from mail-order catalogues and out of stores in neighboring states.
A similar measure passed the Maryland House of Delegates the past two years, and the latest proposal has backing from members of both parties in the Senate. Given the state's $940 million surplus, many legislators consider it an easy way to give a little something back to taxpayers.
But as much as it might be appealing to regular folks, tax-free shopping is not universally accepted by legislators as an easy vote or even a good idea.
"I've got to weigh the benefits of keeping a kid from being poisoned by lead paint in Baltimore City or fighting the drug epidemic, against giving everybody 30 bucks," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), who chairs the powerful Senate budget committee, which must sign off on the proposal.
"It takes money to do the stuff we want to do," she said. "I'm not sure if you asked parents if they'd rather have 20 or 30 bucks for school shopping or see that money in the aggregate be spent on a substantial preschool program, what they'd say."
Supporters say the bill's cost, an estimated $4.4 million to $6.4 million in lost tax revenue, is small enough that the state can afford it.
"We're not talking about [offering a tax break on] mink coats and leather jackets," said Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel). "We're talking about clothes that working people buy, and parents buy for their kids."
One of the bill's biggest boosters is Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who believes the tax incentive is an affordable way to draw back shoppers who drive to Delaware or Pennsylvania on shopping sprees. Neither state adds a sales tax to clothing.
Deputy Comptroller Stephen M. Cordi testified on Schaefer's behalf yesterday because the former governor was snowbound. He told lawmakers that "there's an entire industry in York, Pennsylvania, that exists on the notion that Marylanders will go there to shop."
"The comptroller believes strongly that this is good for economic development in this state," Cordi said. "It will give retailers one week to compete on equal terms with neighboring states."
State fiscal analysts predict that Marylanders would spend an estimated $127 million on clothing and footwear during a tax-free week here. Retailers said that it would be a windfall.
"It's more than just the impact on the tax-free items," said Thomas Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "The sale of other items also goes up, simply because you have so many customers in the stores."
Saquella said the best proof that the idea is a winner is to look at New York, where the tax-free shopping week has gone statewide. The state's most recent tax-free week just ended Jan. 21. And the repeal of a sales tax on clothes and shoes under $110 has been so successful it is scheduled to become permanent March 1.
CAPTION: New York shoppers take advantage of a tax-free shopping week in September. Maryland is considering a similar event in August.