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18 states across the country are gearing up for their 2013 Sales Tax Holiday season, but these tax-free shopping sprees are also increasingly under fire.  Designed to offer a temporary sales tax exemption for specific consumer items, these holidays typically last two to three days and most take place in time for back-to-school shopping. An updated policy brief (PDF) from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), however, lays out why there is so little to celebrate this Sales Tax Holiday season.

For starters, the economic benefit of sales tax holidays is unclear at best. While one commonly cited rationale for such holidays is that they increase local consumer spending, boosting sales for local businesses, available research concludes this “boost” in sales is primarily the result of consumers shifting the timing of their already planned purchases.

But not all consumers. And that’s one of the other problems with sales tax holidays as policy: they are poorly targeted. Advertised as a way to give hard-working families a break from paying the regressive sales tax, they actually end up benefiting wealthier taxpayers, who have more liquidity and therefore flexibility to shift the timing of their purchases and take advantage of the tax break.  (And that goes for more affluent consumers in neighboring states, too, who can easily make a road trip of a tax-free shopping weekend next door.)

What else is wrong with them? Sales tax holidays also cost states upwards of $230 million each year. Why, one may ask, do state lawmakers continue to approve these holidays year-after-year if they are ineffective and expensive? Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick offered a candid answer, saying he’d support his state’s 2011 holiday “not because it is particularly fiscally prudent, but because it is popular.”

And that’s the thing. Sales tax holidays make great politics but they don’t solve real problems in regressive state tax codes.  They fall far short of accomplishing what advocates claim, that is, helping hard-pressed consumers and local retailers. In fact, those retailers would benefit more from the requirement that out-of-state Internet retailers be required to collect the same sales taxes as brick and mortar stores (that is, if the Marketplace Fairness Act became law).

More important, however, is that lawmakers who really want to help struggling consumers have smart alternatives. Popular tax holidays aside, good tax policy would be targeting tax credits for working families.