Virginia has announced that it will be holding its 3rd Annual Hurricane Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday from May 25-31. The development of the Commonwealth’s event can be instructive for other government preparedness authorities.
During the Holiday, citizens can purchase emergency preparedness-related supplies without paying the 5% state sales tax. According to the Virginia Department of Taxation, in 2009 consumers saved $2.3 million in taxes on preparedness products up 5% from the year before.
A key to the tax free preparedness week has been the state’s ability to recruit several major retailers to participate in a significant way. It has turned the Holiday into a win-win proposition. For the stores, it’s more people in their stores buying preparedness (and other) products. For the state, preparedness gets the type of marketing muscle rarely is given to the issue, including full-page newspaper, radio and tv advertisements.
In addition, the state is also reaching out to local TV meteorologists for their support, as research shows that Virginians consider their local weather forecaster to have a great deal of influence on preparedness actions. They will also be partnering with Radio Disney to reach families during live events planned throughout May. This type of multi-platform approach, supported by real financial savings, is the way to break through to the public on preparedness.
This blog has long been an advocate of the use of incentives to spur public preparedness. To me, it is unrealistic to expect the public to prepare for disasters –that incur not insignificant economic and logistical cost — without some kind of enticement. In this society, when the government wants to influence social behavior it does so through incentives or disincentives (though the carrot is more appropriate than the stick on this issue). What we do know is that solely putting information on websites — promoted largely by PSA’s running in donated time — has proved not adequate to move the needle substantially.
I would urge officials at the local, state and federal levels consider a tax free holiday or other incentives (ie. tax writeoffs) — along with integrated private sector marketing support — as a way to really get the attention of Americans and show they are serious about preparedness. (In New York State, a bill establishing September as a tax free month was introduced in part on the prompting of this blog. It is currently awaiting action by the legislature.)