With the economy still struggling, states are getting fairly crafty with how they charge consumers via sales taxes. It's no secret that dubious, yet all-too enforceable government laws have been with us since the dawn of the civilized world. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs taxed cooking oil – of course, the main seller of cooking oil was the pharaoh. During the first century AD, the Roman empire taxed urine – a popular source of ammonia for common tasks like tanning hides and cleaning clothes. Then at the height of the Dark Ages (an era in European history notorious for its poor hygiene), some European governments taxed the sale of soap!
(For more on taxes, check out Countries With The Highest And Lowest Taxes.)
Unfortunately, onerous and unusual state taxes are still very much with us. What are some of the biggest offenders – and are they active in your state? Here's our top five:
TUTORIAL: Personal Income Tax Guide
Food Packaging Tax
States like Colorado have a weird definition of what constitutes food packaging. In using the term "essential" in its tax language for such commodities, Colorado finds itself in the strange position of taxing paper cup lids and napkins, but not paper cups or fast-food French fry containers.
Hot Air Balloon Tax
If you're in Kansas and in the mood to take a ride in a hot air balloon, beware of the state government's "amusement" tax. State regulation makes balloon rides taxable. But there is a caveat – only balloon rides that are tied, or tethered to the ground, are considered taxable. So, if you want to avoid paying taxes when taking a balloon ride over Topeka, make sure to leave the rope at home!
Careful on That Bagel
New York State has an interesting way of handling bagels – and taxes on buying bagels. If you want to eat a bagel tax-free, don't have the deli counter "prepare" it for you (i.e., add cream cheese or cut the bagel in two pieces). Prepare that bagel yourself, and you don't have to pay a tax on it.
In West Virginia, celebrating the Fourth of July – or any celebration where fireworks are used, can lighten your wallet. The state has a special tax – on top of its 6% sales tax – on things like ladyfingers and sparklers.
California has gone bananas over the purchase of fruit by consumers. If you buy an apple from a regular retailer, you're in good shape, as the purchase is tax-exempt. If you buy fruit from a vending machine – and who hasn't done that – you'll pay an additional 33% on the amount of the purchase.
Maybe the most egregious case of over-taxation on a state level comes from Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth actually taxes the use of air (on carwash vacuum cleaners).
The Bottom Line
The above taxes certainly aren't the only taxes on statewide level, but they are surely among the most unique. This site has a more complete list of sales taxes in all 50 states: http://retirementliving.com/RLtaxes.html. (For some odd tax breaks, check out That's A Tax Break?)