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Back-to-school tax holidays boost spending? Think again

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While new sneakers and fresh crayons may ease the pain a little for students dreading the first day of school, mom and dad usually find little relief from those back-to-school bills.

The one exception may be the sales tax holidays that will be offered in at least 17 states this year. These events, 12 of which are happening this weekend, make school purchases a little less expensive.

Although many argue sales tax holidays benefit retailers, states and consumers, several data-heavy studies conclude otherwise.

"The hope is on the part of states that if consumers spend more on back-to-school items than otherwise because of tax cuts, this benefits the broader economy and leads to additional tax revenues elsewhere," said John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's Capital Research Group.

Back-To-School Tax Holidays

State
Dates
Items Covered
Alabama August 2-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
Computer/Computer supplies-$750 or less;
School supplies-$50 or less;
Books-$30 or less
Arkansas August 3-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
Accessories- $50 or less;
School supplies
Connecticut August 18-24, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$300 or less
Florida August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, footwear and accessories-$75
or less;
School supplies-$15 or less;
Computers-$750 or less
Georgia August 9-10, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
Computers/computer supplies-$1000 or less;
School supplies $20 or less
Iowa August 2-3, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Lousiana August 2-3, 2013
Personal property-$2,500 or less
Maryland August 11-17, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Mississippi July 26-27, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Missouri August 2-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
School supplies-$50 or less;
Computer Software-$350 or less;
Computers/supplies-$3,500 or less
New Mexico August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
School supplies-$30 or less;
Handheld calculators-$200 or less;
Computers-$1,000 or less;
Computer supplies - $500 or less
North Carolina August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, school supplies-$100 or less;
Sports equipment-$50 or less;
Computers-$3,500 or less;
Computer supplies-$250 or less
Oklahoma August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
South Carolina August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, accessories, footwear;
School supplies, computers,
Personal items
Tennessee August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, school supplies-$100 or less;
Computers-$1,500 or less
Texas August 9-11, 2013
Clothing, footwear, backpacks;
School supplies-$100 or less
Virginia August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
School supplies-$20 or less
Source: Federation of Tax Administrators, Sales Tax Institute, State Governments

However, various studies have shown states end up being the biggest losers, losing out on millions of dollars in sales tax revenue.

(Read more: Good grades ahead for back-to-school sales)

Retailers end up relatively neutral. In the near term, some retailers do see a surge in sales during the back-to-school tax holidays. But when sales for the entire back-to-school period are aggregated, it turns out sales tax holidays merely shift consumer purchasing, rather than adding to it.

Consumers win

"The benefits of that [sales tax holiday] boost will dissipate very quickly and in fact we might find that after September has expired, sales sag a bit because a good deal of spending on back-to-school items had been advanced for the purpose of taking advantage of this tax break."

Which is why consumers can be the biggest beneficiaries. If shoppers do just shift their back-to-school purchasing so that the bulk of it occurs during these periods, the sales tax that would have been collected becomes savings.

(Read more: Retailers take broad view of 'back-to-school' items)

In some cases, consumers could save on more than just traditional back-to-school items. Over the years, back-to-school sales tax holidays have expanded beyond traditional classroom-related purchases. For example, this year, Louisiana will allow all personal property goods up to $2,500 a person to be sold sales tax-free during its holiday.

Many argue that states should stop the sales-tax holidays, especially as deficits swell and municipalities struggle. While the data show that states lose out, and retailers don't necessarily "win," getting rid of sales-tax holidays isn't so easy.

"On balance the temporary sales-tax holidays may not have much of an impact on a regional economy, but politically they're probably popular with consumers," Lonski said. "The political value of sales-tax holidays comes from their high degree of visibility. It probably doesn't hurt elected officials if the 'little guy' feels that he's getting a break. Sales-tax holidays may pack some political punch."

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.

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