Independence Day fireworks: Laxer state laws could mean more in tax revenue

A growing number of states are relaxing state laws on fireworks in hopes of generating a little extra tax revenue through sales and permit fees

Paul Sancya / AP
Fireworks are shown along the Detroit skyline Monday, June 27, 2011. In 2010 and 2011, six states relaxed laws about consumer fireworks use. Such changes could mean more money raised in tax revenue for the state.

States that once pooh-poohed fireworks as dangerous or noisy are starting to come around and acknowledge their true value: up to $1 million a year in tax revenues.

In the last decade, a dozen states have loosened the rules on consumer fireworks, with six of those changes occurring in the past two years as budgets have gotten tighter. Just this year, Kentucky, Utah, and New Hampshire modified their laws to expand what kinds of fireworks can be sold to consumers, and on July 1, Maine’s governor signed a bill that legalizes fireworks use, though it won’t take effect until next year. Legislation to lift the ban on fireworks has also been introduced in Massachusetts. The only other states that still have all-out bans are Delaware, New York, and New Jersey.

Of course, even if a state allows the use of fireworks, individual cities or counties can choose to prohibit them. Still, by allowing fireworks sales and use, a state could raise between $500,000 and $1 million each year in tax revenues, estimates Julie Heckman, the director of the American Pyrotechnic Association. Selling fireworks would also create jobs and bolster a state’s economy.

“This is an industry that’s dependent upon part-time work,” Ms. Heckman says. “We employ a lot of people.”

The fireworks industry has been growing rapidly since the late 90s. Display fireworks sales have stayed mostly flat for the past few years, but consumer fireworks sales are thriving.

The 46 states that allow consumer fireworks have different, and sometime idiosyncratic, standards for what’s permissible. For instance, some states such as Minnesota and Connecticut only allow sparklers (hand-held or ground-based). In Utah, “multiple tube,” “repeater,” or “cake” fireworks that shoot up to 150 feet are now allowed, but only for one month in the summer. Cherry bombs and bottle rockets are still out of the picture, though. And in some places, such as North Dakota and Alabama, anything goes: The Atom Smasher, The Mighty Rattler, The Dominator Max Bottle Rocket, you name it.

Then there are the states with rules that are a bit befuddling: In Pennsylvania, most fireworks can be sold, but only to people who aren’t Pennsylvania residents or who have permits. Next door in Ohio, if you don't have a permit to buy fireworks, you have to promise to take them out of the state within 48 hours – say, over the border to Pennsylvania?

Heckman suspects those kinds of laws may be enforced with a wink and a nod. After all, so many other fireworks vendors seem to be indiscriminate, and perhaps a bit too shameless, about whom they sell to. A quick Google Maps search of “fireworks stores” pulls up an image of a country scattered with vendors, many of which are clustered along state lines. Certainly only state residents shop at the Border Line Fireworks Outlet in Lordsburg, N.M., the Stateline Sparkler of West Virginia, in Bunker Hill, or at Fireworks Over the Border in Seabrook, N.H.

The fireworks industry generated nearly $1 billion last year. As the industry has grown, the rate of injuries from fireworks has actually decreased significantly, Heckman says.

“The injuries tend to go down when fireworks are legal,” she says. "When you’re breaking the law, you’re careless."

As for sales this Independence Day weekend, it will all just depend on the weather, Heckman says.

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