Tax Foundation State Rankings Continue to Deceive



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The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has put out a critical appraisal of the Tax Foundation's latest rankings of states by their relative state and local tax levels. Due to some methodological changes and recently revised data, some states underwent huge shifts in their ranking (changes of 10 to 15 places were not uncommon) which are not explained by the minor shifts in tax policy that may have taken place within the states. They've revised downward their estimates of the overall state and local tax burden by a full percentage point since 2007. They also no longer call 2007 a "25-year high" in state and local tax burdens, now considering the year lower tax than the mid-90s.

If history is any indication, the Tax Foundation's inconsistent methodology and reliance on early projections without hard data will lead to further rankings revisions in the future. The problem is that when state and national media pick up a juicy story along the lines of, "Your taxes are too high," they don't report the numbers as estimates or tentative. They report them as fact and don't report it when figures for previous years are revised. This is problematic because if politicians take the numbers at face-value, they may overreact to the almost certainly flawed numbers that indicate an enormous shift like, "New Jersey edged out New York to become the highest taxed state in 2008" after being ranked 10th for two previous years.

But because the numbers used to derive this conclusion are so preliminary and based on a shifting methodology, no responsible policy analyst would confidently claim that New Jersey has higher taxes than New York, Connecticut, or other similarly ranked states. The media don't mention the cautionary details that the Tax Foundation includes in its final report and methodology but excludes in its press releases. Its website even contains a sensational headline that glosses over the limitations of their study.

There are also several more fundamental problems with the Tax Foundation's ranking scheme. The Tax Foundation attempts to determine the combined tax impact from all states on a given state's residents. This is different from how most organizations would identify an average tax load, by simply dividing total state and local tax receipts by total income within a state. This is an important distinction because states generally cannot influence tax policy in other states. Also, while the Census Bureau takes two years or more to compile the official data for a given fiscal year, Tax Foundation relies on proxies (such as dividend income to estimate capital gains) to obtain data for a fiscal year that has barely ended. Using such fly-by-night estimates as a basis for ranking states against one another is so unreliable as to provide almost meaningless numbers.

Of course, the most fundamental criticism of the Tax Foundation report is that it lumps all of a state's residents, from the very poorest to the wealthiest, together in one group for purposes of measuring tax levels. As an excellent Birmingham News editorial reminds us, calling Alabama a "low tax" state conceals the harsh reality that it is among the highest-tax states in the nation in its effect on low-income families. As the editorial points out, "[Our tax fairness ranking] is the ranking that most needs to change. "

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