Evidence Continues to Mount: State Taxes Don't Cause Rich to Flee



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There’s been a lot of good research these past few years debunking claims that state taxes – particularly income taxes on the rich – send wealthy taxpayers fleeing from “unfriendly” states.  CTJ’s partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), took a lead role in disproving those claims in Maryland (PDF), New York, and Oregon (PDF), for example. CTJ has also been covering the controversy in several states and in the media.

Some particularly thorough research on this topic has come out of New Jersey, where researchers at Princeton and Stanford Universities were granted access to actual tax return data, which is not available to the public, in order to investigate the issue in more detail. The resulting paper (PDF) found a “negligible” impact of higher taxes on the migration patterns of the wealthy.

And now, for the further benefit of lawmakers seeking to become better informed about tax policy, those same Princeton and Stanford researchers were recently granted access to similar confidential taxpayer data in California. Unsurprisingly, the findings of their newest paper (PDF) were similar to those out of New Jersey: “the highest-income Californians were less likely to leave the state after the [2005] millionaire tax was passed… [and] the 1996 tax cuts on high incomes … had no consistent effect on migration.”

That’s right.  California millionaires actually became less interested in leaving the state after the tax rate on incomes over $1 million rose by one percentage point starting in 2005.

Another important finding: migration is only a very small piece of what determines the size of a state’s millionaire population.  “At the most, migration accounts for 1.2 percent of the annual changes in the millionaire population,” they explain.  The other 98.8 percent is due to yearly fluctuations in rich taxpayers’ income that moves them above or below the $1 million mark.  

This finding (which is not entirely new) defeats the very logic that anti-tax activists use to argue their “millionaire migration” case. Here’s more from the researchers:

“Most people who earn $1 million or more are having an unusually good year. Income for these individuals was notably lower in years past, and will decline in future years as well. A representative “millionaire” will only have a handful of years in the $1 million + tax bracket. The somewhat temporary nature of very-high earnings is one reason why the tax changes examined here generate no observable tax flight. It is difficult to migrate away from an unusually good year of income.”

But for every new piece of serious research on this issue, there are just as many bogus studies purporting to show the opposite.  Of particular note is a September “study” from the Manhattan Institute, recently torn apart by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters.

Somewhat surprisingly for a right-wing organization’s study of this topic, the Manhattan Institute report actually concedes that other variables, things like population density, economic cycles, housing prices and even inadequate government spending on transportation, can motivate people to leave one state for another.  But while the Institute doesn’t claim that every ex-Californian left because of taxes, regulations, and unions, it does, predictably, assign these factors an outsized role. But their “analysis” of the impact of taxes spans just six paragraphs and is, in essence, nothing more than an evidence-free assertion that low taxes are the reason some former Californians favor states like Texas, Nevada, Arizona – even, oddly, Oregon, where income tax rates are similar to California’s.

Obviously, the guys looking at the actual tax returns have a better idea of what’s actually going on, and state lawmakers need to listen.

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