Note to Readers: This is the fourth of a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the coming weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country. Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swap” and personal income tax cut proposals. This post focuses on progressive, comprehensive and sustainable reform proposals under consideration in the states.
State tax reform proposals are not all bad news this year. There are some good faith efforts underway that would fix the structural problems with state tax codes, rather than simply dismantling or eliminating entire revenue sources and calling it “reform.” Proposals in Minnesota, Kentucky, Utah, and Massachusetts would improve the fairness, adequacy and sustainability of those states’ tax systems through various combinations of base broadening, tax breaks for low- and moderate-income families, and increases in the share of taxes paid by wealthy households. Other states to watch include Nevada, California, New York and Hawaii, though the specific proposals that will be considered in these states have yet to be fully fleshed out.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton recognizes that his state’s tax structure is in need of an overhaul and is looking at long-term solutions that will set the state’s revenues on a sustainable path now and in the future. As he sees it, the current system is fraught with problems. It does not reflect the modern economy in many ways. It has shifted the responsibility for funding government to those with the least ability to pay. It is out of balance due to its heavy reliance on property taxes. And, it is riddled with expensive and ineffective tax breaks that make the state’s revenues less sustainable. Out of all the high-profile state tax reform plans unveiled this year, Governor Dayton has put forth the best example of a comprehensive and progressive tax reform proposal. It will make Minnesota’s tax code more fair, adequate, and sustainable. The Governor’s plan includes: broadening the sales tax base to services and using some of the additional revenue to lower the state’s sales tax rate; reducing property taxes; adding a new personal income tax bracket for the state’s wealthiest taxpayers; and closing corporate tax loopholes. The plan also raises more than $1 billion a year to boost investments in public education and restore structural balance to the state’s budget.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signaled his support for overhauling the Bluegrass State’s tax code in his State of the State address in early February and indicated he would be looking to the recommendations from his appointed Blue Ribbon Tax Commission as a starting point for a proposal. With a few exceptions, the Commission’s recommendations (released in December) were courageous and forward-looking, including a proposal to expand the sales tax base to services (PDF) while simultaneously adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (PDF) to offset the impact on low-income working families. The recommendations also included broadening the personal income tax base by limiting itemized deductions for wealthy households, lowering the very large exclusion for pension income (and phasing it out for high wealth retirees), and lowering personal income tax rates. Like the Minnesota plan, if taken as a whole, the Kentucky Tax Commission’s recommendations would shore up state revenues over the long term and more immediately raise revenue for current needs.
Utah lawmakers are looking at a proposal to raise the sales tax rate applied to groceries and couple that change with two new refundable credits to offset the impact on low- and moderate-income families: a food credit (PDF) and a state EITC (PDF). While less comprehensive than the proposals under consideration in Minnesota and Kentucky, an ITEP analysis found that the Utah plan would reduce the regressivity of Utah’s tax code (PDF). In other words, low-income working families would ultimately pay less of their income in taxes while upper-income families would pay slightly more. Simply exempting food from state sales taxes (or taxing it at a lower rate) is a poorly targeted and costly policy that narrows the tax base and extends the break to wealthier taxpayers who don’t need it. Therefore, refundable credits of the kind Utah is considering are a smart, less costly alternative that can be designed to reduce taxes for specific groups of taxpayers in need of relief.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s FY14 budget included a tax package that will boost revenues now and in the future and make slight improvements to the fairness of the state’s tax system. While many governors this year are looking to replace progressive income taxes with regressive sales taxes, Governor Patrick wants the Bay State to do the reverse and rely more on the personal income tax and less on the sales tax. His plan would raise the state’s flat personal income tax rate from 5.25 to 6.25 percent, double the personal exemption, and eliminate more than 40 personal income tax breaks that tend to benefit the wealthiest families. The sales tax rate would drop from 6.25 to 4.5 percent and computer software, soda, and candy would be newly subject to the tax. He also recommends a $1 increase to the cigarette tax. Governor Patrick’s plan would raise close to $2 billion when fully phased in. The Campaign for Our Communities coalition praised the proposal, saying that it “creates growth and opportunity through long-term investments in education, transportation and innovation funded by making our tax system simpler and fairer.”