Arizona News



State News Quick Hits: Tax Breaks for Expensive Artwork and Apple Inc.



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Have you recently purchased a multimillion dollar piece of artwork (say, a $142 million Francis Bacon)? If the answer is yes, we have a great tax loophole for you. Rather than immediately bringing the piece of art home with you -- in which case you would be expected to pay use or sales tax on the purchase -- first loan it for a few months to a museum in a state that doesn’t have a use or sales tax. Museums in these states aren’t complaining about this “first use” exemption, which is found in many state tax codes, but taxpayers across the country should be. The buyer of the aforementioned Bacon painting will likely save $11 million in Nevada use tax by loaning it for 15 weeks to a museum in Oregon.

The most recent development in the income tax fight in Illinois comes from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ruled out a city income tax last week. Emanuel faces serious pension gaps in his municipal budget, which is why he is pushing for a $250 million increase in property taxes. But some, including Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and Center for Tax and Budget Accountability Executive Director Ralph Martire, think the mayor’s position is misguided and that a city income tax is worth considering. Regular Quick Hit readers will find Zorn’s and Martire’s arguments familiar: unlike property taxes, income taxes can be easily targeted at those most able to pay. ITEP’s own Matt Gardner was quoted in Zorn’s column, rebuffing arguments on the other side that a city income tax will drive people out of the city and kill jobs.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a pair of business tax cuts into law last week. In addition to a sales tax exemption for electricity used by manufacturers, she also signed a $5 million tax break that many expect will only benefit Apple, Inc. Regular readers may recall that Apple currently has billions of dollars stashed in foreign tax havens.

Oklahoma lawmakers have gone over a quarter century without approving an increase in their state’s gasoline tax, and have instead opted to fund transportation by redirecting money away from other areas of the budget. But that redirection of funds may have gone too far, as the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that “Oklahoma’s transportation spending has grown considerably at a time when almost every other area of public services has seen cuts or flat funding.” Now lawmakers, at the urging of 25,000 Oklahomans who recently rallied at the state capitol, are considering legislation that would boost funding for schools by scaling back the amount of general fund money being spent on transportation.



State News Quick Hits: Party With Boeing, Targeted Tax Cuts and More



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It’s an age-old question: How do you thank legislators who give your profitable company an $8.7 billion tax subsidy? Most etiquette experts agree that a handwritten note just won’t do. But a lavish party thrown in your benefactors’ honor — that’s more like it. Recently, Boeing threw a party for Washington state lawmakers to thank them for the record amount of taxpayer money they delivered to the company in a special legislative session late last year. The reception was conveniently held across the street from the Capitol. Thankfully for Boeing, the cost of the party will likely be written off as a business expense on next year’s taxes.

Indiana lawmakers are looking in all the wrong places for a way to boost their state’s economy. The Indiana Senate has passed a bill eliminating the business equipment tax for companies with less than $25,000 worth of equipment, while the House version would give localities the option of eliminating the tax entirely for new machinery. But a new report (PDF) from the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute explains that localities are in no position to deal with yet another cut in their property tax bases, and that giving localities the option of eliminating this tax is unlikely to draw any new businesses into the state (though it may reshuffle existing businesses around within the state’s borders).

The Arizona Daily Star reports that “a bid to enact a flat income-tax rate in Arizona is dead.” State Representative J.D. Mesnard had hoped to begin flattening one of the state’s only major progressive revenue sources by reducing the number of income tax brackets from five to three, but he appears to have abandoned that effort after failing to gather any support. But income tax cuts are hardly off the agenda. Mesnard still wants to funnel any new sales tax revenue collected from cracking down on online sales tax evasion into income tax cuts that are likely to benefit the rich. Much more reasonable, however, is his proposal to index the state’s tax brackets to inflation—a change that would actually help retain the progressivity of Arizona’s income tax over time.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has a better tax-cutting plan than his colleagues in the legislature. Rather than rewarding wealthy taxpayers with a cut in the state’s income tax rate, Snyder wants to provide targeted property tax relief to middle-income families through an expansion of the state’s circuit breaker program. The expansion would help offset a reduction in the circuit breaker passed in 2011 to help pay for a massive business tax cut sought by the Governor. But while Snyder’s plan is an improvement over plans to cut the income tax rate, the Michigan League for Public Policy notes that Snyder’s plan is hardly perfect: “a critical omission [from Snyder’s budget] was the failure to restore cuts in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, the best tool for helping families with the lowest wages.” And there are also serious questions about whether Michigan lawmakers should be discussing tax cuts at all—a new poll shows that in terms of their top priorities, voters rank tax cuts a “distant third” behind spending on schools and roads.



A New Wave of Tax Cut Proposals in the States



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Note to Readers: This is the third of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This post focuses on proposals to cut personal income, business, and property taxes.

Tax cut proposals are by no means a new trend.  But, the sheer scope, scale and variety of tax cutting plans coming out of state houses in recent years and expected in 2014 are unprecedented.  Whether it’s across the board personal income tax rate cuts or carving out new tax breaks for businesses, the vast majority of the dozen plus tax cut proposals under consideration this year would heavily tilt towards profitable corporations and wealthy households with very little or no benefit to low-income working families.  Equally troubling is that most of the proposals would use some or all of their new found revenue surpluses (thanks to a mostly recovering economy) as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts rather than first undoing the harmful program cuts that were enacted in response to the Great Recession.  Here is a brief overview of some of the tax cut proposals we are following in 2014:

Arizona - Business tax cuts seem likely to be a major focus of Arizona lawmakers this session.  Governor Jan Brewer recently announced that she plans to push for a new tax exemption for energy purchased by manufacturers, and proposals to slash equipment and machinery taxes are getting serious attention as well.  But the proposals aren’t without their opponents.  The Children’s Action Alliance has doubts about whether tax cuts are the most pressing need in Arizona right now, and small business groups are concerned that the cuts will mainly benefit Apple, Intel, and other large companies.

District of Columbia - In addition to considering some real reforms (see article later this week), DC lawmakers are also talking about enacting an expensive property tax cap that will primarily benefit the city’s wealthiest residents.  They’re also looking at creating a poorly designed property tax exemption for senior citizens.  So far, the senior citizen exemption has gained more traction than the property tax cap.

Florida - Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he intends to propose $500 million in tax cuts when his budget is released later this month.  The details of that cut are not yet known, but the slew of tax cuts enacted in recent years have been overwhelmingly directed toward the state’s businesses.  The state legislature’s more recent push to cut automobile registration fees this year, shortly before a statewide election takes place, is the exception.

Idaho - Governor Butch Otter says that his top priority this year is boosting spending on education, but he also wants to enact even more cuts to the business personal property tax (on top of those enacted last year), as well as further reductions in personal and corporate income tax rates (on top of those enacted two years ago). Idaho’s Speaker of the House wants to pay for those cuts by dramatically scaling back the state’s grocery tax credit, but critics note that this would result in middle-income taxpayers having to foot the bill for a tax cut aimed overwhelmingly at the wealthy.

Indiana - Having just slashed taxes for wealthy Hoosiers during last year’s legislative session, Indiana lawmakers are shifting their focus toward big tax breaks for the state’s businesses.  Governor Mike Pence wants to eliminate localities’ ability to tax business equipment and machinery, while the Senate wants to scale back the tax and pair that change with a sizeable reduction in the corporate income tax rate. House leadership, by contrast, has a more modest plan to simply give localities the option of repealing their business equipment taxes.

Iowa - Leaders on both sides of the aisle are reportedly interested in income tax cuts this year. Governor Terry Branstad is taking a more radical approach and is interested in exploring offering an alternative flat income tax option. We’ve written about this complex and costly proposal here.

Maryland - Corporate income tax cuts and estate tax cuts are receiving a significant amount of attention in Maryland—both among current lawmakers and among the candidates to be the state’s next Governor.  Governor Martin O’Malley has doubts about whether either cut could be enacted without harming essential public services, but he has not said that he will necessarily oppose the cuts.  Non-partisan research out of Maryland indicates that a corporate rate cut is unlikely to do any good for the state’s economy, and there’s little reason to think that an estate tax cut would be any different.

Michigan - Michigan lawmakers are debating all kinds of personal income tax cuts now that an election is just a few months away and the state’s revenue picture is slightly better than it has been the last few years.  It’s yet to be seen whether that tax cut will take the form of a blanket reduction in the state’s personal income tax, or whether lawmakers will try to craft a package that includes more targeted enhancements to provisions like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which they slashed in 2011 to partially fund a large tax cut (PDF) for the state’s businesses. The Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) explains why an across-the-board tax cut won’t help the state’s economy.

Missouri - In an attempt to make good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year, House Republicans are committed to passing tax cuts early in the legislative session. Bills are already getting hearings in Jefferson City that would slash both corporate and personal income tax rates, introduce a costly deduction for business income, or both.

Nebraska - Rather than following Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman into a massive, regressive overhaul of the Cornhusker’s state tax code last year, lawmakers instead decided to form a deliberative study committee to examine the state’s tax structure.  In December, rather than offering a set of reform recommendations, the Committee concluded that lawmakers needed more time for the study and did not want to rush into enacting large scale tax cuts.  However, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.

New Jersey - By all accounts, Governor Chris Christie will be proposing some sort of tax cut for the Garden State in his budget plan next month.  In November, a close Christie advisor suggested the governor may return to a failed attempt to enact an across the board 10 percent income tax cut.  In his State of the State address earlier this month, Christie suggested he would be pushing a property tax relief initiative.  

New York - Of all the governors across the United States supporting tax cutting proposals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been one of the most aggressive in promoting his own efforts to cut taxes. Governor Cuomo unveiled a tax cutting plan in his budget address that will cost more than $2 billion a year when fully phased-in. His proposal includes huge tax cuts for the wealthy and Wall Street banks through raising the estate tax exemption and cutting bank and corporate taxes.  Cuomo also wants to cut property taxes, first by freezing those taxes for some owners for the first two years then through an an expanded property tax circuit breaker for homeowners with incomes up to $200,000, and a new tax credit for renters (singles under 65 are not included in the plan) with incomes under $100,000.  

North Dakota - North Dakota legislators have the year off from law-making, but many will be meeting alongside Governor Jack Dalrymple this year to discuss recommendations for property tax reform to introduce in early 2015.  

Oklahoma - Governor Mary Fallin says she’ll pursue a tax-cutting agenda once again in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling throwing out unpopular tax cuts passed by the legislature last year.  Fallin wants to see the state’s income tax reduced despite Oklahoma’s messy budget situation, while House Speaker T.W. Shannon says that he intends to pursue both income tax cuts and tax cuts for oil and gas companies.

South Carolina - Governor Nikki Haley’s recently released budget includes a proposal to eliminate the state’s 6 percent income tax bracket. Most income tax payers would see a $29 tax cut as a result of her proposal. Some lawmakers are also proposing to go much farther and are proposing a tax shift that would eliminate the state’s income tax altogether.



States Praised as Low-Tax That Are High-Tax for Poorest Families



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Annual state and local finance data from the Census Bureau are often used to rank states as “low” or “high” tax states based on state taxes collected as a share of personal income. But focusing on a state’s overall tax revenues overlooks the fact that taxpayers experience tax systems very differently.  In particular, the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than any other income group in all but nine states.  And, in every state, low-income taxpayers pay more as a share of income than the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) took a closer look at the Census data and matched it up with data from their signature Who Pays report which shows the effective state and local tax rates taxpayers pay across the income distribution in all 50 states.  ITEP found that in six states— Arizona, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington —  there is an especially pronounced mismatch between the Census data and how these supposedly low tax states treat people living at or below the poverty line. 

See ITEP's companion report, State Tax Codes As Poverty Fighting Tools.

The major reason for the mismatch is that these six states have largely unbalanced tax structures.  Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Washington rely heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes because they do not levy a broad-based personal income tax.  Since lower-income families must spend more of what they earn just to get by, sales and excise taxes affect this group far more than higher-income taxpayers.  Arizona has a personal income tax, but like the no-income tax states, the Grand Canyon state relies most heavily on sales and excise taxes.

To learn more about how low tax states overall can be high tax states for families living in poverty, read the state briefs described below:

Arizona has the 35th highest taxes overall (9.8% of income), but the 5th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Arizona residents pay only 4.7% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Florida has the 45th highest taxes overall (8.8% of income), but the 3rd highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (13.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Florida residents pay only 2.3% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

South Dakota has the 50th highest taxes overall (7.9% of income- making it the “lowest” tax state), but the 11th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest South Dakota residents pay only 2.1% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Tennessee has the 49th highest taxes overall (8.3% of income), but the 14th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Tennessee residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Texas has the 40th highest taxes overall (9.1% of income), but the 6th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Texas residents pay only 3.2% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Washington has the 36th highest taxes overall (9.7% of income), but the 1st highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (16.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Washington residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.



State News Quick Hits: EITCs Go Local, and More



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Some lawmakers and advocates like to complain when gasoline tax revenues are used to fund public transit, but new research by Berkeley economist Michael L. Anderson shows that drivers benefit hugely from the existence of transit. Anderson’s paper shows that “average highway delay increases 47 percent when transit service ceases” because would-be transit riders are forced to take to the roads.  He concludes that “the net benefits of transit systems appear to be much larger than previously believed.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer got one out of two right with a pair of vetoes she recently handed down.  The Governor had good reason to be skeptical of the state's research tax credit since the federal version doesn't have a particularly glowing record of actually encouraging worthwhile research.  But her refusal to allow Arizona’s tax brackets to rise alongside inflation will eventually hit the state’s lower- and middle-income families hardest, as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains (PDF).

ITEP has written in detail (PDF) on how both the Federal and State Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) alleviate poverty while helping low-wage workers meet their basic needs – but did you know that two localities (New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland) administer their own EITC to supplement the state and federal credits? This week, Montgomery County held public hearings on Bill 8-13 (PDF), a proposal to increase the County’s existing EITC (known as the Working Family Income Supplement) to 80 percent of the Maryland credit beginning in FY 2014, 90 percent in FY 2015, and 100 percent in FY 2016 and beyond.

For most states, July 1st marked the start of a new fiscal year and thus lawmakers across the country agreed to spending plans for their states in advance of that date.  But, not so in North Carolina, where differences in opinion about how best to overhaul the state’s tax structure have held up the budget and kept observers guessing about the outcome of months of tax cutting talk.  On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory urged House and Senate members to reach a deal as soon as possible or abandon tax reform this year.  The truth is, walking away from the plans passed in the House and Senate would be a win for the state, retaining hundreds of millions of dollars for vital public investments and stopping a massive tax cut for wealthy households and corporations and at the expense of low- and middle-income families.  



State News Quick Hits: The Folly of Cutting Virginia's Corporate Tax, and More



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The Commonwealth Institute of Virginia explains the folly of cutting state corporate income taxes – a move endorsed by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, among others. The Institute points out that corporations are already paying a smaller share of state income taxes than in years past, and have left individual taxpayers to pick up the rest of the tab. Moreover, Virginia analysts say (PDF) that about three-quarters of any corporate income tax cut would actually flow outside of Virginia’s borders, since most of the cut would go to large, multi-state corporations.

The Washington Post reports on the state of America’s bridges, and provides some consumer-focused context for why raising taxes to fund infrastructure repair is so important.  “In many cases ... a bridge has weakened to the point where it can no longer handle the heavy loads it once did. When lower weight restrictions are imposed, the big trucks that deliver goods of all sorts have to detour, making their routes longer, and that cost generally trickles down to the price consumers pay for almost everything.”

Illinois lawmakers have been focused on pension reform lately, but this Crain’s Chicago Business piece highlights the need for real tax reform in the state. Notably two aspects of the state’s income tax are flagged for reform (the same ones we’ve been talking about for years) – the state’s exemption for all retirement income and a universal property tax credit that’s not based on need.

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law SB 1179, a bill containing a wide assortment of tax breaks. The bill’s initial goal was to create a small tax break for one specific industry, but it ended up being a vehicle for tax breaks that lawmakers couldn’t pass individually. The final bill provided certain exemptions for an energy drink company, a sales tax break for companies that rent ignition devices to people with DUI convictions, and an extended property tax break for biofuel manufacturers. The Associated Press reports it this way: “As lawmakers rushed to adjournment last week, those with bills that had languished looked for places for them to land. House members with tax breaks in mind found SB1179, adding four amendments in the late-night hours of June 13.”



State News Quick Hits: Pennsylvania's Antique Gas Tax Cap, Nebraska's Time-Out, and More



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In Arizona, The Republic explains the “mixed legacy” left by the temporary, 1 percent sales tax increase that expired last week.  Rather than using the revenue for education, as voters expected when they approved the increase, “the tax revenue also partially subsidized an ambitious $538 million business tax-cut package that lawmakers approved less than a year after passage of [the sales tax increase].”  

Pennsylvania lawmakers are likely to vote this week on a bipartisan bill that would uncap the state’s gas tax. Pennsylvania’s gas tax is supposed to rise alongside gas prices, but an outdated tax cap still on the books prevents that from happening when gas prices exceed $1.25 per gallon. The result has been hundreds of millions in lost revenue as the gas tax has failed to keep pace with the rising cost of construction. The change is supported by Governor Corbett, and is just one of many transportation revenue enhancements that have been debated or enacted this year.

In reaction to the complete failure of radical tax reform this year, Nebraska lawmakers unanimously passed legislation forming the Tax Modernization Committee to study the state’s tax structure. Fourteen senators are expected to sit on the Committee and issue recommendations in December.

Here’s an
interesting piece on the donation “check offs” available on the Wisconsin income tax forms. Interested in knowing which nonprofits are most popular in terms of giving? Check out the article and then ponder whether state Department of Revenues should be burdened with the administration of collecting donations for these (albeit worthy) causes.



Ballot Measures in Eleven States Put Taxes in Voters' Hands



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California is not the only state this election season taking taxing decisions directly to the people on November 6.  The stakes will be high for state tax policy on Election Day in nine other states with tax-related issues on the ballot. With a couple of exceptions, these ballot measures would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both).

Arizona

  • Proposition 204 would make permanent the one percentage point sales tax increase originally approved by voters in 2010.  The increase would provide much-needed revenue for education, particularly in light of the worsened budget outlook created by a flurry of recent tax cuts.  But it’s hard not to be disappointed that the only revenue-raising option on the table is the regressive sales tax (PDF), at a time when the state’s wealthiest investors and businesses are being showered with tax cuts.
  • Proposition 117 would stop a home’s taxable assessed value from rising by more than five percent in any given year.  As our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains (PDF), “Assessed value caps are most valuable for taxpayers whose homes are appreciating most rapidly, but will provide no tax relief at all for homeowners whose home values are stagnant or declining. As a result, assessed value caps can shift the distribution of property taxes away from rapidly appreciating properties and towards properties experiencing slow or negative growth in value - many of which are likely owned by low-income families.”

Arkansas

  • Issue #1 is a constitutional amendment that would allow for a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax to pay for large-scale transportation needs like highways, bridges, and county roads. If approved, the state’s sales tax rate would increase from 6 to 6.5 percent for approximately ten years, or as long as it takes to repay the $1.3 billion in bonds issued for the relevant transportation projects. Issue #1 would also permanently dedicate one cent of the state’s 21.5 percent gas tax (or about $20 million annually) to the State Aid Street Fund for city street construction and improvements. It’s no wonder the state is looking to increase funding for transportation projects. ITEP reports that Arkansas hasn’t increased its gas tax is ten years, and that the tax has lost 24 percent of its value during that time due to normal increases in construction costs. Governor Beebe is supporting the proposal, and his Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr recently said, “No one hates taxes more than me; however, one of the primary functions of government is to build roads and infrastructure and this act does just that. My two primary reasons for supporting Ballot Issue #1 are the 40,000 non-government jobs that will be created and/or protected and the relief of heavy traffic congestion.”

California

  • Thus far overshadowed by the competing Prop 30 and 38 revenue raising proposals, Proposition 39 would close a $1 billion corporate tax loophole that Governor Brown and other lawmakers have tried, but failed to end via the legislative process.  Currently, multi-national corporations doing business in California are allowed to choose the method for apportioning their profits to the state that results in the lowest tax bill.  If Prop 39 passes, all corporations would have to follow the single-sales factor apportionment (PDF) method.  Half of the revenue raised from the change would go towards clean energy efforts while the other half would go into the general fund.

Florida

  • Amendment 3 would create a Colorado-style TABOR (or “Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) limit on revenue growth, based on an arbitrary formula that does not accurately reflect the growing cost of public services over time.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, Amendment 3 is ““wolf in sheep’s clothing” because it would phase in over several years, which obscures the severe long-term damage it would cause.  Once its revenue losses started, however, they would grow quickly. To illustrate its potential harm, we calculate that if the measure took full effect today rather than several years from now, it would cost the state more than $11 billion in just ten years.” The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board urged a No vote this week writing that voters “shouldn't risk starving schools and other core government responsibilities that are essential to competing for jobs and building a better future in Florida.”
  • Amendment 4 would put a variety of costly property tax changes into Florida’s constitution, including most notably an assessment cap (PDF) for businesses and non-residents that would give both groups large tax cuts whenever their properties increase rapidly in value.  Moreover, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, “Amendment 4’s biggest likely beneficiaries would be large corporations headquartered in other states, with out-of-state owners and shareholders,” including companies like Disney and Hilton hotels.

Michigan

  • Proposal 5 would enshrine a “supermajority rule” in Michigan’s constitution, requiring two-thirds approval of each legislative chamber before any tax break or giveaway could be eliminated, or before any tax rate could be raised.  As we explained recently, the many flaws associated with handcuffing Michigan’s elected representatives in this way have led to a large amount of opposition from some surprising corners, including the state’s largest business groups and its anti-tax governor. Republican Governor Rick Snyder wrote an op-ed in the Lansing State Journal opposing the measure saying it was a recipe for gridlock and the triumph of special interests. Proposal 5 is also bankrolled by one man to protect his own business interests.

Missouri

  • Proposition B would increase the state’s cigarette tax by 73 cents to 90 cents a pack. The state’s current 17 cent tax is the lowest in the country.  Increasing the state’s tobacco taxes would generate between $283 million to $423 million annually. The Kansas City Star has come out in favor of Proposition B saying, “It’s not often a single vote can make a state smarter, healthier and more prosperous. But Missourians have the chance to achieve all of those things on Nov. 6 by voting yes on Proposition B.”

New Hampshire

  • Question 1 would amend New Hampshire’s constitution to permanently ban a personal income tax.  The Granite State is already among the nine states without a broad based personal income tax and proponents want to ensure that will remain the case forever. As Jeff McLynch with the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute explains, a Yes vote would mean that “you’d limit the choices available to future policymakers for dealing with any circumstances, and by extension, you’re limiting choices for future voters.”

Oklahoma

  • State Question 758 would tighten an ill-advised property tax cap (PDF) even further, preventing taxable home values from rising more than three percent per year regardless of what’s happening in the housing market.  As the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains, “Oklahomans living in poor communities, rural areas, and small towns would get little to no benefit, since their home values will not increase nearly as much as homes in wealthy, suburban communities.”  And since many localities are likely to turn to property tax rate hikes to pick up the slack caused by this erosion of their tax base, those Oklahomans in poorer areas could actually end up paying more.  
  • State Question 766 would provide a costly exemption for certain corporations’ intangible property, like mineral interests, trademarks, and software.  If enacted, the biggest beneficiaries would include utility companies like AT&T, as well as a handful of airlines and railroads.  The Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that the exemption, which would mostly impact local governments, would have to be paid for with some combinations of cuts to school spending and property tax hikes on homeowners and small businesses.  And the impact could be big.  As one OK Policy guest blogger explains: “In 1975, intangible assets comprised around 2 percent of the net asset book value of S&P 500 companies; by 2005, it was over 40 percent, and the trend is likely to continue. If SQ 766 passes, Oklahoma will find itself increasingly limited in its ability to tax properties.”

Oregon

  • Measure 84 would gradually repeal Oregon’s estate and inheritance tax (PDF) and allow tax-free property transfers between family members.  If the measure passes, Oregon would lose $120 million from the estate tax, its most progressive source of revenue.   According to many legal interpretations of the measure, the second component - referring to inter-family transfers of property - would likely open a new egregious loophole allowing individuals to avoid capital gains taxes (PDF) on the sale of land and stock by simply selling property to family members.  Oregon’s Legislative Revenue Office released a report last week that showed 5 to 25 percent of capital gains revenue could be lost as a result of the measuring passing. The same report also found no evidence for the claim that estate tax repeal is some kind of millionaire magnet that increases the number of wealthy taxpayers in a state.
  • Measure 79, backed by the real estate industry, constitutionally bans real estate transfer taxes and fees.  However, taxes and fees on the transfer of real estate in Oregon are essentially nonexistent, prompting opponents to refer to the measure as a “solution in search of a problem.”
  • Measure 85 would eliminate Oregon’s “corporate kicker” refund program which provides a rebate to corporate income taxpayers when total state corporate income tax revenue collections exceed the forecast by two or more percent. Instead of kicking back that revenue to corporations, the excess above collections would go to the state’s General Fund to support K-12 education. Supporters of this measure acknowledge that a Yes vote will not send buckets of money to schools right away since the kicker has rarely been activated.  But, it is a much needed tax reform that will help stabilize education funding and peak interest in getting rid of the Beaver State’s more problematic personal income tax kicker.

South Dakota

  • Initiative Measure #15 would raise the state’s sales tax by one cent, from 4 to 5 percent. The additional revenue raised would be split between two funding priorities: Medicaid and K-12 public schools. As a former South Dakota teacher writes, “[w]hile education and Medicaid are important, higher sales tax would raise the cost of living permanently for everyone, hitting struggling households the hardest, to the detriment of both education and health.”  This tax increase is the only revenue-raising measure on the horizon right now; South Dakotans deserve better choices.

Washington

  • Initiative 1185 would require a supermajority of the legislature or a vote of the people to raise revenue. A similar ballot initiative, I-1053, was already determined to be unconstitutional. As the Washington Budget and Policy Center notes about this so called “son of 1053” initiative:  “Limiting our state lawmakers with the supermajority requirement is irresponsible, and serves only  to limit future opportunity for all Washington residents.”

 



Tax Justice Victory in Arizona: Flat Tax Bill Dies in Senate



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After passing the Arizona House and the Arizona Senate’s tax-writing committee, a sharply regressive flat tax bill died a sudden death this week when its sponsor admitted that he needed to address a number of flaws in the legislation.  Data from ITEP and from the state’s Department of Revenue played a vital role in demonstrating one of those flaws: its extreme unfairness.

Rep. Steve Court’s bill (HB2636) would have broadened Arizona’s income tax base significantly, and used the revenue generated by this change to replace the state’s graduated rate structure with a super-low, 2.13 percent flat tax rate.  Some of the base-broadening measures contained in the bill – like the elimination of itemized deductions – deserve real consideration.  But Rep. Court’s bill also eliminated the standard deduction, the personal exemption, and the low-income family tax credit.  As a result, had the bill passed, Arizona’s income tax would have been left with basically no mechanism in place for ensuring that poor families would not be taxed deeper into poverty.  Moreover, the bill’s attempt to abandon the state’s graduated rate structure in favor of a flat tax would have resulted in exactly the type of regressive impact you’d expect.

Armed with data provided by ITEP, the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance (CAA) played a key role in injecting the fairness issue into the debate.  Late last week, The Arizona Republic ran a story explaining that the bill would raise taxes for the vast majority of Arizona families, while cutting taxes only for those at the top of the income distribution.  The sponsor of the legislation refused to share the Department of Revenue’s full detailed analysis of the bill, so the Republic cited ITEP’s numbers showing that while most families would see tax hikes around $200 per year, those fortunate families with incomes between $152,000 and $354,000 would see their tax bills cut by $900 or more.  Families earning over $354,000 would have seen even larger tax cuts.

Following the release of that article, The Arizona Republic’s editorial board published a piece last Sunday calling the bill “blatantly unfair,” and urging the Senate to reject it.  Other groups, including most notably the real estate lobby, also objected to the bill on the grounds that it would wipe out their favorite tax preferences.  A few days later, the bill’s sponsor declared it dead for this year’s session, though he’s vowed to try again next year.



Are Amazon.com's Sales Tax Avoidance Days Coming to an End?



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Last week Illinois joined New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island by enacting legislation requiring Amazon.com and other online retailers working with in-state affiliates to collect sales taxes.  Arkansas’s Senate and Vermont’s House recently passed similar legislation, and Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Mississippi, and New Mexico are considering doing the same.  Interestingly, lawmakers in each of these states are being spurred to do the right thing by major retailers like Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble.

In most states, Amazon and other online retailers are not currently required to collect sales taxes unless they have a “physical presence” in the state, though consumers are still required to remit the tax themselves.  Unfortunately, very few consumers actually pay the sales taxes they owe on online purchases — in California, for example, unpaid taxes on internet and catalog sales are estimated to cost the state as much as $1.15 billion per year.

The so-called “Amazon laws” recently adopted in Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are all designed to limit this form of tax evasion by broadening the class of online retailers that must pay sales taxes.  Specifically, under these new laws, any retailer partnering with in-state affiliate merchants is required to pay sales taxes on purchases made by residents of that state.

Up until recently, the reaction to these laws has been mostly hostile.  Grover Norquist has branded them a (gasp) “tax increase,” despite the fact that they’re designed only to reduce illegal tax evasion.  More importantly, Amazon has challenged the New York law in court, and has ended relationships with affiliates in North Carolina and Rhode Island in order to avoid having to pay sales taxes on sales made within those states.  Amazon has also promised to severe ties with its Illinois affiliates, and has threatened to do the same in California if a similar law is adopted there.  These tactics mirror a recent decision by Amazon to shut down a Texas-based distribution center in order to avoid having to remit taxes in that state as well.

But Amazon may not be able to bully state lawmakers for much longer.  Since New York passed its so-called “Amazon law” in 2008, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and now Illinois have already followed suit despite all the threats.  And it appears that Arkansas and Vermont may very well do the same — as proposals to enact Amazon laws in each of those states have already made it through one legislative chamber.  In addition, at least seven other states (listed in the opening paragraph) have similar legislation pending.

According to State Tax Notes (subscription required), Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble are each attempting to partner with affiliate merchants recently dropped by Amazon.  Even more importantly, several of the large retail companies (like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot) are joining forces to lobby in favor of Amazon laws. These companies’ interest is in large part due to the fact that they already have to remit sales taxes in the vast majority of states because of the “physical presence” created by their large networks of “brick and mortar” stores.  If more traditional retailers begin to voice support for Amazon laws, the progress already being made on this issue is likely to accelerate.

For more background information on the Amazon.com tax controversy, check out this helpful report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.



States Take a Knife to One of Their Major Arteries: Corporate Income Taxes



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It’s pretty evident that state corporate income taxes are especially flawed and riddled with loopholes. But, of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, there are lots of things that legislators can do (given the political will) to strengthen their corporate income taxes, including enacting combined reporting, increasing corporate tax disclosure, and closing selected loopholes.

Despite all these options to strengthen the corporate tax, lawmakers from coast to coast are doing their best to undermine this inherently progressive tax. This seems especially sort-sighted given the revenue needs of many states.

Here are some recent bad ideas regarding state corporate income taxes:

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s budget outline includes a proposal that would phase out the state's corporate income tax over four years.  

Florida Governor Rick Scott has proposed reducing the corporate income tax rate from 5.5 to 3 percent.

Indiana’s Senate is considering a bill to reduce the state’s corporate income tax by 20 percent. This bill recently passed the Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has said that he would like to cut Iowa’s corporate income tax in half, despite evidence that this tax change would only benefit large corporations.

Recently, bills have been dropped in the both the Kansas House of Representatives and the Senate which would phase out the state's corporate income tax altogether.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue is proposing that the corporate income tax rate be reduced to 4.9 percent from 6.9 percent.

Instead of slashing or completely eliminating the state corporate income tax, lawmakers should be working to strengthen this revenue source.



Super Bowl Ad about Taxes from Corporate Astroturf Group



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The last place you would ever expect a discussion of tax policy is in the sea of Super Bowl commercials about beer, cars, and Doritos, yet the organization Americans Against Food Taxes spent over $3 million to change that last Sunday.

The ad, called “Give Me a Break”, features a nice woman shopping in a grocery store,  explaining how she does not want the government interfering with her personal life by attempting to place taxes on soda, juice, or even flavored water. The goal of the ad is to portray objections to soda taxes as if they are grounded in the concerns of ordinary Americans.

But Americans Against Food Taxes is anything but a grassroots organization. Its funding comes from a coalition of corporate interests including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It is easy to understand why these groups are concerned about soda taxes, which were once considered a way to help pay for health care reform. The entire purpose of these taxes is to discourage the consumption of their products. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains in making the case for a soda tax, such a tax could be used to dramatically reduce obesity and health care costs and produce better health outcomes across the nation. Adding to this, the revenue raised could be dedicated to funding health care programs, which could further improve the general welfare.

These taxes may spread, at least at the state level.  In its analysis of the ad, Politifact verifies the ad’s claim that politicians are planning to impose additional taxes on soda and other groceries, writing that “legislators have introduced bills to impose or raise the tax on sodas and/or snack foods in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.”

It's true that taxes on food generally are regressive, and taxes on sugary drinks are no exception according to a recent study. It's a bad idea to rely on this sort of tax purely to raise revenue, but if the goal of the tax is to change behavior for health reasons, then such a tax might be a reasonable tool for social policy. We have often said the same about cigarette taxes, which are a bad way to raise revenue but a reasonable way to discourage an unhealthy behavior.

With so many states considering soda taxes and the corporate interests revving up their own campaign, the “Give Me a Break” ad may just be the opening shot in the big food tax battles to come.



Tax Giveaways for Big Business Continue to be Sold as Economic Panacea



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Lawmakers in a handful of states are pushing tax cuts for corporations and other businesses under the guise of spurring economic growth.  Florida, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, and Arizona all made headlines this week for proposed tax cuts of this sort.

In Florida, Governor Scott’s proposed budget plan was released on Monday, and as expected, it included enormous cuts to both corporate income taxes and property taxes.  Under Scott’s plan, which he unveiled before a crowd of tea party activists, the state’s already low corporate tax rate would fall from 5 percent to 3.5 percent.  At the same time, state spending would plummet by $4.6 billion, with pre-K through university education making up $3.1 billion of that total.  Fortunately, even the state’s conservative legislators don’t seem the least bit interested in Scott’s ultra-conservative (and exceedingly vague) ideas.

Kansas lawmakers generated similar headlines this week as bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to phase out the state’s corporate income tax.  According to the Wichita Eagle, proponents of the measure are actually claiming that phasing out this major tax would somehow increase tax revenue.  We seriously doubt it.

In Iowa, Governor Branstad’s proposal to slash the corporate income tax in half and cut business property taxes by 40 percent received renewed attention this week as the Des Moines Register attempted to summarize the absolutely massive number of tax cuts being proposed by Iowa lawmakers. 

Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal isn’t impressed, saying, “Taken as a whole, the Republican budget basically says we're going to squander the opportunities for the next generation of kids in this state — in terms of education, in terms of access to community college and training programs — we're going to push that aside and say the most important thing is to make sure corporations have tax cuts.”

Missouri lawmakers also garnered some attention this week when the state Senate endorsed legislation to repeal the state’s franchise tax on businesses over the course of the next five years.  Currently, a business must have more than $10 million in assets to be subject to the franchise tax.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an excellent editorial this week in response to the plan, noting: “Businesses were given tax breaks, tax credits, tax incentives, low corporate taxes and tort reform. So where are the jobs? Or did they just pocket the savings? … Business-friendly is one thing. Business-promiscuous is quite another.”

It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it sure would be nice if Arizona lawmakers gave the Post-Dispatch’s editorial a read before beginning debate on the business tax cut package that Governor Brewer plans to release on Monday.



Bad and Less Bad: Business Tax Cuts vs. Grocery Tax Cuts



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Some politicians in state capitals across the U.S. seem convinced that tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy are the best way to accelerate economic recovery. In two states, governors are proposing instead to cut taxes on groceries, which is a more effective, though not exactly flawless, way to help ordinary families. The tradeoff to any tax cut, of course, is unaffordable cuts to essential services including education, public safety, and health care.

In Wisconsin, state lawmakers agreed on a business tax cut that would add about $50 million to the budget deficit.  The Republican controlled legislature and newly elected Governor Scott Walker believe that the tax cuts will leave everybody with more money and leave the state with an improved economy.  Incredibly, Walker’s proposal rests on the assumption that the tax cuts will lure businesses away from Illinois, which recently saw an increase in its income tax, rather than fostering young, developing businesses. 

In Iowa, where a similar $300 million business tax cut is being discussed, critics of Governor Terry Branstad point out that essential social services are being axed in favor of pro-business policies.

In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is proposing to cut taxes on high-wage industries while further reducing funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, and K-12 education.  

Similar tax cuts are being proposed in New York, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. All of these plans prioritize tax breaks for business over providing essential services to those most affected by the economic downturn.  

The Governors of West Virginia and Arkansas have arrived at an entirely different tax-cutting proposal: reducing the sales tax on groceries.  Like lawmakers who support business tax cuts, Governors Tomblin and Beebe believe their brand of tax cuts will circulate quickly throughout the economy, providing necessary relief to the taxpaying public while stimulating the economy. 

Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas wants to cut the sales tax on groceries by a half-cent and has said it is the only tax cut he will consider this year.  In West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wants to reduce the grocery sales tax from 3 to 2 cents and would ultimately like to see it eliminated entirely.

While the proposals to cut the sales tax on groceries are a welcome development compared to proposed tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, there are still two problems with them. 

First and foremost, states are in dire need of revenue this year as they face the most significant budget challenge yet since the start of the recession.  Every dollar lost to a tax cut will have to be made up by an even deeper cut in spending. 

Second, reducing the sales tax on groceries is not the most targeted approach available to state leaders looking to support working families.  The poorest 40 percent of taxpayers typically receive only about 25 percent of the benefit from exempting groceries. The rest goes to wealthier taxpayers who can more easily afford to pay the sales tax on groceries. 

Enacting or increasing a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or other low-income refundable credit would be a more affordable and better targeted alternative to ensure that tax cuts reach low- and middle-income working families.  Tax cuts that directly benefit low-wage workers are especially beneficial to the general economy because low-wage workers immediately spend their refunds out of necessity.  By pumping the money back into the economy, the tax cut goes further in stimulating the economy than tax cuts for the wealthy or businesses.

Instead of pursuing tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, state lawmakers should be working to alleviate hardship on the most vulnerable.  Indeed, the governors in West Virginia and Arkansas may end up being much more efficient at helping their state economies rebound than the “business friendly" governors in Wisconsin and Iowa.



Flood of Bad Tax Ideas Coming from the States



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Ill-conceived tax ideas are coming out of statehouses and governors’ mansions at a faster rate than we’ve seen in quite a while.  Here’s a quick summary on recent proposals receiving serious consideration in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Arizona: Business tax breaks and property tax breaks are being pushed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and legislative leaders are taking them seriously.  The specifics have yet to be worked out, but expect at a minimum to see tax subsidies ostensibly aimed at boosting business hiring and investment.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has explained, however, states cannot stimulate their economies by cutting taxes.

Florida: Newly elected Governor Rick Scott continues to insist that “the way to get the state back to work is to cut property taxes and phase-out the corporate income tax, and we’re going to get that done.”  The state’s enormous budget gap has caused Senate President Mike Haridopolos to approach the issue more cautiously, though he still claims that “if we see some opportunities for tax relief that we feel absolutely confident will create more jobs and actually grow the economy, we’re open to them.”  Haridopolos is also pushing a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR) proposal similar to the one that decimated Colorado’s education funding stream.

Idaho: Legislators in Idaho — including the House majority leader — are preparing to revive an idea they first proposed toward the end of last year’s session: slashing the state’s corporate income tax rate from 7.6 percent to 4.9 percent.  Idaho legislators are also discussing cutting the state’s top personal income tax rate from 7.8 percent to 4.9 percent.  Each of these changes would drastically reduce the amount of revenue available to pay for vital state services, though by proposing that these changes be phased-in gradually over the course of the next decade, legislators are hoping to avoid having to spend too much time thinking about what state services will eventually have to be cut.

Maine: State Tax Notes (subscription required) reports that the chairman of Maine’s Senate tax committee plans to make cutting the state’s personal income tax rate his top priority.  Unlike the tax reform package that Maine voters recently rejected, this cut would be paid for not by broadening the state’s tax base, but by cutting spending and hoping for strong revenue growth.  Maine’s legislators are also apparently contemplating a constitutional amendment that would require supermajority support in the legislature in order to raise taxes.  A supermajority requirement of this type would result not only in lower state services, but also in more tax loopholes.  This is because such a requirement would prevent a simple majority of legislators from eliminating a tax loophole unless they also enlarged another loophole or lowered tax rates in a way that resulted in no net revenue gain.

Michigan: House and Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle in Michigan have inexplicably come to an agreement that the state’s EITC should be cut.  It’s unclear why tax increases on low-income families have suddenly become so popular in Michigan.  If Governor Rick Snyder gets his way, some of the revenue generated by taxing low-income families will likely to be used to pay for his proposed $1.5 billion cut in state business taxes.

Minnesota: The Republican leaders of Minnesota’s state legislature made clear this week that business tax cuts will be one of their top priorities.  One Senate leader has proposed cutting the state’s corporate income tax rate in half by 2017 and freezing statewide taxes on business property.  Fortunately, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is likely to vigorously oppose these cuts.

New Jersey: Democratic legislators are seriously considering a move to single sales factor apportionment for their corporate income tax.  The bill has already cleared the relevant committee, and will move to the full Senate soon.  See ITEP’s policy brief criticizing the single sales factor for state corporate income taxes.

Ohio: Ohio’s House and Governor have declared repealing the state's estate tax to be a top priority.  Local governments receive a majority of the revenue generated by Ohio’s estate tax, and therefore oppose its repeal.  Ohio’s House leaders would also like to create a business tax credit for hiring new employees.

Wisconsin: Governor Scott Walker has proposed a variety of business tax breaks and, as in Maine, the creation of a supermajority requirement to raise taxes.  More bad ideas are almost certain to come from Wisconsin in the weeks ahead, as Governor Walker made clear during last year’s campaign that he supports the outright repeal of Wisconsin’s corporate income tax.



New Report from ITEP: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 2010 State Tax Policy Changes



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For a review of the most significant state tax actions across the country this year and a preview for what’s to come in 2011, check out ITEP’s new report, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 2010 State Tax Policy Changes.

"Good" actions include progressive or reform-minded changes taken to close large state budget gaps. Eliminating personal income tax giveaways, expanding low-income credits, reinstating the estate tax, broadening the sales tax base, and reforming tax credits are all discussed.  

Among the “bad” actions state lawmakers took this year, which either worsened states’ already bleak fiscal outlook or increased taxes on middle-income households, are the repeal of needed tax increases, expanded capital gains tax breaks, and the suspension of property tax relief programs.  

“Ugly” changes raised taxes on the low-income families most affected by the economic downturn, drastically reduced state revenues in a poorly targeted manner, or stifled the ability of states and localities to raise needed revenues in the future. Reductions to low-income credits, permanently narrowing the personal income tax base, and new restrictions on the property tax fall into this category.

The report also includes a look at the state tax policy changes — good, bad, and ugly — that did not happen in 2010.  Some of the actions not taken would have significantly improved the fairness and adequacy of state tax systems, while others would have decimated state budgets and/or made state tax systems more regressive.

2011 promises to be as difficult a year as 2010 for state tax policy as lawmakers continue to grapple with historic budget shortfalls due to lagging revenues and a high demand for public services.  The report ends with a highlight of the state tax policy debates that are likely to play out across the country in the coming year.



State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released



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Good Jobs First (GJF) released three new resources this week explaining how your state is doing when it comes to letting taxpayers know about the plethora of subsidies being given to private companies.  These resources couldn’t be more timely.  As GJF’s Executive Director Greg LeRoy explained, “with states being forced to make painful budget decisions, taxpayers expect economic development spending to be fair and transparent.”

The first of these three resources, Show Us The Subsidies, grades each state based on its subsidy disclosure practices.  GJF finds that while many states are making real improvements in subsidy disclosure, many others still lag far behind.  Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio did the best in the country according to GJF, while thirteen states plus DC lack any disclosure at all and therefore earned an “F.”  Eighteen additional states earned a “D” or “D-minus.”

While the study includes cash grants, worker training programs, and loan guarantees, much of its focus is on tax code spending, or “tax expenditures.”  Interestingly, disclosure of company-specific information appears to be quite common for state-level tax breaks.  Despite claims from business lobbyists that tax subsidies must be kept anonymous in order to protect trade secrets, GJF was able to find about 50 examples of tax credits, across about two dozen states, where company-specific information is released.  In response to the business lobby, GJF notes that “the sky has not fallen” in these states.

The second tool released by GJF this week, called Subsidy Tracker, is the first national search engine for state economic development subsidies.  By pulling together information from online sources, offline sources, and Freedom of Information Act requests, GJF has managed to create a searchable database covering more than 43,000 subsidy awards from 124 programs in 27 states.  Subsidy Tracker puts information that used to be difficult to find, nearly impossible to search through, or even previously unavailable, on the Internet all in one convenient location.  Tax credits, property tax abatements, cash grants, and numerous other types of subsidies are included in the Subsidy Tracker database.

Finally, GJF also released Accountable USA, a series of webpages for all 50 states, plus DC, that examines each state’s track record when it comes to subsidies.  Major “scams,” transparency ratings for key economic development programs, and profiles of a few significant economic development deals are included for each state.  Accountable USA also provides a detailed look at state-specific subsidies received by Wal-Mart.

These three resources from Good Jobs First will no doubt prove to be an invaluable resource for state lawmakers, advocates, media, and the general public as states continue their steady march toward improved subsidy disclosure.



Voters Embrace Higher Taxes at the Local Level



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Last week, the Associated Press took a close look at how local-level tax increases have fared on the ballot leading up to this week’s election.  Out of the 39 states surveyed by the AP, 22 of them held local primary elections or special elections where tax measures were voted on in 2010, and a whopping 19 of those states saw their residents approve more than half of all proposed local tax increases.

Some of the more interesting results highlighted by the AP include the approval of 83% of local tax increases in Louisiana, 72% in Ohio, and 66% in ArizonaKansas, Nebraska, and Washington also approved particularly high percentages of local tax increases.

It’s important to note that the AP study was conducted before this week’s election, and therefore doesn’t tell us how local measures fared on November 2.  Moreover, as the AP points out in their review, there is no single source for information on the results of local ballot measures, and even most states fail to publicize local results in a centralized location. 

Unless and until a study of this week’s local measures is completed, we’ll be left to wonder whether trends from earlier this year have continued to hold.  If they have, there could very well be many more stories of local ballot successes like this one in Colorado.



Norquist's "No New Taxes" Pledge Loses Its Sway in Arizona



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Back in 2009 and early 2010, Grover Norquist’s "no new taxes" pledge received an awful lot of attention in Arizona.  The state was grappling with an enormous budget deficit, and lawmakers were running out of ideas for how to address it.  Republican Governor Jan Brewer, to her credit, realized fairly early on that a tax increase would be needed to help close the gap, but she and over 30 Republican legislators had signed Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes.  Ultimately, Brewer and over a dozen other Republicans broke the pledge by sending a sales tax increase to the Arizona voters, which they ultimately approved

Recently, The Arizona Republic published a useful update on the pledge-breakers, pointing out that “there’s no evidence that … [any of them] … suffered any repercussions in last month’s primary election.”

Most notably, Governor Brewer coasted to an easy win in her primary battle, with all of her serious opponents dropping out before the vote even took place.  Amusingly, Norquist’s group had prematurely labeled the pledge as a “deciding factor in the Arizona gubernatorial race” just a few months earlier when Brewer wasn’t doing as well in the polls.

The Republican legislators who broke the pledge apparently fared very similarly to Brewer.  Most won their nominations, and among the four pledge-breakers that did lose, The Arizona Republic notes that, “no one is linking it to the pledge, and there is no evidence the issue arose.”  This despite Norquist’s prediction that his pledge is “self-enforcing by the citizens of each state,” and his insistence that the pledge-breakers would have to “talk to their voters and explain to them why they voted the way they did.” 

Ultimately, it seems that even Grover himself may be losing some interest in his pledge.  Back in 2004, Norquist issued “least wanted” posters for Republican pledge-breakers in Virginia – a move that Arizona lawmakers apparently feared would happen to them.  But when asked a few months back about whether he would pursue a similar strategy in Arizona, he backed down, stating that “the pledge is a commitment to taxpayers — not to me.”  His group did ultimately write one measly blog post, but nothing like what took place in Virginia.

Perhaps Constantin Querad, a Republican campaign manager, had it right when he said, "I wouldn't be surprised if everybody takes a few years off from that pledge."  We hope they take even more time off than that.



New 50 State ITEP Report Released: State Tax Policies CAN Help Reduce Poverty



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ITEP’s new report, Credit Where Credit is (Over) Due, examines four proven state tax reforms that can assist families living in poverty. They include refundable state Earned Income Tax Credits, property tax circuit breakers, targeted low-income credits, and child-related tax credits. The report also takes stock of current anti-poverty policies in each of the states and offers suggested policy reforms.

Earlier this month, the US Census Bureau released new data showing that the national poverty rate increased from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent in 2009.  Faced with a slow and unresponsive economy, low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to find decent jobs that can adequately provide for their families.

Most states have regressive tax systems which exacerbate this situation by imposing higher effective tax rates on low-income families than on wealthy ones, making it even harder for low-wage workers to move above the poverty line and achieve economic security. Although state tax policy has so far created an uneven playing field for low-income families, state governments can respond to rising poverty by alleviating some of the economic hardship on low-income families through targeted anti-poverty tax reforms.

One important policy available to lawmakers is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The credit is widely recognized as an effective anti-poverty strategy, lifting roughly five million people each year above the federal poverty line.  Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide state EITCs, modeled on the federal credit, which help to offset the impact of regressive state and local taxes.  The report recommends that states with EITCs consider expanding the credit and that other states consider introducing a refundable EITC to help alleviate poverty.

The second policy ITEP describes is property tax "circuit breakers." These programs offer tax credits to homeowners and renters who pay more than a certain percentage of their income in property tax.  But the credits are often only available to the elderly or disabled.  The report suggests expanding the availability of the credit to include all low-income families.

Next ITEP describes refundable low-income credits, which are a good compliment to state EITCs in part because the EITC is not adequate for older adults and adults without children.  Some states have structured their low-income credits to ensure income earners below a certain threshold do not owe income taxes. Other states have designed low-income tax credits to assist in offsetting the impact of general sales taxes or specifically the sales tax on food.  The report recommends that lawmakers expand (or create if they don’t already exist) refundable low-income tax credits.

The final anti-poverty strategy that ITEP discusses are child-related tax credits.  The new US Census numbers show that one in five children are currently living in poverty. The report recommends consideration of these tax credits, which can be used to offset child care and other expenses for parents.



ITEP Identifies Fundamental Mismatch in 6 State Tax Structures



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Earlier this summer the Census Bureau released data that revealed which states can be considered "low tax" states. We took a closer look at the data and found that while a handful of states could be considered low tax states overall, their taxes are not low for poor and middle-income families.

In fact, in six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington — there is a fundamental mismatch between the Census data and how these supposed low tax states treat people living at or near the poverty line. One of the major reasons for this is that these states have largely unbalanced tax structures. Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington rely heavily on property and sales taxes because they don't have a broad-based personal income tax. (For more on a Washington ballot initiative to introduce an income tax, see our Digest article below.) Despite having income taxes, Arkansas and Arizona rely heavily on sales taxes, thus making their tax structures balanced on the backs of low- and middle-income taxpayers.



New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions



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The vast majority of the attention given to the Bush tax cuts has been focused on changes in top marginal rates, the treatment of capital gains income, and the estate tax.  But another, less visible component of those cuts has been gradually making itemized deductions more unfair and expensive over the last five years.  Since the vast majority of states offering itemized deductions base their rules on what is done at the federal level, this change has also resulted in state governments offering an ever-growing, regressive tax cut that they clearly cannot afford. 

In an attempt to encourage states to reverse the effects of this costly and inequitable development, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) this week released a new report, "Writing Off" Tax Giveaways, that examines five options for reforming state itemized deductions in order to reduce their cost and regressivity, with an eye toward helping states balance their budgets.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia currently allow itemized deductions.  The remaining states either lack an income tax entirely, or have simply chosen not to make itemized deductions a part of their income tax — as Rhode Island decided to do just this year.  In 2010, for the first time in two decades, twenty-six states plus DC will not limit these deductions for their wealthiest residents in any way, due to the federal government's repeal of the "Pease" phase-out (so named for its original Congressional sponsor).  This is an unfortunate development as itemized deductions, even with the Pease phase-out, were already most generous to the nation's wealthiest families.

"Writing Off" Tax Giveaways examines five specific reform options for each of the thirty-one states offering itemized deductions (state-specific results are available in the appendix of the report or in these convenient, state-specific fact sheets).

The most comprehensive option considered in the report is the complete repeal of itemized deductions, accompanied by a substantial increase in the standard deduction.  By pairing these two tax changes, only a very small minority of taxpayers in each state would face a tax increase under this option, while a much larger share would actually see their taxes reduced overall.  This option would raise substantial revenue with which to help states balance their budgets.

Another reform option examined by the report would place a cap on the total value of itemized deductions.  Vermont and New York already do this with some of their deductions, while Hawaii legislators attempted to enact a comprehensive cap earlier this year, only to be thwarted by Governor Linda Lingle's veto.  This proposal would increase taxes on only those few wealthy taxpayers currently claiming itemized deductions in excess of $40,000 per year (or $20,000 for single taxpayers).

Converting itemized deductions into a credit, as has been done in Wisconsin and Utah, is also analyzed by the report.  This option would reduce the "upside down" nature of itemized deductions by preventing wealthier taxpayers in states levying a graduated rate income tax from receiving more benefit per dollar of deduction than lower- and middle-income taxpayers.  Like outright repeal, this proposal would raise significant revenue, and would result in far more taxpayers seeing tax cuts than would see tax increases.

Finally, two options for phasing-out deductions for high-income earners are examined.  One option simply reinstates the federal Pease phase-out, while another analyzes the effects of a modified phase-out design.  These options would raise the least revenue of the five options examined, but should be most familiar to lawmakers because of their experience with the federal Pease provision.

Read the full report.



Ballot Initiatives in the States: The Good News



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Efforts are underway in a variety of states to give voters the opportunity to change their state's tax structure for the better. Advocates are laying the ground work for tax reform in Colorado. Tax justice advocates in Arizona can celebrate that a Proposition 13-like initiative didn't garner enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. California voters will get the chance to repeal various corporate tax loopholes while Washington is closer than ever before to introducing a personal income tax.

In Colorado, folks are thinking about the 2012 ballot already. Representatives of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute (CFPI) have filed two initiatives that are currently being reviewed to determine if they abide by the state's "single subject" per initiative rule. According to The Denver Post, "the measures also call for reducing the state sales tax but taxing services as well as goods, changing the income-tax system to a graduated system and making a tax credit for low-income workers permanent." Specifically the proposal would change Colorado's flat rate income tax into a graduated system with a least five brackets. Carol Hedges with CFPI recently said of the initiatives that "the overriding objective is to have our tax system more appropriately matched with economic realities."

Arizonans swerved and missed the tax policy equivalent of a Mack truck slamming into them when it was announced that "Prop. 13 Arizona" failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the 2010 ballot. The proposal was modeled after California's Proposition 13. The measure would have rolled back the assessed value of property sold before 2004 to 2003 levels, limited property value increases, and taken away voters' rights to override levy limits. This is the second time that the proposal failed to garner enough signatures. For more on capping assessed value, see ITEP's primer on the subject.

In November, California voters will get to vote on the Repeal Corporate Tax Loopholes Act. The measure, if passed, would eliminate several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009. They include elective single sales factor, tax credit sharing, and net operating loss carrybacks. For more details on these tax breaks, see California Budget Project's Budget Brief on this issue. Perhaps more upsetting than these tax breaks actually passing is the way they were passed. Initially, according to the California Budget Bites Blog, these tax deals were of the "dark-of-night" variety. Now Californians themselves will decide if these costly corporate tax breaks should remain the law of the land.

Washingtonians are closer than they have ever been to establishing a personal income tax. Washington has repeatedly been named by ITEP as the state with the most regressive tax structure largely because of their high reliance on sales taxes and absence of a personal income tax. Initiative 1098 introduces an income tax that has two brackets targeted at high income Washingtonians, reduces the state property tax, and reforms the business and occupation tax. Supporters of the initiative this week turned in well over the 241,000 signatures required to get on the ballot. It appears that Washingtonians will have an exciting and historic opportunity to reform their state's tax structure this fall.



Anti-Tax Lawmakers in Arizona Have No Idea What Their Constituents Want



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The Arizona Republic this week ran an excellent article detailing just how wrong anti-tax legislators were in assuming that their constituents would oppose a tax hike.  A temporary sales tax hike that barely made it out of the legislature earlier this year was approved by voters last month by an overwhelming 64-36% margin.  The measure also enjoyed solid majorities in many of the districts held by lawmakers that opposed sending this measure to the ballot.

One year after the Republican Chair of the House Appropriations Committee confidently declared that “Republicans in my district don’t want a tax increase,” State Rep. John Kavanagh’s District 8 joined the overwhelming majority of Arizonans in supporting the hike.  Similarly, District 22, represented by Republican Senator Thayer Verschoor — who headed the campaign in opposition to the sales tax — voted strongly in favor of the tax as well.  Notably, District 22 is also home to two other Republican representatives that voted against allowing their constituents to a chance to decide on the sales tax hike.  When all was said and done, every county in the state except for Mohave voted in support of the increase.

Without a doubt, the approval of this hike — despite its flaws — was both an enormous victory for the people of Arizona, and a sharp condemnation of the rabidly anti-tax nature of the state’s elected officials.  Fred Solop of Northern Arizona University stated the obvious when he said that legislators’ claims that “we need to take a different tack with the state economy, cut back spending and programs” were in fact not “aligned with the values of Arizona voters.” 

Lattie Coor, formerly the president of Arizona State University, underscored this point further by noting that last year only 10% of Arizonans felt that their lawmakers represented them, and that "to find such a substantial variance between what voters actually did on a proposition before them … and the vote of their elected representatives, underscores the disconnect between citizens and elected officials.” 

Once again, this episode makes clear that the anti-tax attitudes of politicians should never be mistaken for actual anti-tax sentiment among Americans.



Ballot Victory in Arizona Shows Anti-Tax Sentiment Not Nearly as Strong as Many Believe



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Arizona’s 1 percentage point sales tax rate hike won approval from voters on Tuesday, telling us a lot about rightwing claims regarding the alleged “anti-tax,” “anti-government” nature of the American people.  In a state described by the Los Angeles Times as “famously tax-averse,” the overwhelming support received by this tax hike truly does “[run] counter to a common national narrative about 2010 being a sharply anti-tax year,” as Pew’s Stateline publication explained earlier this week.

The hike will take effect on June 1, and will raise Arizona’s state-level sales tax rate from 5.6% to 6.6% for the next three years.  The higher rate is expected to generate about $1 billion per year in revenue, and will prevent the need for so-called “contingency spending cuts” of a similar magnitude in K-12 education, universities, public safety, health care, and services for the disabled.  

But while the sales tax hike is far preferable to the devastating cuts that would have been required in its absence, it is also far from the ideal progressive solution.  Arizona policymakers should not overlook the fact that the state’s newly increased sales tax rate will exacerbate the unfairness of a state tax system that was recently ranked by ITEP as the 7th most regressive in the entire nation.  In a state where the poorest residents already pay over two and a half times as much of their income in state and local taxes as the richest 1%, the need for additional tax relief for the state’s poor has just become even more dire.  Future changes to the Arizona tax code should be guided first and foremost with this thought in mind.



How to Fix State Budgets and Help the Economy



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For many states, the fiscal picture for the next year remains cloudy at best. After years of painful spending cuts, how can states balance their budgets without further damaging essential public investments? A new report from United for a Fair Economy (UFE) lays out a few important guidelines for budget reform.

Among the more interesting recommendations: States shouldn't be afraid to meet spending needs by borrowing or drawing down their rainy day funds — but should do each in a straightforward and rational manner. This means that states seeking to adequately fund public investments that benefit future generations (such as transportation spending) shouldn't feel bad about issuing general obligation debt to fund these needs, ensuring that future generations will pay part of the cost of funding these investments. (Of course, lawmakers generally don't need any help shifting costs to future generations, but it's important to remember that there is, in some areas, a sound rationale for doing so.)

On rainy day funds, the report is a reminder that when the rainy days come, the funds should be used — and that damaging cuts to education and health care spending are a far worse result than depleting state reserves.

Responding to a recent report from the Pew Center for the States that generated hysterical headlines about unfunded state pension systems, the UFE report also notes that in the short run, unfunded long-term liabilities of the sort documented in the Pew report are a far better alternative than the loss of vital public services in the present day.

As the report reminds us, virtually every state could avoid damaging spending cuts through progressive tax reform focused on the state income tax — but these other tools should also be considered before resorting to further across-the-board spending cuts.



Oklahoma Group Proposes Eliminating Ridiculous State Income Tax Deduction for State Income Taxes



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This week the Oklahoma Policy Institute released a report urging, among other things, that one of the state’s more ridiculous tax breaks be eliminated — specifically, the state income tax deduction for state income taxes.  This deduction was created not as a result of careful consideration and debate among Oklahoma policymakers, but rather as an accidental side-effect of the state’s “coupling” to federal income tax rules.  And as the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee politely points out, while the deduction may make some sense at the federal level, the rationale for providing it at the state level is “less clear.”

Citing figures provided by ITEP, the Oklahoma Policy Institute notes that only one out of four Oklahomans would be affected by eliminating this deduction, and roughly 58% of the overall tax hike would be borne by those richest 5% of Oklahomans.  This is a predictable result of the deduction only being available to itemizers.  In total, the state could collect an additional $118 million in revenue each year by eliminating the deduction — revenue that could go a long way toward preserving important public services.

State income tax deductions for state income taxes have been receiving a growing amount of attention.  Last year, Vermont limited its deduction to a maximum of $5,000, while just last week New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a budget eliminating his state’s deduction entirely.  The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) also highlighted the benefits of eliminating this deduction in a policy brief released just a few weeks ago.

In total, seven states currently offer this deduction: Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  Eliminating the deduction in each of these states is long overdue.



Finally, a Good Tax Proposal Out of Arizona



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As a quick glance through the Digest's Arizona archives reveals, the Arizona budget debates over the past year have been an utter disaster.  Against this backdrop, the efforts of a group of Arizona hospitals to get a high-incomes tax increase onto the ballot are truly a sight for sore eyes.

The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association is preparing to file the paperwork needed to get a 1 percentage point increase in the state's top income tax rate onto the November ballot.  The increase would affect only a small group of fortunate Arizonans — those earning more than $150,000 per individual, or $300,000 per married couple.  The Association would like to see the additional revenue directed toward improving health care in the state. This is crucial for a state that recently repealed its Children's Health Insurance Program.



Arizona Repeals Children's Health Insurance: Taking "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish" to a New Level



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Arizona's budget-balancing techniques have bordered on the comical in recent months. Lawmakers have enacted legislation that would help balance the current year's budget by selling off state buildings, including the state capitol — and then immediately leasing them back, providing a one-shot revenue boost for this year, and then actually worsening the state's budget deficit in every ensuing year as the state pays a variety of new landlords. As a "Daily Show" interview displayed horrifically, state lawmakers simply had no answer to the question "what happens next year?"

Well, now they do. On Thursday, Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that repeals the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), making them the first state in the nation to take this drastic, short-sighted step. The most obvious implication is that the state will make a dent in its multi-billion dollar deficit for the fiscal year starting in July — but this move will result in a variety of added costs to the state, ranging from the loss of hundreds of millions in federal matching funds to higher state and local spending on emergency room costs and an assortment of higher safety net spending for uninsured families pushed over the limit by extraordinary medical expenses.

Shockingly, the state's fiscal problems will get even worse if voters fail to approve a May referendum that would temporarily increase the sales tax rate. As CTJ has noted in the past, Arizona has a variety of more progressive and sustainable tax reform options available, but the supermajority requirement for Arizona tax increases has made this sort of reform practically impossible. Unfortunately, the deck is not stacked equally for tax and spending changes. When lawmakers dream up spending cuts so myopic they attract derision from late-night talk show hosts, those cuts can be enacted with a simple majority. The Arizona Children's Action Alliance has more on the impact of the latest spending cuts on families with children.


Arizona & New Mexico: So Close, Yet So Far Apart



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Southwest neighbors Arizona and New Mexico may share a common border, but news reports from each state this week make them look worlds apart.  

In Arizona, after refusing for months to support Governor Jan Brewer’s call for a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax, leading Republicans have put forward a tax plan of their own.  Unfortunately, rather than raising the revenue necessary to address the state’s staggering budget deficit of $4.4 billion (over the next 18 months), their plan would dramatically reduce personal and corporate income taxes, as well as the property taxes paid by businesses.

The backers of the plan claim that it would not worsen the state’s fiscal outlook, as the reductions would be phased in over a number of years. But that is precisely the approach the state followed over the course of the 1990s – a course of action that has put the state in its current predicament.  Moreover, while the plan apparently would not take effect until July 2011, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee has indicated for quite a while that Arizona's revenues are unlikely to return to their pre-recession levels before that time.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson recommended raising taxes by $200 million (on a temporary basis) to help close the state's budget gap.  However, he appears to have left the details of which taxes to increase to the legislature and the Budget Balancing Task Force he appointed late last year. 

While the Task Force has an array of options before it, the best approach – the repeal of New Mexico’s tax break for capital gains income – has already been ruled out by the Governor. (This is no surprise, since Richardson was the break’s chief advocate when it was put into law in 2003.) Still, as ITEP found in its March 2009 report, “A Capital Idea,” capital gains tax breaks “deprive states of millions of dollars in needed funds, benefit almost exclusively the very wealthiest members of society, and fail to promote economic growth in the manner their proponents claim.”

For more on the fiscal crises in Arizona and New Mexico, visit Children’s Action Alliance and New Mexico Voices for Children.



ITEP's "Who Pays?" Report Renews Focus on Tax Fairness Across the Nation



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This week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), in partnership with state groups in forty-one states, released the 3rd edition of “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States.”  The report found that, by an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy.  The response has been overwhelming.

In Michigan, The Detroit Free Press hit the nail on the head: “There’s nothing even remotely fair about the state’s heaviest tax burden falling on its least wealthy earners.  It’s also horrible public policy, given the hard hit that middle and lower incomes are taking in the state’s brutal economic shift.  And it helps explain why the state is having trouble keeping up with funding needs for its most vital services.  The study provides important context for the debate about how to fix Michigan’s finances and shows how far the state really has to go before any cries of ‘unfairness’ to wealthy earners can be taken seriously.”

In addition, the Governor’s office in Michigan responded by reiterating Gov. Granholm’s support for a graduated income tax.  Currently, Michigan is among a minority of states levying a flat rate income tax.

Media in Virginia also explained the study’s importance.  The Augusta Free Press noted: “If you believe the partisan rhetoric, it’s the wealthy who bear the tax burden, and who are deserving of tax breaks to get the economy moving.  A new report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Virginia Organizing Project puts the rhetoric in a new light.”

In reference to Tennessee’s rank among the “Terrible Ten” most regressive state tax systems in the nation, The Commercial Appeal ran the headline: “A Terrible Decision.”  The “terrible decision” to which the Appeal is referring is the choice by Tennessee policymakers to forgo enacting a broad-based income tax by instead “[paying] the state’s bills by imposing the country’s largest combination of state and local sales taxes and maintaining the sales tax on food.”

In Texas, The Dallas Morning News ran with the story as well, explaining that “Texas’ low-income residents bear heavier tax burdens than their counterparts in all but four other states.”  The Morning News article goes on to explain the study’s finding that “the media and elected officials often refer to states such as Texas as “low-tax” states without considering who benefits the most within those states.”  Quoting the ITEP study, the Morning News then points out that “No-income-tax states like Washington, Texas and Florida do, in fact, have average to low taxes overall.  Can they also be considered low-tax states for poor families?  Far from it.”

Talk of the study has quickly spread everywhere from Florida to Nevada, and from Maryland to Montana.  Over the coming months, policymakers will need to keep the findings of Who Pays? in mind if they are to fill their states’ budget gaps with responsible and fair revenue solutions.



ARIZONA: Budget Woes Stretch Past July 4th, Labor Day, Halloween ... and Possibly Thanksgiving?



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Arizona currently faces a roughly $2 billion budget deficit in the current fiscal year, with agencies such as the Department of Revenue on the verge of depleting all available funding.  Yet, as they have done multiple times over the past five months, state legislators have once more proven unable to craft a comprehensive and balanced solution to the problem before them.  As the Arizona Republic reports, the Senate Republican leadership yet again fell one vote short of passing a plan that, among other things, would slash $300 million in funding from K-12 education and social services.  Senate leadership failed to win a single Democratic vote – and thus to  generate a majority for its latest budget plan – in large measure because it continues to refuse to consider any options for generating additional tax revenue.  As Sen. Ken Cheuvront argued, “there … needs to be a two-pronged approach … As we make those cuts, we also have to look at raising revenues.”

There is certainly support in some quarters for that sort of balanced approach.  The mayors of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe – who collectively represent roughly a sixth of Arizona’s population – recently came together to express support for revamping the state’s tax system and to urge state lawmakers to avoid pushing the state’s budget difficulties onto municipalities.  In addition, the Arizona Budget Coalition, which includes SEIU, the Arizona Education Association, and the Children’s Action Alliance (CAA), this week announced its own set of alternatives to the plan backed by legislative leadership; among those alternatives are an increase in the state’s sales tax rate and modifications to the state’s controversial tuition tax credits.  

To learn more about the role that tax cuts have played in creating Arizona’s budget crisis, read this helpful report from the CAA.



State Revenue Matters In the News



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With legislative sessions starting in just a few months, advocates and the press are weighing in on the options available to cash-strapped states. Kentucky lawmakers are urged to find a real solution to the state's fiscal woes. Idaho's Governor is suddenly open to delaying an improvement in an important tax justice tool. Maryland advocates urge a balanced approach to this year's budget, Arizona researchers offer insight into the cost of previous tax cuts, and Ohio lawmakers rethink their own previously enacted tax cuts.

Kentucky

Late last week, Kentucky's Lexington-Herald Leader published an editorial urging lawmakers to reform that state's tax code, saying "Our representatives and senators turned to a 'smoke and mirrors' approach to budgeting because they simply lacked the backbone to do the right thing: Pass the kind of real tax reform that could provide state government with a stable, sustainable revenue base." They fear that during this session lawmakers will continue to cut important programs instead of fixing the state's revenue stream. The paper warns the lawmakers appear to be on track to continue "robbing Peter to pay Paul...Only this time, Peter is a schoolchild."

Idaho

Tax fairness advocates in Idaho may be facing a similar uphill battle. Governor Butch Otter, once a strong proponent of the state's grocery tax credit (which helps to offset the state's sales tax on food), has now left the door open for delaying an increase in the credit amount in order to save the state $15.5 million. Of course, now is precisely the wrong time to delay such an important credit specifically targeted to help offset the state's regressive sales tax on food. While it's important to keep all options on the table, during this time of fiscal upheaval delaying the increase in this credit is an option that should be quickly dismissed.

Maryland

Recently the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute released a paper urging lawmakers to approach the state's budget woes in a balanced way. The report makes a strong case against a cuts-only budget. "An all-cuts budget solution would sacrifice too many of the things that make Maryland such a great state." The report goes on to offer a list of concrete revenue-raising options available to lawmakers interested in preserving the state's education, health, and transportation programs.

Arizona

Arizona's budget woes are dire. A new report from the Arizona Children's Action Alliance describes the state's budget crater, which is projected to be $1.5 billion for FY10 and $2.5 billion in FY11. The report is useful for any Arizona advocate interested in understanding the impact that previous rounds of tax cuts have had on the resources available to fund public services. It explains "why any [budget] package that results in further net loss to the state general fund endangers the common benefits that Arizona counts on." The report goes on to offer ten reasons why the state should freeze and reverse the harmful tax cuts from recent years.

Ohio

Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives voted to suspend the state's scheduled income tax rate reductions for two years to help plug a budget hole. Governor Ted Strickland congratulated members of the House, saying they "acted quickly, courageously and responsibly to protect Ohio schools from devastating cuts while reducing their own pay in solidarity with struggling Ohio families and businesses." Now the legislation moves to the state's Republican controlled Senate. Let's hope lawmakers there follow in the House's footsteps and put the needs of Ohio first.



Arizona: A Step in the Right Direction, but a Long Journey Ahead



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Earlier this month, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed legislation repealing Arizona’s statewide property tax, which would have compounded the state's fiscal woes at a cost of $250 million annually. Her veto was both socially just and fiscally prudent, since the statewide property tax was designed to make school funding more equitable.  

But Arizona still has a long road to travel before it reaches the fiscal high ground.  A new analysis from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee indicates that the state continues to face a budget deficit of close to $1 billion in the current fiscal year, despite enormous cuts to public services that have been enacted recently. 

Governor Brewer would like to put a sales tax increase before the voters, which would certainly help to close this gap. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen this year because the legislature has so far refused to act on this proposal. 



Arizona: Fake News, Bad News, and Mildly Good News



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How bad is Arizona’s budget situation?  Well, let’s put it this way:  the Daily Show may soon air a segment examining, in its own inimitable way, a proposal to sell, and then to lease back, a variety of state-owned property and buildings as a means of generating more than $700 million in the current fiscal year – and that proposal was just signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer.  Not only that, but that proposal was one of the few pieces of the budget that the Governor and the other members of her party, who happen to control both chambers of the Arizona legislature, could agree upon. 

The other seven bills that comprise the state’s fiscal year 2010 budget – none of which raise taxes and one of which would reduce them by some $250 million per year, a deficit of more than $3 billion notwithstanding – still await the Governor’s signature.  Hopefully, the Governor will continue to hold out for a ballot initiative that would temporarily raise the state’s sales tax to help address the state’s enormous revenue shortfall. Still, even if she succeeds and the initiative passes, a new analysis from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee indicates that budget deficits of more than $2 billion will return in FY 2012.

Not all of the tax policy news out of Arizona this week is bad, however.  A recent Arizona Republic expose found that the state’s school tuition organization tax credit not only failed to achieve its alleged goal of assisting low-income students, but also is vulnerable to rampant abuse by self-interested parents. In response, the second largest school tuition organization in the state, the Catholic Tuition Organization for the Diocese of Phoenix, announced that it would no longer allow donors to engage in one of the abusive practices in question, namely, specifying which students would receive the scholarship funded by the donor’s tax subsidized bequest.  (As the Republic found, less-than-scrupulous parents were coordinating with friends, family, and neighbors to name each other’s children as the beneficiaries of their tax-supported donations.)  Still, given that those taxpayers who claim the credit are far wealthier than most Arizonans, it may be time for the credit to be scrapped altogether



Arizona's Response to a $3 Billion Shortfall: Abolish a Tax Created to Give Everyone Equal Access to Education



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Arizona lawmakers voted this week to permanently eliminate the state's property tax. If signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, the revenue loss to the state is expected to be about $250 million. This is the worst time in recent memory to cut taxes, given Arizona's shortfall of more than $3 billion.

Even worse, this cut represents a leap backward for social justice advocates. As this article explains, "The tax was designed to more evenly spread the burden of funding public schools in local communities." 

In states where education is mainly funded through local property taxes, poor districts often must levy much higher property taxes than wealthier districts in order to adequately fund schools. A state property tax applies a uniform property tax rate to all taxing districts, making school funding more equitable.

Repealing this tax won't spell the end of state aid to poorer school districts in Arizona -- but it will certainly make it harder to ensure equitable school funding in the long-run.

To put this measure in context, the Arizona legislature's response to its fiscal situation has become increasingly unsound lately. One budget-balancing idea gaining support among legislative leaders: selling and then leasing back state government property in what one leader approvingly refers to as "taking out a mortgage." Never mind that this approach to personal finance didn't work out so well for many Arizona homeowners in the last couple of years.



Arizona: Budget Saga Nearing an End?



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Despite single party control of both the legislative and executive branches of government, the Grand Canyon State has now been without a complete fiscal year 2010 budget for more than 40 days.  The delay has arisen largely because legislative leadership has continued to insist that tax-cutting dogma trump fiscal reality. More specifically, they have demanded that Governor Jan Brewer’s proposal to increase the sales tax on a temporary basis be paired with a permanent plan to reduce personal and corporate income taxes, along with property taxes, by $650 million per year.  To this point, their demands have foundered in the Senate, as the final vote needed to approve such a pairing has proved elusive.

A new gambit, devised in consultation with Grover Norquist, may provide the required votes within the next few days. It would separate the sales tax hike from the other tax changes, thus requiring two separate votes and thus potentially drawing new supporters to each element.  However packaged, the combination of a temporary tax hike and permanent tax reduction will have the same result over the long-run:  inadequate revenue and a greater share of the responsibility for taxes shifted onto working Arizonans.



Arizona: Goose... Meet Gander



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So, let's suppose you live and do business in a state that faces a $3 billion budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, by far one of the largest in the nation. Imagine as well that your Governor recently took the responsible, if albeit vague, step of calling for a temporary tax increase to generate a $1 billion per year to address that deficit. What to do? Well, if you are the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, as the price of your fealty, you demand not just a tax cut, but multiple tax cuts. And not just any tax cuts, but tax cuts that benefit the very wealthiest state residents and the very largest of businesses.

Sound farfetched? Well, according to the Arizona Republic, it isn't. Just last week, the Republic reported that the Chamber had indicated it would support a sales tax increase, but only if "lawmakers [eliminate] the property-equalization tax and [take] steps to reduce the corporate income tax rate and capital gains taxes." In other words, the Chamber is fine with working Arizonans paying higher taxes, but only if its members get to pay lower taxes in exchange. Who could possibly object to that?



Numerous Other States Decide on Tax/Revenue Proposals



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Arizona voters wisely rejected Proposition 105, a proposal that would have placed a nearly insurmountable obstacle in the way of Arizona residents seeking to raise their own taxes through the referendum process.

Arkansas voters approved a measure to institute a state lottery. While the state could certainly use the additional revenue, Arkansans should be wary of funding their government through regressive revenue sources such as the lottery.

Maine residents rejected an increase in the alcohol and soda taxes to fund health care. While it's certainly a bad thing that these taxes are regressive (as well as unlikely to exhibit sustainable growth in the coming years), the ludicrousness of the fervent opposition this relatively minor tax created can be read about in this Digest article and this blog post.

Maryland residents also decided to secure additional revenues for their government via expanded gambling, in the form of 15,000 new slot machines. Check out this Digest article to learn about some of the problems with this proposal.

Missouri also attempted to increase its haul from gambling. Increased gambling taxes and the elimination of limitations on the amount of money one is allowed to lose were approved by voters this Tuesday. This Digest article explains how the proposal leaves much to be desired.

Minnesota voters decided to go through with a 3/8ths percent sales tax hike. While the environmental causes to which the funds will be dedicated are undoubtedly worthy, the regressive way in which voters decided to go about funding the projects (through the sales tax) is far from ideal.

Nevada residents voted to amend their constitution to require that all new sales and property tax exemptions be subjected to a benefit-cost analysis, and accompanied by a sunset provision that will force their reexamination in the future. While the proposal sounds good in theory, its requirements are relatively loose in practice. It will be up to Nevadans to carefully watch their representatives to ensure that the spirit of this law is adhered to. Learn more about this proposal here.



Ballot Update 2008: Arizona: A Proposal to End All Tax Increases?



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Arizona's Proposition 105 won't immediately change any taxes, but its implications for tax policy in the state are potentially severe. The question seeks to amend the state's constitution to require that any tax increase be approved by a majority of registered voters. This would be in addition to the requirement that tax increases enacted through the legislature be approved by 2/3 of legislators.

Under this new proposal, if, for example, only half of registered voters took the time to vote in an election where a tax increase was on the ballot, every single one of them would have to vote in approval of the tax measure for it to become law. Essentially, any registered voter that fails to vote will be counted as in opposition to the measure. As one observer puts it, "anyone who wants to vote no can just stay at home."

For some perspective, no ballot initiative (tax related or otherwise) has received approval from a majority of registered voters in Arizona since 1974. In fact, it's possible that at majority of registered voters do not even vote in some elections.

The passage of Proposition 105, coupled with the 2/3 majority requirement in the legislature, could perhaps bring to an end the possibility of any future tax increases occurring in Arizona. Needless to say, this would be a very irresponsible arrangement, given the recent budget troubles in the state.



Ballot Initiatives: An Often Crooked Process



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The runup to the 2008 elections has given us plenty of reminders of why direct democracy is generally not the best approach to tax reform. In North Dakota, a typo in the language of a proposed tax cut may actually result in a tax increase for some families. In Nevada, the failure of supporters to properly file thousands of signatures in favor of an (ill-conceived) property tax cap resulted in that measure being thrown off the ballot.

But while both of these rather innocent mistakes are undoubtedly serious, neither is as serious as the rampant dishonesty often involved in the signature collection process. In Arizona, for example, a staggering 42% of signatures for a transportation ballot proposal this year were found to be invalid. In North Dakota, though problem wasn't quite as rampant, one signature collector this week was found guilty of faking potentially hundreds of signatures for their regressive income tax cut.

While there may be compelling reasons rooted in democratic theory for allowing citizens to take matters directly into their own hands, it is also important to remember the benefits of representative democracy. A badly written ballot proposal backed by thousands of fraudulent signatures is hardly an improvement over whatever flaws the legislative process may have. The problems with the initiative process illustrate that there are good reasons for having those who we have elected (and whose salaries we pay) writing our laws.



Ballot Update: Arizona Transportation Sales Tax Hike Doesn't Make the Ballot



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In a surprising development, Arizona's proposed one percent hike in the state sales tax rate was kept off the November ballot after falling short of the number of valid signatures needed. The secretary of state found that a startling 47% of submitted signatures were invalid -- a finding the state's Supreme Court recently upheld.

Though Arizonans undoubtedly would have benefited from the influx of transportation dollars that this measure could have provided, the sales tax is arguably the worst method possible for funding transportation. Two competing principles exist for evaluating any tax proposal: the "ability-to-pay principle" and the "benefits principle". Even if you're unfamiliar with these principles by name, it's not at all difficult to see how the sales tax fails them both.

Under the "ability-to-pay principle", those best able to afford to pay for government should be asked to contribute the most. This is the standard by which most taxes are judged. Progressive income taxes that ask the most of society's wealthiest members fulfill this principle, while inherently regressive sales taxes do not.

In contrast, under the "benefits principle", taxes should be paid by those individuals who receive the benefits the government provides. In the realm of transportation, multiple options exist for fulfilling this principle, including the gas tax, tolls, vehicle sales taxes, registration/license fees, and in some cases even property taxes. The sales tax is only loosely (if at all) related to how much one benefits from the transportation infrastructure, and thus fails this principle as well.

Many (perhaps most) in the policy community believe the "benefits principle" to be the proper standard for judging transportation finance measures. But even if they're wrong, the fact that the sales tax fails both of the above mentioned principles means there is little or no reason to support such a measure.

Unfortunately, the attractiveness of the sales tax in the eyes of many lawmakers has grown as states seek to fill transportation funding shortfalls with anything but an increase in the gas tax. For example, a Minnesota bill that passed earlier this year allowed for several counties to raise their sales taxes for transportation. A Los Angeles transportation-related sales tax hike appears close to the ballot. Finally, numerous sales tax ideas have been floated in Virginia as a way of plugging a massive transportation funding shortfall. More state and local governments can be expected to follow this trend soon if gas tax revenues don't rebound.



Regressive Tax Proposals on the Ballot This November



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It's that time again. Right-wing activists, unable to convince lawmakers to gut their tax systems, are asking voters to do it themselves through the ballot. This update explains that ballot initiatives to enact regressive tax policies died in Michigan and Montana, but survived to secure spots on the ballot in Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon.

The Good News: Two Regressive Proposals Did Not Make It onto the Ballot

Michigan "Fair "Tax": The Michigan Fair Tax proposal, a highly regressive measure that was anything but fair, failed to make it onto the November ballot. The proposal would have eliminated both the Michigan Business Tax and the personal income tax, raised the state sales tax to 9.75% and expanded it to include services, food, prescription drugs and out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Montana Property Tax Limitations: CI-99, a measure that would have capped property tax increases at no more than 1.5% annually, fell short of landing a spot on the Montana ballot. In addition to the limits on tax hikes, the proposal would have ensured that homes can only be reappraised when sold (as opposed to every seven years). Sound familiar? It looks like, at least this year, Montana averted the disastrous path followed by California's Proposition 13.

The Bad News: Other Regressive Tax Proposals ARE on the Ballot in November

Arizona Sales Tax Hike: On June 27, the Digest described the Arizona sales tax initiative which will be on the ballot in November. The proposal would hike the sales tax by one cent. The increased revenues would be directed toward a faltering transportation system. Arizona already has sales taxes bordering on 10% and a nearly flat income tax. As a result, its tax policy is already highly regressive and this initiative would make it more so.

Florida Tax Swap: In November voters will decide on Amendment 5, a 25% property tax cut and a 1 cent sales tax hike. The property tax cut would hit Florida's schools, already in shambles, the hardest. The Amendment would come at a cost of $9 billion in lost revenue and the subsequent sales tax increase would only produce about $4 billion, plunging the Sunshine State even further into debt and shifting the tax burden to lower-income Floridians.

Abolishing Massachusetts' Income Tax: In Massachusetts, voters will have the opportunity to decide on an initiative that would eliminate the state's income tax. Such irresponsible policy would cost the state $12 billion in lost revenue -- a whopping 40% of its budget. The price would be paid with teacher layoffs, school closings, cuts to higher education, worker training programs and health care services, and delays of road and bridge repairs.

Cutting Oregon's Income Tax for the Rich: Oregon voters will have the opportunity to vote on a measure that would drastically cut income taxes for its wealthiest taxpayers. The proposal would create an unlimited deduction on the state income tax form for federal income taxes paid.The state's general fund would lose about $4 billion over four years from the proposal. The general fund is used primarily for education, public safety, the justice system, human services (including health care, care for seniors and child protective services) and state parks. Meanwhile, the average tax cut for the top one percent of Oregon earners would be about $15,000. Those who fall among the middle 20% of earners would receive about $1 on average.



Arizona Seeks to Widen Its Grand Canyon of Tax Unfairness



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Facing a $2 billion budget deficit and a looming transportation funding shortfall, Arizona is planning to consider a 1-cent increase in its sales tax this fall. Backed primarily by business leaders along with Governor Janet Napolitano, a sales tax hike would make worse an already highly regressive tax system. With a modest income tax and one of the highest sales taxes in the nation (the tax would be over 10% in some localities if the proposed increase is enacted) Arizona's tax policy disproportionately burdens its low-income residents. Legislators in the Grand Canyon State are looking to use the tax hike to relieve transportation woes, including road and mass-transit projects. But at a time when the economy is sluggish, depending solely on an unreliable, high-rate sales tax to fund key infrastructure projects is foolish. Rather than making low-income Arizonans (whose budgets are markedly tighter in this economic climate) foot the bill for the much-needed improvements, Arizona should consider re-vamping its income tax system to generate more revenue and distribute the responsibility for paying taxes more fairly.

And if comprehensive income tax reform is off the table, there is something to be said for a gas tax hike coupled with carefully designed, offsetting income tax provisions. For more on the relative merits of sales versus gas taxes for financing transportation, see this article in this week's Digest.



Poorly Reasoned and Poorly Targeted Property Tax Reductions are Gaining Steam



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This week in the Georgia House, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly (166-5) to approve property tax cuts, including the elimination of the state's car tax, that will cost the state more than $750 million when fully phased in. Republican Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter doesn't seem concerned with offsetting the lost revenue. Responding to concerns about the plan's price tag, he says, "It's very simple. You cut taxes, the economy grows. The economy grows, Georgians prosper. The best way to stem off any recession is to cut taxes. Not to clam up, go home and wait for the storm to pass." We've learned on the federal level that tax cuts simply don't pay for themselves, but clearly legislators in Georgia want to try their own experiment with this flawed (and dangerous) economic myth. The House-passed bill contains another misguided property tax change... a 2% cap on annual increases in a home's value for tax purposes (the cap would be 3% for businesses).

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute issued a report adding up the costs of the state House's handiwork related to taxes this year and found that the tax bills passed this session would cost as much as $113 million in FY 2009, $473 million in FY 2010, and $798 million in FY 2011.

Coincidentally, the Oklahoma Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment last week also dealing with caps on increases in a home's taxable value. In this case, the cap would be decreased from 5% to 3% (the 5% cap would remain intact for businesses). Assessment value caps of this sort have recently received much attention in Florida. The unfair way in which these caps provide the greatest relief to long-time residents (creating vastly different property tax bills between neighbors with similar houses) recently drove Florida residents to amend their constitution to patch over the problem in a very imperfect way.

Rounding out the recent trend in debating poorly reasoned property tax cuts is Arizona, where the House narrowly approved a measure to permanently repeal a portion of the property tax that is currently suspended. Allowing the tax to take effect again would raise about $250 million annually for the state, significantly reducing the projected $1.2 billion revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year. If the plan passes, cuts in public services could be the result.



A Step Forward in the Desert



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Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano last week affixed her signature to HB 2515, an innovative piece of legislation aimed at curbing self-destructive tax incentive competition among municipalities in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The new law will reduce state-shared revenue to any city or town entirely in Maricopa or Pinal Counties that provides tax giveaways for retail development. While the new law won't undo such abuses as the $100 million tax break previously granted for Phoenix's CityNorth development, it could serve as a model for other states seeking to put an end to this inefficient and unsound approach to economic development.



Corporate Tax Shenanigans Blocked in Rhode Island and Arizona



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Legislatures in Rhode Island and Arizona approved their state budgets for fiscal year 2008 this past week and, in each case, dealt significant setbacks to corporations seeking to avoid or to reduce their taxes. Rhode Island's budget will close three loopholes that have allowed profitable corporations to use creative accounting measures to pay less than their fair share in taxes. This will generate $12.5 million that will help to close the state's expected budget gap and finance vital public services. In addition, the budget halts the scheduled elimination of the state's tax on capital gains income, though it fails to restore the tax rate on such income to its prior level of 5.0 percent. While Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri (R) has vowed to veto the spending plan, that veto will likely be overridden. For more on how Rhode Island could strengthen its tax system, see the Rhode Island Poverty Institute's recent fact sheet.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano (D) is expected to sign her state's budget into law soon. While that budget includes $11 million in tax cuts - including a state version of so-called section 529 education savings plans - these tax cuts are far smaller than those proposed by House Republicans, due to legislators' unwillingness to provide businesses with a 2.5 percentage point reduction in the state's corporate income tax.



Cease Fire in Phoenix?



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Arizona is considering legislation that would end the destructive "race to the bottom" in tax competition among some of the state's municipalities. The Arizona Senate - and a key House committee - have both approved measures that would reduce state aid to any municipality in the Phoenix metropolitan area that uses tax breaks to entice businesses to locate there. State Senator Ken Cheuvront, one of the backers of the legislation, argues in a recent op-ed that "developers have learned that they can play off one city against another in order to get special tax incentives", usually in exchange for projects that would go forward without tax incentives.

Phoenix's CityNorth project - the recent recipient of $100 million in municipal tax breaks - is a perfect case in point. As the development's web site boasts, CityNorth will be "surrounded by some of the strongest housing growth in the country and the highest incomes in Phoenix," so it hardly seems that the project wouldn't be viable without millions in city subsidies. For more on how wasteful these kinds of giveaways can be and what can be done to curb them, visit Good Jobs First.



Arizona Business: We Support Public Services, as Long As Someone Else Pays for It



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Earlier this year, members of the Arizona business community formed a new organization - the Transportation and Infrastructure Moving AZ's Economy or TIME Coalition - to advocate for additional transportation funding and to push for a ballot initiative to generate the revenue necessary to support that funding. At first, that may sound like business leaders acting in a fiscally responsible way to ensure that the state invests in the public structures on which all Arizonans rely.

Two details might make you think otherwise. First, the taxes that the Coalition would like to see raised through the initiative - the general sales tax and the gasoline tax - would fall disproportionately on low- and moderate-income people. Second, as the Arizona Republic points out, some of the members of the TIME Coalition - such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce - are at the same time actively lobbying for the acceleration of tax cuts for commercial and industrial property and the outright repeal of the currently-suspended equalization assistance property tax. So, while Arizona may need to make critical public investments to foster economic growth and to improve the quality of life in the state, don't expect businesses to pony up - in their view, that's just for working people.



Arizona's Cigarette Tax: What's a Decimal Point or Two Between Friends?



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Tax legislation is often messy and complicated. This presents a challenge for those seeking to change state tax systems through ballot initiatives or referenda: how can these complex tax issues be boiled down to a simple and accurate description that voters will be able to read and understand while in the voting booth? Arizona's latest ballot-initiative snafu illustrates this difficulty. Health-care advocates successfully gathered signatures last summer for an 80-cents-per-pack cigarette tax hike... but what appeared on Arizona voters' November ballots was a 0.8 cent tax, which was approved by a 53% majority. This would provide one-one-hundredth of the revenue these advocates sought. The state's Attorney General has ruled, oddly, that the 80-cent tax can be collected anyway, but RJ Reynolds is considering filing a suit to prevent the implementation of this tax hike. Read more about it on the Talking Taxes weblog.

While the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives (and apparently also the Senate) on Tuesday has has given new hope to advocates of progressive tax policies at the federal level, the results of ballot initiatives across the country indicate that state tax policy is also headed in a progressive direction.

In the three states where they were on the ballot, voters rejected TABOR proposals, which involve artificial tax and spending caps that would cut services drastically over several years. Washington State defeated repeal of its estate tax. Several states also rejected initiatives to increase school funding which, while based on the best intentions, were not responsible fiscal policy. Two of four ballot proposals to hike cigarette taxes were approved and the night also brought a mixed bag of results for property tax caps.

Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR):
Maine - Question 1 - FAILED
Nebraska - Initiative 423 - FAILED
Oregon - Measure 48 - FAILED
Voters in three states soundly rejected tax- and spending-cap proposals modeled after Colorado's so-called "Taxpayers Bill of Rights" (TABOR). Apparently people in these three states had too many concerns over the damage caused by TABOR in Colorado. Property Tax

Caps:
Arizona - Proposition 101 - PASSED - tightening existing caps on growth in local property tax levies.
Georgia - Referendum D - PASSED - exempting seniors at all income levels from the statewide property tax (a small part of overall Georgia property taxes. (The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute evaluates this idea here.)
South Carolina - Amendment Question 4 - PASSED - capping growth of properties' assessed value for tax purposes. The State newspaper explains why the cap would be counterproductive.
South Dakota - Amendment D - FAILED - capping the allowable growth in taxable value for homes, taking a page from California's Proposition 13 playbook. (The Aberdeen American News explains why this is bad policy here - and asks tough questions about whether lawmakers have shirked their duties by shunting this complicated decision off to voters.)
Tennessee - Amendment 2 - PASSED - allowing (but not requiring) local governments to enact senior-citizens property tax freezes.
Arizona's property tax limit will restrict property tax growth for all taxpayers in a given district. South Dakota's proposal was fortunately defeated. It would have offered help only to families whose property is rapidly becoming more valuable, and those families are rarely the neediest. Georgia's is not targeted at those who need help but would give tax cuts to seniors at all income levels. The Tennesse initiative, which passed, is a reasonable tool for localities to use, at their option, to target help towards those seniors who need it.

Cigarette Tax Increase:
Arizona - Proposition 203 - PASSED - increase in cigarette tax from $1.18 to $1.98 to fund early education and childrens' health screenings.
California - Proposition 86 - FAILED - increasing the cigarette tax by $2.60 a pack to pay for health care (from $.87 to $3.47)
Missouri - Amendment 3 - FAILED - increasing cigarette tax from 17 cents to 97 cents
South Dakota - Initiated Measure 2 - PASSED - increasing cigarette tax from 53 cents to $1.53. While many progressive activists and organizations support raising cigarette taxes to fund worthy services and projects, the cigarette tax is essentially regressive and is an unreliable revenue source since it is shrinking.

State Estate Tax Repeal:
Washington - Initiative 920 - FAILED
Complementing the heated debate over the federal estate tax has been this lesser noticed debate over Washington Stats's own estate tax which funds smaller classroom size, assistance for low-income students and other education purposes. Washingtonians decided it was a tax worth keeping.

Revenue for Education:
Alabama - Amendment 2 - PASSED - requiring that every school district in the state provide at least 10 mills of property tax for local schools.
California - Proposition 88 - FAILED - would impose a regressive "parcel tax" of $50 on each parcel of property in the state to help fund education
Idaho - Proposition 1 - FAILED - requiring the legislature to spend an additional $220 million a year on education - and requiring the legislature to come up with an (unidentified) revenue stream to pay for it.
Michigan - Proposal 5 - FAILED - mandating annual increases in state education spending, tied to inflation - but without specifying a funding source. The Michigan League for Human Services explains why this is a bad idea.
Voters made wise choices on education spending. The initiative in California would have raised revenue in a regressive way, while the initiatives in Idaho and Michigan sought to increase education spending without providing any revenue source. Alabama's Amendment 2 takes an approach that is both responsible and progressive.

Income Taxes:
Oregon - Measure 41 - FAILED - creating an alternative method of calculating state income taxes. Measure 41 was an ill-conceived proposal to allow wealthier Oregonians the option of claiming the same personal exemptions allowed under federal tax rules and would have bypassed a majority of Oregon seniors and would offer little to most low-income Oregonians of all ages.

Other Ballot Measures:
California - Proposition 87 - FAILED - would impose a tax on oil production and use all the revenue to reduce the state's reliance on fossil fuels and encourage the use of renewable energy
California - Proposition 89 - FAILED - using a corporate income tax hike to provide public funding for elections
South Dakota - Initiated Measure 7 - FAILED - repealing the state's video lottery - proceeds of which are used to cut local property taxes
South Dakota - Initiated Measure 8 - FAILED - repealing 4 percent tax on cell phone users.



Tobacco Taxes are Back on the Ballot



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A voter initiative in Missouri to increase the cigarette tax by 80 cents is back on the November ballot. At first, the ballot was declared invalid after many of the signatures were disqualified. However, the Cole County Circuit Court has overturned that decision, and the voters will now decide the issue this fall. The initiative is joined at the polls this fall by similar measures in Arizona and California. Many of the proponents of these measures argue that they reduce smoking. However, cigarette taxes are very regressive, forcing low-income smokers to pay a much higher percentage of their income in cigarette taxes than high-income smokers. A 2005 policy brief by ITEP showed that cigarette taxes are ten times more burdensome for low-income smokers than for the wealthy.

Further, both Arizona and California plan to use the revenue generated by this bill to pay for public services unrelated to smoking. As Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, points out: "Most will agree this is a regressive tax[...] We all like to beat up on smokers, but if the program truly benefits all families, including upper class, then you're taxing blue-collar people to pay for everyone." Reducing smoking rates is a laudable goal, but lawmakers must find a way to do so that is fair and equitable.

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