Colorado News


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC


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On the heels of state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansions in Iowa, Maryland, and Minnesota and heated debates in Illinois and Ohio about their own credit expansions,  the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released a new report today, Improving Tax Fairness with a State Earned Income Tax Credit, which shows that expanding or enacting a refundable state EITC is one of the most effective and targeted ways for states to improve tax fairness.

It comes as no surprise to working families that most state’s tax systems are fundamentally unfair.  In fact, most low- and middle-income workers pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the highest income earners. Across the country, the lowest 20 percent of taxpayers pay an average effective state and local tax rate of 11.1 percent, nearly double the 5.6 percent tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of taxpayers.  But taxpayers don’t have to accept this fundamental unfairness and should look to the EITC.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia already have some version of a state EITC. Most state EITCs are based on some percentage of the federal EITC. The federal EITC was introduced in 1975 and provides targeted tax reductions to low-income workers to reward work and boost income. By all accounts, the federal EITC has been wildly successful, increasing workforce participation and helping 6.5 million Americans escape poverty in 2012, including 3.3 million children.

As discussed in the ITEP report, state lawmakers can take immediate steps to address the inherent unfairness of their tax code by introducing or expanding a refundable state EITC. For states without an EITC the first step should be to enact this important credit. The report recommends that if states currently have a non-refundable EITC, they should work to pass legislation to make the EITC refundable so that the EITC can work to offset all taxes paid by low income families. Advocates and lawmakers in states with EITCs should look to this report to understand how increasing the current percentage of their credit could help more families.

While it does cost revenue to expand or create a state EITC, such revenue could be raised by repealing tax breaks that benefit the wealthy which in turn would also improve the fairness of state tax systems.

Read the full report


State News Quick Hits: To Cut or Not to Cut?


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A battle over New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed property tax cuts is heating up, with protesters pouring into the New York State Capitol in Albany last week, a new TV ad hitting the airwaves, and the introduction of alternative tax cut plans from the Assembly and Senate. The governor’s plan would “freeze” property tax increases over the next two years by giving a refundable tax credit to homeowners for the amount of any increase in taxes over the prior year (and only to those living in jurisdictions complying with a 2 percent property tax cap and showing an effort to consolidate services with neighboring jurisdictions). In the third year, the freeze would be replaced with an expanded homeowner circuit breaker property tax credit and new renter’s tax credit. State legislators and many local leaders have voiced unease with the proposal. The Assembly’s plan would skip the freeze altogether and simply offer the homeowner and renter circuit breaker credits with less restrictions.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has called for a state constitutional amendment (PDF) to charge millionaires a tax surcharge and use the resulting $1 billion in revenue to fund public education. The proposal is likely the first of many attempts by both political parties to define the electoral turf prior to the gubernatorial election in November, which the Chicago Tribune has dubbed the “governor's race of a generation.” Current Governor Pat Quinn is running for re-election against Republican Bruce Rauner, who happens to be a multimillionaire. Even if the constitutional amendment doesn’t make it on the ballot (it would first have to be approved by supermajorities in the House and Senate), voters will face a stark choice on taxes: the state’s temporary income tax rate increase is set to decrease in 2015, and the two candidates will likely have different views on how to make up the lost revenue.

Most Oklahomans don’t want lawmakers to enact the income tax cut approved by the state Senate last month. A new poll reveals that when voters are told about the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s finding that much of the tax cut will flow to the state’s wealthiest residents, 61 percent of voters oppose the plan compared to just 29 percent in support. Even among voters who aren’t told about this lopsided impact, less than half support the rate cut, and fewer people support the cut than did so last year.

Colorado spends roughly $2 billion per year on special tax breaks and a new law just signed by Governor John Hickenlooper (backed by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, among others) ensures that basic information about those breaks will continue to be made public going forward. Colorado’s Department of Revenue published the state’s first comprehensive tax expenditure report in 2012, and now the department is required to update that information every two years. Our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explain that “a high-quality tax expenditure report is a bare minimum requirement for even beginning to bring tax expenditures on a more even footing with other areas of state budgets.”


State Tax Breaks Pile Up


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Denver and Baton Rouge are 1,200 miles apart (not to mention some steep elevation change), but state lawmakers in these distinct capitals are grappling with a similar challenge: a tax code increasingly clogged with special interest tax breaks.

In Colorado, legislators have proposed a “bumper crop” of tax credits this year. The legislature has already had to beat back a bill that would have provided $11.6 million in tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, but dozens more are awaiting consideration. Tim Hoover, communications director for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, has compared the atmosphere at the Capitol to a recording of “Oprah”: “Tax incentives are handed out the way Oprah gives away cars to her audience members. You get a tax credit! You get a tax credit. Everybody gets a tax credit."

In 2009, Colorado lost $2.7 billion to various tax credits, exemptions, and deductions. The only reason we’re even able to put a number on these otherwise hidden tax provisions is because the state recently joined most of the rest of the country by publishing a tax expenditure report (PDF). The good news is that some Colorado legislators are now trying to make this report a regular feature of the state’s budgeting process, published every two years. The bad news (other than all the new breaks that lawmakers are trying to pile on) is that the report does nothing to show if the state’s tax breaks are having their intended effect. This is one reason why Colorado was ranked as “trailing behind” in the pursuit of evidence-based tax policy by the Pew Center on the States.

While Louisiana is ranked higher by Pew as a result of having evaluated at least some of its tax breaks, its tax code is similarly jam-packed with special interest giveaways. But thanks to Louisiana State House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, the effectiveness of these exemptions will be the subject of a new, independent tax study this year, with recommendations to be released next spring. Don’t get too excited, though. In 2012, Louisiana created the Legislature's Revenue Study Commission which recommended better monitoring of tax exemptions, but that recommendation has yet to have much of a tangible impact.

Colorado and Louisiana, like most states, still have a long way to go in making regular evaluation of their tax breaks a reality, but if they’re looking for a little inspiration they may want to direct their attention toward the progress being made in Rhode Island.  The Ocean State now requires that state analysts determine the number of jobs actually created by certain “economic development” tax breaks, and that the Governor make recommendations on those tax breaks in his or her budget proposal.


Tax Policy Roundup for the 2013 Election


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Despite being an off-year election, there were a few significant tax policy issues at stake in the elections held this week in Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and New York City.

Ballot Measures

Colorado voters rejected Amendment 66, which would have raised $950 million in new tax revenues for education each year by converting the state’s flat rate income tax into a more progressive, graduated rate tax.

Colorado voters approved Proposition AA, imposing a 25 percent sales and excise tax rate on recreational marijuana, which voters legalized one year ago.  This 25 percent tax will be stacked on top of the 2.9 percent statewide sales tax and any local sales taxes (which average 3.2 percent).

Texas voters approved three very narrowly tailored tax breaks.  Those breaks will benefit disabled veterans, surviving spouses of military members, and manufacturers of aircraft parts.

While residents of Minnesota and Ohio didn’t vote on any statewide ballot measures this week, most of the local school tax levies on the ballot in those two states were approved by voters.

Major Candidates with Tax Plans

New Jersey residents voted to keep Governor Chris Christie in the governor’s mansion, rather than replace him with Democrat Barbara Buono.  Buono’s tax platform included raising taxes on incomes over $1 million and reversing the cut in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that Christie signed in 2010.  Christie, by contrast, has said he wants to cut income taxes across the board.

Virginia voters chose Democrat Terry McAuliffe over Republican Ken Cuccinelli to be their state’s next governor.  Both candidates ran on a platform of reducing or eliminating local business taxes, though neither specified how to offset the resulting revenue loss.  Cuccinelli also said that, if elected, he would have pushed for regressive personal and corporate income tax cuts, as well as a spending cap similar to Colorado’s TABOR law.

New York City residents elected Democrat Bill de Blasio over Republican Joe Lhota in the city’s mayoral race.  De Blasio wants to expand pre-K education in the city by raising taxes on incomes over $500,000, but it’s not clear whether Governor Cuomo—whose approval would be needed for the tax increase—will support such a change.


State News Quick Hits: Maine's Millionaires Abandon the 47%, and More


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Colorado’s Child Care Tax Credit would be expanded for low-income families under a bill approved by a special task force of legislators last week.  As the Colorado Center on Law and Policy explains (PDF), some Colorado households are actually too poor to benefit from the federal credit right now because it's only available to families who make enough to have some income tax liability; if you don't pay income taxes, you can't receive any state tax credit.  This bill would fix that problem at the state level by letting families earning under $25,000 claim a credit equal to 25 percent of their child care expenses, regardless of what credit they did (or did not) receive at the federal level.

Montgomery County, Maryland continues to make progress toward restoring its Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to its pre-recession level: 100 percent of the state’s EITC.  The enhancement was approved by a committee on Monday and will now go before the full council.  For more information, see our blog post on the history, and the benefits, of Montgomery County’s EITC.

Maine Governor Paul LePage is coming under fire for wildly inaccurate comments he made (which were secretly recorded) at a meeting of the Greater Portland chapter of the Informed Women’s Network.  Gaining him national attention, LePage told his audience  that “47 percent of able-bodied people in Maine don’t work,” a claim that is ridiculous.  At the same meeting LePage also said the following to justify his proposals to cut taxes for wealthy Mainers: “25 years ago Maine had about 2,000 millionaires. Maine has 400 now. New Hampshire at the time had about 500, right now they have 4,000. That’s the difference. That’s when you talk about prosperity and you talk about building an economy those are the things that you need to concern yourself with. So, I am looking at taxation as a big issue.”  Like his 47 percent claim, LePage evidently pulled these numbers out of thin air as data from the IRS do not back this statement. In fact, the number of tax returns with more than $1 million of income increased more in Maine (83%) than in New Hampshire (64%) between 1997 and 2011 (the years IRS data are available).

Some bad ideas just won’t die. Despite being rejected by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a vote of 138-59 last month, a proposal to eliminate school property taxes and reduce spending for schools is now being reconsidered by the state’s Senate. The bill, SB 76, replaces the property tax with higher sales and income taxes but then limits how much of the new revenue would flow to schools. The legislature’s own Independent Fiscal Office warned last week that the bill would create a $2.6 billion funding gap within five years. While reducing property taxes, which have been rising in recent years, may make sense (for low-income renters and fixed-income homeowners in particular), it should not be done at the expense of students, nor in the form of across-the-board cuts that also benefit big businesses. The House-passed HB 1189 at least ensured that the lost property tax revenues would be replaced with some other source, but neither bill addresses the longstanding problem of inadequate and unequal school funding in Pennsylvania.

 


New Analysis: Replacing Flat Tax Would Improve Colorado's Tax System


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In less than a month, Colorado voters will decide whether to abandon the state’s flat-rate income tax in favor of a more progressive, graduated rate tax.  The main purpose of this reform is to raise nearly $1 billion in new revenue each year to offset the disastrous effects that strict constitutional limits on tax collections (i.e. TABOR) have had on the state’s K-12 education system.  But a new analysis from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), shows that the proposal would have another benefit: improving the fairness of Colorado’s regressive tax system (PDF).

According to ITEP’s Who Pays? report, the poorest 20 percent of Coloradans currently spend 8.9 percent of their income paying state and local taxes, while the wealthiest 1 percent pay just 4.6 percent of their income in tax.  One reason for this gap is that unlike most states, Colorado’s income tax uses a single flat rate, and therefore doesn’t live up to its potential for offsetting the steep regressivity of sales and excise taxes.

The proposal being voted on in November (Amendment 66) would change this by giving Colorado a fairer, two-tiered income tax.  Specifically, the Amendment would raise the state’s income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent on incomes below $75,000, and from 4.63 percent to 5.9 percent on incomes over that amount.  If approved by voters, the gap in overall tax rates paid by Coloradans at different income levels would be reduced.  The wealthiest 1 percent would see taxes rise by 0.8 percent relative to their incomes, while lower-income taxpayers would see just a 0.1 percent increase.

Amendment 66 asks the most of those taxpayers currently paying the lowest effective tax rates.  While most families would see a modest increase in their income tax bills under the amendment, just 16 percent of the revenue raised by Amendment 66 would come from the bottom 80 percent of earners.  The bulk of the revenue (63 percent) would come from the wealthiest 20 percent of Coloradans.  And the remainder (21 percent) would not come from Coloradans, but rather from the federal government as Coloradans reap the benefits of being able to write-off larger amounts of state income tax when filling out their federal tax forms.

As the Colorado Fiscal Institute points out, that 21 percent federal contribution is a big deal.  If Coloradans reject Amendment 66 this November, they’ll essentially be turning down $200 million in federal dollars that their K-12 education system could put to very good use.

Read the report

 


State News Quick Hits: Starving Government With TABOR, and More


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TABOR stands for Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but it’s really a destructive law that restricts tax and spending growth with the goal of starving government. Colorado has the most restrictive version of this kind of law and serves as a cautionary tale. The Colorado TABOR and its implications are described in a new policy brief from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  In a nutshell, TABOR’s arbitrary limit on the size of government prevents states from meeting their evolving responsibilities as populations change, services become more expensive, and voters demand new public investments.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is headed to Missouri to stump for a regressive income tax cut that some legislators are trying to enact over Governor Nixon’s recent veto.  If Show Me State residents ignore Perry’s advice, who could blame them? The former presidential candidate’s own state’s tax system is one of the least fair in the country.  Only five states require their poorest residents to pay more in taxes than Texas.

Indiana’s property tax caps, which we’ve long criticized, are causing headaches for local lawmakers in Indianapolis who are facing pleas from law enforcement and other agencies for more funds. Coupled with the revenue slump brought on by the recent recession, officials are grappling with three choices: close their current budget gap by raising the city’s income tax; risk the city’s AAA credit rating by tapping its reserves; or enact even deeper cuts in public services on top of those already in effect.

It looks like taxes will be a hot issue in the 2014 Arkansas gubernatorial election.  Arkansas’ leading republican candidate, Asa Hutchinson, recently said he supported phasing out the state’s personal income tax, but offered no specifics for how he would replace the lost revenue.  Mike Ross, the leading Democratic candidate, took Hutchinson to task, reminding Arkansans that tax cuts come with a price: “So when you start talking about cutting taxes, unless you’re talking about shifting the burden to other taxes, you’re talking about laying off teachers, you’re talking about kicking seniors out of the nursing home.... It’s pretty simple math.”

 


State News Quick Hits: Where Is Virginia's Gas Tax Cut? And More


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Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recently announced his support for converting the state’s flat rate income tax into a more progressive, graduated tax with a top rate of 5.9 percent.  This reform would raise $950 million per year for public schools and would make the state’s regressive tax system (PDF) somewhat less unfair.

Georgia is shaping up to be a major tax policy battleground in 2014, and lawmakers appear to be setting their sights on the personal income tax (as state lawmakers are wont to do).  
According to the Associated Press, officials are considering either cutting the personal income tax, amending the state constitution to ban any increase in the tax, or simply eliminating the tax entirely.  For some context on why these are all bad ideas, see the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) primer on progressive income taxes (PDF).

Martin Sullivan at Tax Analysts asks whether Virginia drivers actually benefited from the gas tax cut that went into effect earlier this month.  On July 1, gasoline taxes fell in Virginia and rose in North Carolina, but gas prices actually increased in both states alongside crude oil prices.   Moreover, while North Carolina saw the larger price increase, the difference between the two states was just 1.8 cents - which raises the question of where the rest of Virginia’s 6.4 cent tax cut ended up going.  Sullivan concludes that “Virginia drivers [have] good reason to question whether gas tax cuts are primarily for their benefit.”

This week, California reported that tax revenues came in $2.1 billion over expectations during Fiscal Year 2013. The additional revenue - largely stemming from unexpectedly high income tax collections - will be directed to schools through the state’s education funding formula. While the extra revenues are a promising change of pace after years of multibillion-dollar deficits, state officials have warned that the surge might not represent a trend.


State News Quick Hits: Neo-Vouchers in Alabama, and More


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Kentucky’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform released its very useful findings in December, but regrettably little action has resulted from the comprehensive document. Many of the Commission’s recommendations were bold and forward-looking, like the proposal to expand the sales tax base to services  (PDF) and simultaneously institute an earned income tax credit (PDF). But Commissioners themselves aren’t confident that anything will come from their hard work developing those recommendations. Commissioner Sheila Schuster recently said, “I haven’t heard anything since the end of the (legislative) session that would suggest that it’s got legs... So it’s pretty discouraging.”

Legislators in many states are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to budgeting for the next fiscal year. This article (subscription required) from the Wall Street Journal tells of states like Maryland and Virginia who have already passed spending bills that assume new revenues from online Internet sales tax collections when Congress passes the Main Street Fairness Act. Of course, the Act has actually only passed the Senate, and by all accounts the bill faces an unclear future in the House.

This November, Colorado voters will vote on raising their state’s income tax to better fund education. The details of that increase have yet to be worked out, but former state representative Don Marostica has taken to the pages of the Denver Post to argue in favor of his preferred alternative: ditching the state’s flat income tax in favor of a more progressive, graduated income tax used by most states. Marostica explains that “businesses and middle-class Coloradans alike would be better off with a two-step income tax to provide the resources for top teachers and great facilities. The No. 1 priority for businesses seeking a new location is a well-educated, fully prepared workforce. … Yet we're under-investing in education, in part because we've prioritized low taxes ahead of everything else.”

Bad tax ideas are in the news in the District of Columbia.  Mayor Vincent Gray recently reiterated that he wants to cut taxes for DC investors who do their investing outside of the District.  But it’s Councilwoman Anita Bonds’ idea that recently made headlines. Bonds wants to give a super-sized tax break to most people over 80 years old: a full exemption from property taxes, provided their income is below $150,000 per year and they’ve lived in the District for 25 years or more.  But property tax relief should be distributed based on income, not age. Rather than cutting taxes for the well-off elderly, DC lawmakers would be wise to follow the advice of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and expand the city’s low-income property tax credit for DC residents of all ages.

Earlier this spring, Alabama lawmakers approved a bill establishing a state income tax credit (up to $3,500) to reimburse parents for the cost of sending children to private school or transferring them to a better performing public school.  The legislation also created a tax credit for corporations and individuals who contribute to scholarship funds. These kinds of credits are often referred to as back-door or neo-vouchers as they divert taxpayer money away from public schools, indirectly via the tax code.  Due in part to concern over the unknown cost of the credits and seemingly in part due to public displeasure with the new program, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (who had been a supporter of the bill) attempted to delay the implementation of the school tax credits last week.  He told lawmakers they “had better be listening to the people” who he says are not supportive of using public tax dollars to fund private school education.  However, the House decided this week to ignore the Governor’s request; they rejected his suggested amendment and took a vote to show they could override any veto attempts.


State News Quick Hits: Why a Revenue Uptick is Not a Surplus, and More


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Colorado lawmakers recently decided to enact a pair of poverty-fighting tax policies: an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a Child Tax Credit (CTC). Both had been on the state’s books at some point but had either been eliminated or were often unavailable. The EITC, equal to 10 percent of the federal credit, will become a permanent feature of Colorado’s tax code once state revenue growth improves – likely not until 2016. Similarly, the CTC will not take effect until the federal government enacts legislation empowering Colorado to collect the sales taxes due on online shopping.

Kansas legislative leadership and Governor Brownback are in the midst of secret meetings to discuss how the House and Senate will reconcile their varying tax plans. The largest sticking point is whether or not to allow a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax rate to expire. But the larger issue, that is getting less attention, is that (as ITEP’s recent analysis points out) both the House and Senate plans could eventually phase out the state’s income tax altogether.

The Rockefeller Institute is warning (PDF) states and the federal government not to get too excited about the recent “surge” in income tax revenues. Rather than indicating an economic recovery, the surge is likely a result of investors realizing their capital gains a few months earlier than usual in order to avoid the higher federal tax rates that went into effect on January 1st. As the Institute points out: “over the longer term, this could be bad news — it could mean that accelerated money received now, used to pay current bills, will not be there to pay for services in the future.”

California is one state enjoying a sizeable revenue surplus this year. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office understands that a good portion of the bump is thanks to rich Californians cashing in on capital gains in 2012 to avoid higher federal tax rates in 2013. Yet as budget season kicks off, lawmakers are sure to be at odds over exactly what to do with the more than $4 billion in unanticipated revenues they will have to either spend or save.  

Here’s an excellent editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal urging Governor Scott Walker and the legislature to be wise about a projected uptick in revenues and invest any “surplus” in public schools, which have endured cuts in recent years. “Our editorial board is less convinced a showy income tax cut makes sense. Up is certainly better than down when it comes to revenue predictions. But some caution is required.” It seems that the Governor may not heed this caution, however, as he appears poised to propose an expansion of his current income tax cut proposal.


Tax Fairness Is TBD In Colorado


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Colorado’s governor is inviting residents to participate in a series of town hall type meetings this year “designed to create informed and constructive conversations among Coloradans about some of the biggest issues facing the state.”  While the leadership of the initiative, called TBD Colorado, encourages citizen input in five pre-determined issue areas – education, health, state budget, state workforce, transportation – it turns out a lot of Colorado citizens want to talk about taxes.

As State Tax Notes reported (subscription), many attendees at TBD (and yes, it does stand for “To Be Determined”) meetings are expressing support for an increase in the state’s income tax rate. And with good reason: Colorado’s tax system is not providing adequate revenue to support essential public services. For example, while lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their most recent budget, it makes deep cuts to college and university funding and left already inadequate spending on K-12 education flat.

While raising the income tax rate would certainly increase revenue, it would not solve Colorado’s basic tax fairness problems. The fact is, Colorado is home to a devastatingly regressive tax system. (Because the state has a disastrous TABOR law, however, any improvements to Colorado’s tax system require a state-wide public referendum.) According to a recent study (PDF) from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), Colorado families in the bottom 60 percent of earners pay more than 8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while those in the top 1 percent pay just half that (roughly 4 percent). (Check out the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, which provides more of exactly this kind of information.)

One reason Colorado’s tax system is so regressive is because it uses a single, flat income tax rate as opposed to a graduated rate that increases with income in the way the progressive federal income tax does. A progressive income tax is without question state policymakers’ best tool for crafting a fairer tax system. Without it, states like Colorado are forced to rely on sales and property taxes (both regressive) that shift an unjust share of the tax burden to low- and middle-income taxpayers. Furthermore, the lack of a progressive income tax rate makes it harder for a state to raise both adequate and sustainable levels of revenue.

Tax policy is also relevant to Colorado transportation, which is on the TBD agenda, because Colorado has not increased its gas tax in 20 years. Adjusting the tax to account for the rising cost of transportation construction, the real value of the Colorado gas tax has fallen 40 percent since 1990, which is costing the state some $300 million a year in lost revenues. Improvements to roads, bridges and other infrastructure not only create short term construction jobs but also support local businesses that rely on efficient transportation. (Modernizing the gas tax is one of “Four Tax Ideas for Jobs-Focused Governors” from ITEP.)

The TBD initiative will culminate in concrete policy recommendations for improving Coloradans’ “quality of life.” Economic growth, functioning government agencies and a level playing field for all income groups would all contribute to that quality of life, and can all be improved by upgrading the state’s tax system – starting with repeal of the TABOR law.


Avoiding Property Taxes 'til the Cows Come Home in Florida


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What do Tom Cruise and Florida Senator Bill Nelson have in common? Both have taken advantage of a lax definition of what constitutes farming in order to reap large property tax breaks.

The Miami Herald reports that by allowing a few cows to graze on 55 acres of his land, Senator Nelson reduced his property taxes on the land from over $45,000 to just $3,696 in 2011. The reduction results from the fact that a few cows make Nelson’s property suddenly agricultural land, and as such, its value is a mere $210,000, rather than its full market residential value of $2.7 million.

Using a similar tax break in Colorado, Tom Cruise was able to pay only $400 in property taxes on his $18 million, 248 acre tract of land in Colorado by allowing sheep to graze on it for brief periods each year. The good news for Colorado taxpayers is that the state legislature has since taken a small step toward closing the loophole by valuing residences on ‘agricultural land’ at the same rate as they are on residential property.

Rather than just tightening up eligibility requirements though, lawmakers could instead replace current agricultural land valuation systems with an agricultural circuit breaker that makes property tax relief available only to real family farms. This would not only ensure that Senators and movie stars do not abuse the system, it would also better target those farmers most in need of property tax relief – the farmers for whom the tax loopholes were presumably written in the first place.

Photos of Tom Cruise and Senator Bill Nelson via Nasa HQ and Surrealistic Scenes Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin finally unveiled her plan for eliminating the state income tax.  Full elimination would take a number of years, but low-income families are likely to be hit hard right away when various refundable credits are repealed.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) plans to conduct a full analysis as soon as sufficient details are made available.

One Michigan lawmaker wants to take money away from Medicaid, education, and other programs to cover the cost of maintaining the state’s roads – costs that the state’s long stagnant gas tax can’t keep up with.  This is not the only such proposal to redirect money to cover up for lawmakers who lack the political courage to raise their state’s gas tax. Nebraska, Utah, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Oklahoma have proposed or enacted similar raids that ITEP warned of in its recent report, Building a Better Gas Tax.

The Colorado legislature is debating a boondoggle of a bill which would create a sales tax holiday the first weekend in August.  The facts are getting out that these events are expensive and don’t benefit the people who need them most.

The Virginia-Pilot has an excellent editorial on the efforts of some lawmakers to ramp up the level of scrutiny applied to billions of dollars in special interest tax breaks.  As the Pilot points out, Richmond is increasingly forcing cities and counties to pick up costs the state can’t cover, yet lawmakers threw away $12.5 billion in corporate tax breaks without any evidence they are helping Virginians.

Two tax increase initiatives appear headed for California’s November ballot that Governor Jerry Brown fears will undermine support for his own initiative to temporarily raise the sales tax and income taxes on wealthier Californians.  The competing measures are both permanent and superior in terms of fairness: a “millionaire’s tax” backed by labor groups who say it will raise $6 to $10 billion for education; and a $10 billion personal income tax hike on all Californians except for low-income families, backed by a wealthy civil rights attorney. But with three tax increasing options on the ballot, there’s a good chance the measures will cancel each other out, leaving California still in a fiscal wreck.

Photo of Jerry Brown via Randy Bayne  and Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

 

 


Colorado Voters Can Help State Overcome TABOR-Induced Woes This November


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This week Colorado’s Secretary of State confirmed that Coloradans will be able to vote on a measure (Proposition 103) this November that would temporarily raise the state income and sales tax rates.  While the plan isn’t the most progressive option imaginable, it is a very reasonable and important step forward in helping the state repair its education system, which has been greatly damaged by the infamous Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).

If approved by voters, Prop 103 would raise the state’s flat income tax rate from 4.63% to 5%, and the state’s sales tax rate from 2.9% to 3%.  In effect, these increases would return the state’s tax system to where it stood in 2000, when the legislature cut both taxes just as the economic boom of the late 1990’s was winding down.  Unfortunately, this time around both changes would expire after five years – at the start of 2017.  But the increases would help protect the state’s education system until Colorado can come up with a more permanent way to remedy its ongoing funding woes.

While Republican opposition to the measure has been entirely predictable, there has also been a surprising amount of reluctance among some of those on the left.  Proposition 103 is less progressive, and would raise less revenue than a previously discussed ballot measure that would have established a graduated rate income tax in Colorado.  And to be sure, establishing a graduated rate income tax would be a much better path forward for Colorado in the long-term.  But with such a solution not on the immediate horizon, Prop 103 is an important second-best option that should not be ignored.

Moreover, worries that Prop 103 would disproportionately affect low-income families are incorrect, as Colorado’s flat rate income tax – the main component of the proposed tax package – is in fact moderately progressive overall.

A list of organizations that have endorsed Prop 103 can be found here.  And for more information on this and other Colorado tax policy issues, be sure to visit the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the main architects of this initiative.


Colorado Repeals Tax Loophole that Made Tom Cruise a "Farmer"


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The agricultural property tax loophole we first told you about in March was closed on Monday when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed HB1146.  Tom Cruise was among the most famous beneficiaries of the loophole, saving thousands of dollars in taxes because of his decision to allow sheep to “graze around the mansions for brief periods each year.” 

At this point, it remains unclear whether this new law will cause farmer Cruise to put away his shears and focus on his acting career.

Prior to the enactment of HB1146, property owners in Colorado were eligible for hefty agricultural tax breaks if they could prove that they tried to make a profit through agriculture.  As the Denver Post points out, “that's a standard so lenient that some property owners qualify by letting cattle [or sheep] graze a few days out of the year.” 

Unsurprisingly, many very influential people jumped at the chance to exploit this obvious flaw in the state’s tax code.  In addition to Tom Cruise, the Denver Post reported that Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, a state senator, the state’s treasurer, an energy industry billionaire, a media mogul, and the chairman of Discovery Communications all benefited from this loophole.  Countless other well-off of landowners in Colorado undoubtedly benefited as well.

The new law mostly fixes this problem by allowing county assessors to apply the normal, residential tax rate to up to two acres of land inside an agricultural parcel, including the land located underneath a residence. 

In order to protect real farmers, assessors will not be allowed to apply the residential rate to any part of the land if the actual residence is “integral” to a farming operation.  Pseudo-farmers like Tom Cruise, however, will almost certainly see their homes taxed at the residential rate, assuming they don’t fill their mansions with farming equipment in the very near future. 

A state task force reportedly found that most taxpayers affected by the change live in Colorado’s resort areas.

Unfortunately, this new law left another glaring agricultural tax loophole intact.  Developers and big businesses are still allowed to save millions in property taxes by conducting a similar style of “farming” on large swaths of vacant land.  Assessors in the state are continuing to push for the closure of this loophole as well.

 


Anti-Tax Activist, Author of Colorado's "TABOR," Arrested for Tax Evasion


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Douglas Bruce, author of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), has been arrested for tax evasion. The indictment alleges that Bruce filed a false Colorado personal income tax return for 2005 and failed to file returns for 2006 and 2007 even though he had earnings during those years from his job as an El Paso county commissioner and had thousands of dollars of interest income.

The most serious charge could land Bruce in prison for up to six years and cost him fines up to $500,000.

TABOR has been widely documented as gutting Colorado's ability to adequately fund public services.


Tom Cruise: Actor, Producer, Farmer


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Every year around this time, lots of cutesy articles begin to appear listing a few bizarre tax breaks that you might be able to claim.  We don’t necessarily want to jump on that bandwagon… but we just can’t help ourselves.  If you live in Colorado, here’s one tax break you need to know about!  See how this break is already saving Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, and Goldie Hawn boatloads of money!

Lots of states and localities offer property tax breaks for farmland, and in Colorado, as it turns out, it’s pretty easy to become a farmer for tax purposes.  According to The Denver Post, actor Tom Cruise pays a paltry $400 in tax on an $18 million, 248 acre tract of land because he lets “sheep graze around the mansions for brief periods each year.”  Now, it’s certainly nice of Mr. Cruise to feed those sheep, but it sounds like Colorado may have gone a little overboard in attempting to encourage that behavior.

Rep. Tom Massey, a Republican, apparently agrees.  Massey recently broke from his party by proposing a bill that would stop granting agricultural exemptions to residences unless the residence is integral to an agricultural operation.  Farmers like Mr. Cruise could still enjoy the agricultural break on the portion of their land used for “farming,” but they would have to pay property taxes on their homes at the same rate as everyone else.  If anything, it sounds like the bill doesn’t go far enough since it would still allow an enormous tax break on the vast majority of Mr. Cruise’s 248 acres, but most Republicans have lined up against the proposal anyway.

Frankly, the arguments in opposition to the bill have been almost as strange as the tax break itself.  Rep. Chris Holbert, for example, complained that the bill would “change the rules and take more money out of [Coloradans’ pockets.]”  Well, yeah, that’s what usually happens when a tax loophole is closed.  But another group of lawmakers are claiming the bill is unnecessary because county assessors are already allowed to decide whether property should be classified as agricultural or residential.

So which is it?  Is this bill “changing the rules” too much, or not at all?  More than likely, the opposition has a lot more to do with politics than policy.  In addition to Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, and Goldie Hawn, The Denver Post’s (very incomplete) survey of questionable “farm owners” included a state senator, the state’s treasurer, an energy industry billionaire, a media mogul, and the chairman of Discovery Communications.  Clearly, this is an issue that many lawmakers just don’t want to deal with.


Tax Reform: Good Ideas in Colorado and Kentucky, Bad Ideas in Iowa


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Progressive tax reform ideas are getting attention in Colorado, where voters may get the opportunity to enact it by ballot, and Kentucky, where lawmakers have the opportunity to support a far-reaching reform bill. Meanwhile, Iowa may move in the opposite direction by choosing the most draconian tax proposal being debated in the state.

Supporters of progressive taxation in Colorado, led by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, filed a mix of ballot proposals last week that would greatly enhance the adequacy and fairness of Colorado’s tax system.  (Multiple proposals were filed for technical reasons, and supporters intend to bring only one plan before the voters.) 

Each proposal would transition away from Colorado’s flat rate income tax in favor of a graduated rate system.  The tax rate on taxable incomes below $50,000 would fall from 4.63% to 4.2%, while progressively higher rates would apply to higher levels of income.  Incomes above $1 million would be taxed at 9.5%. 

The majority of Colorado residents would see tax cuts, or no change in their income tax liability, under this plan.  Some of the proposals would also raise the state’s corporate income tax rate, while others would institute a new corporate minimum tax.  The state’s EITC would also be made permanent under some of the proposals.  By reforming Colorado’s tax system in this manner, approximately $1.5 billion in sorely needed revenue could be raised each year in order to improve the state’s struggling school system and other public services.

In Kentucky, Representative Jim Wayne held a press conference last week to discuss his bill, HB 318, which would modernize and increase the progressivity of Kentucky’s tax structure. The bill would expand the sales tax base to include a variety of services, introduce an Earned Income Tax Credit, and change the personal income tax rates and brackets.

ITEP estimates were used to show that, overall, the state would have a more progressive tax structure if the Wayne bill became law. Representative Wayne should be applauded for continuing to beat the progressive drum and arguing year after year that a tax system “should be equitable, it should be buoyant, it should be flexible, and it should grow with the economy.”

In less cheerful news, the Iowa House will have the opportunity to vote on a bill that passed through committee that, if approved, would reduce the state’s income tax rates across the board by 20 percent. This bill is one of the most expensive tax cut proposals currently on the table and threatens Iowa’s ability to provide public services over the long term.

In fact, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House recently said, "I'm not sure where the House ship is sailing. On one hand, we have all kinds of tax-cut bills moving through the process. ... It's about $2 billion over the next few years that would be eliminated from the state of Iowa's budget. How is that even remotely fiscally responsible?"

Of course, it's the opposite of fiscally responsible, as noted in a recent Iowa Policy Project brief finding that “[t]o develop long-term sustainability in the budget, it is important to examine what has given rise to current budget imbalances. Iowa’s long-term structural budget deficit has occurred in significant measure because lawmakers have adopted various tax breaks and reductions, not because they have expanded programs and services.”

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.


Results of Tax-Related Ballot Initiatives


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Earlier this week, voters in states across the nation voted overwhelmingly against implementing major changes to their states’ tax codes. Voters in Massachusetts defeated an effort to slash the state’s sales tax, preserving much-needed revenue to fund education, public safety and other vital services. In Colorado, three anti-tax measures that would have wreaked havoc on the state’s budget were also soundly defeated. Washington State voters rejected a plan that would have created an income tax while rolling back other taxes.

In other states, big business successfully used its money to influence the outcomes of ballot measures on tax issues. Voters in Missouri and Montana passed initiatives designed to ensure that neither state could implement a tax on the transfer of real estate. Neither state currently has a real estate transfer tax, yet the real estate lobby spent millions trying to pass the initiatives. In Washington and Massachusetts, the beverage and alcohol industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to see that sales taxes levied on their products were rolled back.

And in California, corporations spent millions to defeat a ballot measure that would have repealed several poorly-thought out corporate tax breaks. As the New York Times noted earlier this week, Fox News aired a critical piece on the ballot measure as part of their "War on Business" series, as parent company News Corporation gave $1.3 million to defeat the measure. Fox executives said they "didn't know" the parent company had made these contributions.

Unfortunately, voters in a number of states also ratified measures that will make it harder to raise revenues going forward. California and Washington each face tighter supermajority constraints on revenue-raising, Indiana voters enshrined property tax caps in their constitution, and voters in Massachusetts and Washington retroactively rejected small tax increases enacted by state legislatures in the past year.

Here are the results of initiatives we’ve been following.

Personal Income Tax

Washington: Initiative 1098 - FAILED
Initiative 1098 would have introduced a limited personal income tax applicable only to the richest Washingtonians, reduced the state property tax and eliminated the Business and Occupation tax for many businesses.

Colorado: Proposition 101 - FAILED
Proposition 101 would have reduced Colorado’s income tax rate and eliminated various fees resulting in an estimated loss of $2.9 billion in state and local revenue once fully implemented.

Business Tax Breaks

California: Proposition 24 - FAILED
Proposition 24 would have eliminated several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009 and would have increased state revenues by more than $1.3 billion.

Super Majority Voting Requirements

California: Proposition 25 - PASSED
California: Proposition 26 - PASSED

The passage of California’s Proposition 25 removes the current two thirds super majority requirement needed to pass the state budget (replacing it with a simple majority vote). However, Proposition 26 institutes a new super majority requirement for raising certain fees (classifying them as taxes, which still require a two thirds vote).

Washington: Initiative 1053 - PASSED
Initiative 1053 will ensure that all tax increases (no matter their size) be approved either by a two thirds majority in the legislature or a public vote of the people.

Earnings Tax

Missouri: Proposition A - PASSED
Proposition A requires voters to decide whether two local earnings taxes levied in St. Louis and Kansas City should exist and also prohibits other localities from levying a local income tax.

Sales Taxes

Massachusetts: Question 1PASSED
Massachusetts: Question 3 - FAILED

Question 3 would have cut the state’s sales tax rate from 6.25 to 3 percent, resulting in an annual revenue loss of $2.5 billion.  Question 1 removes the sales tax on alcohol, which was just added last year in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Washington: Initiative 1107 - PASSED
Initiative 1107 repeals a recently enacted sales tax increase on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy.

Property Tax Exemptions

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 2 - PASSED
This constitutional amendment fully exempts disabled prisoners of war (POWs) from paying property taxes.

Virginia: Question 2 - PASSED
Question 2 changes Virginia’s constitution to exempt disabled veterans and their surviving spouses from paying property taxes.

Property Tax Caps

Indiana: Public Question #1 - PASSED
The amendment to Indiana’s state constitution permanently limits property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. These limits already existed in statute. This ballot measure simply makes them more difficult to repeal.

Colorado: Amendment 60FAILED
Amendment 60 would have taken away the ability of voters to opt out of Colorado’s TABOR limitations as they relate to property taxes and require school districts to cut property tax rates in half over the next ten years, replacing the lost revenue for K-12 schools with state funding.

Real Estate Transfer Fees

Montana: Constitutional Initiative 105 - PASSED
Initiative 105 prohibits the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.  

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 3 - PASSED
Amendment 3 prohibits the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.

Government Borrowing

Colorado: Amendment 61FAILED
Amendment 61 would have prohibited or restricted all levels and divisions of government from financing public infrastructure projects (such as building or repairing roads and schools) through borrowing.

California: Proposition 22PASSED
Proposition 22 amends California’s Constitution to take away the state’s ability to borrow or shift revenues that fund transportation programs.


Gubernatorial Candidates with Progressive Positions on Taxes Who Won


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On Tuesday, voters in 37 states went to the polls to vote for Governor. The results of nine gubernatorial races provide a small glimmer of hope for sensible, balanced, and progressive approaches to addressing the next round of state budget shortfalls.  Two candidates campaigned on raising taxes, four incumbents were re-elected after implementing new taxes to close previous budget gaps, and three governors-elect won races against opponents who sought to dismantle progressive tax structures.

As for those governors-elect who have rejected revenue increases, the next four years will be quite a challenge. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry will face a projected two-year $21 billion budget shortfall.  Likewise in Pennsylvania, Governor-elect Tom Corbett is staring at a $5 billion budget deficit next year.  Faced with these problems, this new crop of state executives can take either a dogmatic cuts-only approach or they can opt for a more flexible approach that allows for raising new revenue by closing tax loopholes or implementing other reforms.

Candidates Who Campaigned on Raising Taxes

In Minnesota, Mark Dayton ran for governor on a progressive tax platform, calling taxes “the lubricant for the machinery of our democracy." He has proposed increasing taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent of Minnesotans to raise revenue to address the state’s continuing budget woes and to improve tax fairness.  Although the Minnesota gubernatorial race remains undecided and Dayton may face a recount, Dayton’s small lead demonstrates the support he has received for purposing such a beneficial progressive tax plan.

In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee won a three-way race against Republican John Robitaille and Democrat Frank Caprio.  Like Dayton, Chafee championed tax increases aimed at refilling the state’s depleted coffers.  During the campaign Chafee, whose father lost a Rhode Island gubernatorial race 42 years ago after supporting a state income tax, proposed a one percent sales tax on previously exempted items.  Though more likely to adversely affect low-income families than Dayton’s plan, Chafee deserves credit for supporting a moderate tax plan in this cycle of anti-government sentiment.

Candidates Who Defeated Opponents Targeting Progressive Tax Structures

Besides Dayton and Chafee, three other winners on Tuesday night defeated opponents who sought to drastically cut taxes and reduce spending and government services.  In California, Jerry Brown defeated Meg Whitman, who supported a regressive tax cut that would only benefit taxpayers who claim capital gains income

In New York, Andrew Cuomo defeated Carl Paladino, who promised to cut taxes by 10 percent and spending by 20 percent in his first year.  Unfortunately, however, Andrew Cuomo has not fully distanced himself from Paladino’s vilification of taxes.  Instead, Cuomo, along with eleven newly elected Republican Governors, has pledged to freeze taxes, vetoing any hike that comes his way.  This absolutist approach does nothing to alleviate the enormous deficit problems faced by each of these states.

In Colorado, Democrat John Hickenlooper defeated Republican Dan Maes and Independent Tom Tancredo.  Maes, who lost voter support after the Republican primary, promised to lower income taxes and cut spending.  As Maes’ popularity decreased, Tom Tancredo began to gain steam, eventually garnering around 37% of the vote.  In their final debate Tancredo proposed removal of “any tax rebates or incentives.”  For his own part, Hickenlooper never committed to raising or lowering taxes, but did call for a "voluntary" tax on the oil and gas industry to fund higher education.

Incumbents Re-elected After Raising Taxes

The Governors of Maryland, Illinois, Arkansas, and Massachusetts pulled off victories after enacting or supporting new taxes during their previous terms. 

In Maryland, Martin O’Malley, who defeated former Governor Robert Ehrlich, oversaw tax increases in his first term to fix a $1.7 billion deficit.  O’Malley’s plan relied in part on progressive tax increases, including a temporary increase in the income tax rate paid by millionaires. While Republicans criticized the tax increases, the citizens of Maryland approved enough to re-elect O’Malley with over 55% of the vote.

In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn is the likely winner of a tight race against Republican challenger Bill Brady.  Since becoming Governor in the wake of former Governor Blagojevich’s scandal, Pat Quinn has repeatedly proposed to raise income tax rates to fill budget holes.  Quinn would use the revenue raised to fund education.  Meanwhile Brady, Quinn’s opponent, championed tax cuts that included repealing the sales tax on gasoline and eliminating the inheritance tax.

In Arkansas, Republican Jim Keet was soundly defeated by Governor Mike Beebe in his re-election bid.  During his first term, Beebe implemented a significant hike in tobacco sales taxes, raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 56 cents.  The increase was designed to increase revenues by $86 million to fund statewide trauma systems and expanded health care coverage for children.

In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick was re-elected Governor after signing last year’s budget that included an increase in the sales tax rate. Patrick also showed interest in improving fairness in Massachusetts’ tax code. Bay State voters rewarded Patrick for his tough decisions by handily re-electing him.


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.


State Tax Issues on the Ballot on Election Day


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The stakes will be high for state tax policy on Election Day, with tax-related issues on the ballot in several states. With a couple of notable exceptions (a new income tax in Washington and rollback of corporate tax breaks in California), these ballot initiatives would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both).

Personal Income Tax

Colorado: Proposition 101 would reduce or eliminate various fees and immediately reduce the state’s income tax rate from 4.63 to 4.5 percent and eventually to 3.5 percent).  If passed, Proposition 101 will result in an estimated loss of $2.9 billion in state and local revenue once fully implemented.

Washington: Initiative 1098 would introduce a personal income tax, reduce the state property tax and eliminate the Business and Occupation tax for small businesses. If passed, this legislation would improve tax fairness in the state with the most regressive tax structure in the country.  For more read CTJ's Digest articles about this initiative.

Business Tax Breaks

California: Proposition 24 would eliminate several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009 and increase state revenues by more than $1.3 billion.  For more details on these tax breaks, read the California Budget Project's Budget Brief on the initiative.

Super-Majority Voting Requirements

California: Proposition 25 would remove the current two-thirds super-majority requirement needed to pass the state budget (replacing it with a simple majority vote), while Proposition 26 would institute a new super-majority requirement for raising certain fees (classifying them as taxes).  For more details on these initiatives, read the California Budget Project’s initiative summaries.

Washington: Initiative 1053 would, if approved, ensure that no tax increases (no matter their size) become law without either approval by a two-thirds majority in the legislature or a public vote of the people. The Washington Budget and Policy Center gives a helpful summary of the initiative and its potential impact.   

Earnings Taxes

Missouri: Proposition A, if approved, would require that voters be asked every five years to decide whether or not local earnings taxes levied in St. Louis and Kansas City should exist. (If voters then decide to not allow them, they will be phased out over a ten-year period). The Proposition would also exclude any other local government from levying its own earnings taxes. For more on Proposition A, read Missouri Budget Project’s fact sheet.

Sales Taxes

Massachusetts: Question 1 and Question 3
A diverse coalition of businesses, advocacy organizations, citizens groups and political leaders have joined together to defeat Question 3, an initiative that would cut the state’s sales tax rate from 6.25 to 3 percent, resulting in an annual revenue loss of $2.5 billion.  Question 1 would remove the sales tax on alcohol which was just added last year in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Washington: Initiative 1107 would repeal the new sales taxes on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy. For more information, read CTJ's Digest article on the issue and the Washington Budget and Policy Center’s summary.

Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, it's an important revenue source. Slashing it in either Washington or Massachusetts without replacing the lost revenue with another source would cripple the ability of those states to provide core services such as education and public safety to their residents.

Property Tax Exemptions

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 2 would exempt fully disabled prisoners of war (POWs) from paying property taxes. Read Missourians for Tax Justice’s take on this issue.

Virginia: Question 2 would change Virginia’s constitution to exempt veterans and their surviving spouse from paying property taxes if the veteran is 100 percent disabled.

Property Tax Caps

Colorado: Amendment 60 would take away the ability of voters to opt out of Colorado’s TABOR limitations as they relate to property taxes.  Currently, voters can approve an increase in property tax rates above the constitutional limit which caps increases at the rate of inflation plus a small measure of local growth.  The amendment would also require school districts to cut property tax rates in half over the next ten years and replace the lost revenue for K-12 schools with state funding (an estimated $1.5 billion will be required from the state, meaning reductions will have to made to other services to support an increase in K-12 spending).

Indiana: Public Question #1 will ask Indianans to decide if their state's constitution should be permanently altered to limit property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. Voters may find it helpful to read this brief from the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

Real Estate Transfer Fees

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 3 would prohibit the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax. Missouri currently doesn’t levy any such tax.  Placing the question before voters is seen as a preemptive move by the Missouri Association of Realtors to ensure that the state can’t create a transfer tax.

Montana: Constitutional Initiative 105 would, if approved, prohibit the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.  The state currently doesn’t levy such a tax. The Billings Gazette has weighed in on this Initiative.

Government Borrowing

California: Proposition 22 would amend California’s Constitution to take away the state’s ability to borrow or shift revenues that fund transportation programs.  For more information, read the California Budget Project’s brief on the initiative.

Colorado: Amendment 61 would prohibit or restrict all levels and divisions of government from financing public infrastructure projects (such as building or repairing roads and schools) through borrowing.


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.


Ballot Round Up


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Now that the primary election dust has settled and signature gathering deadlines have come and gone, we have a clear picture of the good and bad tax initiatives voters in a number of states will have an opportunity to support or oppose.  Over the coming month, the Tax Justice Digest will provide updates on tax-related ballot campaigns including links to the best resources to help voters understand what to expect when they hit the polls in November.

Indiana voters will soon decide if their state's constitution should be permanently altered to limit property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. The state legislature has already approved this short-sighted measure twice.

Voters would find it helpful to read this brief from the Indiana Community Action Association which dispels false claims about the benefits of these property tax caps, including claims that all homeowners are likely to benefit, that having these caps in the constitution will prevent taxes generally from being raised, and that the caps are well-designed in the first place.

Missouri voters will be asked to decide on Proposition A and the fate of the city earnings taxes levied in Kansas City and St. Louis. If Proposition A is approved, voters will be asked every five years to decide whether or not these earnings taxes should exist. (If voters then decide to not allow them, they will be phased out over a ten year period). The revenue generated from these earning taxes represents about 30 percent of the cities' general fund budgets.

A key supporter (and bankroller) of the initiative, Rex Sinquefield, has said that the money "has to be replaced" if the earnings taxes are eliminated, but he doesn't actually say how that money will get replaced. "That was the reason that we proposed a 10-year phase-out," he says, "so you have a lot of time to figure this out."

If passed, the initiative would exclude any other local government from levying their own earnings taxes, further limiting the ability of local governments to raise funds in a progressive way. Missouri voters would be wise to take a step back and heed this warning from the St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial board: "The loss of (earnings tax) revenue would reverberate beyond the residents of St. Louis and Kansas City. Voters throughout both metropolitan regions would face increased uncertainty as their core cities struggled to find replacement revenue. As go the metro areas, so goes Missouri."

For more on the harmful ramifications of Proposition A, read this fact sheet from the Missouri Budget Project.

Washington State voters will soon have the rare opportunity to improve their state's tax and budget structure in a dramatic way. If Initiative 1098 passes, the state's property tax will be cut by 20 percent, the state's unique Business and Occupation tax will be eliminated for small businesses and a new income tax on the wealthiest of Washingtonians will become the law of the land. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has endorsed I-1098 "as a big step toward tax fairness and reform, as well as a way of putting teachers into classrooms and poor families onto the state's Basic Health Plan. " ITEP's report Who Pays found that Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation and badly needs a tax reform of this sort.

Californians will have the opportunity to repeal three costly business tax breaks by voting to support Proposition 24, “The Tax Fairness Act”.  Enacted in 2008 and 2009, the three business tax cuts — elective single sales factor, tax credit sharing, and net operating loss carrybacks — are scheduled to go into effect in 2011 at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion.  As a new Budget Brief from the California Budget Project explains, these tax breaks benefit relatively few corporations and come at a time when the state can ill afford such a significant loss of revenue.  

In Colorado, most Democratic and Republican lawmakers are united in their opposition to three anti-tax initiatives on the state’s ballot which would drastically reduce state and local revenue and hinder the state’s ability to pay for education, health care, public safety, and other core services. 

Amendment 60 would require school districts to cut property taxes and replace the lost revenue. Proposition 101 would slash the state’s income tax and cut other fees. Amendment 61 would limit or disallow government borrowing.  A Colorado Legislative Staff analysis of the combined impact of the three measures found that the state would lose about $2.1 billion in revenue, while taking on $1.6 billion in K-12 education funding to make up for the local property tax cuts.  As a result, education spending would constitute nearly 99% of the state’s general fund budget.


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.


Ballot Initiatives in the States: The Bad News


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Voters this November in a variety of states may have the opportunity to vote against anti-tax initiatives, as well. Right-wing activists were successful recently in gathering signatures for a handful of misguided anti-tax initiatives in Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington.  

Colorado voters are going to have a congested ballot come November. Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 have all qualified for the ballot and would have an enormous impact on Coloradans' way of life. About these three proposals the Denver Post opines, "The operating language within each one is a virus that would cripple the ability of our local and state governments to provide the most basic of services — from building schools for our children to supplying clean water to our homes. Both Democratic and Republican politicians have joined leaders in business and community organizations to oppose the initiatives."

According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: "Amendment 60 would overturn voters' decision to opt out of Colorado's TABOR limitations. The initiative also cuts property tax rates in half over a ten-year period. The statutory Proposition 101 would slash state and local revenues to the tune of $1.7 billion by reducing the state income tax, motor vehicle fees, and telecommunications fees." Amendment 61 would prohibit all levels and divisions of government from bonding, even if they previously had the authority to do so. These measures would have a disastrous impact on Coloradans' way of life.

The Boston Herald is reporting that an initiative proposing to reduce the Massachusetts sales tax from 6.25 to 3 percent is likely headed to the November ballot. The proposal would cost the state a jaw-dropping $2.4 billion annually. Proponents of the legislation delivered more than the required 11,099 signatures to the Secretary of State's office Wednesday. In somewhat brighter news, none of the four candidates for governor appear to support the initiative and have said that if it passes, deep cuts in state and local services would be all but guaranteed. Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, it's important because slashing it would cripple Massachusetts' ability to provide for its residents.

Another initiative that reportedly has enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, backed by beer and wine wholesalers, would eliminate the new sales tax on alcohol.  Last year, state lawmakers removed the sales tax exemption on beer, wine and liquor and added them to the state’s sales tax base in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Tim Eyman, Washington state's notorious anti-tax crusader, is up to his old, tired tricks again. Initiative 1053 would permanently re-establish the requirement for a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature or a statewide popular vote in order to pass tax increases.  A similar measure won at the ballot in 2007, but that measure allowed the legislature to repeal the rules by a simple majority vote after two years.  Facing a $2.8 billion budget gap this year, Washington legislators suspended the requirement in February for 16 months to pass tax increases to mitigate cuts to vital state services.  If passed this initiative impairs the ability of Legislators to do what they were elected to do — legislate.

Eyman is also supportive of Initiative 1107, which would roll back the new state taxes on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy. (Advocates of both initiatives turned in over 700,000 signatures to see that these issues will be placed before the voters in November.) Of course sales taxes are regressive, but the cost of removing the sales tax from these items is pretty stark. According to the Children's Action Alliance, "The choice for us is clear, a few extra pennies or the loss of essential services for kids."

Not surprisingly, the main financial backer of Initiative 1107 is the American Beverage Association, which has reportedly spent more than $1 million on the ballot effort thus far.

Washington recently joined with 30 other states to tax candy. If you want to see how your state taxes candy, see Washington State Budget and Policy Center's handy map on the subject.


States Seek to Increase Sales Tax Revenue Without Changing their Tax Rates


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Across the nation, state lawmakers wary of further increasing their general sales tax rates are looking (sensibly) for ways of broadening the tax base in order to maximize their "bang for the buck" from the existing tax rates. As a recent New York Times survey documents, half a dozen states are thinking seriously about expanding their sales tax to include previously untaxed services, from haircuts to hot-air-balloon rides.

From a policy perspective, this approach is a slam dunk: a good first principle for sales tax design is that your sales tax liability should depend only on how much you spend — not on what you buy. However, proposals to tax services in Maryland and Michigan have recently run aground because of politics, not policy.

But there is a much more straightforward (and more politically viable) sales tax base broadening strategy that virtually every state can tap right now. Interestingly, even the Wall Street Journal found it difficult to argue against a growing effort by states to enforce collection of their "use tax" (a companion to the sales tax that is designed to apply to goods and services purchased in other states).

From a policy perspective, this is every bit as sensible as taxing services: if you buy a book, the sales tax should be the same whether you buy it in a store or on-line. But the politics are substantially more promising in this case: among the parties most aggrieved by the use tax loophole are small, "bricks and mortar" businesses that collect sales taxes on all their purchases and face a clear tax-based disadvantage compared to Amazon.com and other Internet-based retailers.

In the wake of recently passed legislation in Colorado designed to encourage more taxpayers to pay the use tax on their own, more states will likely seek to replicate Colorado's approach.

 

 


Amazon Continues Its Tax Avoidance Efforts


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You don't know it, but you are probably a tax scofflaw-- because you haven't paid your "use tax." If you purchase, say, a stereo from a store in your state (and your state has a sales tax), you'll pay sales tax on that purchase. But when you buy the same stereo on-line from, say, Amazon.com, odds are that Amazon won't add sales tax to your purchase price. The laws of all sales tax states are quite clear on what is supposed to happen in this situation: you, as the purchaser, are supposed to pay the "use tax", which has exactly the same tax rates and tax base as the regular sales tax. But individual consumers purchasing items online very rarely pay the tax in this situation, and states typically make little effort to enforce it, as least with respect to household purchases (as opposed to business purchases).

If one wanted to make a short list of tax reforms that could lead to effective enforcement of the use tax, two things high on that list would be (a) that when a retailer in state X sells a sales-taxable item to a consumer in state Y, and does not collect sales tax on that item because they have no physical presence in state Y, then the retailer should have to remind the purchaser that they are legally required to pay the use tax, and (b) that under this same scenario, the retailer should have to alert state Y's Dept. of Revenue that these transactions took place.

This is precisely what Colorado did when it enacted House Bill 1193 earlier this year. The new law requires companies like Amazon, which has no physical presence in the state, to send a reminder to purchasers that they are supposed to pay the use tax. It also requires these companies to send an end-of-year statement to the state revenue department summarizing the value of untaxed sales to each customer. The law does NOT require Amazon to collect a dime of additional tax.

Earlier this week, Amazon responded to this law by dropping all its affiliates in the state of Colorado. (Affiliates are individuals or companies who put a link to Amazon on their own website, and earn a share of the take when customers click-through to buy things on Amazon's website.) As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Michael Mazerov notes in a statement on Amazon's actions, this is a purely punitive action that has no relationship to the new law: the new reporting requirements under HB 1193 don't depend on whether a sale was made through a "click-through" affiliate, and even after dropping its affiliates, Amazon will still have to comply with the law. Amazon's actions can only be interpreted as a politically motivated attempt to rile up anti-tax sentiment sufficiently so that Colorado lawmakers will repeal the new law.
The use tax should be enforced by every state. Colorado's approach to doing so is sensible and fair, and does not impose substantial burdens on sellers like Amazon. By hitting its own affiliates in their wallets, Amazon is avoiding an open discussion of why they apparently believe the use tax should be repealed.


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.


"TABOR" Update: Restrictions on Revenue-Raising on November Ballots


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Next month, voters in two states will go to the ballot to decide whether to cap the growth in public budgets according to a formula based on the annual rate of population growth plus inflation. In Washington, the ballot initiative brought forward by anti-taxer Tim Eyman is called I-1033. Researchers at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute refer to it as the "toxic twin" of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).  In Maine, the initiative, dubbed TABOR II, is more akin to an annoying younger brother (well, if that brother had the ability to wreak complete havoc with sound fiscal policy).  You can tell him to go away -- as Maine voters did in rejecting an earlier version of the initiative in 2006 -- but he unfortunately keeps coming back.
 
Colorado's experience makes it clear that arbitrary funding formulas are an ineffective way to run government, leading to devastating impacts on vital public services. In fact, Colorado voters chose to suspend TABOR in 2005, due to the effects it was having on education, transportation, and human services. 

The limits that I-1033 in Washington and TABOR II in Maine would impose are especially dangerous in light of the current recession.  Under these initiatives, funding caps would be the lesser of the previous year's cap or the previous year's actual funding levels.  As a result, during economic downturns, when revenues are especially low, the cap is permanently “ratcheted” down to lower levels.

As to the consequences that these initiatives would have if enacted, Washington State  Senator Rodney Tom was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, "If I-1033 passes, I think we just all go home and bury our heads in the sand." 

As discouraging as that image may be, there are reasons to be hopeful.  The Maine Chamber of Commerce, which had initially backed TABOR II earlier this year (despite opposing its predecessor in 2006), recently withdrew its support, a clear sign that the measure goes too far even for business leaders.

For more on the impact of I-1033, see the Washington Budget and Policy Center's report “I-1033 Undermines Public Priorities.”   For more on Maine’s TABOR II, check out these resources from the Maine Center for Economic Policy or read the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recent analysis.


Thought You'd Heard the Last of TABOR? Think Again


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The poorly named Tax Payer Bill of Rights (TABOR) is a cap on allowable spending enacted in Colorado in 1992. Since then, it has become clear that the measure demolished the state's ability to fund higher education, infrastructure and health care. Despite voters approving a ballot measure to suspend Colorado's TABOR for five years, the concept of a spending limit is still rearing its ugly head in both Maine and Missouri.

In Maine, the Heritage Policy Center has a revised TABOR proposal (a previous proposal was defeated by a vote of the people two years ago), which promises to combat the state's "overspending" problem while making it quite difficult for taxes to be raised. This November, Mainers will be asked to vote once again on the TABOR. Read the Maine Center for Economic Policy's report about the many serious problems with this proposal.

Meanwhile, a proposal to cap spending is making its way through the Missouri House of Representatives, which will serve as another test for the pro-TABOR forces. Read the Missouri Budget Project's warning about TABOR's impact on the state.


California: A Devastating "Compromise" in the Works?


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California legislators appear to finally be in the early stages of negotiations over a method to fix the current year's budget shortfall. As has been obvious to most observers for quite some time, California's budget gap is far too large to be fixed with spending cuts alone, and will require some kind of tax increase. Convincing California Republicans to recognize this fact was no easy task, and it now appears that the cost of securing their support could come in the form of a spending cap. Unfortunately, while a tax increase is absolutely necessary to solve California's short-term problems, allowing a spending cap to be slipped into the deal would be nothing short of devastating in the long-term.

The case against the spending cap was articulated brilliantly by Jean Ross of the California Budget Project in a recent op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. Ross noted that "far from being a cure-all, a hard spending cap would place an arbitrary stranglehold on the state's ability to improve its schools, rebuild its infrastructure, care for its senior population and respond nimbly to future challenges. Disguised as a solution, this cap could quickly become one of California's most serious budgetary problems". She goes on to point out that her organization "found that if this cap had been enacted in 1995, using that year's budget as the base, it would have resulted in a 2008-09 budget $39.7 billion below what was enacted in September. While this would bring the budget into balance, it also would require spending cuts more than twice as large as those proposed by the governor."

Californians familiar with Colorado's TABOR debacle should be especially wary of what Ross points out next: "The hard spending cap also would be incompatible with Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum level of state funding for K-12 education and community colleges. That guarantee would generally outpace increases allowed under the cap, which would result in education crowding out all other state spending". The parallels with the difficulties created by Colorado's Amendment 23 (which requires increases in K-12 spending of 1% plus inflation each year) couldn't be more obvious.

There isn't any question that California needs more revenue. Just look at the fact that California's bond rating was recently decreased by two grades, or that the state Controller had to start issuing IOU's instead of tax refunds today. But while securing more revenue should be a top priority this year, accepting a spending cap as part of the compromise would be an action that Californians would regret for years.


California & Colorado: Why Procedural Restrictions on Revenue-Raising Lead to Disaster


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The news from California just keeps getting worse. Faced with a budget deficit that could reach as much as $42 billion by June 2010 and the prospect that the state will soon deplete its cash reserves, State Controller John Chiang announced last week that the state may have to begin issuing IOU's to state employees and to contractors who do business with the state. There's also the chance that, rather than receive the refunds to which they may be entitled, California taxpayers may receive promises that they'll be paid later as well.

So, while Governor Schwarzenegger is busy vetoing the Assembly's latest budget plan, because, he maintains, it "punish[es] people with increased taxes," millions of Californians must now prepare themselves to pay, in essence, higher taxes than they expected to pay this year. Such an outcome hardly seems justifiable, given the likelihood that those residents entitled to refunds are low- and moderate-income families, families that would almost certainly use those tax refunds to pay off bills or to make long-planned purchases.

In light of these developments, the state's Legislative Analyst, Mac Taylor, is now urging policymakers to put tax increases before the states' voters as early as April, so that they can avoid the supermajority-induced gridlock that has plagued Sacramento in recent years.

Of course, California isn't alone in suffering through fiscal crises brought on by unsound tax limits and undemocratic procedural rules. Coloradoknows them quite well too, thanks to the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) approved by state voters in 1992. Unless some major changes are made this year, it will likely endure some considerable woes in the years ahead. Why is that? Well, as Erika Stutzman of Boulder's Daily Camera observes, during recessions, "double-whammy style, [ Colorado hits] the 'ratchet' effect: TABOR's requirement that the previous year's budget be used to determine next year's budget." So, if spending falls this year, that lower level of spending will serve as the baseline for growth in all future years. Quite sensibly then, Ms. Stutzman backs legislative changes to TABOR to prevent that from happening.

As the vast majority of state governments stare down budget shortfalls, new ideas about how to responsibly and fairly fill those gaps should receive an enthusiastic welcome. A new report from Good Jobs First, entitled Skimming the Sales Tax, does exactly that by revealing that states are currently giving away over $1 billion through "vendor discounts" or "dealer collection allowances" that reduce sales taxes.

Vendor discounts allow retailers to legally keep a portion of the sales tax revenue they collect as compensation for the costs involved in collecting and remitting the tax. Twenty six states currently provide retailers with such compensation, amounting to a total of over $1 billion in annual revenue losses for those states.

The policy prescription in many states is fairly clear. While there may be room for debate over whether any compensation is warranted, what is not in question is that there should be a sensible limit on the maximum amount that any one business can receive via this practice. As author Philip Mattera points out, "the main expenses that retailers incur with regard to sales taxes, especially software programs to track them, are fixed costs that do not rise in tandem with growth in receipts."

Those states without such a limitation in many cases forfeit quite substantial amounts of revenue through vendor discounts. Illinois, for example, loses over $126 million annually due to the practice. Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado each lose in the neighborhood of $70 - $90 million per year. Thirteen of the twenty six states offering vendor discounts do not cap the amount any individual retailer can claim. In addition, five states that do impose limits on maximum compensation have set those limits at seemingly excessive levels, ranging from $10,000 to $240,000 per retailer.

For state-by-state details on existing vendor compensation practices, as well as other ways in which retailers are being subsidized through the sales tax, see the report here.


Colorado Comes Up Short in Fight to Loosen TABOR Restrictions; Severance Tax Also Fails


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Colorado's ballot outcomes represent the most serious defeat of good tax policy to take place in this election. A proposal to send the automatic TABOR refunds into a savings account for education, as well as another proposal to end a costly and unnecessary tax break for the oil industry both fell short. Each of these proposals had the potential to secure more revenues for the state at a time when Colorado services are suffering, and the state is facing a mid-year budget shortfall. Descriptions of both of these failed proposals can be found in our Colorado archives.


More Allies Join the Fight for Fairness in Massachusetts and Colorado


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Last week, we informed you about a couple of surprising allies in Massachusetts and Oregon in the fight against regressive and irresponsible ballot proposals. Since then, more valuable support in favor of reasoned tax policy has come from another surprising source: key business groups in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Ballot Proposal to Repeal Massachusetts Income Tax

In Massachusetts, that support (in opposition to the proposed repeal of the state's income tax) comes in the form of a 26 page report prepared by the Global Insight consulting firm on behalf of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Among the report's criticisms is that the measure would slash funds so drastically that low- and middle-income residents would be effectively deprived of access to higher education. The report also places emphasis on the inevitable decline in the state's infrastructure (a key component of doing business) that would accompany the repeal. An apt summary of the report, in the words of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, is that repealing the income tax would "devastate the state's economy".

Ballot Proposal to Undo Part of the So-Called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" in Colorado

Equally influential business groups in Colorado have expressed a similar desire for sound tax policy. In Colorado, the debate is over a proposal to alter the requirement under the "TABOR" amendment, passed a decade ago, that requires surplus revenues to be used for rebate checks sent to households. The proposal on the ballot this year would redirect the automatic TABOR refunds into a special fund for education, which would help free the state from the unrealistic restraints on revenue imposed by TABOR. Among the business groups in support of the measure are the Associated General Contractors, Boulder Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, Colorado Retail Council, Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. In the words of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, "this proposal will help Colorado get out of the bottom in funding", and is simply "smart business".

The broad coalitions forming in each of these states vividly demonstrate the importance of the coming vote on these proposals. And at least in Massachusetts, a recent poll indicates that this broad-base of opposition appears to be producing results. But in Colorado, unfortunately, the numbers are looking much less favorable, although the vote is still too close to call.


Supply-Side Disasters in the Making at the State Level


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One does not have to be elected to Congress or hired to anchor a national news show to become addicted to supply-side economics. State government and local media are equally at risk. This November, voters in several states will decide on ballot questions that are being promoted with supply-side justifications.

A proposal to be voted on in Oregon seeks to allow taxpayers to deduct (in full) their income tax payments to the federal government for state income tax purposes. Currently, only the first $5,600 one pays to the federal government is allowed to be deducted on Oregon state income tax forms. This arrangement already has regressive results, and by uncapping the deduction limit completely, those wealthy individuals who owe the most in federal income taxes will be allowed to slash their Oregon tax payments substantially.

Though the workings of the Oregon proposal may seem a bit confusing, its results most certainly are not. The vast majority (78 percent) of Oregonian families will get nothing, the wealthiest 1 percent will enjoy a nearly $16,000 annual tax cut, and the government of Oregon will have to make due with between $500 million and $1 billion less in revenues each year. (Six other states, Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota, currently allow for some deduction of federal income taxes, and they should all end this regressive practice.)

So how are backers of the Oregon proposal justifying this giveaway to the rich? You guessed it. One news account informs us that "[Russ] Walker, Oregon director of the national fiscal conservative group FreedomWorks [and co-sponsor of Measure 59], says the tax reduction would produce a supply-side result of economic expansion with more income and more tax revenue to offset the cut." The argument is that the tax cut will at least increase revenue enough to pay for itself -- the most extreme form of supply-side thinking.

North Dakota voters will also be taking a look at their income tax this fall. Backers of an income tax rate cut are enthusiastically pushing a plan that offers an average tax cut of just $83 to the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers statewide. What's the big deal? The wealthiest 1 percent of North Dakotans would save an average of over $11,000 per year. And those numbers don't even include the corporate income tax cuts, which are sure to also disproportionately benefit the wealthy. And to make matters worse, the proposal would cost the state over $200 million annually.

And how do backers of this measure justify giving away revenue to the rich? Well, if a tax cut simply pays for itself through supply-side magic, backers hope that the practical, common sense folk of North Dakota won't ask such uncomfortable questions. As one news account explains, "Measure 2 proposes to cut income taxes 50 percent and corporate taxes 15 percent, said Duane Sand of the group Americans for Prosperity [the measure's principal backer]. Sand said the state's tax policies have forced young and old to leave the state. The OMB estimates Measure 2 would cut state revenue about $415 million for the next biennium. That money would be replaced by higher tax collections from increased economic activity, Sand said."

A proposal on the ballot in Massachusetts provides perhaps the most obvious example of the recklessness so often involved in anti-tax ballot initiatives. Massachusetts voters will once again have to decide this November on a proposal to constitutionally end the income tax -- a move that would reduce government revenues by a whopping 40 percent, and would undoubtedly have dire consequences in the form of reduced government services. But while all Massachusetts residents would have to share in the pain of a 40 percent reduction in their government's budget, the wealthy would be the primary beneficiaries of the tax cut, since the income tax is the only major progressive tax levied by the state. Even more alarming is the fact that over 45 percent of Massachusetts voters supported a similar measure in 2002.

Now, even supply-siders would have trouble arguing that reducing a tax to zero can result in increased revenues. (Except that apparently the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representative do believe that about the capital gains tax, as we said in a previous article in this Digest).

But backers of the Massachusetts measure do argue, using supply-side logic, that less taxes will result in so much economic growth that no one will feel the loss of public services that would inevitably result.

Carla Howell, chairperson of the group backing the measure (and Libertarian candidate for governor in 2002) says that "In addition to giving each worker an annual average of $3,700, it will take $12.5 billion out of the hands of Beacon Hill politicians -- and put it back into the hands of the men and women who earned it. Every year. In productive, private hands this $12.5 billion a year will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts."

Actually, this proposal to slash state government revenue by 40 percent is so extreme that even business groups cite a report showing just how devastated infrastructure, education and other services would be if this proposal is approved.

So it seems that many states are on the verge of ruining themselves with the narcotic of supply-side tax economics. If these states fail to resist, then what? Rehabilitation is possible, but it's a long and hard road. Colorado is trying to break free of the mess it created a decade ago when taxes and revenues were strictly suppressed by the so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) that was approved by voters. TABOR poses a serious problem given that the cost of government services sometimes increases at a rate greater than general inflation. Also, another amendment to the state's constitution requires regular increases in education spending. Reconciling these two competing demands proved impossible, and in 2005 Colorado voters temporarily suspended a significant portion of the TABOR requirement.

This year, it appears many Coloradans have finally had enough with having to deal with inadequate government services under the unrealistic TABOR requirements. Voters will have the opportunity to decide on Amendment 59, which would end the automatic refunds to taxpayers used to suppress state revenues, in favor of diverting that money toward education. This effort gives hope to those who realize that public services like schools and roads are the building blocks of a state economy, and that to have these services we have to pay for them. It also should serve as a warning to people in other states where supply-siders are promising voters that they can have their cake and eat it too.


Colorado Faces Choice Between Expanding Education or Continuing to Subsidize Oil Industry


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This week Colorado Governor Bill Ritter filed a ballot initiative petition that, if passed by voters in November, would end a $300 million a year subsidy for oil and gas companies. The property tax deduction for oil companies was originally justified as a way to encourage them to support certain local measures, such as school bonds. Supporters claimed that without the tax break the industry would pay disproportionately more in taxes and thus have an incentive to work against local measures.

But Colorado is the only state that continues to provide such a generous severance tax break to the oil and gas industry. And, as Gov Ritter points out, these companies have an obligation as responsible members of the community to support beneficial local legislation. The state should not subsidize this behavior.

The petition would channel the $300 million savings primarily to college scholarship funding for low-income students and measures that would mitigate the impact of the oil and gas industry on wildlife, transportation and water quality. Oil and gas industry spokespersons, however, claim that companies would be forced to pass on higher prices to consumers. Ritter countered this attack, explaining that Colorado's tiny contribution to world oil supplies will have a negligible impact on prices.

The oil and gas industry is expected to spend about $20 million in its campaign against the initiative and supporters of the initiative will spend about $5 million. Voters will be asked to choose between continuing to subsidize a booming industry or investing money in Colorado families and wildlife preservation. But as gas prices continue to soar and winter approaches, Colorado voters may fall victim to the threats by oil and gas companies to pass on the burden of the tax. In order for fairness to triumph, the state must adequately educate voters about the $50 million local communities stand to gain for environmental improvements as well as the increase in low-income students' opportunity to attend college.


Colorado Lawmakers Propose to Loosen the So-Called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights"


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Colorado might permanently loosen a constitutional constraint that has caused the state on-going fiscal damage, the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).

Voters approved an amendment to their constitution enacting TABOR in 1992. TABOR limits the growth of state revenues to a combination of inflation and population growth by requiring that any revenue in excess of this limit be refunded to taxpayers. TABOR also requires that any tax increase be approved by voters. The main problem is that inflation is only a very crude measure of changes in the costs faced by state and local governments, which for the most part have outpaced inflation in the rest of the economy.

In 2000, Colorado voters complicated matters further by approving a very different measure, Amendment 23, which mandates an increase in funding for K-12 education by at least 1% plus inflation every year. This amendment was a response to the dismal state of Colorado public schools in the wake of unrealistic revenue restrictions enacted in TABOR.

Enacting both of these provisions made sense to many voters who would like to see both lower taxes and more spending on education. The problem is that the combination of TABOR and Amendment 23 serve to starve transportation, higher education and just about anything that is not K-12 education.

Now, Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, with the backing of Governor Bill Ritter, plans to unshackle the legislature from these impossible demands. His proposal, if approved by two thirds of both chambers and by the voters, would repeal Amendment 23 and the part of TABOR that requires the state to refund taxes when the revenue limit is exceeded. Fortunately, the citizens of Colorado are likely to look favorably on this proposal, given that they voted in 2005 to suspend TABOR's revenue-refund provision for 5 years. This suspension would essentially become permanent under this proposal.

But one problem associated with TABOR would not be fixed under this plan: tax increases would still require voter approval. Of course, it would be better if the Colorado legislature were allowed to write tax policy themselves. That is, after all, what lawmakers are elected to do. But a related improvement to the policymaking process appears to be on its way. Local legislators will likely soon be given the authority (by a bill expected to be signed by the governor) to propose sales tax increases to their voters without having to first seek the approval of the state legislature.


Severance Taxes in The News


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Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe has called a special session starting Monday to consider a higher severance tax on natural gas. The Governor says that the tax hike will eventually raise as much as $100 million to help pay for state highways. The current level of tax was established in 1957 and is based on the volume of gas extracted. Beebe's proposal would change the tax base to market value, bringing Arkansas in line with what most states have been doing since the 1970s. Basing the tax on market value would ensure that inflation will no longer erode the value of revenues generated by the tax, which is currently providing natural gas companies with an effective tax cut each year. A 2003 ITEP study of the Arkansas natural gas tax found that if the state had imposed a 5 percent tax on the market value of natural gas in 1975 (rather than basing the tax on volume) the state would have raised $610 million between 1975 and 2001, instead of the $13 million it actually collected. For more on the state's severance tax and potential reforms read this report from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Higher severance taxes may soon be on the agenda as well in Colorado, where environmental groups and higher education advocates have banded together in support of a ballot initiative to generate $200 million in additional revenue from the oil and gas industries. The proposal would eliminate several severance tax deductions and exemptions, the most notable of which allows companies to write off 87.5 percent of their property tax bills. The revenue generated would go to fund college scholarships and renewable-energy programs, among other things.


Colorado: Fiscal Policies in the Forefront Again


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After years of starving state government through the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) the piper may finally get paid. It seems that a wave of ballot initiatives will ask Colorado voters next year to increase taxes to pay for government services and programs they feel are important. According to The Bell Policy Center, at last count there were 17 initiatives in the works that deal with raising revenue. The proposals include using fees on new construction to fund education and a new tax on junk food.

Currently Colorado ranks near the bottom for education and highway spending compared to states around the nation. Over the years since TABOR was enacted, many in Colorado have realized that taxes are necessary for government to function and have turned to the initiative process as a flawed, second best alternative to having a legislature that can make responsible tax and fiscal decisions.


Hot Topic: Severance Taxes


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States that enjoy a large endowment of mineral resources usually levy a severance tax on the extraction of these resources and these taxes are receiving a lot of attention these days. In Colorado the Auditor's office found that many oil and gas companies may not be filing tax returns. Officials in West Virginia worry that coal severance taxes are on the decline there, while advocates in Arkansas say that now is the time for severance tax reform. For more on this, read the report "Digging Deeper," from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.


TABOR in the States: Successes and Failures


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Advocates of Colorado-style "TABOR" tax and spending limits are seeing mixed success in efforts to get TABOR limits on the November ballot.

Maine voters will have their say on a TABOR proposal that the Portland Press Herald sees as "the wrong approach."

But a restrictive Ohio proposal will likely be pulled from the November ballot. Meanwhile, a terrific Denver Post editorial argues that their TABOR law still hurts the state's economy-- even after being pared back by voters last fall.

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