North Dakota News



A New Wave of Tax Cut Proposals in the States



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Quick Hits in State News: Defending the Income Tax in Arkansas, Cutting the Property Tax in North Dakota, and More



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As the back- to-school sales tax holidays season winds down, this Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) op-ed is a reminder that consumers and citizens “should not accept tax-free weekends as a replacement for the types of real reforms that clean out unnecessary breaks at the top and solve the problems that will still be there, long after this year's sales tax holidays have passed.”  

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe has a message for Republican lawmakers bent on eliminating the state’s personal income tax: “If you’re going to eliminate the income tax, you better figure out where you’re going to get a couple billion just to stay where we are.”  The Arkansas Republican Party platform includes replacing the state’s personal income tax with what they call a “more equitable method of taxation.”  In Beebe’s words, “I don’t think there is more equitable… the income tax was designed to be more equitable than a flat, for example, sales tax.”

Now that Governor Jack Dalrymple has unveiled his tax cut plan, North Dakota voters (who rejected a ballot measure eliminating property taxes altogether in June) will hear from two gubernatorial candidates who want to cut property taxes, but in very different ways. While the incumbent, Dalrymple, would give across-the-board property tax cuts to every property owner (including profitable businesses and the wealthiest North Dakotans) and a token cut to older low-income adults, the Democratic challenger, Ryan Taylor, targets his tax cuts to homeowners and renters, with the largest cuts as a share of income going to low- and moderate-income taxpayers.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy is working up a full analysis of the candidates’ competing tax plans, which have roughly the same revenue cost.



North Dakota Says No to Measure 2, Preserves Its Property Tax



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North Dakota voters hit the polls yesterday and overwhelmingly (76 percent) said No to Measure 2, a proposal to eliminate -- and constitutionally ban into perpetuity -- their property taxes.

Among those against the measure, the state’s tax commissioner opposed it on the grounds it was fiscally unsustainable, and the state’s League of Cities opposed it for undermining local control over revenues and budgets.

Spearheading the measure was a group called Empower the Taxpayer, ET for short.  Proponents regularly cited North Dakota’s recent energy boom and the surplus of oil revenue it has created as one reason the state could afford to get rid of such a reliable revenue source – which constitutes roughly a quarter of all state revenues.  We note, however, that ET’s director said, “We started this movement before the oil boom…. This isn’t about being flush with oil money.”  

It is true that, thanks in large part to the state’s energy boom, North Dakota was the only state to weather the economic recession without taking a hit to its revenues.  But the oil and gas making the state rich today will run out one day, and banning property taxes would have undoubtedly made North Dakota more vulnerable when that happens, leaving the state unable to fund even the most basic level of services in future “bust” years.  In the end, voters recognized it was unwise to permanently eliminate a relatively stable revenue source in favor of a highly volatile and unsustainable one.

The North Dakota property tax repeal failure is the latest in a line of unsuccessful attempts this year to repeal, reduce or phase out major state taxes.  Its advocates have vowed to fight another day but for now, it goes to show that just as Americans want federal taxes to support government services, they also value strong schools, safe communities, accessible health care, and well maintained roads over tax cuts in the states they call home.

Photo of North Dakota Oil Field via Porchlife Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



Quick Hits in States News: Walker's Wisconsin Record, Oops at the Wall Street Journal, and More



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  • The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy talks back to the Wall Street Journal about its failure to cover the consequences of the new Kansas tax bill for the state’s working poor.
  • North Dakota Tax Commissioner Cory Fong comes out against a radical ballot initiative that would do away with the state’s property tax. The Commissioner writes that Measure 2 is risky, and will be destabilizing for North Dakotans. The vote is on June 12.
  • Louisiana’s legislature appears to be nearing adjournment now that the House approved a nearly $26 billion budget for the next fiscal year. The budget, now sitting on Governor Jindahl’s desk, includes $270 million in “one-time money” scavenged from various programs to balance the budget.
  • Read this op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times from the CEO of the National Retail Federation calling for fairly taxing Internet sales and pointing out that “modern software, allowing sales taxes to be calculated as quickly and easily as shipping costs, renders” any remaining objections a so-called Amazon Tax obsolete.


Earth to ET: Eliminating Property Taxes Would Hurt Most North Dakotans



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In June of 2012, North Dakota voters will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would eliminate all property taxes.  If passed, the initiative would make North Dakota the only state in the nation to completely abandon this cornerstone of local government finance. 

Although property taxes are somewhat regressive, they are a vitally important revenue source, and serve as an important complement to state income taxes by ensuring that families with large quantities of property wealth pay more than those without such reserves.  The initiative’s sponsors, Empower the Taxpayer (E.T.), gloss over these realities with simplistic arguments that “government has become too big,” and “property taxes penalize the homeowner.”

E.T. also contends that the state is empowered only to provide for the general welfare, and property taxes are currently being used to somehow provide kickbacks to “special interest” groups, three of which they identify as most egregious being the higher education system, state employees, and the health and human services system.

Since when did the public interest become a special interest?

E.T., we should mention, is spearheaded by Robert Hale, a successful lawyer in Minot, ND, who is also a builder and developer who, one can imagine, would benefit financially if he could legally avoid paying property taxes.

One final note: while E.T. calls for property tax elimination to be financed through deep cuts in public services, they also float local sales taxes as a more “democratic and fair” alternative to the property tax, never mind that they are a starkly regressive kind of tax, impacting the poor far more heavily than any other group.  

Regressive taxes, however, and massive service cuts are what we should probably expect from this organization which, as it happens, chooses that monocle-wearing millionaire from the Monopoly game, Rich Uncle Pennybags, for its logo.



North Dakota: The Only State with Money to Spare, Determined to Waste It



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While almost every state faces revenue shortfalls due to the recession, North Dakota is one of the few to escape relatively unscathed, as a result of its oil revenue. In fact, North Dakota’s recently passed budget includes nearly half a billion dollars in tax breaks and increases general fund spending by more than 20 percent over the next two years.

The $489 million in tax reductions includes $341.8 million in local property tax relief, $120 million in personal income tax reductions, and $25 million in corporate income tax reductions.

Unfortunately, the $120 million in personal income tax reductions will not benefit those most in need. According to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, two-thirds of the income tax reduction will go to those making over $96,000, while only 5 percent will go to those making under $40,000.

The average tax cut for the richest one percent, those with incomes over $414,000, would be nearly $4,700. Only a third of those making under $24,000 will see any tax cut at all, and those who do will only receive about $18 over one year.

Republican lawmakers favored this regressive approach, even though North Dakota already has an extremely regressive tax system. As ITEP has noted before, taxpayers in North Dakota making less than $21,000 pay an average of 9.4 percent of their income in taxes, while those making over $406,000 pay only 4.3 percent of their income in taxes.

The North Dakota Economic Policy Project argues that a better approach to income tax reduction would have been for the state to enact a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A state EITC equal to 10 percent of the federal EITC would only cost $17 million and would be specifically targeted to North Dakota’s low-income working families.

Ryan Taylor, the Democratic Minority Leader of the North Dakota Senate, also takes issue with cutting corporate income taxes by $25 million while many public services did not receive significant increases. In an op-ed for the Grand Folks Herald, Taylor asked, “Do we want to be a state that gives $25 million to corporations and countless more millions in the future by ignoring loopholes for oil companies, while leaving our children uninsured?”



Mining and Oil Lobbyists Extracting Major Benefits from States



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We've noted before that lobbyists for extractive industries extract billions of dollars out of taxpayer pockets through special tax loopholes and subsidies at the federal level. Unfortunately, this is true at the state level as well. Even when states face unprecedented budget shortfalls and are considering harsh spending cuts, petroleum and mining lobbyists are working hard to preserve and expand their tax subsidies.

One particularly egregious example is Nevada's Barrick and Newmont mining companies, which produce 90 percent of the gold in Nevada, worth over $500 million dollars. Recently, neither company reported any taxable income from their mines.

Interestingly, a Nevada State Tax Director recently admitted that the state has not even audited the industry for at least two years — and then entered into an ‘abrupt’ retirement.

Some legislators are proposing to limit tax deductions for mines to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. But Governor Brian Sandoval opposes the measure and it looks like proponents will not be able to overcome his veto.

In Alaska, oil industry lobbyists have found a friend in Republican Governor Sean Parnell, who is seeking to cut oil taxes and increase subsidies by at least $1.8 billion a year.

Governor Parnell says this will spur "investment" in the state. But the whole point of the tax is to ensure that oil profits result in investment in the state. As Democratic State Senator Bill Wielechowski explains, without the oil taxes, companies would take the billions in profits produced in Alaska and invest them in places like Venezuela or Ecuador. 

The new oil tax cuts do not come as a surprise to Democratic State Representative Les Gara, who contends that petroleum company representatives played a direct role in crafting the Governor’s legislation.

North Dakota seemed to have resisted extraction lobbyists when the State House rejected a measure strongly promoted by the energy industry. The state's current oil extraction tax is automatically reduced when the price of oil falls below $50 a barrel. The proposed measure would scrap that rule and instead reduce the tax as production increases.

Republican Majority Leader Al Carlson tried to ressurect the measure by sneaking the language into another oil bill without a proper hearing.

The Grand Forks Herald editorialized that the legislature must study the effect of the measure through a “neutral source” rather than relying on the “self-interested arguments from the oil industry.” Fortunately, the measure is being held up in the Senate, which will likely guarantee that the public will get to review the changes the energy industry is proposing.



Anti-Tax Lawmakers Look to Cement Their Legacy



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In some states, huge budget gaps are making it somewhat difficult to enact the types of large, immediate tax cuts that many lawmakers promised during their political campaigns last year.  Partially as a result, anti-tax lawmakers are increasingly looking toward the longer-term with proposals to cap state spending, cap property tax growth, and mandate a supermajority legislative vote in order to raise taxes.  Four states in particular generated headlines for proposals of this sort over the past week: New York, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Dakota.

As we mentioned two weeks ago, New York’s Republican-led Senate has already passed constitutional amendments that would impose a TABOR-style spending cap, and a supermajority requirement for raising taxes.  This week, the Senate added to that list by enthusiastically passing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap, which would limit property tax growth to 2 percent per year.  As the New York Times pointed out, property tax caps in general are extremely blunt instruments, and this one is particularly worrisome given the lack of exemptions for things like health care, pensions, debt service, or increased enrollment.  Fortunately, all three of these proposals will be less welcome in the state Assembly, though the Assembly’s speaker has expressed an interest in coming to a “common ground with the governor and the Senate on an appropriate property tax cap.”

In Wisconsin, the state’s newly elected Republican governor and Republican legislators have enacted relatively minor business tax cuts that some lawmakers have described as merely symbolic.  Not content with these small victories, Republican lawmakers are now turning to the slightly longer-term, as the state Assembly last week passed a bill that would require a supermajority vote in order to raise taxes during the next two years.  Of much more concern, however, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently impose the same restriction on Wisconsin residents’ elected representatives. That amendment has yet to come up for a vote.

In Virginia, two troubling constitutional amendments made it out of committee last week. One would mandate a supermajority vote to raise taxes and another would impose a TABOR spending cap equal to inflation plus population growth.  Both are being pushed by Del. Mark Cole, and both were the subject of a highly critical editorial in the Roanoke Times this week.

Finally, in North Dakota, a proposal to cap property tax revenue growth at 3 percent per year received a committee hearing this week and will eventually move to the full House for a vote.  Similar proposals have been rejected in each of the last two sessions, though the fate of this one remains unclear.

Hopefully, lawmakers in each of these states will eventually decide against reducing their ability to deal with the difficult and often unforeseen challenges that state and local governments must inevitably confront.



ITEP Releases New Report on Capital Gains Tax Breaks in the States



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Earlier this week ITEP released A Capital Idea: Repealing State Tax Breaks for Capital Gains Would Ease Budget Woes and Improve Tax Fairness. The report takes a hard look at the eight states that currently give special treatment to capital gains income including: Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The report finds that the benefits of state capital gains tax breaks go almost exclusively to the very best off taxpayers. In fact, in the eight states highlighted, between 95 and 100 percent of the state tax cuts from these tax breaks goes to the richest 20 percent of taxpayers.

Capital gains tax breaks also come with a pretty large price tag.  In tax year 2010, these eight states will lose about $490 million due to these loopholes, with losses ranging from $14 million to $151 million per state. These revenue losses represent a substantial share of currently-forecast budget deficits in several of these states.

ITEP finds that these preferences are costly, inequitable, and ineffective, depriving states of millions of dollars in needed funds, benefitting almost exclusively the very wealthiest members of society, and failing to promote economic growth in the manner their proponents claim. State policymakers cannot afford to maintain these tax breaks any longer.

 



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.



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.



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.



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.



Two States Consider Offering Unproven Tax Breaks for Home Buyers



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Following the creation of a federal tax credit for new home buyers, two states are considering also wandering down this unproven and expensive path. North Dakota and Kentucky are each debating sacrificing taxpayer dollars to fund special tax breaks for newly built homes. In Kentucky, the break would come in the form of a $5,000 tax credit for purchasers of newly constructed homes, while in North Dakota, those fortunate enough to afford a newly built home during this downturn would enjoy a temporary doubling of their property tax homestead exemption (from $75,000 to $150,000).

In each case, the break would not be available for purchasers of older residences, suggesting that these breaks are more of a bailout for developers than they are aid for those in the market to buy a home. And in either case, the proposals still suffer from many of the flaws with the federal break -- such as their potential to re-inflate home prices, and the fact that these breaks won't provide homebuyers with any cash at the time of purchase.



New ITEP Report: States Can Raise Needed Revenue and Improve Tax Fairness by Repealing Capital Gains Tax Breaks



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As state policymakers craft their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, they must confront a pair of daunting challenges, one fiscal, the other economic. The budget outlook for the states is, at present, the most dire in several decades. In this context, then, states must find ways to generate additional revenue that create neither additional responsibilities for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet nor additional distortions in the economy as a whole.

For nine states -- Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin -- one straightforward approach would be to repeal the substantial tax breaks that they now provide for income from capital gains. In tax year 2008 alone, these nine states are expected to lose a total of $663 million due to such misguided policies, with individual losses ranging from $10 million to $285 million per state. A new ITEP report explains that repealing these tax preferences would help states reduce their large and growing budgetary gaps, enhance the equity of their current tax systems, and remove the economic inefficiencies arising from such favorable treatment.

This report explains what capital gains are, how they are treated for tax purposes, and who typically receives them. It also details the consequences of providing preferential tax treatment for capital gains income for states' budgets, taxpayers, and economies in nine key states. Lastly, it responds to claims about both the relationship between capital gains preferences and economic growth and the role capital gains taxation plays in state revenue volatility. (Appendices to the report provide detailed state-by-state estimates of the impact of repealing capital gains tax preferences.)

Read the report.



Three States Focus on Eliminating Regressive Deduction to Raise Much Needed Revenue



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We've recently highlighted a variety of progressive revenue raising options gaining serious attention in New York and Wisconsin. This week we bring you yet another idea that's recently been the subject of debate, though this one applies to fewer states. Those seven states still offering income tax deductions for federal taxes paid (i.e. Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Oregon), should immediately repeal, or at the very least dramatically scale back, that deduction.

The federal income tax deduction takes what is perhaps the best attribute of the federal income tax -- its progressivity -- and uses it to stifle that very attribute at the state level. Since wealthy taxpayers generally pay more in federal taxes than their less well-off counterparts, allowing taxpayers to deduct those taxes from their income for state income tax purposes is a gift to precisely those folks who need it least. And since most state income tax systems possess a degree of progressivity, those better-off taxpayers who face higher marginal tax rates are benefited even more by being able to shield their income from tax via this deduction.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver most recently drew attention to this problem while urging lawmakers this week to end the deduction. The idea has also recently garnered attention in Missouri, where ITEP recently testified on a bill that would, among other changes, eliminate the deduction. Finally, another bill making its way through the Alabama legislature seeks to end the deduction for upper-income Alabamians.

With three of the seven states that still offer this deduction considering its elimination, this is definitely one progressive policy change to keep an eye on.



Push for TABOR-style Spending Cap Dissolves in North Dakota



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Just over one month after progressives defeated a costly, irresponsible, and regressive tax cut on the ballot in North Dakota, backers of an even more irresponsible TABOR-style cap that would have limited spending increases to the rate of inflation have abandoned their efforts. The group pushing the spending cap says they have dropped their plan in part because of the opposition to lower taxes (and lower services) that North Dakotans demonstrated at the ballot box last month.



... and, Some Ideas to Reject



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Of course, not every idea floated during these tough fiscal times is worth adoption or even consideration. Some are just downright bad. Take New York, for instance. As the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) indicated earlier this week, the Empire State is expected to face a budget deficit of $12.5 billion in the coming fiscal year. Unfortunately, that dire outlook has not stopped Governor David Paterson from continuing to embrace an ill-advised property tax cap. On December 1, New York's Commission on Property Tax Relief issued its final report, recommending a 4 percent limit on annual property tax growth. Governor Paterson had backed the idea previously and does not seem likely to change his position any time soon, remarking upon the report's release that "Property taxes... have been the enabler of Albany's dysfunctional culture." As the Fiscal Policy Institute and others have observed, the problem with tax caps are legion and could be particularly harmful if put in place during a recession.

Similarly, North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, as part of his budget plan for the 2009-2011 biennium, has proposed cutting property taxes by $300 million and income taxes by $100 million. Fiscal circumstances in North Dakota are, to be sure, markedly different than those in New York; after all, the Peace Garden State is one of the few expected to experience a budget surplus by the end of the current fiscal year. Yet, as the Grand Forks Herald recently warned, "oil prices already have plunged, threatening the energy boom that has dramatically boosted the state's surplus," suggesting that state legislators should proceed slowly and carefully. Caution certainly seems to be what the voters of North Dakota want anyway -- in November, they resoundingly defeated a ballot measure that would have cut income taxes by more than $200 million.

Legislators in Virginia, despite that state's $2 billion plus budget deficit, seem bent on cutting taxes too, as a special House-Senate subcommittee has recommended that the state offer a new corporate tax break known as single sales factor. Where North Dakota officials should listen to the recently expressed views of their constituents, Virginia should follow the hard-learned lessons of other states. Simply put, single sales factor is a costly and ineffective means of spurring economic activity. Just ask Massachusetts: In 1995, Massachusetts adopted single sales factor for manufacturers, a move that was hailed by some proponents as "a bold step towards restoring Massachusetts as a manufacturing state." After thirteen years -- and millions of tax dollars and thousands of manufacturing jobs lost -- it's clear that that restoration has not occurred.



Progressives Defeat Regressive Tax Cuts in Three States



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Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Oregon residents rejected regressive and costly income tax cuts (or even outright repeals, in the case of Massachusetts) in each of their respective states this Tuesday. The results in every state were fairly lopsided, with between 60% and 70% of voters coming out in opposition. As we noted in earlier Digest articles, these victories for fair tax policy are partly the result of hard work by progressives and also partly the result of very broad (and sometimes unexpected) coalitions. This cooperation symbolized a growing recognition of the importance of taxes in paying for valued government services and generally improving Americans' quality of life.

The votes in these three states are especially important given the economic slowdown that is laying waste to state budgets across the country. Massachusetts is already projecting a mid-year budget deficit, while Oregon is projecting a deficit in the next fiscal year. North Dakota, though doing well relative to other states, is unlikely to escape the slowdown without similar budgetary wounds. Given such a difficult environment for state budget-makers, it's not at all hard to see that tax cuts are the exact opposite of what is needed -- especially if those cuts are targeted overwhelmingly to the rich.

Multiple stories and descriptions of each of these failed measures can be found in the Tax Justice Digest's Massachusetts, Oregon, and North Dakota archives.



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.



Ballot Initiatives: An Often Crooked Process



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

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

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



Ballot Update: Measure on the Ballot in North Dakota Despite Fraudulent Signature Collection



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It's official. When North Dakotans go into the voting booth this fall, they will be faced with a ballot initiative that would cut their state's personal income tax in half and reduce their state's corporate income tax by fifteen percent. The initiative, known as Measure 2, was approved late last month by Secretary of State Al Jaeger, despite the submission of several hundred fraudulent signatures, including at least one from beyond the grave.

While the process by which the initiative made its way onto the ballot may be troubling, its likely impact, should it make it into law, is even more worrisome. North Dakota voters and policymakers alike may be feeling flush due to an oil-boom-fueled budget surplus, but that surplus won't be around forever. The enormous tax cut that Measure 2 would engender, well in excess of $100 million per year, would be forever. Moreover, the vast majority of the tax reductions that Measure 2 would spawn would be realized by the very wealthiest North Dakotans -- at a time when the latest data from the Census Bureau show no improvement in income for the typical North Dakota household or in the state's poverty rate.



Gloom & Boom



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States' collective fiscal outlook appears to be quite dim and could get even darker in the months ahead according to a report released this week by the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL). The report notes that, in the aggregate, states experienced a $40 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2009, a chasm that has been bridged largely through reductions in spending.

Not every state's budget is shrouded in gloom, however. Some states derive significant revenue from severance taxes (taxes imposed on the extraction of natural resources like oil and natural gas) and have economies closely tied to these industries. These states, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Wyoming for example, are enjoying substantial budget surpluses.

Given the volatility of energy markets, these surpluses are likely a temporary phenomenon, but that hasn't stopped states from considering and enacting tax cuts that would permanently reduce revenue. Earlier this year, Louisiana briefly weighed the idea of repealing its income tax altogether, only to settle on an oh-so-modest annual cut of $300 million. North Dakota has not only revived its property tax debate from a few years ago, but may also place on this November's ballot a measure that would slash the personal income tax by 50 percent and the corporate income tax by 15 percent. In this context, a plan backed by West Virginia Republicans to completely exempt groceries from the state sales tax appears far more reasonable in scope - and would certainly help to improve the progressivity of the state's tax system. However, it would still likely leave the Mountain State with inadequate revenues once oil and gas prices come back to earth.

Perhaps the most responsible - and fair - approach to surpluses generated by skyrocketing severance tax revenue comes from New Mexico, where Governor Bill Richardson this past week put forward a proposal to dedicate the majority of the state's projected $400 million surplus to one-time tax rebates and to highway construction. Richardson's proposal does contain some permanent changes in tax law, such as an expansion of the state's working families tax credit, but they appear to be targeted towards those low- and moderate-income taxpayers who are facing the greatest challenges from the nationwide foreclosure crisis and from rising fuel and food prices.



Tax Talk-Back in North Dakota



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"Americans for Prosperity", a national anti-tax organization, has been gathering signatures for an initiative petition that would, if passed, cut the state income tax by 50 percent and the state corporate tax by 15 percent. The group is aiming to put the measure before the people on the November 2008 ballot. This week former North Dakota Lt. Governor Lloyd Omdahl published an editorial criticizing the initiative. Mr. Omdahl noted that North Dakota is already a low-tax state, ranking 37th nationally. More importantly he also pointed out that North Dakota has real education needs and cutting taxes certainly won't provide students with the resources they need to learn. Mr. Omdahl's editorial is commendable for pointing out so succinctly the folly of what he terms a meat axe approach to tax reform.



Sales Taxes and School Districts



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Rural representatives in North Dakota's legislature have started a revolt against local option sales taxes used by some localities to help fund local education.State Rep. Mike Brandenburg argues that the lack of stores in more rural communities forces residents to shop in towns in more affluent districts, increasing the inequality between rich and poor districts.However, his proposed solution, House Bill 1314, may well create more problems than it solves.The bill would require stores to keep track of the home district of any shopper who spends more than $5, so the sales tax revenue can be directed to the shopper's home county.This system would create a huge administrative burden for both businesses and local governments.For a better solution to the problem of funding inequality between counties, North Dakota should consider revenue-sharing programs like those in Minnesota and Vermont.

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