Texas News



State News Quick Hits: Maine Cracks Down on Tax Havens and More



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Maine legislators are poised to crack down on corporations that use foreign tax havens to hide income from state tax authorities. The legislation, which has now been passed by both the House and Senate but still faces further votes, requires multinationals doing business in Maine to declare income otherwise attributed to more than thirty countries known to be popular tax havens (like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, not to mention the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which turns out to be an island off the coast of France). Analysts estimate that such a change would increase state revenue by $10 million over the next two years. And U.S. PIRG, among other public interest organizations, has been beating the drum for this sensible reform, which we discussed in our recent report: 90 Reasons We Need State Corporate Tax Reform. Oregon and Montana already have similar laws on their books.

Thanks to a refundable tax credit included in New York’s budget this year, theater companies who launch their productions in upstate New York will enjoy having taxpayers foot the bill for 25 percent of the cost of “their so-called tech periods, the weeks long process in which a production gathers the costumes, tests the sets and choreography and establishes the lighting and musical cues.” Despite the credit’s extreme generosity, we’re still not sure it would have been enough to save Spider-Man.

Tax swap proposals that would trade income rate reductions for sales tax increases have been all the rage in conservative states in recent years. But what if your state doesn’t even have an income tax to begin with? Not wanting to be left out of the tax swap craze, Republican candidate for Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has a solution: completely replace property taxes with an increased sales tax. Texas already has a horribly regressive state tax system (PDF), but eliminating the property tax -- which is at least close to proportional in its distribution across income groups -- would only make matters worse. And while it is “easy to hate” the property tax, without it Texas would need to drastically cut services or more than double the sales tax. Such a trade could also mean less autonomy for localities (PDF) and a revamped school financing system.

Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are continuing to push for eliminating income taxes on investors in Tennessee, and there’s a chance they may succeed.  The state’s tax-writing committees will be voting this week on whether or not to gradually repeal Tennessee’s “Hall Tax” on dividends, interest, and some capital gains.  But repeal would be steeply regressive, as our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) showed in a report cited by The Tennessean.  And on top of that, a spokesman for Governor Bill Haslam explains that “we’re in the middle of dealing with difficult budget realities … and this legislation would automatically put the issue above other priorities when revenues come back.”



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: Andrew Cuomo Loves Tax Cuts, So Does ADM, and More



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States are just beginning to come to terms with the impact that the shutdown of the federal government will have on state residents. This informative blog post from the Wisconsin Budget Project tells us what programs folks should and shouldn’t be worried about on the state level and links to several resources from The Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP) that readers might find helpful.

Another day...another company asking for enormous state corporate tax breaks. This time Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) is asking Illinois lawmakers for $20 million in tax breaks to keep their headquarters in Decatur. During a House Revenue and Finance Committee hearing, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie characterized testimony of an ADM executive as “essentially blackmailing the state ... saying if you don’t go through this hoop for us, we may think about going somewhere else.”  (H/T POLITICO's Morning Tax.)

The Tax Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case that could allow Overstock.com -- and other online vendors like Amazon.com -- to shirk  their responsibility for collecting state and local sales taxes. While a previous Supreme Court precedent bars states from requiring sales tax collection by vendors who have no “physical presence” in the state (a ban which Congress is considering lifting via the Marketplace Fairness Act, which passed the Senate by a rare bipartisan vote in May), some states have chipped away at e-tax-evasion by interpreting “physical presence” more broadly than others. In New York, for example, Overstock.com has agreements with in-state affiliates to pay for customer referrals, thus requiring the company to collect sales taxes from its New York customers under a 2008 state law that has been upheld by the New York Court of Appeals. While a national solution that levels the playing field between all online vendors and the brick-and-mortar stores who have always collected sales tax is preferable, states should be free in the meantime to require sales tax collection from online retailers who have legitimate ties to their local economies. Hopefully the Supreme Court agrees.

Having already made some backwards moves on the tax policy front, New York Governor Cuomo now appears to be abandoning his commitment to study and improve the state’s tax structure. In December, he announced the New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission. The Commission was “charged with addressing long term changes to the state tax system and helping create economic growth.” But instead of going forward with this thorough examination, the Governor has just appointed former Governor George Pataki and Controller Carl McCall to head a task force whose sole objective is to find a way to cut between $2 and $3 billion in taxes next year, in just one year! Maybe the junior Cuomo really does plan on running for President -- of Texas.

 



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



State News Quick Hits: Texas, New York and Hollywood



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Last week, the Texas Legislature voted on a transportation funding bill that would raise an estimated $1.2 billion annually to help pay for highway improvements. Technically, it doesn’t raise new revenues but rather diverts half of oil and gas severance tax revenues from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the highway department. Contingent on voter approval and scheduled for the November 2014 ballot, this bill hardly meets the $4 billion annual shortfall the highway department currently faces. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has shown that an equitable and sustainable way to pay for transportation is to modernize the state gas tax by increasing rates to meet current demand and then peg them to rise with transportation construction costs.

Between 2003 and 2012 the average Hollywood movie earned a 452 (!) percent return on investment. Still, 40-some states offer generous film tax credits in a misguided effort to invite productions. While we have shown these subsidies are mostly false promises, last week the Los Angeles Times illustrated another way in which they are wasteful – this time with the All-American Jackie Robinson story “42.” Collecting millions of dollars in tax subsidies from several states including Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, “42’s” producers proudly touted their patriotism and dedication to promoting the communities in which they filmed… only to turn around and conduct a significant component of their post-production work abroad, including recording the musical score in London. While some conclude this means the tax credit should be expanded to include post-production, all that would do is hasten the race-to-the bottom of tax incentives.

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an unusual plan that would allow the state to suspend the driver’s license of about 16,000 taxpayers who owe more than $10,000 in state taxes. While overdue tax bills amount to $1.1 billion, the program is expected to bring in just $26 million in uncollected income taxes this fiscal year and $6 million in following years. Delinquent taxpayers are defined as individuals who have unpaid income taxes and businesses with unpaid sales tax bills.

 

 

 



Unwilling to Raise Taxes, Texas Turns to Rainy Day Fund to Pay for Roads



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Last year, Texas lawmakers refused to use the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund to save education from deep spending cuts.  But now that the state’s transportation system is facing the budget axe, those same lawmakers appear to have changed their tune.  By the end of this week, the legislature is expected to approve a resolution asking voters to permanently divert some of the state’s rainy day funds to supplement the state’s woefully inadequate transportation revenues.

Texas has been playing a dizzying fiscal shell game, moving money back and forth between education and transportation for years, all because its regressive tax system simply brings in too few revenues to cover services its growing population needs (especially schools). The reason for Texas’ current transportation funding deficit, however, has less to do with this shell game than it does with its transportation funding sources.

Like most states, Texas relies heavily on a “fixed-rate” gasoline tax whose revenues fall further behind each year as infrastructure costs grow and vehicles become more fuel-efficient.  When the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analyzed Texas’ gas and diesel taxes in 2011, they found the state could raise more than $2.1 billion in revenue per year just by updating the tax rates to catch up with the last two decades of inflation in construction costs.

This latest scheme to find money for transportation will raise less than half that much ($800 million), though, and it will do so by first transferring money away from the rainy day fund into the education fund, and then taking it from education to pay for roads.  Given that Texas needs at least $4 billion in additional revenue just to maintain its current transportation network, this proposal can hardly be considered a real “solution.”

Just as importantly, this shuffling of revenues does nothing to improve the unsustainable trajectory of Texas’ transportation finances.  The above chart shows that Texas’ gas tax rate has been in constant decline, as a result of inflation, since it was last raised in 1991.  In fact, adjusted for inflation, Texas’ gas tax rate is at its lowest point since 1983—a full thirty years ago.



Congress Members' Home States Have Fiscal Stake in Immigration Reform



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We still don’t know what the U.S. House of Representatives is going to do about immigration reform. The Senate passed a bill with a solid majority, and that legislation enjoys support from the Chamber of Commerce and the labor movement, from George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  What we do know, though, is that members of the House leadership had a nice long talk about it this week because they know the pressure is on them to do something. 

Also this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released a study with a bland title, Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions, that held some interesting numbers. What it shows is that once unauthorized immigrants are legalized and participating fully in the tax system, state tax revenues will go up, just as the CBO showed they would at the federal level. In fact, the report shows that state tax payments from this population are already at $10.6 billion a year, and that will rise by $2 billion under reform. The report (with a clickable map on the landing page!) shows how those tax dollars are distributed state by state.

According to reports, the following Representatives are now the key players on whatever immigration bill comes from the House. So, in hopes of informing the debate, we are sharing the total amount of estimated annual revenue each of their respective states would get in the form of tax payments from legalized immigrants following reform.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida: $747 million a year, up $41 million
Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho: $32 million a year, up $5.5 million
Rep. John Boehner, Ohio:  $95 million, up $22 million
Reps Michael McCaul, John Carter and Sam Johnson, Texas: $1.7 billion, up $92 million
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah: $133 million, up $31 million
Reps Eric Cantor and Bob Goodlatte, Virginia: $260 million, up $77 million
Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin: $131 million, up $33 million



State News Quick Hits: The Girl Scout Cookie Carve-Out, A Massachusetts Showdown, and More



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Idaho Senate leadership took a difficult stand on a high-profile issue in favor of good tax policy by refusing to give the Girl Scouts a special tax break on their famous cookies. Their counterparts in the Idaho House, however, weren’t nearly as principled, bowing to the pressure of some of the nation’s youngest tax policy lobbyists and voting 59-11 in favor of the special break. The Girl Scouts plan to return to the statehouse next year in hopes of convincing the Senate to support the new tax subsidy, which is like any other (PDF) subsidy.

Nevada lawmakers are debating whether they should join Maryland and Wyoming as the third state to raise its gasoline tax this year.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) provides some important context with a new chart showing that even if the state’s gas tax were raised by 20 cents over the next 10 years (as the Senate is considering), the rate would still be below its historical average in value.

Texas business owners are pushing state lawmakers to repeal the state’s largest business tax, trotting out familiar arguments about the economic benefits of tax cuts. Fortunately, as the Austin American Statesman reports, “a $1.2 billion annual price tag ... appears to have doomed the effort.”

Massachusetts House lawmakers set up a showdown with Governor Patrick over transportation funding in the Bay State with the passage of their less ambitious revenue package this week. Governor Patrick’s budget includes almost $2 billion in new revenues to boost transportation and education spending raised primarily through increasing the personal income tax. The Governor’s plan also includes a sharp reduction in the state’s sales tax. The House package, by contrast, raises just over $500 million through increases in fuel and cigarette taxes as well as a few business tax changes. Governor Patrick threatened to veto any tax package from the House or Senate that does not raise significant revenue for both transportation projects and education.

(Photo courtesy Bitterroot Star)



State News Quick Hits: Clergy Oppose Jindal Plan, Chamber of Commerce Supports Fallin Plan, & More



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Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s proposal to repeal the state’s top personal income tax bracket is “gaining traction,” according to The Oklahoman.  The plan has already passed the House, and has the support of the state Chamber of Commerce. But the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that this cut is stacked in favor of high-income residents: “the bottom 60 percent of Oklahomans would receive just 9 percent of the benefit from this tax cut, while the top 5 percent would receive 42 percent of the benefit.”  

Texas and Washington State are continuing to search for ways to make it easier to identify and repeal tax breaks that aren’t worth their cost.  The Texas Austin American-Statesman reports on a bill that “would put the tax code under the microscope, examining tax breaks in a six-year cycle similar to the Sunset process that evaluates whether state agencies are performing as intended.”  And the Washington Budget and Policy Center explains in a blog post how “all three branches of state government have taken, or are poised to take, actions that could greatly enhance transparency over the hundreds of special tax breaks on the books in Washington state.”

This Toledo Blade editorial gets it right about Ohio Governor Kasich’s plan to broaden the sales tax base to include more services: “There is merit, in theory, to expanding the sales tax to include more services. But the experience in states such as Florida — which broadened its tax base, then abandoned the effort as unworkable — suggests it should be done slowly and for the right reasons.” Broadening the sales tax base is good policy, but the Kasich plan is bad for Ohioans because overall the plan (according to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis) increases taxes on those who can least afford it while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

ITEP is waiting for full details of Louisiana Governor BobbyJindal’s tax swap plan, but already clergy and ministers in the state are weighing in against the Governor’s plan to eliminate state income taxes and replace the revenue with a broader sales tax base and a higher rate. In this commentary, the Right Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, (bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana), worries: “It is difficult to see how increased sales taxes will pass the test of fairness that we would all insist upon. Our tax system has lots of room for improvement. But relying on increased sales tax will not give us the fair system we need. Raising sales taxes will increase the burden on those who can least afford it.”



New from ITEP: Laffer's Latest Job Growth Factoid is All Rhetoric



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A new talking point from tax cut snake oil salesman Arthur Laffer is making the rounds. It’s been seen in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and cited by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Iowa House Majority Whip Chris Hagenow, and Tim Barfield, Governor Jindal’s point man for income tax elimination in Louisiana.   

As the Journal put it: A new analysis by economist Art Laffer for the American Legislative Exchange Council finds that, from 2002 to 2012, 62% of the three million net new jobs in America were created in the nine states without an income tax, though these states account for only about 20% of the national population.

But as they’ve done with many of Laffer’s previous analyses, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains why this talking point is all rhetoric and no substance. Laffer’s research is like a house of cards, depending on data selected and placed precisely to help reach the conclusion he wanted, as ITEP details:

1) Most of the states without income taxes contributed just one percent or less to the nation’s job growth over the period Laffer examines.  Laffer’s claim has nothing to do with the “nine states without an income tax,” and everything to do with one of those states: Texas.

2) Texas’ economy differs from that of other states in many significant ways, and comparing its job growth to the rest of the country provides no insight into the economic impact of its tax policies.  This is particularly true of the time period Laffer examines, since it includes the housing crisis that Texas largely avoided for reasons unrelated to tax policy.

3) Looking beyond the specific Recession-dominated time period chosen by Laffer, Texas’ job growth has otherwise generally been in line with its rate of population growth.

The four-page report with graphs and footnotes is here.

 

 



Anti-Tax Credo Keeps Texas Kids In Underfunded Schools



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Earlier this week, a district court in Texas ruled for a second time that the state’s system of paying for schools is unconstitutional, both because it fails to provide enough revenue to deliver an adequate education for Texas children and because it creates huge inequities in the quality of education enjoyed by richer versus poorer districts. The lawsuit prompting this decision was brought by hundreds of school districts in the wake of a 2011 decision by the state legislature to dramatically cut state aid to local schools. The state of Texas is expected to appeal, in which case it goes to the Texas Supreme Court.

As the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) notes (PDF), the 2011 spending cuts came after a misguided decision by the 2006 legislature to replace local property tax revenue with revenues from cigarette taxes (of all things) and a new, untested approach to taxing business income. CPPP finds that the tax hikes in that 2006 “tax swap” have paid for only about a third of the lost property tax revenue, leaving a gaping $10 billion hole in the state’s 2011 budget. This probably also helps account for what the 600 school districts in the lawsuit say is a $43,000 gap between rich and poor classrooms, too.

The choice to pay for the growing cost of education using a flat-lining tax such as the cigarette tax (whose returns are famously diminishing, PDF) reflects the limited options available in a state that refuses to levy a tax on personal income.

Texas is one of only a handful of states with no income tax, and its current Governor has made a big show of his intention to keep it that way. At a time when a number of states’ elected officials are expressing a desire to restructure their tax systems to more closely resemble the Texas tax system (usually by simply repealing their personal income tax), this week’s court decision is a harsh reminder that the short term politics of tax cuts has long term consequences for citizens. Texas, for example, has abysmal numbers on education and its poverty rate continues to rise.

So when someone like Kansas Governor Sam Brownback crows “Look out Texas. Here comes Kansas!” it might be he didn’t read the brochure before planning this particular trip. It’s not the first time he – like other political leaders – has talked up the Texas tax structure.  But given the Lone Star State’s track record, and the budget havoc tax cuts are causing in Kansas, all lawmakers should think twice before embarking on the no-income-tax path.

Photo courtesy Texas Tribune.



State News Quick Hits: Transparency in Texas, Too Many Tax Swaps and Asking "Who Pays?"



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Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is continuing to generate a lot of publicity in the states for its recent Who Pays? report examining the fairness (or lack thereof) of every state’s tax system.  The Tennessean explains, for example, that: “Tennessee is often championed as a low-tax state. But for struggling families, it might not be among the fairest.”

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Sharon Ward of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center explained ITEP’s report to CBS Philly by saying that: “We are in a club we don’t want to be in — one of the ‘Terrible Ten States’ that has the most regressive tax systems. And really, we got here for a very important reason: we have a flat income tax that fails to offset the more regressive taxes: sales and property taxes.”

And in Wyoming, the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC) is using ITEP’s new Who Pays? data to make the case for enacting a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  ESPC explains that the credit could make a long-overdue increase in the state’s gasoline tax much fairer by mitigating its impact on low-income families.

We recently profiled the four states looking most seriously at “tax swaps” that would offset big income tax cuts with a regressive sales tax hike -- Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, and North Carolina.  New Mexico can now be added to that list.  Two lawmakers there say they would like to expand the sales tax to apply to "virtually everything that happens" in the state and then repeal the personal and corporate income taxes.  But economists in New Mexico say that the plan is “pretty much guaranteed to be regressive and shift the tax burden.”

Bipartisan legislation in Texas would remedy the state’s “astounding deficit of knowledge when it comes to tax expenditures” -- or special tax breaks (PDF). The report proposes a number of smart reforms recommended by ITEP.  Those reforms include rigorous reviews aimed at determining whether tax breaks have fulfilled their goals, and “sunset provisions” designed to force a vote on special tax breaks that would otherwise continue on autopilot for years or decades on end.

 



Will Conservative Governors Reject the Deal of a Lifetime?



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According to one of the latest counts, officials in 30 state governments have indicated that their state plans to opt out of the Medicaid expansion that was enacted as part of health care reform, or are at least leaning in that direction. The reason many conservative state officials, like Florida Governor Rick Scott, cite for opting out (putting aside general criticism of the evils of “Obamacare”) is that participating would “strain state budgets.”

In reality, the Medicaid expansion is the deal of a lifetime for state governments. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the federal government will take on nearly 93 percent of the costs of the Medicaid expansion over its first nine years. On average, that means that states will receive over 9 additional Medicaid dollars for every 1 they spend themselves.

While this may already sound like a great deal, many states may end up actually saving money by embracing the Medicaid expansion. An in-depth study by state officials in Arkansas found that it would actually cost the state $3.4 million more to not participate in the Medicaid expansion. Similarly, a study by the Urban Institute found that health care reform overall will save state budgets between $92-129 billion dollars from 2014-2019.

In some cases, the failure of the state government to accept the Medicaid expansion may also have the side effect of putting even more strain on local budgets. Last year in Texas, for example, the decision by the Republican Governor Rick Perry and state legislators to cut Medicaid forced the El Paso County Hospital District to raise property taxes to make up for the increasing costs from nearly uninsured patients. This dynamic explains why many local officials in Texas support the Medicaid expansion, even as Governor Perry is one of its most outspoken critics.  

While many conservative governors are claiming that the Medicaid expansion would cost too much, they are at the same time continuing budget-busting tax breaks for the wealthy. Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad for instance has said that the Medicaid expansion would be “unaffordable” and “unsustainable”, even though its estimated cost would be less than 4 percent of the revenue that could be raised by ending the Iowa’s bizarre and regressive deduction for federal income tax payments.

Considering the generous deal that governors are being offered, many commentators believe that most if not all the states will ultimately take the deal, despite the recent election year grandstanding. The CBO is not so sure. On Tuesday, CBO released its latest cost projections of health care reform, which predicts that many states will choose to opt out of the Medicaid expansion resulting in 3 million fewer people insured.

Photo of Gov. Terry Branstad via Iowa Politics Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



Quick Hits in State News: Kansas Republicans Oppose Tax Cuts, Tax Breaks Are Really Spending, and More



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  • Kansas Governor Brownback’s insistence on steep tax cuts has met more resistance.  A group called Traditional Republicans for Common Sense has come out against  even a watered down version of Brownback’s vision in the legislature. One of the group’s members (a former chair of the state’s GOP) said, “Now is not the time for more government intervention. Topeka needs to stay out of the way and make sure proven economic development tools – like good schools and safe roads – remain strong so that the private sector can thrive.” 
  • Stateline writes about the problems with “the spending that isn’t counted” – meaning special breaks that lawmakers have buried in state tax codes.  The article highlights efforts in Oregon and Vermont to develop more rational budget processes where tax breaks can’t simply fly under the radar year after year.  CTJ’s recommendations for reform are in this report.
  • In this thoughtful column, South Carolina Senator Phil Leventis writes, "I have been guided by the principle that government should invest in meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. This principle has been undermined by an ideology claiming that government is the cause of our problems and, accordingly, must be starved.” He praises tax study commissions and says being “business friendly” cannot be the only measure of state policy.
  • An op-ed from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) calls on lawmakers to address the issue of rampant corporate tax avoidance, and to do so responsibly. It raises concerns that legislation currently under consideration to close corporate loopholes could be a “cure worse than the disease.”  The legislation takes some good steps but is paired with business tax cuts that could cost as much as $1 billion over the next several years.  PBPC argues for a stronger and more effective approach to making corporations pay their fair share such as combined reporting, which makes it harder for companies to move profits around among subsidiaries in different states.
  • Just four days after Amazon agreed to begin collecting sales taxes in Nevada in 2014, the company announced a similar agreement with Texas that will take effect much sooner – on July 1st.  As The Wall Street Journal reports, “With the deal, the Seattle-based company is on track to collect sales taxes in 12 states, which make up about 40% of the U.S. population, by 2016.”

Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.



Rick Perry Pulls a Grover With No-Tax Pledge



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Rick Perry’s Texas has some of the lowest taxes in the nation and it trails the national average in important economic indicators.  But that’s not stopping Governor Perry from traveling the state promoting his new Texas Budget Compact, the center of which is an opposition to any new taxes or tax increases, which, he argues, will make the state stronger.  Politically, the compact is Perry’s effort to set the terms of election year debates, influence the next legislative session (eight months from now!) and assert his role as the Lone Star State’s conservative-in-chief.  In addition to opposing any new taxes, the Compact calls for: a Constitutional limit on spending tied to the growth of population and inflation; more program and agencies cuts; using the state’s Rainy Day Fund only for emergency purposes; making a temporary small business tax exemption permanent; and “truth in budgeting.”

Borrowing a page from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s playbook, Perry said on Monday, “Each and every member of the Legislature or anyone aspiring to become a member of the Legislature should sign on.”  And right on the Governor’s website, individuals and lawmakers can sign on to the Compact: Yes, I stand with Governor Perry and I support his Texas Budget Compact. I want my state representatives in the Texas Legislature to sign on to Governor Perry's Texas Budget Compact.

Asked specifically, however, whether or not he would be keeping track of who has signed on or not, Perry responded, “I’m not going to have a pledge for anybody to sign. People are either going to be for them or they’re not. There’s not a lot of gray area.” 

Regardless of Perry’s intentions, the Compact smacks of the kind of binding pledge that ties lawmakers’ hands and restricts their ability to do the jobs they were elected to do.  (Happily, more and more lawmakers who took Norquist’s pledge are abandoning it on these very grounds.)

But worse than distorting the political process, the principles Perry promotes in his Compact could wreak havoc on Texas if fully embraced. 

As Texas State Rep. Mike Villarreal said in a statement released in response to the Compact:

"Governor Perry loves to talk about his principles in the abstract, but he doesn't want to discuss the disabled kids who lose health services when he won't close corporate tax loopholes, or the students crowded into full classrooms when he won't touch the Rainy Day Fund. After the deep and unnecessary education cuts that Governor Perry championed, it's no surprise that his Compact doesn't say a word about educating schoolchildren.

"The Governor doesn't seem to understand that we must educate our children if we are going to build our economy and create jobs."

News is that Rick Perry wants to run for president again in 2016. His hard line on taxes would certainly help him with his party’s base, even as it harms the state that already elected him.

Photo of Rick Perry via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



Quick Hits in State News: Tax Myths Take Hits in OK and TX



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  • A letter in the Tulsa World highlights the work done by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) to expose the flaws in Arthur Laffer’s recent “research” on the economic benefits of income tax repeal.  The letter also reports on similar critiques of Laffer’s work that were made by a number of prominent economists speaking at an event hosted by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.  Our favorite?  Ken Olson at Oklahoma State University explains that Laffer’s work "does not constitute economic analysis in any real sense. As a consequence, its suggestions should be ignored as economics."
  • Opponents of progressive taxation often point to Texas as evidence that shunning the personal income tax can lead to economic growth.  But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains that Texas’ success is due to factors largely outside the control of state lawmakers, like natural resources, immigration, trade, and the availability of plenty of land for development.  It’s a point that should be obvious, but it’s also one that we’ve found ourselves having to remind people of quite frequently as of late


State Tax Battles with Amazon.com Continue to Make Headlines



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Sales tax laws would be essentially meaningless if retailers were not required to collect the tax every time a purchase is made.  The opportunities for customers to evade the sales tax (either on accident, or on purpose) would be overwhelming.  Every state with a sales tax knows this — and as a result, the vast majority of retailers are legally required to collect and remit sales taxes.

Amazon.com and many other online retailers, however, are the major exception to this broad rule.  A 1992 Supreme Court case carved out a special exemption for any “remote sellers” that don’t have a “physical presence” in a state — like a store or warehouse.  The ruling has allowed the Internet to become an open highway for tax evasion. While customers shopping online owe the same sales tax they would if they shopped in a store, very few actually take the time and effort necessary to pay that tax.

This week, four states (California, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont) made headlines for their attempts to limit the amount of sales tax evasion occurring through “remote sellers,” while a fifth state (Illinois) will soon have to defend its efforts to do the same in court.  By contrast, South Carolina lawmakers were recently bullied into granting Amazon an exemption from having to collect sales taxes for five years, despite the fact that it will soon have a “physical presence” in the state.

In Vermont, Governor Shumlin recently signed a so-called “Amazon law” that will eventually require all remote sellers partnered with affiliate companies physically based in the state to collect and remit sales taxes (see this ITEP report for more on “Amazon laws”).  Unfortunately, the bill was written so that it won’t take effect until 15 other states have enacted similar laws. 

Six states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — have enacted such laws so far, and many more have given the issue serious consideration.  In the meantime, remote sellers like Amazon will be required to notify Vermont residents of the taxes they owe when making a purchase.

The California Assembly easily passed an Amazon law last week.  That legislation now goes back to the Senate, where a similar bill gained narrow passage last month.  Even if the Senate approves the Assembly’s version of the bill, however, it’s unclear whether Governor Brown will sign the measure.

Louisiana can now be added to the long list of states giving serious consideration to enacting an Amazon law.  The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed such a law in late-May, though opposition by Gov. Jindal makes it unlikely that it will be enacted any time soon.

In Texas, Gov. Perry recently vetoed a measure that would have required Amazon.com to collect sales taxes in the state, though the legislature may still try to enact the measure by inserting it into a larger bill that Perry is unlikely to veto. 

Unlike the true “Amazon laws” discussed above, the measure in Texas was designed to prevent Amazon from continuing to skirt its sales tax responsibilities by claiming that its Texas distribution center is actually owned by a subsidiary, and therefore does not amount to a “physical presence.”  The nearby photo is the actual sign in front of the Texas-based distribution center that Amazon claims it does not own.  

In Illinois, the Performance Marketing Association (PMA) has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Amazon law.  The lawsuit is similar to one being pursued by Amazon against New York State.

And in South Carolina, Amazon.com has demanded, and received, a five year exemption from having to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolinians, despite the fact that it plans to open a distribution center in the state (and will therefore meet the Supreme Court’s definition of having a “physical presence”). 

The granting of this exemption represents a stark reversal from just one month ago, when it was soundly defeated 71-47 in the House. 

Brian Flynn of the South Carolina Alliance for Main Street Fairness accurately summed up the unfortunate reality of this situation when he said that “with this economy, [Amazon was] in a good position to strong-arm legislators.”  Fortunately, the exemption is only supposed to last five years — though judging from Amazon’s past behavior, it’s reasonable to expect that the company will undertake an aggressive campaign to extend that five-year window.



Tax Avoider Amazon.com Messes with Texas



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Online retailers benefit from a tax loophole which allows for internet sellers to avoid collecting sales taxes from customers unless the company has a physical presence in their state. This has given companies like Amazon.com an unfair advantage over "bricks and mortar" stores and smaller, locally owned businesses all over America who must collect sales taxes from customers.

One place where Amazon.com certainly does have a physical presence is Texas. Recently, Texas asked Amazon.com to pay $269 million dollars in past due sales taxes.  The company runs a distribution center in the state and, as the Texas Comptroller said, “If you have a physical business presence in the state of Texas, you owe sales tax.”  Amazon refused to pay the bill, claiming a subsidiary owned the distribution center.  Last week, news came that Amazon has decided to shut down the center because they were “unable to come to a resolution with the Texas comptroller’s office.”  As the Dallas Morning News explained it, “Amazon.com has decided to take its ball and go home.”

Of course, the real answer to this problem is for Congress to end the loophole by allowing states to require sales tax collection from any company that sells to its residents.



State-Based Coalitions Fight for Budget Fairness



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Faced with huge budget deficits, many state lawmakers are eyeing dangerous short-sighted budget cuts that threaten to gut essential services and state infrastructure.  In response, dedicated advocacy organizations, service providers, religious communities, concerned citizens, and professional associations have formed coalitions in more than 35 states to battle for smart fiscal policies that will protect core services and ensure that states have the resources to meet current and future needs. 

Here’s a brief overview of the newest of these coalitions:

In Georgia, the coalition 2020 Georgia officially launched on January 18th to promote a balanced approach to their budget that adequately addresses the long-term needs of the state instead of pursuing damaging cuts to services that can hurt the state’s economy.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of partners, including AARP, the League of Women Voters of Georgia, and the Georgia Public Health Association.  2020 Georgia hopes to maintain smart investments in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

In Texas, a wide coalition of organizations have created Texas Forward, a group that hopes to spur continued investment in vital public services instead of devastating budget cuts.  Texas Forward believes that smart investment now can prevent future generations from shouldering the burden of the lasting damage caused by disinvesting in services during this time of financial need.  Recently, Texas Forward urged state lawmakers to seek new revenue sources and federal funding to minimize the impact of the projected $24 billion deficit.

In Iowa, the Coalition for a Better Iowa was formed with the express mission “to maintain and strengthen high quality public services and structures that promote thriving communities and prosperity for all Iowans.”  The Coalition for a Better Iowa includes organizations representing children, seniors, human service providers, environmental organizations, and politically engaged citizens.  The coalition is committed to creating a balanced solution to the budget shortfalls while protecting vital services and investing sustainably in the state’s future.

In Montana, a group called the Partnership for Montana’s Future offers an extensive list of revenue-raising mechanisms to solve the state’s budge crisis.  The list has many specific proposals, generally categorized as collecting new revenue through improved tax compliance, closing tax loopholes, targeted tax increases, and other miscellaneous options.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of health, education, environmental, labor, and policy organizations.

In Pennsylvania, Better Choices for Pennsylvania is a coalition of health, education, labor, and religious organizations that recognize that all Pennsylvanians benefit from the services and infrastructure provided by state government.  Like the other coalitions featured, Better Choices for Pennsylvania refutes the proposition that deep tax cuts can solve the state’s budget problems.  Instead, BCP is pushing for closing special tax breaks and loopholes.  The coalition believes that helping working families through hard times will put the state in a better position towards long-term financial stability.

In Michigan, the revenue coalition, A Better Michigan Future recently issued a press release reviewing Governor Snyder’s budget proposal.  The group supports smart revenue-raising tactics like eliminating redundant and wasteful loopholes and modernizing the state sales tax to reflect the changing marketplace.

While not a new coalition, North Carolina’s revenue coalition, Together NC, recently launched a web ad.  The ad is meant to remind North Carolinians about the smart budget choices the state has made in the past that allowed it to prosper and spur citizens to take action to protect their state from falling behind (or, as the ad says, to keep North Carolina from becoming its neighbor to the south).



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.



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.



News from the Gubernatorial Race in Texas



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In Texas, Republican Governor Rick Perry is campaigning against President Obama and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White is campaigning against Perry’s record as the state’s head executive.  A recent article in the Houston Chronicle points out that during Perry’s tenure in Austin, the state’s budget has grown by over 12 billion and now faces an estimated shortfall of over 21 billion.

The number of Texans living in poverty has grown and funding for education and the Children’s Health Care Fund has been slashed.  Though the Wall Street Journal claims that Texas is attracting big businesses and creating new jobs, the state government does not appear to be doing a good job of bringing the benefits of economic growth to those who need it most.



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



ITEP Identifies Fundamental Mismatch in 6 State Tax Structures



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

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



Drama with State Film Tax Credits: Propaganda, Criminal Charges, and Sitcom Stars Make Headlines



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Film tax credits have received a lot of attention in recent days.  Just as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was signing the state’s first film tax credit into law, stories out of Iowa and New Jersey, as well as a New York Times article about film credits in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Utah, provided quite a few good reasons to be skeptical of these credits.

On Monday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell excitedly signed into law the state’s new film tax credit, with sitcom star Tim Reid (from “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Sister Sister,” and “That 70’s Show”) there to celebrate.  In order to justify enacting this giveaway for the film industry while Virginians are having to make due with reduced state services, Gov. McDonnell made the asinine claim the credit would produce a 1400% return on investment.  Economists everywhere have no doubt been laughing ever since.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, fellow 2009 gubernatorial election winner Chris Christie took exactly the opposite approach in vowing to eliminate the state’s film credit in order to help balance the state’s budget.  While Christie clearly had his priorities dead wrong in choosing not to extend the state’s income tax surcharge on millionaires (61% of voters favor the surcharge), he has certainly hit the nail on the head when it comes to this wasteful giveaway.  Not even the cast of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” appears to have been able to sway him.

Stories this week from the Des Moines Register and New York Times provide some very timely evidence regarding the wisdom of Christie’s approach, as well as the folly of McDonnell’s.  In Iowa, the Register reports that new criminal charges have been filed in the state’s ongoing film tax credit scandal.  Specifically, three moviemakers have been charged with inflating the value of their expenses in order to increase their take from the state’s film credit program.  A $225 broom, $900 stepladder, and 16,000% markup on lighting equipment are among the bogus expenses claimed by the filmmakers. 

The steady drumbeat of discouraging news surrounding Iowa’s film tax credit makes clear that Virginia is facing an uphill battle when it comes to policing this program.

The New York Times this week explored a more specific attribute of state film tax credits: the steps states are taking to prevent movies they dislike from receiving taxpayer dollars.  In Michigan, a sequel to a cannibalism-themed horror movie that was supported by state film tax credits was rejected for subsidy this time around because the state’s film commissioner determined that “this film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light.”  Michigan is by no means alone in enforcing this standard.  Films made in Pennsylvania can be denied tax credits if the movie in question does not “tend to foster a positive image” of the state. 

Texas possesses a similar requirement, which apparently was used to prevent the makers of a film about the Waco raid from even applying for film tax credits. 

And in Utah, the state’s Film Commission director admitted to withholding credits from films that he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the governor to see. Whether or not this rule of thumb varies with the theatrical tastes of the governor in office at the time remains to be seen.  Upon reading the Times story, one blogger with the Baltimore Sun went so far as to argue that these provisions show that “states want propaganda from filmmakers.”  They certainly beg the question: If state taxpayers subsidize the film industry, is it inevitable that state governments will censor movies before they're made?



Leaving Money On the Table



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Since the passage of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, federal tax law has given state lawmakers a clear incentive to rely on income taxes, instead of sales taxes, to fund public investments. This is because state income taxes can be written off by federal taxpayers who itemize their deductions, and sales taxes generally cannot. Even with temporary legislation in place that does allow a sales tax deduction, states that rely heavily on sales taxes — and not at all on income taxes — are essentially choosing to ignore what amounts to a federal "matching grant" for states that rely heavily on progressive income taxes.

A new joint report from ITEP and United for a Fair Economy's Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative quantifies the cost of this choice in seven states that currently have no broad-based income tax — and that make up the gap by leaning heavily on the sales tax. The report shows that collectively, these seven states could reduce the federal taxes paid by their residents by $1.7 billion a year if they enacted a revenue-neutral reform that replaces sales tax revenue with a flat-rate income tax, and that the same states could save their residents $5.5 billion a year in federal taxes by enacting a similarly revenue-neutral shift to a graduated-rate progressive income tax.

Read the report.



States Get Serious About Transportation Funding



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Many states across the country have stood idly by while inflation and improving vehicle fuel efficiency have cut into their gas tax revenues, reducing their ability to build and maintain an adequate transportation network.  Fortunately, new developments in at least four states demonstrate an increasing level of interest in addressing the transportation problem head-on.

In Arkansas this week, a state panel created by the legislature endorsed increasing taxes on motor fuels, and taking steps to ensure that such taxes can provide a sustainable source of revenue over time.  Specifically, the panel expressed an interest in linking the tax rate to the annual “Construction Cost Index,” a measure of the inflation in construction commodity prices.  As the committee chairman explained, this method would provide a revenue stream better suited to helping the state maintain a consistent level of purchasing power over time. 

Wisely, the proposal would also ensure that fuel tax rates would not increase by more than 2 cents per gallon in any given year.  Such a limitation should help to prevent the types of political outcries that have surfaced in other states when indexed gas taxes have increased by large amounts in a single year.

In Texas, attention has begun to turn toward a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax which, as its name suggests, would tax drivers based on the number of miles they travel.  Such a tax is similar to a gas tax in that it makes the users of roadways pay for their continued maintenance.  VMT’s, however, are able to avoid some of the most serious long-run revenue problems associated with gas taxes, since their yield is not eroded as individuals switch to more fuel efficient vehicles.  But Texas Senator John Carona hit the nail on the head in his description of the VMT as an idea “far into the future and way ahead of its time.”  While states like Texas should begin studying this option now, they should also follow Carona’s lead in the meantime by embracing an increase in motor fuel tax rates to address the funding problem already at their doorsteps.

Nebraska legislators have also begun discussing the need for additional transportation dollars.  In a report outlining the testimony given at eight hearings conducted last fall by the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, 31 separate options for raising transportation revenues are examined.  Among those options are an increase in the gas tax and indexing the tax either to inflation or directly to the costs associated with the continued maintenance and construction of the state’s transportation network.  As the report explains, “there was nearly unanimous support from all testifiers for some type of tax or fee increase to support the highway system.”  Committee Chairwoman and State Senator Deb Fischer expects to have a major highway-funding bill ready for the 2011 legislative session.

Finally, legislators in Kansas this week also pushed forward with proposals to enhance the sustainability and adequacy of their transportation revenue streams.  A joint House-Senate transportation committee advanced two options for raising motor fuel tax collections: (1) applying the state sales tax to fuel purchases and slightly lowering the ordinary fuel tax rate, and (2) raising the fuel tax rate and indexing it to inflation.  While either proposal would be a great improvement to Kansas' stagnant, flat cents-per-gallon gas tax, the inflation-indexed approach would provide a somewhat more predictable revenue stream since its yield would not be contingent upon the (often volatile) price of gasoline.

In addition to these four states, we have also highlighted stories out of South Dakota and Mississippi during the latter half of 2009 that indicated a similar interest in doing something constructive to enhance current transportation funding streams.  And more beneficial debate has occurred in a number of states where progressives have insisted on offsetting the regressive effects of transportation-related tax hikes by enhancing low-income refundable credits.

Virginia is one of the major exceptions to the trend toward a more rational transportation funding debate.  As the Washington Post explained in an editorial this week, “[Governor-elect Robert McDonnell’s] transportation plan, which ruled out new taxes, relied on made-up numbers and wishful thinking to arrive at its promise of new funding.”  Rather than acknowledging the futility of attempting to fund a 21st century transportation infrastructure with a gasoline tax that hasn’t been altered since 1987, McDonnell worked to repeatedly block attempts to raise the gas tax during his time in the state’s legislature. 

Following the leads of policymakers in Arkansas, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Mississippi and keeping higher taxes on the table is absolutely essential to the construction and maintenance of an adequate transportation system.  As the Washington Post cynically suggests, new revenue is so desperately needed that McDonnell should even be forgiven if he has to rebrand new taxes as “user fees” in order to get around his irresponsible campaign promise not to raise taxes.



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.



Who Pays? New ITEP Study Finds State & Local Taxes Hit Poor & Middle Class Far Harder than the Wealthy



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Read ITEP's New Report: Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of Tax Systems in All 50 States

By an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy, according to a new study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP).

“In the coming months, lawmakers across the nation will be forced to make difficult decisions about budget-balancing tax changes—which makes it vital to understand who is hit hardest by state and local taxes right now,” said Matthew Gardner, lead author of the study, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States. “The harsh reality is that most states require their poor and middle-income taxpayers to pay the most taxes as a share of income.”

Nationwide, the study found that middle- and low-income non-elderly families pay much higher shares of their income in state and local taxes than do the very well-off:

-- The average state and local tax rate on the best-off one percent of families is 6.4 percent before accounting for the tax savings from federal itemized deductions. After the federal offset, the effective tax rate on the best off one percent is a mere 5.2 percent.

-- The average tax rate on families in the middle 20 percent of the income spectrum is 9.7 percent before the federal offset and 9.4 percent after—almost twice the effective rate that the richest people pay.

-- The average tax rate on the poorest 20 percent of families is the highest of all. At 10.9 percent, it is more than double the effective rate on the very wealthy.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.” noted Gardner. “But virtually anyone would agree that this upside-down approach to state and local taxes is astonishingly inequitable.”



The “Terrible Ten” Most Regressive Tax Systems

Ten states—Washington, Florida, Tennessee, South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Alabama—are particularly regressive. These “Terrible Ten” states ask poor families—those in the bottom 20% of the income scale—to pay almost six times as much of their earnings in taxes as do the wealthy. Middle income families in these states pay up to three-and-a-half times as high a share of their income as the wealthiest families. “Virtually every state has a regressive tax system,” noted Gardner. “But these ten states stand out for the extraordinary degree to which they have shifted the cost of funding public investments to their very poorest residents.”

The report identifies several factors that make these states more regressive than others:

-- The most regressive states generally either do not levy an income tax, or levy the tax at a flat rate;

-- These states typically have an especially high reliance on regressive sales and excise taxes;

-- These states usually do not allow targeted low-income tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit; these tax credits are especially effective in reducing state tax unfairness.

“For lawmakers seeking to make their tax systems less unfair, there is an obvious strategy available,” noted Gardner. “Shifting state and local revenues away from sales and excise taxes, and towards the progressive personal income tax, will make tax systems fairer for low- and middle income families. Conversely, states that choose to balance their budgets by further increasing the general sales tax or cigarette taxes will make their tax systems even more unbalanced and unfair.”

Implications for State Budget Battles in 2010

“In the coming months, many states’ lawmakers will convene to deal with fiscal shortfalls even worse than those they faced last year,” Gardner said. “Lawmakers may choose to close these budget gaps in the same way that they have done all too often in the past—through regressive tax hikes. Or they may decide instead to ask wealthier families to pay tax rates more commensurate with their incomes. In either case, the path that states choose in the upcoming year will have a major impact on the wellbeing of their citizens—and on the fairness of state and local taxes.”



How Expedia Is Snatching Revenue from the State and Local Governments -- and Why the Governments Are Striking Back



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Earlier this week, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Columbus and against hotels.com, an online travel company (“OTCs”) that charges customers one rate for booking a hotel room but pays local governments a lodging tax based on cheaper, wholesale room rates.  The Court’s finding mirrors its decision in a case decided in June against Expedia.com.  In both instances, the Court held that the tax for which the OTCs were liable should be based on the retail room rate paid by their customers.

OTCs contract with local hotels to provide rooms for a discounted or wholesale rate.  When a customer books a room online, the OTC charges the customer a “marked-up” rate along with taxes and service fees.  Under Georgia law, municipalities may impose hotel occupancy and excise taxes on the furnishing of any room, lodging, or accommodation.  The Court noted that state law allows cities to impose a tax on the lodging charges actually collected. 

The high court’s decisions are binding across Georgia, so the two Columbus cases could affect other suits filed by governments seeking to collect the proper amount of lodging taxes from OTCs.  The cases have been remanded to the lower courts to determine how much money the online services owe in back taxes and penalties. 

Importantly, numerous other cities – including Houston, San Antonio, and Miami have sued or initiated administrative proceedings against OTCs, asserting that they owe back taxes on their price mark-ups.  While many cases have yet to be fully adjudicated, one other recent case yielded much the same verdict as Columbus’ suit against hotels.com.  In February, multiple OTCs, including Orbitz and Travelocity, were ordered to pay the city of Anaheim, California, $21 million in back taxes, fees and penalties related to the payment of hotel occupancy taxes.

Rulings such as these have motivated OTCs to seek enactment of federal legislation that would ban state and local taxation of hotel room rentals when booked by such a company.  However, as these rulings demonstrate, there is no justification for limiting the base for such a tax to the wholesale price of a hotel room, let alone eliminating taxation altogether.  Hotel taxes are consumption taxes, which should be measured by the value of the consumption to the customer.  Therefore, the tax should be imposed on the retail amount.  For more on this subject and on the OTC’s push for federal legislation, see this helpful report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.



Tax-Free Gun Days Starting to Catch On



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A little over a year ago, we told you about a ridiculous law in South Carolina that provided for a sales tax "holiday" on purchases of handguns, rifles, and shotguns (later ruled unconstitutional for technical reasons, though only after the holiday had already taken place).  Little did we know then that the idea would actually catch on.  Louisiana enacted a similar "holiday" last month, upping the ante by exempting not only handguns, rifles, and shotguns, but also bows, crossbows, hunting knives, arrows, ammunition, rifle scopes, holsters, and much more.  Unbelievably, the idea is reportedly receiving attention in Texas and Kentucky as well.

The Louisiana holiday is scheduled to occur each year on the first consecutive Friday through Sunday in September.  During that weekend, neither state nor local sales taxes will be collected on a variety of items the legislature has declared worthy of being included in its "Second Amendment Holiday." 

But it's not hard to imagine how many of those exemptions will pose serious administrative problems.  With some exempt items, such as tree stands, there seems to be little room for confusion.  In other cases however, the state has decided to exempt a variety of multi-purpose items based on whether they were designed, marketed, or even simply purchased for use while hunting (e.g. some items must be designed with hunting in mind, while others need only be purchased by somebody with the intent to hunt).  Items falling into this category include off-road vehicles, animal feed, boots, bags, binoculars, chairs, belts, and various types of camouflage clothing. 

Apparently, according to this list of tax-exempt items, you can look at a bird through tax-free binoculars, but only if you intend to kill it.  Ensuring that these items are really purchased by individuals with "Second Amendment" intentions will no doubt prove impossible.

The bill's official fiscal note hints at a further complication involved with this holiday.  Specifically, it explains that the state will pay retailers $25 for each cash register they re-program to calculate "Second Amendment" items as being tax-free.  On top of that, the state will pay $25 more when the register is re-programmed, back to normal, at the end of the holiday.  Official estimates are that it could cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $100,000 to help retailers make the necessary modifications.  Since the holiday is only expected to result in $263,000 per year in tax savings, this $100,000 cost is not a trivial concern.  And keep in mind, Louisiana taxpayers not purchasing weapons will be helping to pay this $100,000 tab to benefit their soon-to-be well-armed neighbors.

The inevitably complicated nature of sales tax holidays is just one of their many flaws -- as explained in this ITEP Policy Brief.  But despite all their problems, at least typical "back-to-school" sales tax holidays can be interpreted as a misguided attempt to make life easier for families with school-age children.  When it comes to these "Second Amendment Holidays," however, it's hard to see what exactly lawmakers are trying to gain, other than a pat on the back from the NRA.



Despite Budget Shortfalls, 26 States Allow Retailers to Legally Pocket Over $1 Billion in Sales Tax Revenues



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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.



New ITEP Report: State Tax Policy a Poor Match for Economic Reality in Key States



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Earlier this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released a brief report using IRS data and revealing that the most unequal states in the country also happen to be states that lack the type of progressive tax provisions that could reduce this inequality and raise badly needed revenue. The most unequal states either don't have a personal income tax or have one in need of improvement. Consequently, these states are left with tax systems that, on the whole, are unsustainable, inadequate, and unfair over the long-run.

The IRS data show that, in 2006, ten states -- Wyoming, New York, Nevada, Connecticut, Florida, the District of Columbia, California, Massachusetts, Texas, and Illinois -- have greater concentrations of reported income among their very wealthiest residents than the country as a whole. Yet, the tax systems in these states generally ignore that very important reality. Of those ten states, four lack a broad-based personal income tax and three either impose a single, flat rate personal income tax or have a rate structure that all but functions in that manner. Three do use a graduated rate structure, but of these, two have cut income taxes for their most affluent residents substantially over the past two decades.

Given this mismatch, it should not be too surprising that over half of these states face severe or chronic budget shortfalls. After all, the lack of an income tax, the lack of a graduated rate structure, or moves to make the income tax less progressive all mean that a state's revenue system will not completely reflect the concentration of income among the very wealthy and therefore will not yield as much revenue.

Case in point: New York. As the Fiscal Policy Institute observes, over the last 30 years, the state has reduced its top income tax rate by more than 50 percent. Most recently, in 2005, it allowed to lapse a temporary top rate of 7 percent on taxpayers with incomes above $500,000 per year. Today, the state must confront a budget deficit of more than $6 billion for the coming year and more than $20 billion over the next three. New York residents seem to understand the disconnect between the enormous disparities of wealth in their state -- where the richest 1 percent of taxpayers account for 28.7 percent of reported income -- and the state's fiscal woes. A poll released this week shows that nearly 4 out of 5 people surveyed support increasing the state's income tax for millionaires. Hopefully, Governor David Paterson is listening. As it stands, he'd rather cap property taxes than ensure that millionaires pay taxes in accordance with their inordinate share of New York's economic resources.



Report: An Income Tax is the Obvious Choice for Texas



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The Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) released a report this week that explains how enacting a state income tax could actually lower taxes overall for most Texans and at the same time improve public education. The vast majority of states already have an income tax, but those few states still lacking this important revenue source (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming) would do well to study this report carefully.

The report provides details on how an income tax could provide sufficient revenues to simultaneously slash property taxes and boost education funding. Under the income tax the CPPP proposes (modeled on the fairly typical income tax used in Kansas) most Texans, including the middle-class, would see a net tax cut. This finding runs contrary to what many casual observers would expect. Failing to levy an income tax does not mean that a state has "low taxes" -- it only means the state emphasizes different taxes. Sales and property taxes are both above the national average in Texas -- adding an income tax to the mix would provide a fair and sustainable revenue source that could be used to reduce reliance on these taxes.

The report also notes that an income tax could help to free Texas from the dubious distinction of having one of the most regressive tax systems in the entire nation... a problem common among those states lacking an income tax.

Additional data contained in the report helps explain how an income tax could contribute to a more sustainable tax system. Property values and taxable sales have both been growing more slowly than the incomes with which Texans pay taxes. Linking state revenues to the growth of income (via an income tax) would provide Texas with a much more reliable tax system.

And as if all this weren't enough, estimates from ITEP indicate that $2.2 billion of the new income tax (approximately 10% of the tax) would be essentially paid for by the federal government in the form of federal income tax deductions for state income taxes paid.

The only catch is getting Texas voters to understand what an income tax would mean for them. Fortunately, there is some reason for optimism on this front: a poll conducted in 2003 showed nearly 50% support for a state income tax in Texas. Hopefully, reports such as this can help inch that figure even higher.



Don't Mess With Texas' Taxes



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Count Texas among the states seeking to preserve the vitality of their sales taxes by addressing sales made by on-line retailers to in-state residents. As the Dallas Morning News reported earlier this month, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is investigating whether Internet titan Amazon owes millions of dollars in uncollected taxes on sales made to Texas residents in recent years. At issue is a distribution center in Irving which Amazon has operated since 2006, but which the company maintains is run by a subsidiary. (Owning and operating such a center would mean that Amazon has a physical presence in the Lone Star State and would therefore be required to collect sales taxes.) At stake is some portion of the $541 million in sales taxes that Texas officials believe the state loses to on-line sales.

The Comptroller's decision comes on the heels of new legislation in New York -- enacted as part of the state's FY 2009 budget -- to require on-line retailers to collect sales taxes on sales made to New York residents, if those retailers rely on affiliated web sites based in New York to refer customers to the retailer's own site. The change, which effectively expands the criteria for determining whether a business has a presence in New York, is expected to generate $50 million in additional revenue each year. Not surprisingly, Amazon -- one of the parties most affected by the statutory change -- has already filed suit against New York, questioning the constitutionality of the measure.

To be sure, the most effective and most sustainable solution to this problem would be Congressional action permitting states to require "remote sellers" to collect sales taxes (in addition to more widespread participation in the Streamlined Sales Tax Project). In the absence of such action, though, no one should be surprised that states -- many of which are under substantial fiscal strain -- are now using any means at their disposal to shore up an important source of revenue.

To learn more about Texas' current financial situation, see the Center on Public Policy Priorities -- 2008 Tax and Budget Primer.



Latest Tax Gimmick



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As the Memorial Day travel weekend begins, some Texas lawmakers are trying to push through a three month "holiday" from the state's 20-cents-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline. The editorial board at the San Antonio Express News calls this an unaffordable exercise in "irresponsible pandering," arguing that the Texas-sized cost of the holiday - up to $700 million - would drain a projected budget surplus on which multiple claims have already been made.



Grossly Overrated



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Gross Receipts Tax Is Not a Cure-All for the States

Over the past few years, both Texas and Ohio have enacted major changes to their tax systems, choosing to replace existing business taxes with taxes based on companies' total receipts. This takes the form of a "margins" tax in Texas and the "commercial activity" tax in Ohio. Two other states, Illinois and Michigan, are also now considering whether to follow suit by implementing taxes based, at least in part, on gross receipts.

IL Gov Won't Raise Taxes on People, Just Taxes That Are Passed onto People

Despite Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich coming before the Illinois House in a rare all-day hearing to promote his plan for implementing a gross receipts tax (GRT) his proposal was unanimously defeated by the Illinois House in a 107-0 vote. The Governor's proposal barely passed the Senate Executive Committee. Analyses by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy suggest that gross receipts taxes are generally passed on by businesses to consumers. The Governor, however, said in his address to the House, "I will not raise taxes on people. I won't do it today. I won't do it tomorrow. I won't do it next week, next month, next year." Ironically, the Governor also said that he would oppose any income or sales tax hike because "It's regressive, and people already are paying to much" but many experts think that the GRT is regressive and hits low- and middle-income people hardest.

Eliminating Revenue Source + No Plan to Replace Revenue = Government Shutdown

Since voting last year to repeal the state's Single Business Tax (SBT), which is set to expire on December 31, Michigan lawmakers have been in almost continuous debate regarding ways to replace this vital revenue source. Fearing a government shutdown, the Michigan House and Senate have passed very different tax proposals. The Senate-approved plan would not completely replace the revenue lost from the SBT, while the Governor-supported House plan will raise the same amount of revenue as the current SBT, but would allow for large tax credits for Michigan-based businesses. The House and Senate proposals both have a business income tax component, but the Senate plan relies more heavily on a gross receipts tax element. In the coming weeks, compromise is needed before Governor Granholm has the opportunity to sign this important yet contentious legislation.

Ignore Those Lobbyists Boring Holes into the Gross Receipts Tax

Part of the allure of gross receipts taxes - to hear proponents like Governor Blagojevich tell it, anyway - is that they don't have many of the same loopholes as corporate income taxes and will expand the base of economic activity and economic actors subject to taxation. The reality may prove quite different, however. Gross receipts type taxes have scarcely settled onto the pages of law books in Texas and Ohio, yet businesses in both states have already begun clamoring for - and will soon start receiving - concessions and special treatment. In Texas, the House of Representatives last week approved a bill that would double the exemption for small businesses under the margins tax, would lower the taxes paid by multistate financial services companies under the tax, and would attempt to prevent Sprint Nextel from passing the tax along to its customers.

In Ohio, a provision of the commercial activities tax designed to raise tax rates automatically - should the total amount of revenue generated by the tax begin to fall - will soon be eliminated, thus leaving the state without an important stopgap. These changes may not have a deleterious impact on the fiscal situation in either Texas or Ohio. The changes being debated in Texas would be offset by other revenue measures, for instance. Still, they should give policymakers in Michigan and Illinois pause. What they enact now may ultimately look quite different from what they envision.



Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain



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At first glance, it looks like the holy grail of state governance: a way to raise more revenue without raising taxes.The idea of selling off or leasing state assets, such as the state lottery, is now under discussion in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Texas. It is easy to see the idea's appeal: Texas Governor Perry predicts that the sale of his state's lottery would generate at least $15 billion, for example, while Indiana Governor Daniels expects that state's lottery to carry a price tag of over $1 billion, all without a single tax increase. However, there is a catch. While the boost to revenue is substantial, it is a one-time gain, and it comes at the cost of the yearly revenue contributions these assets would provide far into the future. While the seemingly painless financial gain offered by this privatization schemes is tempting, in the long run these sales would only diminish state coffers.



The Property Tax Cap Craze Collides with Reality in Texas



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Texas State Republican Chairman Tom Pauken recently embarked on a tour of the state to spread the good news: Governor Rick Perry is going to save voters from high property taxes by lowering the state's property tax cap from ten percent to five percent a year. Governor Perry and Chairmon Pauken are putting quite a bit of effort into promoting the proposed lower tax cap, but not everyone is convinced. The House Committee on Local Government Ways & Means conducted a survey on the effects of lowering the cap, only to find that "Appraisal caps unfairly shift the property tax burden from the wealthiest of property owners to the less wealthy."

Worse still, lowering the cap would leave less money avaible for both local and state governments. The effect would be particularly severe in small towns that do not generate much sales tax revenue, and must rely on property taxes to fund local services. The Metropolitan Organization has come up with a better solution: a property tax "circuit breaker". Circuit breakers, which help protect the most vulnerable from high property tax bills without gutting state coffers, are already in place in thirty-five states. Texans should urge Governor Perry to adopt this solution.



Property Tax Reform in New Jersey, Texas



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New Jersey continues to struggle with property tax reform. A task force has signaled that it will call for a July special legislative session to deal with the state's growing homeowner property taxes. One lawmaker has proposed paying for major homeowner tax cuts with an income tax hike, while others think consolidating school districts is a necessary first step.

Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers are wrapping their special session up after finally figuring out a way to cut school property taxes -- but a lot of people are unhappy with the outcome. The new law reduces school property tax rates across the board, and pays for this major tax cut with three major sources: the state's short-term budget surplus, a cigarette tax hike, and a revamp of the state's major business tax. The Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities sensibly points out that since the budget surplus part of this equation will eventually disappear, once these changes are fully phased in, this "tax swap" will create a $10.5 billion hole in the state's biennial budget.

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