Virginia News


State Rundown 9/17: Virginia Gas Tax, Tesla's Sweetheart Deal


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TESLA1.jpgVirginia’s gasoline tax will increase by 45 percent on January 1, 2015 if Congress fails to pass a law (the Marketplace Fairness Act) granting states the power to collect sales tax on online purchases. The increase, passed by lawmakers as part of a 2013 transportation spending plan, will cost motorists about 5 more cents per gallon. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia congressman and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is responsible for holding up the internet sales tax legislation, allegedly due to the deep pockets of his tech company supporters. Goodlatte’s opponents have accused the congressman of backing the interests of his donors over those of his constituents.

The New York Times reports that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) faces a revolt from his base over the deep and painful tax cuts he pushed for two years ago. The article quotes staunch conservative voter Konrad Hastings: “[Brownback] is leading Kansas down. We’re going to be bankrupt in two or three years if we keep going his way.” The state’s projected budget shortfalls are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and over 100 Republican state officials have endorsed Gov. Brownback’s challenger, Paul Davis (D).


Using ITEP data, financial services website Wallet Hub released its ranking of the most and least fair state tax systems of 2014. To rank the states, Wallet Hub conducted a national survey, which found that both liberals and conservatives believe a progressive tax system is most fair. Then they compared this against ITEP’s finding that the average local and state tax burden is hugely regressive. Washington took the prize as the least fair state using Wallet Hub’s methodology, while Texas and Florida had the dubious distinction of being states where the top 1 percent are most undertaxed while the bottom 20 percent are most overtaxed. Congrats, I guess?


Nevada has agreed to a $1.25 billion economic incentives package for Tesla Motors, which plans to build a high-tech battery factory outside Reno. The figure is more than double the $500 million Tesla CEO Elon Musk was asking for, and amounts to almost $200,000 per anticipated job created. The deal contains “clawbacks,” clauses that allow states to demand repayment of giveaways if the promised investment is not forthcoming, but experience shows that these clauses are rarely invoked. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who fought for the factory but resisted ponying up millions in incentives, noted that the deal would be good for his state anyway since Tesla Motors is still headquartered in Palo Alto.


 


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC


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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report

The natural gas extraction industry’s free ride in Pennsylvania may finally be coming to an end. Five years after natural gas companies entered the state to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale, legislators are considering an extraction tax (aka, a severance tax) to make up for lower than expected revenues and an otherwise tight budget. Drillers currently face what’s called an “impact fee,” but it raises little revenue, especially when compared with other energy-producing states. While a severance tax is still far from becoming law (the Governor still needs to be convinced, for example), some savvy observers are convinced the coming debate will not just be idle talk.

For years, state lawmakers have been falling all over themselves trying to get Hollywood to come to their states to make movies.  But even Virginia, which has a film tax credit, recognizes that not every potential tax credit deal is a good investment for their economy.  When Maryland decided not to expand its film tax credit, Netflix’s “House of Cards” began looking into whether it should film somewhere else.  But Virginia’s Film Office thinks the show is asking for too many incentives without offering enough in return.

John Archibald of the Birmingham News had a great column last week on Alabama’s tragic policy of taxing the poor deeper into poverty. As he explains, “We like to imagine Alabama a low-tax state…. But it's not a low tax state if you're broke.” This is because Alabama relies heavily on the regressive sales tax, making the state’s tax system one of the most upside-down in the country. Archibald’s column comes a few weeks after a similarly powerful editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser, arguing that while state taxes may be low, public investments are suffering as a result.

Starting Thursday May 1, Amazon.com will finally begin collecting sales taxes on purchases made by Florida residents.  As a result, the percentage of Americans living in a state where Amazon must collect sales tax will increase from 60 to 65 percent.  Until the U.S. House of Representatives acts on the Marketplace Fairness Act, however, enforcement of state sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet will not be possible on a comprehensive basis.


Film Tax Credit Arms Race Continues


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Tax credits for the film industry are receiving serious attention in at least nine states right now. Alaska’s House Finance Committee cleared a bill this week that would repeal the state’s film tax credit, and Louisiana lawmakers are coming to grips with the significant amount of fraud that’s occurred as a result of their tax credit program. Unfortunately for taxpayers, however, the main trend at the moment is toward expanding film tax credits. North Carolina and Oklahoma are looking at whether to extend their film tax credits, both of which are scheduled to expire this year. And California, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia lawmakers are all discussing whether they should increase the number of tax credit dollars being given to filmmakers.

The best available evidence shows that film tax credits just aren’t producing enough economic benefits to justify their high cost. While some temporary, relatively low-wage jobs may be created as a result of these credits, the more highly compensated (and permanent) positions in the film industry are typically filled by out-of-state residents that work on productions all over the country, and the world. And with film tax credits having proliferated in recent years, lawmakers who want to lure filmmakers to their states with tax credits are having to offer increasingly generous incentives just to keep up.

Saying “no” to Hollywood can be a difficult thing for states, but here are a few examples of lawmakers and other stakeholders questioning the dubious merits of these credits within the last few weeks:

North Carolina State Rep. Mike Hager (R): “I think we can do a better job with that money somewhere else. We can do a better job putting in our infrastructure … We can do a better of job of giving it to our teachers or our Highway Patrol.”

Richmond Times Dispatch editorial board: [The alleged economic benefits of film tax credits] “did not hold up under scrutiny. Subsidy proponents inflated the gains from movie productions – for instance, by assuming every job at a catering company was created by the film, even if the caterer had been in business for years. The money from the subsidies often leaves the state in the pockets of out-of-state actors, crew, and investors. And they often subsidize productions that would have been filmed anyway.”

Oklahoma State Rep. James Lockhart (D): According to the Associated Press, Lockhart “said lawmakers were being asked to extend the rebate program when the state struggles to provide such basic services as park rangers for state parks.” “How else would you define pork-barrel spending?”

Alaska State Rep. Bill Stoltze (R): “Some good things have happened from this subsidy but the amount spent to create the ability for someone to be up here isn't justified. And it's a lot of money … Would they be here if the state wasn't propping them up?”

Sara Okos, Policy Director at the Commonwealth Institute: “How you spend your money reveals what your priorities are. By that measure, Virginia lawmakers would rather help Hollywood movie moguls make a profit than help low-wage working families make ends meet.”

Maryland Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D): Upon learning that Netflix’s “House of Cards” will cease filming in Maryland if lawmakers do not increase the state’s film tax credit: “This just keeps getting bigger and bigger … And my question is: When does it stop?”

Picture from Flickr Creative Commons


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.


ITEP Analysis: Cuccinelli Tax Plan Mostly Benefits Wealthy Virginians - and Cuccinelli


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The lopsided benefits of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s tax plan are back in the news following the release of a new report featuring data from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Cuccinelli has proposed eliminating a variety of local business taxes (like his Democratic rival) and slashing the state’s corporate income tax. But the centerpiece of Cuccinelli’s tax plan would scrap the state’s top personal income tax bracket. Under his proposal, the top income tax rate would fall from 5.75 to 5.0 percent, and would even apply to taxpayers starting at the very low level of $5,000 of taxable income.

According to an ITEP analysis published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), and picked up by the Washington Post this week:

  • Attorney General Cuccinelli’s personal income tax plan would have cut his own tax bill by $985 last year if exemptions, deductions, and other “loopholes” benefiting him had remained unchanged.
  • A typical $1 million-a-year earner would see their tax bill drop by $6,391 per year under Cuccinelli’s plan.
  • Overall, 47 percent of all the personal income tax cuts proposed by Cuccinelli would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of Virginians.
  • An average middle-income family could expect to see a tax cut in the range of $98 (or just 0.2 percent of their total income).
  • A minimum wage worker, or an elderly taxpayer relying mostly on Social Security income, should each expect to receive no tax cut at all.  (An earlier ITEP analysis published by the Commonwealth Institute showed that 39 percent of Virginians overall would see no benefit.)

 

If you’re looking for some summer reading, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is in the process of updating its collection of policy briefs.  In the last couple weeks, ITEP has released updated briefs on sales tax holidays, state gasoline taxes, and efforts to collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.

Bad tax ideas have already entered Arkansas’ 2014 race for governor.  After claiming that the personal income tax cuts signed this year by Governor Beebe aren’t “significant enough … to make us competitive with our surrounding states,” Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson announced that he would like to phase-down the personal income tax even further.  But ITEP has shown that the personal income tax is vital to both tax fairness and sustainability, and that the states with the highest top personal income tax rates are experiencing economic conditions at least as good, if not better, than those states without income taxes.

The Commonwealth Institute in Virginia writes that the state’s gubernatorial candidates shouldn’t assume it will be easy to pay for their tax cut promises by simply eliminating “wasteful” tax breaks.  According to the Institute, “When you exclude tax breaks that would disproportionately hit low-income and middle class families or those that are clearly not politically feasible, [eliminating] the rest would raise only about $850 million.”  Compare that with the $1.4 billion per year candidate Ken Cuccinelli proposes in personal and corporate income tax rate cuts alone.

Mississippi’s struggling infrastructure budget is in the news now that a new task force is beginning to study how the state can better fund its transportation system.  The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) says that asphalt costs have tripled in recent years while fuel taxes--which haven’t been raised since the 1980’s--have predictably failed to keep pace.  So far MDOT is responding by forgoing new construction in favor of simply maintaining the current system, but if taxes aren’t raised soon, Mississippi may run the risk of becoming yet another state that opts to siphon money away from education, human services, and other priorities to fill its growing infrastructure funding gap.

 


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


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

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

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

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


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


Good News for America's Infrastructure: Gas Taxes Are Going Up on Monday


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The federal government has gone almost two decades without raising its gas tax, but that doesn’t mean the states have to stand idly by and watch their own transportation revenues dwindle.  On Monday July 1, eight states will increase their gasoline tax rates and another eight will raise their diesel taxes.  According to a comprehensive analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), ten states will see either their gasoline or diesel tax rise next week.

These increases are split between states that recently voted for a gas tax hike, and states that reformed their gas taxes years or decades ago so that they gradually rise over time—just as the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure inevitably does.

Of the eight states raising their gasoline tax rates on July 1, Wyoming and Maryland passed legislation this year implementing those increases while Connecticut’s increase is due to legislation passed in 2005California, Kentucky, Georgia (PDF) and North Carolina, by contrast, are seeing their rates rise to keep pace with growth in gas prices—much like a typical sales tax (PDF).  Nebraska is a more unusual case since its tax rate is rising both due to an increase in gas prices and because the rate is automatically adjusted to cover the amount of transportation spending authorized by the legislature.

On the diesel tax front, Wyoming, Maryland, Virginia (PDF) and Vermont passed legislation this year to raise their diesel taxes while Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina are seeing their taxes rise to reflect recent diesel price growth.  Nebraska, again, is the unique state in this group.

There are, however, a few states where fuel tax rates will actually fall next week, with Virginia’s (PDF) ill-advised gasoline tax cut being the most notable example. Vermont (PDF) will see its gasoline tax fall by a fraction of a penny on Monday due to a drop in gas prices, though this follows an almost six cent hike that went into effect in May as a result of new legislation. Georgia (PDF) and California will also see their diesel tax rates fall by a penny or less due to a diesel price drop in Georgia and a reduction in the average state and local sales tax rate in California.

With new reforms enacted in Maryland and Virginia this year, there are now 16 states where gas taxes are designed to rise alongside either increases in the price of gas or the general inflation rate (two more than the 14 states ITEP found in 2011).  Depending on what happens during the ongoing gas tax debates in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, that number could rise as high as 19 in the very near future.

It seems that more states are finally recognizing that stagnant, fixed-rate gas taxes can’t possibly fund our infrastructure in the long-term and should be abandoned in favor of smarter gas taxes that can keep pace with the cost of transportation.

See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st gasoline tax increases.
See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st diesel tax increases.

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

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

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

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

The Ohio Senate is considering a fiscal 2014-15 budget that includes a $1.4 billion business tax cut. The cut – which would exempt a full $375,000 in business income from the income tax – is similar to a widely-criticized plan enacted by Kansas last year. As Policy Matters Ohio explains, however, none of the tax cuts under consideration (including the Governor's) will help Ohio’s economy: “They are bad for low- and moderate-income Ohioans, and slash revenue Ohio needs to support our economic success and improve our quality of life.”

On May 23, the Massachusetts Senate approved a fiscal 2014 budget that would generate $430 million in new tax revenues, in part by extending the sales and use tax to some computer-related services, raising the gas tax by 3 cents, and increasing tobacco excise taxes.  Differences between the Senate budget and a broadly similar plan passed by the State House will now be worked out by a six-member conference committee.

If he ever decides to leave Hollywood, Nicolas Cage might have a future ahead of him in lobbying. After Cage visited Nevada, the state Senate approved a $20 million tax break for filmmakers. Unfortunately for Nevadans, however, film tax credits have been shown time and time again to be ineffective at spurring economic growth.

The Virginia Commonwealth Institute discusses the problems with lawmakers’ recent decision to cut the state’s gas tax by roughly 6 cents per gallon.  As the Institute explains: “gas taxes are not to blame for high and volatile gas prices… [and] Virginia’s gas tax, which has been a steady 17.5 cents per gallon since 1987, was failing to produce enough resources to fuel adequate investment in our infrastructure.” The same is generally true nationwide.

 

It’s a remarkable thing to see somebody propose $2.3 billion in state and local tax cuts in a single press conference, with absolutely no ideas for paying for them.  That’s exactly what Virginia’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, recently did at a Richmond yogurt shop as part of his campaign to become his state’s next governor.

Under Cuccinelli’s 163-word plan, a commission would be appointed to identify any “loopholes that promote crony capitalism,” and the savings from eliminating those loopholes would be funneled toward cuts in the state corporate income tax and three local business taxes.  The single largest component of Cuccinelli’s tax plan, however, is eliminating the state’s top personal income tax bracket.  This change would lower Virginia’s top rate from 5.75 to 5.0 percent, and would dramatically flatten the state’s income tax structure; for example, the new top rate would kick-in at taxable income of just $5,000.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), recently analyzed the personal income tax cut in the Attorney General’s plan in a report just published by the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute.  Unsurprisingly, ITEP found that this flattening of the income tax would overwhelmingly benefit Virginia’s most affluent residents, even as Virginia’s wealthiest taxpayers already pay far less of their income in state and local taxes than their less well-off neighbors. More specifically, ITEP found that:

  • Almost 4 in 10 Virginians (39 percent) would see no change in their income tax bill.

  • Lower and moderate income families are the groups least likely to benefit from this cut: nobody among the poorest 20 percent of Virginia families would receive a tax cut, and only half of all families among the next 20 percent would see their taxes reduced. 

  • In fact, the Cuccinelli plan runs the risk of actually raising taxes on a significant number of Virginians because “loopholes” of the non-crony-capitalism kind  that benefit moderate income families would likely have to be scaled-back or eliminated to pay for the larger rate cut.

  • Among the middle 20 percent of taxpayers, a majority (71 percent) would see their state income taxes fall, but by an average of just $98 per year.

  • The state’s wealthiest taxpayers would receive the largest tax benefits by far.  Three-fourths (76 percent) of the benefits from repealing Virginia’s top personal income tax bracket would go to the wealthiest 20 percent of households.  The top 1 percent of earners alone would take home a full 27 percent of the benefits, for an average state tax cut of over $8,000 per household.

Read the report.

In an excellent op-ed, Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy makes the case for real tax reform in Kentucky, and that means a tax code that can raise revenues to keep Kentucky thriving. He explains that after years of budget cuts and a sluggish economy, the Bluegrass State cannot make public investments needed to recover economically and get on a sustainable fiscal footing. Bailey lists the various stop-gap measures lawmakers have already deployed and concludes they are all out of tricks. With a good roadmap to reform available, Bailey writes, it’s time to begin that hard work.

This otherwise fine article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, about competing tax proposals in Missouri, provided online readers with a calculator – that utterly failed in calculating how those proposals would affect taxpayers. The state policy team at ITEP quickly responded with a Letter to the Editor pointing out that “the tax calculator omits some key information about who wins and who loses under these plans.”

Tax policy is taking center stage in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli is reportedly in the process of designing a major tax cut on which to campaign.  While precise details have yet to be announced, a 20 percent cut in the personal income tax and elimination of the corporate income tax altogether are under consideration. Watch this space for a full analysis of the plan’s impact on Virginians at different income levels once more details are announced.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has a new report that clarifies a lot of misconceptions about the existence of fraud in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For starters, CBPP explains that most EITC overpayments “reflect unintentional errors, not fraud.”  On top of that, it turns out that IRS studies of EITC overpayments suffer from “significant methodological problems that likely cause them to overstate the actual EITC overpayments.”

Tuesday, the Ohio House of Representatives approved their budget bill which included an across the board 7 percent reduction in income tax rates. Though the House tax plan is less costly than the Governor’s original proposal, Policy Matters Ohio, using Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) data, makes the point that this reduction will still benefit the wealthiest Ohioans. “For the top 1 percent, the tax plan would cut $2,717 in taxes on average. For the middle 20 percent, it would amount to a $51 cut on average. For the bottom 20 percent, it would result in $3 on average.”

This week the Minnesota Senate unveiled their tax plan which, (unlike Governor Dayton’s plan and the House plan wouldn’t create a new top income tax bracket,) would raise the current top rate from 7.85 to 9.4 percent. About 6 percent of taxpayers would see their taxes go up under the Senate plan. Both houses of the legislature and the Governor are committed to tax increases and doing the hard work necessary to raise taxes in a progressive way. Senator Majority Leader Tom Bakk recently said, "Some people are probably going to lose elections because we are going to raise some taxes, but sometimes leading is not a popularity contest."

We’d be remiss if we didn’t draw your attention to this study (PDF) by Ernst and Young for the Council on State Taxation which cautions state lawmakers about expanding their sales tax bases to include services purchased by businesses. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s failed attempt at income tax elimination included broadening the sales tax base to include a variety of services, including business-to-business services. Ironically, Ernst and Young was hired by the Governor to consult about his plan. Toward the end of the tax debate there, the AP pointed out the disparity between the Governor's consultants’ stance on taxing business-to-business services and what the Governor himself was proposing.

Rhode Island analysts are urging lawmakers to take a closer look at the $1.7 billion the state doles out in special tax breaks each year.  A new report from the Economic Progress Institute recommends rigorous evaluations of tax breaks to find out if they’re working. It then recommends attaching expiration dates to those breaks so that lawmakers are voting whether to renew them based on solid evidence about their effectiveness. These goals are also reflected in a bill (PDF) under consideration in the Rhode Island House -- Representative Tanzi’s “Tax Expenditure Evaluation Act.”

We’ve criticized Virginia’s new transportation package for letting drivers off the hook when it comes to paying for the roads they use, and now the Commonwealth Institute has crunched some new numbers that make this very point: “Currently, nearly 70 percent of the state’s transportation revenue comes from driving-related sources ... But under the new funding package, that share drops to around 60 percent ... In the process the gas tax drops from the leading revenue source for transportation to third place; and sales tax moves into first.”


Mid-Session Update on State Gas Tax Debates


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In a stark departure from the last few years, one of the most debated state tax policy issues in 2013 has been the gasoline tax (PDF).  Until this February, it had been almost three years since any state’s lawmakers approved an increase or reform of their gasoline tax.  That changed when Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax hike passed by his state’s legislature.  Since then, Virginia has reformed its gas tax to grow over time alongside gas prices, and Maryland has both increased and reformed its gas tax.  By the time states’ 2013 legislative sessions come to a close, the list of states having improved their gas taxes is likely to be even longer.

Massachusetts appears to be the most likely candidate for gas tax reform.  Both the House and Senate have passed bills immediately raising the state gas tax by 3 cents per gallon, and reforming the tax so that its flat per-gallon amount keeps pace with inflation in the future (see chart here).  In late 2011, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) found that Massachusetts is among the states where inflation has been most damaging to the state transportation budget—costing some $451 million in revenue per year relative to where the gas tax stood in 1991 when it was last raised.  Governor Deval Patrick has expressed frustration that legislators passed plans lacking more revenue for education—in sharp contrast to his own plan to increase the income tax—but he has also signaled that there may be room for compromise.

Vermont lawmakers are also giving very serious consideration to gas tax reform.  At the Governor’s urging, the House passed a bill increasing the portion of Vermont’s gas tax that already grows alongside gas prices.  The bill also reforms the flat-rate portion of Vermont’s gas tax to grow with inflation.  The Senate is now debating the idea, and early reports indicate that the package may be tweaked to rely slightly more on diesel taxes in order to reduce the size of the increase on gasoline.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has also proposed raising and reforming his state’s gasoline tax.  While Pennsylvania’s tax is technically supposed to grow alongside gas prices, an obsolete tax cap limits the rate from rising when gas prices exceed $1.25 per gallon.  Corbett would like to remove that cap in order to improve the sustainability of the state’s revenues, and members of his administration have been traveling the state to explain how doing so would benefit Pennsylvanians.  While the legislature has yet to act on his plan, the fact that it has the backing of the state’s Chamber of Business and Industry is likely to help its chances.

In New Hampshire, the Governor has said she is open to raising the state gas tax and the House has passed a bill doing exactly that.  But there are indications that lawmakers in the state Senate might continue procrastinating on raising the tax, as the state has done for over two decades.

Nevada lawmakers are discussing a gas tax increase following the release of a report showing that the state’s outdated transportation system is costing drivers $1,500 per year.  ITEP analyzed a gas tax proposal receiving consideration in the Nevada House and found that even with the increase, the state’s gas tax rate (adjusted for inflation) would still remain low relative to its levels in years past.

Iowa lawmakers have been debating a gas tax increase for a number of years, and there may be enough support in the legislature to finally see one enacted into law.  The major stumbling block is that Governor Branstad will only agree to raise the gas tax if it’s part of a larger package that cuts revenue overall—particularly revenues from the property tax.  As we’ve explained in the past, such a move would effectively benefit the state’s roads at the expense of its schools.

Earlier this year, Washington State House lawmakers unveiled a plan raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon and increasing vehicle registration fees.  Senate leaders are reportedly less excited about the idea of a gasoline tax hike, though there are indications they would consider such an increase if it were to pass the House.  While talk of a 10 cent increase has since quieted down, there are rumors that a smaller increase could be enacted.

Unfortunately, some states where the chances of gas tax reform once appeared promising have since begun to move away from the idea.  In Michigan, while the Governor and the state Chamber of Commerce have voiced strong support for generating additional revenue through the gas tax, neither the House nor the Senate appears likely to vote in favor of such a reform this year.  Meanwhile, the chances for a gas tax increase in Minnesota seem to have faded after the Governor came out against an increase and the House subsequently unveiled a tax plan that leaves the gas tax untouched.

Overall, 2013 has already been a significant year for state gas tax reform.  Both Maryland and Virginia have abandoned their unsustainable flat gas taxes in favor of a better gas tax that grows over time, just like construction costs inevitably will.  Hopefully, within the next few months, more states will have followed their lead.


Virginia Raises the Wrong Taxes to Pay for Roads


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UPDATE: On April 3, 2013 Governor McDonnell signed the package described below with only minor changes.  Those changes are discussed at the end of this article.

If Governor Bob McDonnell signs the transportation bill just passed by his state’s legislature, as he is expected to do, Virginia will join Wyoming as the second Republican-led state in less than a month to raise taxes to pay for transportation.  Virginia Delegate David Albo, one of Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge signers, explained his vote in favor of the bill by saying, “I looked at every single way to raise money for roads, and it is literally impossible to do without raising revenue.”

But as encouraging as it is to see opposition to taxes waning in some circles, the tax bill passed by Virginia’s legislature is far from perfect. The bill will shift the responsibility for paying for roads away from the drivers who use them most, and its reliance on sales taxes will shift Virginia’s already regressive (PDF) tax system even more heavily toward lower-income families.  Here’s a quick rundown of the bill’s major components:

Gasoline tax:  The 17.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax will be cut, at least in the short-term, by replacing it with a tax based on 3.5 percent of the wholesale price of gasoline.  At the current wholesale price of $3.30 per gallon, the new tax should be about 11.5 cents—the lowest in the country outside of Alaska—but it will rise over time as the price of gas climbs. Virginia will become the 15th state to levy a gas tax that grows automatically over time, which allows the tax to better keep pace with the rising cost of construction.  But wholesale gas prices will have to rise to $5.00 per gallon before the tax returns the 17.5 cent level that Virginians have been paying for the last quarter centuryThe bill amounts to a gas tax cut that lets frequent and long-distance drivers off the hook for paying for the transportation enhancements that benefit them the most.

Diesel tax:  Taxes on diesel fuel will increase both in the short- and long-term, as the 17.5 cent per gallon tax is replaced by a 6 percent tax based on the wholesale price of diesel.  Diesel prices are generally higher than gasoline prices, so at a wholesale price of $3.50, for example, the new tax should equal 21 cents per gallon and will grow over time as diesel prices rise. 

Remote sales tax:  The bill assumes that Congress will enact legislation empowering Virginia to require online retailers to collect the sales taxes owed by their customers (PDF), but it also puts in place a stopgap measure in case that doesn’t happen.  If Congress hasn’t acted by 2015, the wholesale gasoline tax rate will rise from 3.5 percent to 5.1 percent.  At current prices, this would bring the gas tax to16.8 cents per gallon.  Virginia should raise its wholesale gas tax rate to at least this level, regardless of the outcome of the federal debates over taxing online purchases.

Sales tax:  The largest single revenue-raiser in the bill is an increase in the state sales tax rate from 5 percent to 5.3 percent in most parts of the state. In the densely populated and congested areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, residents will see their sales tax rates rise to 6 percent, and will be forced to dedicate the additional revenue to transportation.

General fund raid:  Following the unfortunate precedent set by Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and the federal government, the bill also prioritizes roads over other areas of government by shifting $200 million away from the general fund every year.  The Roanoke Times previously blasted a similar proposal from Governor McDonnell by pointing out: “The highway program is starved for money because the gas tax rate has not changed since 1987. Are teachers and their students to blame? No, they are not. Did doctors and mental health workers cause the problem? Absolutely not. Did sheriff's deputies and police officers? No.”

Motor vehicle sales tax:  The sales tax break on motor vehicle purchases will be reduced, but not eliminated.  The rate will rise from 3 percent to 4.3 percent – still short of the 5.3 percent general sales tax rate.

Hybrid tax:  Hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles will have to pay an additional $100 in registration taxes every year.  So, while drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles are receiving a break in the form of a lower gas tax, fuel-efficient hybrid owners will actually pay more.

Low-income offsets: The state and local sales taxes used to raise the bulk of new road funding under this plan will hit lower- and moderate income families hardest.  And yet, the bill lacks any kind of targeted tax relief for those families.  In-state analysts urged the creation of a sales tax rebate or the enhancement of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), but the final bill did not include either of these measures.

UPDATE: The version of this package that was signed into law is slightly different than the one originally passed by the legislature: the motor vehicle sales tax is raised to 4.15 percent instead of 4.3 percent, the hybrid tax is $64 per year instead of $100, miscellaneous local tax increases in northern Virginia were scaled back, and technical changes were made to local taxes in order to avoid a constitutional challenge.


Gas Tax Gains Favor in the States


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Note to Readers: This is the fifth of a six part series on tax reform trends in the states, written by The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swaps,” personal income tax cuts and progressive tax reforms under consideration in the states.  This post focuses on one of the most debated tax issues of 2013: raising state gasoline taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements.

States don’t tend to increase their gas tax rates very often, mostly because lawmakers are afraid of being wrongly blamed for high gas prices.  The result of this rampant procrastination is that state gas tax revenues are lagging far behind what’s needed to pay for our transportation infrastructure.  Until last week, the last time a state gas tax increase was signed into law was three and a half years ago—in the summer of 2009—when lawmakers in North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia all agreed that their gas tax rates needed to go up, albeit modestly in some cases.  (Since then, some state gas taxes have also risen due to provisions automatically tying the tax to gas prices or inflation.)

But Wyoming was the state that ended the drought when Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax increase passed by the state’s legislature.  And Wyoming is not alone.  In total, lawmakers in nine states are seriously considering raising (or have already raised) their gas tax in 2013: Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. And until recently, Virginia appeared poised to increase its gas tax, too.In addition to Governor Mead, Republican governors in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Democratic governors in Massachusetts and Vermont have proposed raising their state gas taxes despite the predictable political pushback that such proposals seem to elicit.  The plans under discussion in these four states are especially reform-minded since they would not just raise the gas tax rate today, but also allow it to grow over time as the cost of asphalt, concrete, machinery, and everything else the gas tax pays for grows too.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Governor Hassan has said that the state needs more funding for transportation and is open to the idea of raising the gasoline tax, among other options.  The state House is debating just such a bill right now.  The situation is similar in Maryland where Governor O’Malley, who pushed for a long-overdue gasoline tax increase last year, recently met with legislators to discuss a gas tax increase proposed this year by Senate President Mike Miller.  Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has also not ruled out an increase in the gas tax—an idea backed by the state Senate majority leader and the House Transportation Committee chair.  And in the Hawkeye State, Governor Branstad once described 2013 as “the year” to raise Iowa’s gas tax (which happens to be at an all-time low, adjusted for inflation), although he has since said that he would support doing so only after lawmakers cut the property tax.

Other states where gas tax increases have gotten a foothold so far this year include Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, though it’s not yet clear how far those states’ debates will progress in 2013.

Across the country, no state has received more attention this year for its transportation debates than Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell kicked off the discussion by actually proposing to repeal the state’s gasoline tax.  But while Governor McDonnell’s idea was certainly attention-grabbing, it also failed to gain traction with most lawmakers, and the Virginia Senate responded by passing a bill actually increasing the state gasoline tax and tying it to inflation.  Since then, the preliminary details of an agreement being negotiated between House and Senate leaders are just now emerging, but early indications are that the legislature will try to cut the gas tax in the short-term, but allow the tax to rise alongside gas prices in the future.  The size of the cut will also depend on whether Congress enacts legislation empowering Virginia to collect the sales taxes owed on online purchases.

It’s good to see Virginia lawmakers looking toward the long-term with reforms that will allow the gas tax to grow over time.  But asking less of drivers through the gas tax today—when the state is facing such serious congestion problems—is fundamentally bad tax policy.  For more on the merits of the gas tax and the reforms that are needed to improve its fairness and sustainability, see Building a Better Gas Tax from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

There’s no doubt the fiscal cliff compromise reached on New Year’s Day will impact state budgets in complex ways, as CTJ’s partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will be explaining in the coming weeks.  In the meantime here’s an important blog post from the Wisconsin Budget Project on why extending the federal estate tax cut will actually reduce Wisconsin state tax revenues.

The Roanoke Times is wrong to call Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s plan to eliminate the gas tax “worth debate” (we explain why here), but the editors hit the nail on the head with this: “The component of McDonnell's plan that does not merit consideration is his reliance on money plundered from education, health care, public safety and other programs to backfill transportation. The highway program is starved for money because the gas tax rate has not changed since 1987. Are teachers and their students to blame? No, they are not. Did doctors and mental health workers cause the problem? Absolutely not. Did sheriff's deputies and police officers? No. Legislators themselves are at fault, and it is shoddy business for them to strangle other services rather than accept responsibility.”

Focus on State of the State: In his combined inaugural and state-of-the-state address last week, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin proposed cutting his state’s refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (PDF) by more than half to pay for an expanded low-income child care subsidy.  The Public Assets Institute called the governor out, observing that his proposal “would take from the poor to give to the poor.”  Rather than supporting broad-based tax increases to boost available revenue to pay for state priorities such as affordable child care, Governor Shumlin’s plan will substantially raise taxes on the very families he purports to help. From the Public Assets Institute: “...if the governor is going to insist on a zero-sum game and take from one group of Vermonters in order to “invest” in another, he should look elsewhere for the child care money. Vermont’s business tax credits would be a good place to start. The EITC was created to reduce poverty, and it’s been a great success. The same can’t be said about business tax credits and jobs.”

Focus on State of the State: During his 2013 State of the State speech, Idaho Governor Butch Otter officially outlined his intention to eliminate the state’s personal property tax. The state policy team at ITEP recently previewed this proposal (among others), saying that Idaho’s “personal property tax raises 11 percent of property tax revenue statewide, and in some counties it raises more than 25 percent. Some legislative leaders in the Senate have expressed doubts about the affordability of repeal, especially on the heels of last year’s $35 million income tax cut for wealthy Idahoans—a change that put more than $2,600 in the pocket of each member of Idaho’s top one percent (PDF), while failing to cut taxes at all for four out of every five Idaho families.”


Governor McDonnell's Bad Idea: Eliminating Virginia's Gas Tax


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Perhaps he was just floating a trial balloon when Governor Bob McDonnell said he was open to increasing Virginia’s gas tax in some way.  If so, it seems to have been a lead balloon because this week he announced his intention to eliminate the gas tax altogether.

But, experts at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have concluded that the Commonwealth’s gas tax actually needs to be raised by 14.5 cents per gallon, right now, just to make up the revenue ground it’s lost having been stagnant for a quarter century.

Calling the gas tax an unviable revenue source (which is true only when lawmakers like McDonnell fail to modernize it!), the Governor proposed replacing it by raising the sales tax (from 5 percent to 5.8 percent) and increasing vehicle registration fees by $15 for most vehicles and $100 for alternative fuel vehicles.

McDonnells’ plan is riddled with flaws. For starters, this “tax swap” shifts the responsibility for paying for roads away from frequent and long-distance drivers (and the owners of heavier passenger vehicles), onto everybody else.  He very literally gives drivers a “free ride” by eliminating the gas tax, likely leading to more congestion, more wear-and-tear on roads, more air pollution and probably even excessive sprawl in the long run.

Oddly, by repealing only the gasoline tax and leaving the diesel tax untouched, his plan also discriminates sharply between motorists depending on the type of fuel they use to fill up.  The aim here is clearly to continue requiring the trucking industry to pay for their use of the roads (since heavy, diesel-powered trucks produce a disproportionate amount of wear-and-tear, as the Governor understands).  But many light trucks, vans and even some passenger vehicles run on diesel as well, and owners of these vehicles will see their sales taxes rise but won’t see any benefit from the gas tax cut.

McDonnell’s plan also does nothing to improve the fairness of Virginia’s taxes from a progressivity perspective, since both gas and sales taxes are regressive.  If the Governor were instead using a progressive income tax increase to fund transportation, at least he could argue that his plan improves Virginia taxes from an ability-to-pay perspective, even if it makes tax fairness much worse from a “benefits principle” (PDF) perspective—that is, a taxing in accordance with the benefits a given taxpayer receives.

Aside from the changes in tax policy, the Governor’s plan includes an expensive bailout of the transportation fund, when that fund could easily be fixed through gas tax reform.  The legislature has rejected such bailouts in the past for the very good reason that the state can’t afford to spend less on education and the other services which will necessarily have to be cut to fund McDonnells’ bailout.


Beltway's New "Lexus Lanes" a Symbol of Broken Tax Policy


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On Saturday, a stretch of the legendary I-495 Beltway encircling Washington, DC will grow from eight lanes to twelve.  But this modest expansion of the region’s famously inadequate transportation network isn’t designed to benefit everyone.  With so many federal and state lawmakers terrified to raise taxes for the public good, the Beltway’s new “express lanes” will be paid for in a different way—specifically, by the wealthier drivers who can afford to buy their way out of the congested lanes (Kia Lanes, perhaps?), and into these heavily tolled, so-called Lexus Lanes.

AAA Mid-Atlantic initially opposed the new Lexus Lanes, since by definition they only work when the rest of the transportation system is failing.  But an “acceptance of reality … about the sad state of transportation funding” led AAA to eventually change its mind and embrace the lanes on the grounds that they’re better than nothing.

Sad indeed.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has shown that much of our nation’s transportation funding woes can be traced back to the short-sighted design of federal and state gas taxes, and that there are straightforward ways to fix these glaringly broken taxes.  But raising and reforming the gas tax can be politically difficult, and thus here we are, with Band-Aid fixes like Lexus Lanes instead.


Politicians Choosing Roads Over Schools


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Let’s start with the good news.  There's a growing recognition among even the most virulently anti-tax lawmakers that one core area of government is actually underfunded and needs revenues: transportation maintenance and construction.

Unfortunately, there’s some bad news, too. Rather than fixing the gas tax shortcomings that have led to transportation coffers (quite predictably) running dry, many of those same lawmakers want to divert money away from education, health care, and other services, and spend it on roads and bridges instead.

One lawmaker touting this approach is Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.  While Branstad should be praised for realizing that the gas tax should be raised next year, his broader plan to couple that increase with big cuts in income taxes and local property taxes completely misses the mark.  If enacted, everything from schools to police departments will have to be scaled back just so that Branstad can avoid the “tax raiser” label some political operatives might pin on him for favoring a long-overdue and much-needed gas tax hike.

Governor Branstad's approach echoes one outlined earlier this year by his counterpart in Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell.  During a conversation with the Associated Press (AP), McDonnell hinted that he might reverse his opposition to raising the gas tax if it’s done as part of a broader, revenue-neutral tax “reform” package.  As we explained then, however:

“Even if McDonnell believed the state’s gas tax needs to be raised and indexed, his opposition to raising any new revenue overall is almost guaranteed make his reform agenda bad for the state.  That’s because every dollar in new revenue McDonnell might generate for transportation would have to be offset with a dollar in tax cuts elsewhere in the budget—presumably from a tax that funds education, human services, public safety, and other core government functions.”

These proposals to actually increase the gas tax might seem remarkable at first, coming from governors who are as opposed to taxes as Branstad and McDonnell.  But when you peel away the layers, the logic behind the proposals is nothing new.  In the face of lagging gas tax revenues, politicians have frequently raided other revenue streams in order to avoid raising taxes but still keep their transportation systems afloat. Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin did it in 2011, and Michigan, Oklahoma and the federal government did it in 2012.  At their core, Branstad and McDonnell’s approaches are just accomplishing the same outcome but in a more roundabout way: shifting money around in a way that benefits roads at the expense of everything else.

For a smarter approach, see the recommendations made in Building a Better Gas Tax, from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

 


Tim Kaine Lurches Right in Quest for "Middle Ground"


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Former Virginia Governor and current Senate candidate Tim Kaine found himself in hot water after a Senatorial debate last week in which he expressed a willingness to consider “a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone.” Perhaps even worse, Kaine has also proposed a so-called “Middle-Ground” approach to the Bush tax cuts, which he says in his TV ad is fiscally responsible. His middle ground position – putting him between a tax-averse Democratic president and a tax-loathing Republican rival – would extend the Bush tax cuts for the first $500,000 that a taxpayer makes in a year.

His fiscally irresponsible ideas about the expiring Bush tax cuts merit their own outrage. Kaine’s proposal to raise the income threshold above which the Bush tax cuts expire to $500,000 would save 22 percent less revenue than Obama’s $250,000 threshold, and 73 percent of the lost revenue would be paying for tax cuts for people making over $500,000.  A full 30 percent of the cost of Kaine’s extra tax cuts would go to people making over $1 million!

It’s not surprising that his statements regarding a minimum tax have caused an uproar considering that such proposals are usually the province of radical conservatives like Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachman, rather than that of moderate Democrats. Ironically, Kaine himself made a strong case against such a proposal in the debate when he noted that “everyone pays taxes,” a point Citizens for Tax Justice repeatedly makes.

What’s so disturbing about Kaine’s Bush tax cut proposal, as opposed to his openness to a minimum tax (which he’s already walked back), is that it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Last May, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi proposed to raise the income threshold over which the Bush tax cuts should expire even higher, from $250,000 to $1 million. Kaine and like-minded Democrats need to reconsider their position because allowing even more of the Bush tax cuts to stay in place makes about zero fiscal sense.

Front Page Photo of Tim Kaine via Third Way Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Virginia Gov. McDonnell Says He Wants Tax Reform, But....


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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell wants to make tax reform a top priority during his upcoming (and final) year as Governor, according to the Associated Press (AP).  But while Virginia’s tax code is no doubt in need of reform, it’s hard to tell from the AP article what kind of change Virginians can realistically expect.

Virginia currently foregoes some $12.5 billion in tax revenue every year as a result of special breaks buried in the state tax code—almost as much as the $14.3 billion in annual revenues the Commonwealth takes in.  McDonnell said, “I think it’s time to take a look at all those tax preferences, both in income and sales, and see if there is not some way … we can save some money and put it into transportation.”

While such a development would be a positive one, McDonnell contradicts himself when he says that raising revenue is out of the question, and that the tax reform he has in mind might even reduce revenue overall.  Given that commitment, Virginians might expect the condition of their ailing transportation system to improve, but at a cost to other state services.

Moreover, there’s reason to be skeptical about how committed McDonnell really is to broadening the tax base.  While he’s right to point out that services like car repairs and pedicures should be subject to the state sales tax, his actual track record is not inspiring. Just two months ago, for example, McDonnell signed into law an expansion of a wasteful corporate tax giveaway that narrowed the tax base, despite very good reasons to doubt its effectiveness.

On transportation funding, too, McDonnell’s track record conflicts with his talk of tax reform. He has consistently refused to support tying—or “indexing”—the state’s stagnant gas tax rate to inflation, but now he says that “there may be a way to do that in the overall context of tax reform.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea, but at least it’s a start.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently found that only Alaska has gone longer than Virginia without raising its gas tax. And if Virginia lawmakers had indexed the state gas tax to construction costs the last time the tax was raised, annual revenues would be some $578 million higher.

But indexing by itself is not enough to fix the state’s legendary transportation problems.  Indexing helps prevent future construction cost increases from eating into gas tax revenue, but it doesn’t address the cost increases that have already occurred. According to ITEP, Virginia’s gas tax would have to immediately rise by 14.5 cents just to offset the last two and a half decades of transportation cost growth. 

But even if McDonnell believed the state’s gas tax needs to be raised and indexed, his opposition to raising any new revenue overall is almost guaranteed make his reform agenda bad for the state.  That’s because every dollar in new revenue McDonnell might generate for transportation would have to be offset with a dollar in tax cuts elsewhere in the budget—presumably from a tax that funds education, human services, public safety, and other core government functions.  The AP story says McDonnell sees a reformed tax code as his own legacy, but what about the legacy he leaves the Commonwealth?

Photo of Rand Paul via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Virginia Governor Expands Wasteful Corporate Tax Giveaway


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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell just signed into law the expansion of a tax break meant to support “manufacturing” that has, in fact, been used to subsidize everything from making movies to designing homes to roasting coffee. The break piggybacks on the federal deduction for “Qualified Production Activities Income” (QPAI), which was first proposed in the early 2000’s as a way to benefit US-based manufacturers.  As the proposal made its way through Congress, however, it morphed into a loosely defined tax break that Starbucks, for example, has been able to use to get $40 million knocked off its tax bill over the last few years. Walt Disney, Halliburton, Altria and the Washington Post Company are among scores of companies - not known for manufacturing - that have successfully exploited this loophole.

In most cases, state corporate tax law is based on the federal corporate tax, which means that when Congress creates an expensive giveaway like the QPAI deduction, the states go ahead and offer the same break for reasons of simplicity.  But 22 states have specifically decided that this break isn’t worth the cost, and have “decoupled” their laws from that part of the federal code.  Unfortunately, Virginia is moving in exactly the opposite direction.

The Virginia Department of Taxation estimates that this recent expansion of the state’s QPAI deduction will drain somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million from the state’s coffers each year. Worse, Virginians can’t expect much of a return on that $10 million “investment.”  As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains:

“The QPAI deduction has little value as an economic development strategy for individual states, because a corporation can use the QPAI deduction to reduce its taxable income for “domestic production” activities anywhere in the United States. That is, a multi-state company that engages in manufacturing activities in Michigan will be able to use those activities to claim the QPAI deduction—and thus cut its taxes—in any state that offers the deduction, even if the company does not have manufacturing facilities in those states.

Eliminating state QPAI deductions was recently proposed in a joint CTJ-ITEP report as a way to improve the adequacy and fairness of state corporate taxes.  That report showed that many profitable companies – including some headquartered in Virginia – are paying at a rate equal to less than half the average statutory state corporate tax rate.  Loopholes like QPAI are the reason.

Photo of Gov. Bob McDonnell via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

 


Transportation Funding Debacles Around the Country


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Our nation’s gas tax policy is horribly designed, and the consequences have never been more obvious at either the federal or state levels.  Construction costs are growing while the gas tax is flat-lining, and the resulting tension has made even routine transportation funding debates too much for our elected officials to handle.  Just last week, President Obama signed into law the ninth temporary, stop-gap extension of our nation’s transportation policy since 2009, and numerous states are similarly opting to kick the proverbial can down the crumbling road.

Much of our collective transportation headache arises from our “fixed-rate” gas taxes that just don’t hold up in the face of rising construction costs.  The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in over 18 years, and most states have gone a decade or more without raising their tax.  There’s no doubt that we’re long-overdue for a gas tax increase, but political concerns have kept that option largely off the table.  In addition to the embarrassing federal Band-Aid fix just signed into law by the President, here’s what we’re seeing in the states:

The Michigan Senate has voted to permanently take millions in sales tax revenue away from health care, public safety, and other services in order to complete basic road repairs.  But as the Michigan League for Human Services explains, the state would be much better off modernizing its stagnant gas tax.

Both the Oklahoma House and Senate have voted to raid the general fund as a result of lagging gas tax revenues.  These proposals are very similar to the one under consideration in Michigan, and when fully phased-in they would divert $115 million away from education and other services in order to improve some of the state’s wildly deficient bridges.

Luckily, Virginia lawmakers didn’t agree to Governor McDonnell’s proposal to raid the general fund in a manner similar to what’s being considered in Michigan and Oklahoma.  But they also failed to enact a much smarter proposal passed by the Senate that would have indexed the state’s gas tax to inflation.  It looks like rampant traffic congestion will remain the norm in Virginia for the foreseeable future.

Iowa and Maryland appear likely to follow Virginia’s lead and do nothing substantial on transportation finance this year.  Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says that after much talk, a gas tax increase is not happening.  And while Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is trying hard to end almost two decades of gas tax procrastination in the Old Line State, it doesn’t look like the odds are on his side.

Connecticut lawmakers aren’t just continuing the status quo, they’re actually making it worse.  Connecticut is among the minority of states where the gas tax actually tends to grow over time, since it’s linked to gas prices.  But the Governor recently signed a hard “cap” on the gas tax that prevents it from rising whenever wholesale prices exceed $3.00 per gallon.  Lawmakers in North Carolina briefly considered a similar cap last year, but as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, blunt caps are very bad policy and there are much better options available.

For more on adequate and sustainable gas tax policy, read ITEP’s recent report, Building a Better Gas Tax.

Photo of Governor Martin O'Malley and Sunoco Gas Station via  Third Way and MV Jantzen Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Virginia Senate voted down a bill this week which would have provided tax credits to corporations that give scholarships to low-income children in order to attend private schools.  The proposal was backed by Governor McDonnell as part of his “Opportunity to Learn” initiative and passed the House of Delegates on February 8.

Critics of the bill argued that the tax credit would divert the state’s general fund dollars away from the public school system towards private schools.  Proponents, including the Governor, claimed it would afford low-income students educational opportunities they would otherwise not be able to access.

The debate over the education tax credit bill contrasts vividly with Virginia’s reduction in Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) benefits last year.  Virtually every state with an EITC ties its benefits to the federal program.  However, when President Obama expanded the federal EITC, Virginia was one of two states that decided to “decouple” its EITC from the federal changes.  Obama's EITC expansion increased benefits for families with three or more children and reduced the marriage penalty.  This would have made a minimal impact on the cost of Virginia’s EITC, which is set at 20 percent of the federal level, yet would have provided greater benefits to low-income families.

Of course, decoupling creates administrative difficulties, because it's far easier to calculate a state EITC that is simply a percentage of the federal one.

Soon, Virginia will again be faced with this decoupling issue.  The federal tax compromise enacted in December of 2010 extended the Obama EITC expansion through 2012.  When the issue arises again, lawmakers and citizens should grapple with why Virginia’s governor and House members seem willing to provide a tax credit to corporations for removing low-income children from public schools, but not a credit that goes directly into the hands of hard-working Americans.


Anti-Tax Lawmakers Look to Cement Their Legacy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


Report Concludes Repealing Virginia's Corporate Income Tax Would Be Disastrous


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Virginia Delegate Harry Purkey, chairman of the House Finance Committee, introduced a bill earlier in the year to eliminate the state’s corporate income tax as a way to give the state (often ranked as one of the most business friendly) a “competitive edge.”  While the bill was not enacted, a joint resolution was passed directing staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to undergo a comprehensive study of Virginia’s corporate income tax system.

The draft report was released last week and delivered news that Del. Purkey is not likely to like.  The bottom line?  Virginia cannot afford to lose its corporate income tax, the state’s third largest revenue source.  Researchers found that eliminating the corporate income tax would result in a five year revenue loss of more than $3.6 billion while only generating about $220 million in additional personal income tax revenue.  To break even on revenue from eliminating the corporate income tax, Virginia would need to add more than 160,000 new jobs.  The study estimated the change would result in an additional 12,500 jobs, only 8 percent of what would be needed.  

But the corporate income tax is more than just an important revenue source. It's also an important part of ensuring tax fairness.  As the draft report says, “The fundamental purpose of all taxes is to raise revenues to finance public programs and services.  Nearly all states tax corporations because they benefit from many of these programs and services. For example, corporations use state-maintained roads to transport goods, hire employees who have been educated and trained in state-funded facilities, and rely on state courts to resolve legal matters.”

It would behoove the new governors in Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Florida, all of whom have proposed eliminating their state’s corporate income tax, to consider the new Virginia study before making a move that will deplete state revenues with no economic gain.


Results of Tax-Related Ballot Initiatives


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

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

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

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

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

Personal Income Tax

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

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

Business Tax Breaks

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

Super Majority Voting Requirements

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

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

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

Earnings Tax

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

Sales Taxes

Massachusetts: Question 1PASSED
Massachusetts: Question 3 - FAILED

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

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

Property Tax Exemptions

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

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

Property Tax Caps

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

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

Real Estate Transfer Fees

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

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

Government Borrowing

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

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


State Tax Issues on the Ballot on Election Day


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

Personal Income Tax

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

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

Business Tax Breaks

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

Super-Majority Voting Requirements

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

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

Earnings Taxes

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

Sales Taxes

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

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

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

Property Tax Exemptions

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

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

Property Tax Caps

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

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

Real Estate Transfer Fees

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

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

Government Borrowing

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report.

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?

And then there were seven.  With the enactment of a tax expenditure reporting requirement in Georgia late last week, only seven states in the entire country continue to refuse to publish a tax expenditure report — i.e. a report identifying the plethora of special breaks buried within these states’ tax codes.  For the record, the states that are continuing to drag their feet are: Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming

But while the passage of this common sense reform in Georgia is truly exciting news, the version of the legislation that Governor Perdue ultimately signed was watered down significantly from the more robust requirement that had passed the Senate.  This chain of events mirrors recent developments in Virginia, where legislation that would have greatly enhanced that state’s existing tax expenditure report met a similar fate. 

In more encouraging news, however, legislation related to the disclosure of additional tax expenditure information in Massachusetts and Oklahoma seems to have a real chance of passage this year.

In Georgia, the major news is the Governor’s signing of SB 206 last Thursday.  While this would be great news in any state, it’s especially welcome in Georgia, where terrible tax policy has so far been the norm this year. 

SB 206 requires that the Governor’s budget include a tax expenditure report covering all taxes collected by the state’s Department of Revenue.  The report will include cost estimates for the previous, current, and future fiscal years, as well as information on where to find the tax expenditures in the state’s statutes, and the dates that each provision was enacted and implemented. 

Needless to say, this addition to the state’s budget document will greatly enhance lawmakers’ ability to make informed decisions about Georgia’s tax code. 

But as great as SB 206 is, the version that originally passed the Senate was even better.  Under that legislation, analyses of the purpose, effectiveness, distribution, and administrative issues surrounding each tax expenditure would have been required as well.  These requirements (which are, coincidentally, quite similar to those included in New Jersey’s recently enacted but poorly implemented legislation) would have bolstered the value of the report even further.

In Virginia, the story is fairly similar.  While Virginia does technically have a tax expenditure report, it focuses on only a small number of sales tax expenditures and leaves the vast majority of the state’s tax code completely unexamined.  Fortunately, the non-profit Commonwealth Institute has produced a report providing revenue estimates for many tax expenditures available in the state, but it’s long past time for the state to begin conducting such analyses itself.  HB355 — as originally introduced by Delegate David Englin — would have created an outstanding tax expenditure report that revealed not only each tax expenditure’s size, but also its effectiveness and distributional consequences. 

Unfortunately, the legislation was greatly watered down before arriving on the Governor’s desk.  While the legislation, which the Governor signed last month, will provide some additional information on corporate tax expenditures in the state, it lacks any requirement to disclose the names of companies receiving tax benefits, the number of jobs created as a result of the benefits, and other relevant performance information.  The details of HB355 can be found using the search bar on the Virginia General Assembly’s website.

The Massachusetts legislature, by contrast, recently passed legislation disclosing the names of corporate tax credit recipients.  While these names are already disclosed for many tax credits offered in the state, the Department of Revenue has resisted making such information public for those credits under its jurisdiction. 

While most business groups have predictably resisted the measure, the Medical Device Industry Council has basically shrugged its shoulders and admitted that it probably makes sense to disclose this information.  Unfortunately, a Senate provision that would have required the reporting of information regarding the jobs created by these credits was dropped before the legislation passed.

Finally, in Oklahoma, the House recently passed a measure requiring the identities of tax credit recipients to be posted on an existing website designed to disclose state spending information.  If ultimately enacted, the information will be made available in a useful, searchable format beginning in 2011.


How to Fix State Budgets and Help the Economy


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

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

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

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

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


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.


Virginia Gubernatorial Race Shows Sharp Contrast in Transportation Plans


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Up until last week, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds had attracted a lot of criticism for failing to take a position on raising taxes to fund transportation.  Now that criticism is old news, as Candidate Deeds has firmly stated: “I have voted for a number of mechanisms to fund transportation, including a gas tax. And [if elected Governor] I'll sign a bipartisan bill with a dedicated funding mechanism for transportation -- even if it includes new taxes.”  In contrast, Republican candidate Bob McDonnell has put forth a plan that has been rightly criticized by The Washington Post as relying on “wildly optimistic assumptions, brazen exaggerations, gauzy projections and far-off scenarios.”  McDonnell’s package consists of a hodge podge of proposals: some of which run counter to federal law, some of which are politically impossible, and some of which are attached to revenue estimates that can only be described as being “invented or, worse, an intentional distortion.”

Much of Virginia’s transportation problem stems from its inadequate gas tax.  Unlike sales taxes, which are collected as a percentage of an item’s purchase price, gasoline taxes are collected as a specific number of “cents per gallon.”  In Virginia, the gas tax has been at 17.5 cents per gallon of gasoline since 1987.

Of course, given inflation, 17.5 cents today isn’t worth nearly what it was in the 1980s.  More specifically, in 1987, 17.5 cents had about the same purchasing power as 33 cents does today.  In other words, over the last 22 years, inflation has cut the real value of the gas tax by nearly 50%.  Add to that the downward pressure on gasoline sales brought about by increasing vehicle fuel-efficiency, and it’s clear why the state’s transportation infrastructure is in such dire straits.

In this light, Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan completely misses the mark.  His plan to turn Virginia’s interstates into toll roads will require approval from the federal government – something which is far from certain.  His promise to sell off the state’s liquor stores has been attached to a $500 million revenue estimate that has been thoroughly rebutted as being wildly unrealistic, especially given its assumption that $100 million in current liquor store profits will be siphoned away from “mental health, substance abuse and other human services” in favor of transportation.  Moreover, McDonnell’s pledge to redirect sales tax revenue away from schools and public safety, and toward transportation could be categorized as outrageous, were it not so politically unrealistic as to be laughable.

Adding to the absurdity, one of McDonnell’s recent campaign ads bragged that The Washington Post found his transportation plan to be deserving of credit for “the extent and specificity of its proposals.”  But “specificity” is of little value if the specifics don’t add up.  In fact, the same article that McDonnell cites in his campaign ad also included the following passage:

“Given [the] crisis in funding, and the centrality of transportation infrastructure to Virginia's economy, you'd think the candidates for governor would advance serious, plausible proposals -- and that they would include fresh revenue from new taxes or fees.  Unfortunately, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican, is pushing a plan that mostly rules out such revenue and that would deliver significant new funds for road-building only at the probable expense of the state's colleges, public schools, police departments, prisons and health programs… [In addition], unfortunately, the new revenue [McDonnell] identifies is one-time-only, many years distant or paltry.”


Virginia Follows California on the Road to a Less Effective Corporate Tax


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As we mentioned last week, California enacted, as part of its budget compromise, a change in the rules determining what share of a corporation's income is taxable in the state. To be specific, California adopted an optional "single sales factor" apportionment formula, which multi-state corporations support -- because it will help them avoid taxes. Virginia appears to be following suit this week. Both of the state's legislative chambers have approved optional single sales factor apportionment, though only for manufacturers. The Governor has yet to sign the measure, and he has reportedly taken no position on the bill. You can read the ITEP Policy Brief explaining how single sales factor apportionment can reduce the fairness and adequacy of state corporate income taxes here.


Virginia Governor's Budget Plan Only Partly Hits the Mark


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It's a familiar problem across the nation. Virginia is facing a significant budget shortfall, and its political leaders are trying to identify the right mix of spending cuts and tax increases to balance their budget. The budget plan announced by Governor Kaine this week is not as progressive as it could be. While it's hard to criticize too harshly most of the individual changes that have been proposed, the Governor does appear to have missed a golden opportunity for more meaningful tax reform. Among the Governor's ideas are:

- Bump the state's cigarette tax rate up by a modest 30 cents. Virginia's cigarette tax is among the lowest in the nation. But as the Virginia Commonwealth Institute points out, the tax is regressive and the revenue it generates will provide little more than a temporary budget fix.

- End the state's yearly $64 million giveaway to retailers by eliminating its "dealer discount" program that allows retailers to pocket a portion of the sales tax they collect as compensation for the cost of collecting the tax. Good Jobs First recently issued a very detailed report on the problems associated with these programs.

- Scale back a credit offered to land-holders who agree to preserve their land. This credit has ballooned immensely in cost in recent years.

But the governor's plan also includes damaging cuts in education, public safety, transportation, and other areas. Rather than slicing funding and jobs from these core areas, the Governor could have followed the lead of the Virginia Commonwealth Institute by proposing to limit the eligibility of senior tax breaks so that only those in need can receive them, or by enacting combined reporting in order to close corporate loopholes. In addition, a much-needed restructuring of Virginia's income tax rate brackets, as proposed by the Virginia Organizing Project, would bring a welcome change to the state's outdated tax system.


Budget Fixes Worth Embracing


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This week, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) released a study examining Iowa's budget woes with an eye toward understanding how the state's fiscal situation will be impacted by Iowa's growing senior population. Not only are Iowa lawmakers currently grappling with a budget shortfall, this report predicts that more tough decisions are coming. One of the reasons that even harder times may be on the horizon is that Iowa, like many states, offers elderly preferences that are going to become more costly as America grays.

In fact, IFP found, "The aging of the population will probably produce a decline in state income tax revenue of 2 to 3 percent in Iowa, due largely to the adoption of tax preferences for seniors. If there were no elderly preferences in Iowa's income-tax code, the very small projected increases in total population combined with the aging of the population would increase income-tax revenues for a period of time, reaching a peak in 2015 at $2.27 billion."

The report offers helpful insight into why revenues aren't able to keep up with growing needs (beyond elderly preferences). Most notable is the sales tax base erosion taking place both because the state's tax base is made up of mostly goods and not services, and because of the continuing need to close the sales tax loophole which ensures that online purchases aren't subject to the sales tax. Resolving the problem of sales tax base erosion and poorly targeted elderly preferences is something many states could tackle now in their attempt to deal with their own budget mess. ITEP has written a variety of policy briefs on topics discussed here: elderly preferences in the tax code, sales tax base expansion, and taxing internet sales.

The Virginia based Commonwealth Institute recently issued their own set of recommendations offering suggestions on ways that the Old Dominion state could dig itself out of its budget crisis. These recommendations are good ideas any time, but will likely receive more attention now because of the state's budget crisis. Their recommendations include further means-testing of elderly tax preferences, and closing corporate loopholes through steps such as enacting combined reporting. The Institute takes a balanced approach and acknowledges that some cuts may need to be made and the state's rainy day fund may need to be tapped to deal with the state's shortfall. This balanced and comprehensive approach including both revenue enhancers and tax cuts may be the best solution for many states in crisis.


... and, Some Ideas to Reject


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

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

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


Budget Update: "How Many Times Can We Say No to Taxes?"


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Four of the nation's most populous states, together home to more than one out of every four Americans, are facing serious budget problems. Important new developments occurred in each of those states this week, the theme of which is perhaps best conveyed through California Republican Mike Villines' question: "How many times can we say no to taxes?" State residents will soon learn that this is really saying "no" to keeping alive public services like education, transportation and health care that families depend on.

See the following posts on the budget situations in California, Florida, New York, and Virginia.


Virginia: Looks Like All Spending Cuts Here, Too


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Sales and income tax revenues have both slowed in Virginia, stirring Governor Kaine to push his financial advisors to prepare a revised estimate of the inevitable budget shortfall a bit sooner than first expected. The official estimate won't be available until early October, but legislators and analysts are predicting that the shortfall will exceed $1 billion. The Governor has flatly rejected the idea of increasing any general fund taxes. Pure spending cuts, unaccompanied by any tax increases, appear to be in Virginia's future as well.


Sales Tax Holidays: Free Swirlies for Everyone


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As we mentioned last week, this is the season for fiscally irresponsible sales tax holidays to purportedly give relief to working people on their back-to-school shopping. Sales tax holidays are a bad idea for the states' budgets and tax-payers alike. Low-income families probably cannot time their purchases to take advantage of a sales tax holiday, and it can be an administrative headache for retailers and government. Sales tax holidays are also poorly targeted to low-income individuals compared to other policy solutions such as low-income tax credits.

Now another group of states is ready to forgo needed tax revenue in exchange for a few dollars off the purchase price of various goods. These states include Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia among others with holidays scheduled Friday through Sunday.

Meanwhile, a Birmingham News editorial points out that the sales tax holiday is a "gimmick" that has allowed state lawmakers to divert attention from their outrageously regressive tax code. Alabama is one of only two states that doesn't exempt or provide a low-income credit for its sales tax on groceries. If that were done, Alabama consumers would save far more money than they do on a three-day sales tax holiday (an average family of four would save about seven times as much). But instead of exempting groceries from sales taxes or raising the state's second-lowest in the nation income tax threshold, lawmakers pretend to help low-income Alabamians with a few tax-free shopping days a year.

Georgia's sales tax holiday began on Thursday and exempts articles of clothing costing less than $100, personal computers cheaper than $1500, and school supplies under $20. This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mentioned some of the more amusing exemptions covered by that state's sales tax holiday. These exemptions include corsets, bow ties and bowling shoes. As the author noted, guys headed to their first day back in school "might combine the bow ties and bowling shoes, then just head straight for the restroom to collect their free swirlie." The article also mentions ski suits, highly unlikely to be big sellers in Georgia, and adult diapers, seemingly unrelated to the average family's back-to-school needs. Georgia lawmakers may want to revise their list of exemptions to concentrate on discounting necessities, or better yet, end this farce once and for all.


Virginia: Taxes Won't Get Larger, But the Potholes Will


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Virginia legislators last week proved themselves totally incapableof raising revenue, no matter how serious the need. In the wake of a ruling from the state's Supreme Court that struck down the previous regional transportation funding regime, legislators recently assembled in a special session with hopes of resolving the resulting $3 billion transportation funding shortfall that will hit the state over the next six years. In part as a result of regional rivalries, that special session ended in complete failure last week when not one tax increase could be agreed upon.

As one legislator stated proudly, "For now, asking families to pay more is something the public doesn't support, and as we've seen, nor does the General Assembly". What this sentiment fails to consider is that the public also does not support the gross underfunding of transportation that will result from this session. Even the business community, a group traditionally opposed to tax hikes, has begun to voice serious frustrations regarding the inability of the Virginia government to produce a means of paying for needed transportation improvements.

Two major plans to boost tax revenues were proposed during the session as a fix for Virginia's inevitable transportation shortfall. These plans included options such as raising taxes on the sale of real estate, vehicle sales taxes, state and/or regional sales taxes, and the gas tax. One of these options even included some progressive elements, such as eliminating the sales tax on groceries.

The gas tax is an especially appealing option in Virginia, where the tax hasn't increased since 1987. As a result of inflation, Virginians are currently paying the equivalent of 47% less per gallon than they did at the time of the last tax hike. In 2008 dollars, this amounts to about a 15 cent tax cut on each gallon purchased. While this is somewhat good news for lower-income families hurt by rising gas prices, it's very bad news for the state transportation infrastructure. A change in the gas tax could improve infrastructure funding while a low-income tax credit, as proposed by the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute, could provide ample protection for poor families.


State Transportation Woes Have Common Thread


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North Carolina is suffering from an increase in the cost of asphalt. Asphalt is made of petroleum derivatives, and its cost has increased 25% since the end of 2006. This is causing the state to cut back on road repaving projects which are likely to cost more money to accomplish the longer they go unrepaired.

In Missouri, the state has a projected $1 billion transportation fund deficit. It is only expected to be able to meet 40% of obligations starting July 2009. In spite of this, all three major candidates for Missouri Governor pledge not to raise the state motor fuels tax. The two Republican gubernatorial contenders, Sarah Steelman and Kenny Hulshof suggest dedicating general funds revenue to transportation and privatizing some state roadways respectively.

Virginia is currently confronting a "growing bridge and road maintenance shortfall" which is depriving money from road construction. Governor Tim Kaine has recently released a proposal to raise vehicle registration fees and sales taxes on vehicles, while keeping the state fuel tax unchanged.

These states have in common a tendency to tinker around the edges of transportation funding policy while failing to address the taboo topic of gas taxes. The root cause of these transportation troubles is that the gas tax has been kept too low to finance the transportation needs in all these states.

Most states have a "per gallon" gas tax that leaves them unable to cope with rising costs of transportation as inflation erodes the value of the tax collected on each gallon. North Carolina's gas tax has been capped at 29.9 cents since 2006 due to pressure from anti-tax activist Bill Graham, although it was formerly readjusted to reflect price changes twice a year. Missouri has not raised its gasoline tax since 1996 and Virginia's gasoline tax has stayed constant since 1992. None of these states index their gasoline tax either to transportation costs or the general inflation rate.

Sometimes even a major crisis is not enough to get politicians to consider gas tax adjustments. Due to Iowa's recent flooding, Iowa's legislature is likely to convene an emergency session to confront their newly pressing infrastructure needs and find sources of funds for disaster recovery. Legislators rejected efforts to raise the gasoline tax earlier in the year to fill the $200 million highway maintenance deficit, opting instead to tinker around the edges and simply raise vehicle registration fees. But even now, the Iowa House Majority Leader considers a hike in the gasoline tax "an absolute, absolute last resort," with gas selling for $4/gallon.

Even a spectacular tragedy is sometimes not enough to get politicians to wake up. Before the August 2007 Minnesota I-35W bridge collapse, Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill raising the gasoline tax 7.5 cents per gallon, calling it "an unnecessary and onerous burden" as consumers were paying $3 per gallon for gasoline in May 2007. This was in a state that hadn't adjusted its gasoline tax in 19 years. Not even a bridge collapse and transportation funding shortfall of nearly $2 billion were enough to change the governor's position that gas taxes are anathema. Needed road and bridge repairs were being neglected, with obviously dire consequences. Fortunately, Minnesota lawmakers were finally able to override Governor Pawlenty's veto in February, raising the gas tax by 8.5 cents.

For many, there will never be a "right time" to raise the gas tax. It wasn't the right time at $2 per gallon in 2005 when Gov. Pawlenty first vetoed a gas tax increase, nor at $3 per gallon in 2007, nor now at $4 per gallon. In fact, it's never the "right time" to raise any kind of tax... no one wants to pay more than they have to. But sometimes in order fund vital services policymakers need to come together and bite the bullet as they did in Minnesota, even if it is politically difficult.

Opponents have sometimes successfully argued that raising the gasoline tax would be regressive and particularly damaging to the economy in such a car-dependent nation. But gas tax increases can be done in conjunction with progressive measures, such as raising the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating a refundable gas tax credit as was done in Minnesota and proposed in Virginia.


Note to Lawmakers: People Will Not Automatically Love You if You Slash Taxes at Any Cost


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Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore's quixotic quest to repeal that state's "car tax" a decade ago was emblematic of two popular (if misguided) tax policy themes of the late 1990s: unaffordable tax cuts prompted by ephemeral budget surpluses, and faux-populist efforts to cut state and local property taxes on motor vehicles. Gilmore's car tax cut was ultimately pared back in the face of huge budget deficits, and many observers have been sharply critical of his efforts to make his car tax cut seem more affordable than it actually was.

Nonetheless, after a six year absence from elected office, Gilmore has returned to Virginia to campaign for an open US Senate seat this fall. However, the ex-governor is finding less than a warm welcome from elected officials who still remember the car tax debacle: a Republican House member who was instrumental in the passage of Gilmore's original tax cuts has announced his endorsement of Mark Warner, Gilmore's Democratic rival for the Senate seat, citing the governor's use of erroneous fiscal forecasts in beating the drum for the car tax repeal effort. The lesson for policymakers: championing tax cuts isn't a recipe for political success unless your state can actually afford them.

At the request of Governor Tim Kaine, the Virginia legislature will be convening in a special session next month to figure out how to pay for much-needed transportation maintenance. The solution most observers expect to come out of that session will involve some combination of increases in the gas tax, in the sales tax, and/or in vehicle-related fees. Unfortunately, each of these options is regressive, taking a larger share of the income of lower- and middle-income taxpayers than from their wealthier neighbors. A recent report from the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute offers a couple of inexpensive options for policymakers to offset the disproportionate impact these tax increases will have on more vulnerable low-income families.

Along the same lines as a program recently enacted in Minnesota, the report recommends coupling any gas or sales tax hike with a $30 credit per family member for families earning less than $20,000 per year ($40,000 for married families). By limiting the credit to only low-income families, this option would be a very inexpensive way of protecting families in need from further strain upon their already tightening budgets. The credit would cost only $80 million per year, while a one cent sales tax increase would raise $940 million and a ten cent gas tax hike would raise about $500 million. Even states not contemplating a gas tax hike should give consideration to the idea of new or expanded low-income credits. A refundable credit of this sort is much preferable to the gas tax holiday shenanigans being floated at both the federal and state levels as a solution to the squeeze many families are feeling.

In addition, the report suggests making the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refundable. Of the over twenty states that currently offer an EITC, Virginia is one of only three that fails to refund amounts of the credit beyond one's income tax liability. The result of this is that for those low-income families who owe little or no income tax, the EITC is of very little use in offsetting the impact of regressive sales and property taxes. Failing to make the EITC refundable denies assistance precisely to those families who need it the most.


Virginia Rejects Tax Formula that Would Have Tipped the Scales to Large Companies


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This week tax justice advocates in Virginia (including the Commonwealth Institute and the Virginia Organizing Project) defeated a bill that would have favored large companies with out-of-state business at the expense of smaller "mom and pop" establishments. House Bill 1514 had been approved by a daunting 94-0 vote in the House, but then the bill hit a massive road block in the Senate Finance Committee, which voted 9-7 to not take action on the bill this year and instead carry the bill over to next year.

This bill would have allowed manufacturers operating in the state to figure their tax bills using a Single Sales Factor (SSF) apportionment approach. Each state uses its own apportionment formula, which is basically a formula to separate each company's nationwide taxable business income into an "in-state" portion and an "out-of-state" portion. Often these formulas use three factors in determining tax liability: the percentage of the corporation's property, payroll, and sales that are in the state. Currently Virginia has a double-weighted sales tax formula that relies on all three of the factors mentioned, but doubles the sales factor in the calculation. The SSF approach would use only a sales component. The Commonwealth Institute published a brief describing the pitfalls of this approach.

Allowing manufacturers to have the option of using only a sales component has not proven to be an effective economic development tool in the eight states that had SSF in effect for at least six years. The brief explains that "smaller Virginia firms, which are not as likely to be taxable in other states, are not able to profit from this approach, while their significantly larger, multistate competitors are." Some have claimed that the SSF approach can lead to company relocation, but there is little evidence to back this. For example, in 2005 Michael Mazerov at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote a paper which found that the SSF "tax incentive have had little impact on Intel Corp's major plant location decisions."


Virginia: Undocumented Immigrants Pay Taxes, Too


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All too often, anti-immigration advocates assert that undocumented families impose huge costs on state budgets without contributing anything to state coffers in return. But a new report from the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis finds otherwise. The report, Tax Contributions of Virginia's Undocumented Immigrants, points out that many state and local taxes-- including the sales and excise that fall hardest on low- and middle-income families-- are paid by everyone, legal or not, and estimates that undocumented families in Virginia likely paid as much as $400 million in these taxes in 2006. The widespread attention given the report by Virginia-based media should help to inform immigration policy debates, as similar reports already have done in in Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, New Mexico, and Oregon.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis has released a report detailing the impact that Virginia's undocumented workers have on the state's budget. The report called Fiscal Facts: Tax Contributions of Virginia's Undocumented Immigrants finds that the state's undocumented population pay between $145 and $174 million in state income, sales, and property taxes. It has recieved wide attention in the media and will help to inform the debate regarding the many contributions made by undocumented Virginians. Similar state specific reports have been issued in Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, New Mexico, and Oregon.


Hall of Shame: Study Names States that Levy Income Taxes on Poor Families


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Despite a growing consensus that imposing income taxes on families living in poverty is a terrible idea, many states continue to do so. According to a new Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, " The Impact of State Income Taxes on Low-Income Families in 2006," 19 states collect income taxes on two-parent families of four who live below the federal poverty level. The report discusses some of the options available to states to prevent those in poverty from having to spend their limited resources on income taxes, including state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs), no-tax floors, and personal exemptions and standard deductions.

The good news is that states are increasingly seeking to avoid imposing their income tax on those who can least afford to pay it. A promising example of this is in Alabama, where the efforts of Alabama Arise have helped to spearhead state income tax changes that have decreased the income tax on those living in poverty by increasing the income filing threshold used to determine whether income taxes are owed (from an unbelievably low $4,600 to a still egregious $12,600). Although the state still ranks at or near the bottom in terms of the state income tax imposed on its poor, additional reform proposals have been made this year that would further increase the income threshold to $15,600 or $15,800.

Another positive development has occurred in Virginia, where lawmakers recently enacted a law that will raise the state income tax filing threshold from $7,000 to $11,950 for individuals and from $12,000 to $23,900 for couples.

Alabama and Virginia represent two examples of positive developments in decreasing the disproportionate tax imposed on the working poor by nearly every state. An even better solution to this problem would include refundable tax credits, like those found in the federal (and increasingly within state) EITC's.


Clock Ticking for Virginia Transportation Debate


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The stoplight has turned yellow for Virginia legislators in their attempt to pass transportation funding - now will they speed up or slam on the brakes? With the state legislature set to adjourn on Saturday, the House and Senate have appointed conferees to negotiate a compromise to raise much needed revenue for transportation projects.

While both proposals would authorize the raising of $2 billion in bonds, the House's proposal would garner additional transportation funding through an annual diversion of $250 million from the state's general fund as well as through increases in user fees and diesel fuel taxes. Meanwhile, the Senate's proposal would avoid a general fund diversion and instead raise the additional funding by implementing new auto registration fees of $150 per driver.


Virginia Governor: Focus on Tax Fairness


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Last week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine unveiled his proposal to increase the state's income tax threshold. This proposal comes three years after former Governor Mark Warner signed into law a massive tax restructuring that was mostly geared towards adequacy. The current Governor's proposal builds on past tax reform efforts but is also intended to make the tax structure more fair. He's proposing to increase the personal income tax filing threshold from $7,000 to $12,000 for singles and from $12,000 to $24,000 for couples. Governor Kaine's proposal is a small step towards tax fairness but doesn't do much to offset the regressivity of the state's tax structure.


ITEP Speaks Out On Sales Tax Holidays


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Sales tax holidays are growing in popularity this year with four more states, Alabama, Maryland, Tennessee and Virginia, joining nine others and the District of Columbia in waiving sales and use taxes for a limited time during July and August. To see a list of participating states and tax holiday dates, click here.

As ITEP staff told USA Today earlier this week, "This tax break makes sense for lawmakers because it's cheap and avoids real reform." State legislatures claim that tax holidays alleviate the tax burden on working families and jump-start local retail businesses. In reality, however, sales tax holidays are a political gimmick that probably helps consumers less than proponents claim.

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