State Tax Issues News



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



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

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

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

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



Property Tax Loans Another Frontier for Predatory Lenders



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Unscrupulous lenders in Texas are takingadvantage of homeowners struggling to pay their property taxes--a practice Texas lawmakers could halt by providing relief to homeowners once property taxes reach a certain percentage of income.

This form of predatory lending has nothing to do with more common payday advances, tax refund anticipation loans, or auto title loans. Instead, property tax lenders pay off homeowners' delinquent taxes and allow them to repay the loan over a set period. These lenders take advantage of consumers much in the same way as other predatory companies by offering loans at usurious rates and entangling customers in a web of debt that most can ill afford.

The industry, not surprisingly, claims it provides a service to homeowners facing financial pressure from rising property taxes, but as Robert Doggett, an attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, explained, these borrowers are “jump[ing] from a frying pan into a fire.” Property tax loans, which totaled $224 million in 2011, give the lender first priority at recouping its money at foreclosure.


“Low” Taxes Cost

Texas prides itself on being a low-tax state. But in truth its regressive tax structure requires fairly high tax payments from poorer residents. The poorest 20 percent of Texans pay more of their income in taxes than the rest of the state’s population, and they pay more than low-income residents in all but five states. This is in part due to high sales and property taxes.

Just as payday loans are not the solution to persistent poverty and the plethora of low-wage jobs, property-tax loans are not a solution for homeowners struggling to pay property taxes.

Property-tax lenders are a business foremost concerned with profitability. They don’t have consumers’ best interest in mind. While a local government may be willing to put a resident on an installment plan to prevent foreclosure -- and all the negative economic and social costs that come with it -- private property tax lenders are all too happy to scare consumers into predatory loans and push homes into foreclosure.

State authorities are trying to regulate the industry, and state lawmakers have recently passed legislation that would give homeowners better options for paying off delinquent property taxes. But one simple way to prevent the root cause of the problem has been overlooked: a property tax circuit breaker.

Policy Solution

Property tax circuit breakers provide a tax credit to homeowners (or, in some cases, renters) once property taxes reach a certain percentage of their income. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of the credit in their tax code, but not Texas. In fact, Texas Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation in 2009 that would have required the state comptroller merely to study the feasibility of a circuit breaker. Circuit breakers protect low- and moderate-income taxpayers from unaffordable property tax increases, which helps avoid tax delinquency and the subsequent need for property tax loans. Texas would be wise to consider such a policy.



Norquist-Backed Tax Cut for the Rich Fails in Tennessee



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Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, along with the Tax Foundation and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity all tried to convince Tennessee lawmakers that the state’s wealthiest investors need a tax cut.  Fortunately for Tennesseans, their elected officials rejected that idea this week.

 At issue was the state’s “Hall Tax,” a 6 percent levy on stock dividends, certain capital gains, and interest.  Tennessee does not tax wages, business income, pensions, Social Security, or virtually any other type of income imaginable.  But for anti-tax groups, even the state’s narrow income tax on investors was too much to stomach.

The Tax Foundation put out an alert claiming Tennessee could improve in its (highly questionable) tax climate ranking by repealing the tax, while Grover Norquist traveled to Tennessee to urge repeal and Americans for Prosperity ran a series of radio ads doing the same.

The state’s comptroller got in on the action as well, bizarrely suggesting that the Hall Tax is bad policy because it is not primarily paid by large families or low-income people lacking health insurance.

But ultimately, sensible concerns that repeal would require damaging cuts in state and local public services eventually won out, and the bill’s sponsor dropped his plan.

This is good news for people concerned with the fairness and adequacy of state tax systems.  As our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explained in a report picked up by The Tennessean, these cuts in public investments would have come with no corresponding tax benefit for the vast majority of households:

“Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the tax cuts would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of Tennessee taxpayers, while another quarter (23 percent) would actually end up in the federal government’s coffers. Moreover, if localities respond to Hall Tax repeal by raising property taxes, some Tennesseans could actually face higher tax bills under this proposal.”

Tennesseans can breathe a sigh of relief that this top-heavy tax repeal plan didn’t make it into law this year.  But you can bet that Grover et al. will try again soon as they attempt to set in motion a national trend away from progressive income taxes.



Kansas Lawmakers Compliance With Supreme Court Decision Proves Difficult



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Kansas lawmakers just passed legislation to comply with the recent state Supreme Court ruling mandating increased K-12 funding to poor school districts, but it didn’t come easy.

The Kansas City Star notes that “[l]awmakers discussed taking the money out of the state’s reserve fund, but those dollars are needed just to keep the lights on in state government. They talked about taking from some educational funds to give to others. They considered shaking out pockets looking for spare change. At one point, senators were reduced to eying the $2 million in the problem gambling fund.”

These difficult choices are a direct result of the last two years of radical tax cuts. Governor Sam Brownback’s supply-side promises notwithstanding, his regressive income tax cuts show no sign of paying for themselves anytime soon, which means lawmakers must look under cushions to meet their court-mandated funding obligations.

The current budget is balanced precariously. As the Kansas City Star reminds us, “Right now, the budget is balanced only by dipping into reserve funds. If current revenue and spending trends continue, it will go underwater in 2016. After that, a state that is shortchanging its universities and disabled citizens will have to start cutting more deeply; forecasters estimate $962 million in cuts by the 2019 fiscal year. Kansas already is raiding its highway fund to pay for transportation of school students and even a chunk of the debt service for the recently completed statehouse reconstruction. Part of the teachers’ pension funds are coming from gambling revenues, in apparent violation of state statute.”

Having found $129 million in new money for poor school districts, the legislature clearly felt the need to dispel any illusion on the part of voters that they actually value public schools, and added legislative measures to undermine them. Kansas is now the latest state to enact “neo-vouchers,” corporate tax credits for companies making contributions to private schools. As we’ve explained in the past, this back-door approach to school vouchers erodes corporate tax revenues, takes money away from already-strapped public schools, and limits state policymakers’ oversight of the private schools receiving these state-funded scholarships. In other words, having grudgingly given new revenue to public schools with one hand, they now will be taking it away with the other.



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



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

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

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

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



Cuomo Gets His Election-Year, Tax Cut Wish



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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got his election-year wish: a $2 billion tax cut package that doles out goodies to Wall Street banks and rich homeowners. Cuomo, a Democrat who likely has presidential ambitions, sold the tax cuts under the false promise that they would help New York businesses “thrive.” Tax cuts have become something of an obsession for Cuomo, despite the fact that important public investments have been neglected by five consecutive years of austerity budgets.

Here’s a run-down of the tax changes in the budget deal:

Property tax: A three-year property tax rebate program will cut homeowners’ taxes by $1.5 billion by “freezing” the amount many currently pay. But the cuts won’t be evenly distributed and generally won’t target those most in need of relief. For those living in local jurisdictions that comply with a 2 percent property tax cap and working to consolidate services with neighboring jurisdictions, the state will send homeowners (only those with household income under $500,000 qualify) a check for the amount of any increase in property taxes over the prior year (the checks are conveniently scheduled to be sent out for right before the November elections). For those living in New York City, which is not subject to the tax cap, low-income homeowners and renters will be eligible for a small, refundable property tax circuit breaker credit which will cost $85 million a year. Unfortunately, an expanded circuit breaker tax credit available to homeowners across the state-- one of the best ways to provide targeted property tax reductions-- was dropped from the final bill.

Business taxes: Corporations will get more than $500 million in tax cuts, including a permanent across-the-board corporate income tax rate cut from 7.1 percent to 6.5 percent. Manufacturers will be zeroed out from paying the corporate income tax altogether and will also receive a new property tax credit. Though Cuomo has heralded his business cuts as a boon to manufacturers, they in fact already pay very low rates (Our recent state corporate tax study found that Corning, for example, paid only a 0.3% state tax rate on $3.5 billion in profits over the past five years) and the primary beneficiaries are predominantly Wall Street banks.  The package eliminates the state’s bank tax, subjecting banks instead to the corporate income tax, and also allows them to pay only 8 percent of their income from qualified financial instruments (securities) under the assumption that 92 percent of their income from these sales comes from customers outside of New York.

Estate tax: Though there had been talk of also lowering rates, legislators ultimately agreed to cut the state’s estate tax by increasing the exemption from $1 million to $5.25 million, the threshold currently used at the federal level.

We’ll let others analyze the budget as a whole, which is worth $138 billion and includes important provisions on charter schools, pre-K, and campaign finance. But on the tax front, the bill falls far short of the type of targeted, progressive reform that is so badly needed.



Good and Bad Tax Policy in Maryland



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The estate tax, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and film tax credits were all major topics of debate in Maryland this year.  Now that the state’s legislative session has ended, here’s a quick look at what happened on each of these issues.

Estate tax:  Despite having the highest concentration of millionaires in the country, Maryland lawmakers say they’re very concerned the estate tax may be driving wealthy residents out of the state.  Because of this, both the House and Senate approved a bill benefiting estates worth more than $1 million.  Assuming the governor signs the bill, which seems likely, Maryland’s estate tax exemption will increase from $1 million to more than $5.3 million by the end of the decade.  This is unfortunate since, as we explained in testimony before both of Maryland’s tax-writing committees, an estate tax cut will reduce the adequacy and fairness of the state’s tax system without producing any economic benefit.

Earned Income Tax Credit:  In better news, Maryland lawmakers unanimously agreed to expand the state’s EITC.  Maryland currently allows taxpayers to choose between a refundable EITC equal to 25 percent of the federal credit, or a 50 percent nonrefundable EITC.  Legislation approved on Monday will gradually increase the refundable portion of the credit to 28 percent, which means low-income taxpayers who earn too little to owe personal income taxes will receive a somewhat larger refund to help offset the significant amounts (PDF) of sales and property taxes they pay each year.

Film tax credit:  A couple months ago, the producers of Netflix’s “House of Cards” threatened to leave the state unless lawmakers gave them more taxpayer dollars through the state’s film tax credit program.  Despite trying mightily to comply with their demand, the legislature ultimately failed to reach an agreement on a bill that would have shelled out an extra $3.5 million to the filmmakers.  Less encouraging, however, is that the show could still collect another $15 million in tax credits—on top of the millions it has already received.



ITEP Predicts Illinois Tax Reform Debate...and Then Puts Crystal Ball Away



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Earlier this year our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy predicted Illinois would be a state “taking on real tax reform.” Policymakers in Illinois are making our crystal ball look very reliable as a bevy of tax reform measures are being seriously discussed. The pressure is on Illinois lawmakers to do something to enhance revenue because the state’s temporary 5 percent income tax rate is set to fall to 3 percent in 2015. The following is a roundup of some of the proposals being discussed.

Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn delivered his budget address. During the speech he discussed “comprehensive tax reform [that] protects children, working families and seniors while preventing radical cuts to critical services.” The governor’s proposal includes making permanent the temporary income tax hike, doubling the state’s small Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), providing a new $500 refundable tax credit for homeowners, and new tax cuts for businesses.

The day before Gov. Quinn’s address, Sen. Don Harmon released his own version of tax reform that would increase the progressivity of the state’s income tax by introducing a graduated rate structure. Taxpayers would see their first $12,500 of taxable income taxed at 2.9 percent. Taxable income between $12,500 and $180,000 would be taxed at 4.9 percent, as opposed to the current 5 percent rate. And taxpayers with taxable income over $180,000 would see that income taxed at 6.9 percent. No Illinoisan with income under $200,000 would see a tax hike under this plan.

Since the Illinois constitution mandates a single income tax rate, Senator Harmon’s plan would require a 3/5th majority vote in the House and Senate, as well as a vote of the people. Illinois Voices for Children rightly argues that Senator Harmon’s proposal (or one like it) is necessary to create a more equitable tax structure.

But Harmon and Quinn’s plans are hardly the only ones under discussion. Late last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan put forward his own constitutional amendment that levies a 3 percent surcharge on Illinois millionaires. The proposal was approved by the House Revenue Committee. Speaker Madigan admits his plan wouldn’t solve the state’s budget woes noting that this is especially true if the current income tax rate is allowed to expire, “We’ll still struggle with a budget for the state of Illinois because there will be a great loss of revenue unless we extend the increase in the income tax.” That same House committee voted down a proposal that would eliminate the state’s current flat rate income tax and replace it with graduated rates and brackets. Let’s hope there is more debate on this important issue.

We aren’t going to press our luck again and dust off our crystal ball to predict what the outcome of this debate will be. But tax justice advocates everywhere should be heartened to hear that real reform is being discussed in a state where there is a desperate need for it. The Illinois tax structure is one of the ten worst in the nation in terms of fairness, and income tax reform could go a long way to improving this grim situation.



How Long Has it Been Since Your State Raised Its Gas Tax?



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State gas tax policies have changed a lot in recent months, which makes two new fact sheets from our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) especially useful in understanding where states stand on this issue.

The first fact sheet shows that 24 states have gone a decade or more without increasing their gas tax rate, and that 16 states have gone two decades or more.  This lack of action has allowed for a significant drop in the purchasing power of these states’ gas tax dollars as the cost of construction and maintenance has increased.  The worst gas tax procrastinators are Alaska (43.9 years), Virginia (27.3 years), Oklahoma (26.9 years), Iowa (25.3 years), Mississippi (25.3 years), and South Carolina (25.3 years). 

The fact sheet also shows that four states are “celebrating” gas tax anniversaries this week.  As of April 1st, it has been exactly 18 years since Idaho and Missouri raised their gas tax rates, while South Dakota and Wisconsin have gone 15 and 8 years, respectively.  The only state raising its gas tax this April 1st is Vermont, where the rate is rising by less than a tenth of a penny per gallon.

The second fact sheet from ITEP puts a spotlight on those 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, that actually levy a smarter gas tax.  Rather than going years on end without a change in their gas tax rates, these states allow for modest increases in their tax rates each year through the use of a “variable-rate” tax that rises with inflation or gas prices. 

As a result of reforms enacted in four states last year, a majority of the country’s population now lives in a state where the gas tax rate is “indexed” in this way.  This isn’t a radical idea.  More states, and the federal government, should take a serious look at switching to a variable-rate gas tax.

Read the fact sheets:

How Long Has it Been Since Your State Raised Its Gas Tax?

Most Americans Live in States with Variable-Rate Gas Taxes

 



State News Quick Hits: State Lawmakers Not Getting the Message



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Less than a year after enacting a significant (and progressive) revenue raising tax package, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed off last week on more than $400 million of tax cuts. The new legislation repeals several changes put into place last year including removing warehouse storage and 2 other primarily business services from the sales tax base and eliminating a new gift tax. The tax cuts also include reductions in the personal income tax via aligning the state’s tax code more closely to federal rules. Low- and moderate-income working families will also see a small benefit from two changes made to the state’s Working Families Credit (Minnesota’s version of a state Earned Income Tax credit (EITC).

A mother of two in Kentucky has made an impassioned plea to her state legislators to support the creation of a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). More than half of all states have enacted such a credit, which is proven to increase workforce participation and improve health outcomes for children. As Jeanie Smith writes in her op-ed, “I know that we could have put that tax credit to good use. We could have used it toward the textbooks for my husband, or to take the stress out of a month's bills.” There are lots of strong arguments for adding a state EITC to Kentucky’s quite regressive tax code (PDF), and the Governor has proposed establishing a state EITC as part of his tax reform plan. Hopefully, Jeanie’s articulation of what a state EITC would mean for her and other families like hers will persuade those not yet on board.

The Montgomery Advertiser recently ran a very powerful editorial about the problems with low taxes. Lawmakers should give careful thought to one of the questions the editors pose in the piece: “We don’t pay a lot in taxes in Alabama and historically have taken a perverse pride in that. But is this really a bargain, or is it a fine example of false economy, of short-changing public investment to the detriment of our people?”

Our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) have long been critical of gimmicky sales tax holidays that provide little help to the poor or the economy. But Florida lawmakers don’t appear to have gotten the message, as the state House’s tax-writing committee recently advanced four “super-sized” sales tax holidays for purchases as varied as school supplies and gym memberships. Altogether, the package would drain $141 million from the state’s budget that could otherwise be been spent on education, infrastructure, and other public investments.

Newspapers in Oregon and North Carolina published editorials using data from ITEP and CTJ’s latest report on state corporate income taxes to highlight the need for corporate tax reform in their states. Check out The Oregonian’s editorial, “Extremes of Corporate Tax System Show Need for Reform” and one from the Greensboro News & Record, “Next to Nothing.”



Grover Norquist cares a lot about Tennessee taxes. You should too.



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(Blog Post Originally Appeared in The Hill)

It’s not breaking news that partisanship has gridlocked Congress these last few years, and most policy change has occurred at the state level. State legislatures have debated and enacted laws affecting issues as varied as minimum wage, infrastructure investment, education, environmental protection, and voting rights.

National groups seeking to cut taxes for the wealthy are well aware that policy change in states may be their best bet right now, and they’ve set their sights high. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, as well as Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups, continue to advocate for full repeal of state income taxes, with an eye toward setting a national trend in motion.

So far, most proposals to do away with state income taxes have run into a brick wall called reality after legislators learned that repeal would mean damaging cuts in public investments and significant tax hikes on the poor and middle-class. Proposals for income tax repeal recently failed in Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. The only state in U.S. history to repeal its personal income tax is Alaska, which threw out the tax in the 1980s when it was awash in newfound oil tax revenues.

Now it seems anti-tax proponents have found a test case in Tennessee. The Volunteer State has a regressive tax code built mainly around the sales tax. Unlike most states, it doesn’t have a general income tax on salaries and wages. But it does levy the Hall Tax, a modest 6 percent assessment on investment income that largely falls on wealthy Tennesseans with large stock portfolios. In recent months, a number of right-wing groups have spent significant resources backing a bill that would repeal this tax.

These groups are toeing their typical line, saying repeal will make Tennessee “economically competitive.” But the mediocre experiences of states that have recently cut income taxes don’t support that assertion.

Moreover, the vast majority of Tennesseans don’t pay the Hall Tax. The law exempts business income, wages, pensions, Social Security, and most other types of income Tennesseans earn. Only people with more than $2,500 in dividends, interest, and certain capital gains pay anything at all. Low- and moderate-income residents over age 65 are entirely exempt.

Given the Hall Tax’s limited scope, it generates only about 1 percent of the state’s revenue, making it low-hanging fruit for tax repeal advocates who have met with failure in states where personal income taxes generate significantly more revenue. 

While repealing the Hall Tax could yield fruit for the no-tax agenda, it’s not in Tennesseans’ best interest. My colleagues and I at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy produced an analysis that found the top 5 percent of earners would receive a whopping 63 percent of the benefits of the tax cut. Another 23 would go to the federal government because residents who pay the tax would no longer be able to write-off those payments on their federal tax returns. The remaining 14 percent of revenue lost by the cut would be spread thinly among the bottom 95 percent of households.

Although most ordinary working Tennesseans would see no benefit to their pocketbooks, they certainly would see the effect on state and local budgets. The $260 million revenue loss resulting from Hall Tax repeal would require Tennessee to scale back investments in education, infrastructure, and other services vitally important to the state’s success. Local communities would be hit particularly hard since more than one out of every three dollars generated by the tax goes to local government budgets. And if communities respond to this revenue loss by increasing property taxes, many Tennesseans could see their overall tax bills rise under this so-called “tax cut.”

The vagaries of Tennessee legislation may seem inconsequential for people outside the Volunteer State. But anyone concerned about how states and local governments fund basic services should be worried that national anti-tax groups have set their sights on repealing the Hall Tax. Tennessee isn’t this train’s first stop, and it won’t be the last.



Tax Cuts Fall Flat in Idaho



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Tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals were on the table in Idaho this year, but lawmakers ultimately decided that adequately funding education is more important.  Governor Butch Otter started the year by trying to couple income and property tax cuts with an increase in education funding, but the legislature opted to drop the tax cuts entirely and double his education funding proposal.  Far from being upset at the development, Otter conceded that “I think that they found a better use for the money than tax relief this year.”

Idaho’s big business lobby reacted very differently, complaining that lawmakers didn’t “truly do what’s right for business.”  In their eyes, it’s more important to eliminate the property tax on large businesses’ equipment and machinery, despite the fact that the largest beneficiary of that plan (IDACorp) is already managing to avoid paying anything in state corporate income taxes.

The other major tax cut ideas under discussion were reducing the state’s corporate income tax rate, as well as its top personal income tax rate.  But in a report we issued last week, we showed that many companies are already paying very little in state corporate income tax thanks to “copious loopholes, lavish giveaways and crafty accounting.”  And when our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analyzed the impact of an earlier cut in the state’s top personal income tax rate, they found that most of the tax cuts flowed to the state’s top 1 percent of earners, and that the vast majority of Idahoans received no benefit.

Idahoans should feel relieved that none of these regressive ideas were enacted into law this year.



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



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

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

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

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



Big News in Ohio: Governor's Unfair Tax Cut Plan Unveiled



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Last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich released his “Transforming Ohio for Jobs + Growth” tax cut package. As we predicted, the plan includes an 8.5 percent across the board income tax rate reduction which would drop the top tax rate from 5.33 to 4.88 percent. The proposal also slightly increases the state’s small non-refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), introduces an extra exemption for low income families, and raises the cigarette tax. Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) staff quickly produced an analysis of the proposal’s main provisions. Policy Matters Ohio (PMO) published this analysis in their brief “Kasich Tax Plan: Advantage, Top 1 Percent” and concluded that better off Ohioans would do much better under the Kasich plan. In fact, the plan delivers annual tax cuts on average worth $2,847 to the top 1 percent of Ohio taxpayers while taxpayers in the bottom two-fifths on average would pay more than they do now.

Though increases in the EITC and the new personal exemption are small steps toward tax fairness, increasing tobacco taxes and cutting income tax rates would would be a step backward. PMO research director Zach Schiller says, “Boosting the EITC and personal exemptions for the least affluent are positive steps that would help low- and moderate-income Ohioans. But these measures do not change the fundamental math of the proposal:  It is an additional tax shift from those most able to pay to poor and moderate-income Ohioans.”

There is no guarantee that the proposal will actually become law. The anti-tax group headed by Grover Norquist called the proposal “less than inspiring.” Some lawmakers have already asked the fiscally irresponsible question about what it would cost to preserve the revenue cuts while removing the tax hikes from the plan, other lawmakers are asking for evidence that tax cuts actually create jobs. For those interested in political theatre this is a state to watch.  A recent editorial in the Toledo Blade predicts that the proposal “will dominate the legislative and campaign debates.” Stay tuned.



State News Quick Hits: Don't Expect Much from Congress



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Reuters reports that state lawmakers shouldn’t expect Congress to act anytime soon to close the enormous hole in their sales tax bases created by online shopping. Sales tax enforcement on purchases made over the Internet is a messy patchwork right now because states can only require retailers with a store or other “physical presence” within their borders to collect the tax. (Amazon, for example, is only required to collect the tax in 20 states). This uneven treatment of online retailers versus brick-and-mortar stores is nothing new, but the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee insists that more debate is needed before his chamber will act on the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last spring.

 

Hawaii lawmakers are giving serious consideration to enhancing a number of tax credits for low-income working families, but the state’s worsening revenue outlook is going to make paying for the credits a bit more difficult. Moreover, Honolulu Civil Beat reports that lawmakers are also debating whether to give out more tax credits for things like charter school donations, backup generators, and building renovations. But reducing the very high state and local tax rate being paid by Hawaii’s poor should be a higher priority than these initiatives.

Last year’s trend toward raising state gasoline taxes seems to be continuing this year. In just the last week, the Kentucky House approved a 1.5 cent per gallon increase and the New Hampshire Senate gave preliminary approval to a 4 cent increase. These increases would allow for valuable investments in both states’ infrastructure, and would reduce the likelihood that lawmakers will eventually cut other areas of the budget to fund those investments.

This week the Wisconsin General Assembly approved Governor Scott Walker’s tax cut proposal which includes $404 million in across-the-board property tax cuts and $133 million in income tax cuts that result from lowering the bottom income tax rate from 4.4 to 4.0 percent and reducing the Alternative Minimum Tax. The legislation is now sent to Governor Walker’s desk where it is all but guaranteed he will sign the bill into law. For more on the flaws of this bill check out this Wisconsin Budget Project’s blog post.

 



Indiana Lawmakers Shower More Breaks on Low-Tax Corporations



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The state corporate tax study we released today shows that three very profitable Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Indiana paid an effective corporate income tax rate ranging from just 0.4 to 1.5 percent over the last five years.  Eli Lilly, NiSource, and WellPoint earned a total of over $35 billion in profits between 2008 and 2012, but thanks to a variety of tax avoidance techniques none of these companies even came close to paying the statutory 8.5 percent rate that was in effect in Indiana for most of this five-year period.  Despite this fact, Indiana lawmakers inexplicably decided last week to enact yet another corporate income tax rate cut, as well as a property tax break for business equipment.

Less than three years ago, former Governor Mitch Daniels signed into law a bill gradually lowering the state’s corporate tax rate from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent.  The final stage of that tax cut is still over a year away, and yet Governor Pence says he’s “pleased” with the fact that the current legislature just sent him another corporate tax bill that will eventually lower the rate to 4.9 percent.  As our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), notes: “When some of Indiana’s most successful corporations are paying such a small fraction of their profits in state income taxes to states around the country, it raises serious questions about whether reducing the corporate income tax is a worthwhile priority.”

But this corporate tax rate cut isn’t the only giveaway for big business that Governor Mike Pence will soon be signing into law.  The same legislation containing the corporate tax rate cut also grants localities the option to begin a race-to-the-bottom by eliminating their property taxes on new business equipment.  A report (PDF) from the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute explains that giving localities this option is unlikely to draw any new businesses into the state, though it may reshuffle existing businesses around within the state’s borders.  And the president of the Institute explains that “I’m a little worried about the nature of allowing local governments to adopt this when some counties depend so much on business personal property tax and some don’t.”

Indiana’s largest and most successful companies already enjoy a shockingly low tax rate, and that rate is about to get a lot lower.  Hopefully next session lawmakers will turn their attention toward initiatives that could actually benefit ordinary Indiana residents—like improving the state’s education system and infrastructure.



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



State News Quick Hits: Potholes Making Headlines, a Tax Battle Truce and More



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With pothole season well under way, our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), has been in the news quite a bit recently for its research on the need for more sustainable federal and state gasoline taxes. USA Today ran a story this week featuring quotes from ITEP staff and six different infographics based on ITEP data that explain where state gas taxes are, and aren’t, being raised.  In addition, ITEP’s Carl Davis appeared on both CBNC and NPR’s Marketplace to talk about the gas tax.

The Missouri legislature is poised to offer Kansas a truce in the never-ending battle to shower Kansas City-area companies with tax credits. Both the Missouri Senate and House recently passed similar bills that would ban state tax incentives for companies that agree to move from the Kansas side of the Kansas City border (Wyandotte, Johnson, Douglas, or Miami counties) to the Missouri side (Jackson, Clay, Platte, or Cass counties). It seems Missouri has finally realized that tax breaks used to lure companies across the border — otaling $217 million between both states in recent years by one estimate — don’t actually create new jobs for the region’s residents and would be better spent on much needed public services. The one catch: the Missouri bill would only go into effect if Kansas agrees to a similar ceasefire within the next two years.

Perhaps this is the year that Utah will establish a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A bill creating the much-heralded working family tax credit was passed out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee last month. Last year, a similar bill was passed by the full House, but stalled in the Senate. This year’s bill, which is again sponsored by Representative Hutchings, would give over 200,000 low-income Utahns a refundable tax credit worth 5 percent of the federal EITC, or roughly $113 on average. But one change from last year’s bill is that the credit will not go into effect until Utah is allowed to start collecting sales tax from online shoppers — something that won’t happen until Congress passes legislation granting the states that power. Such a bill has already passed the U.S. Senate and is supported by President Obama, but it is still pending in the U.S. House.

While a full solution to the problem of uncollected sales taxes on online shopping will have to come from the federal government, Hawaii’s House of Representatives wants to chip away at the problem by expanding the number of online retailers that have to collect sales tax right now. Under a bill backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, retailers partnering with Hawaii-based companies to solicit sales would have to collect sales taxes on purchases made by their Hawaii customers.  This move to apply the state’s sales tax laws more uniformly to both online retailers and traditional brick-and-mortar stores would be one step toward a more modern sales tax in the Aloha State.



Kansas Supreme Court Case Shows Public Services Suffer When Tax Breaks for Wealthy Take Priority



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Far too often, lawmakers use tax cuts to score political points and throw around phrases such as “more effective government” to gloss over the lasting, negative effects of starving public investments.

In the case of Kansas, public schools are paying the price. The state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that the state Legislature hasn’t allocated enough money to poorer school districts but must do so by July 1. Although the Court didn’t designate a specific dollar amount, state Department of Education officials have estimated that complying with the Court ruling will cost at least $129 million.

Unfortunately, state political leaders have already signaled their intention to skirt the Court’s decision. Quoted in the New York Times, state Rep. Kasha Kelly, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee, said the legislative branch has the “power of the purse.” And Gov. Sam Brownback lauded the Court for not declaring a dollar amount, stating that equity is more about equality of opportunity rather than dollars spent.

Such rhetoric has no basis in reality. Indeed, state lawmakers have a responsibility to be stewards in the public interest. This means deciding how to raise revenue as well as spend revenue. Too often, lawmakers interested in backing the narrow interests of an elite few discuss taxes in a vacuum as though they are unrelated to how states fund critical priorities. This makes it easier to push through tax cuts under the guise of stimulating the economy without talking at the same time about long-term implications of less revenue for basic public services—or, in the case of Kansas, equitable funding for public schools.

Gov. Brownback has led the way in a recent wave of governors advocating for large tax cuts for the affluent under the misguided premise that tax cuts pay for themselves.

In Kansas, recent state budget cuts have meant increased classroom sizes and fewer resources for extra-curricular activities, not to mention cuts in other public services.  State funding per student has dropped since the economic recession from $4,400 five years ago to a reported $3,838 today. Kansas lawmakers initially claimed they had to cut funding for K-12 education due to the lingering effects of the recession. But even as state revenue rebounded, legislative leaders astonishingly moved to cut income taxes rather than restore funding for public education and other services.  In fact, the Legislature enacted two rounds of major tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Kansans. The first round, in 2012, dropped the top tax rate from 6.45 to 4.9 percent and exempted all “pass-through” business income from the personal income tax.

The next round, enacted in 2013, doubled down by dropping the top tax rate even further, to 3.9 percent, and setting the income tax on track for complete elimination if, as Gov. Brownback has said, the state meets revenue targets. The long-term fiscal impact of these tax cuts in Kansas will be a whopping $1.1 billion.

If, as Gov. Brownback says, he is for equality of opportunity, he should concede that overcrowded classrooms and reduced services are not the way to achieve this. Lawmakers would be wise to consider rolling back some of Gov. Brownback’s tax cuts by not allowing the top income tax rate to fall further and by eliminating the costly deduction for pass through business income.



Wisconsin Lawmakers Move Forward with Tax Cuts



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This week Wisconsin’s Senate followed the lead of the General Assembly and approved Governor Scott Walker’s $537 million (over two years) in property and income tax cuts. Governor Walker proposed the tax cuts as a way to “return the state’s surplus to the people who earned it” and his signature on the legislation is all but guaranteed. The cuts include $404 million in across the board property tax cuts and $133 million in income tax cuts that result from lowering the bottom income tax rate from 4.4 to 4.0 percent and reducing the Alternative Minimum Tax.

It’s worth noting that the tax cuts are permanent yet the state’s “surplus” is not guaranteed to last. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the tax cuts will mean that “the next state budget will be $658 million in the red before budget deliberations even begin.”

Too bad lawmakers weren’t persuaded by editorial boards at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal that both (rightly) responded to Governor Walker’s tax cut proposals by encouraging lawmakers to instead use the one-time surplus to help curb the state’s growing structural deficit, or use it towards serious problems like poverty reduction and enhancing K-12 education.



State News Quick Hits: Tax Breaks for NASCAR and House of Cards



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Tax cut one-upmanship continues to be a major theme in the race to be Maryland’s next governor. As of right now, at least two gubernatorial candidates want to completely eliminate the state’s personal income tax–a revenue source that funds about half of the state’s spending on schools, hospitals, and various other services. In terms of how to pay for this massive cut, the best that Harford County Executive David Craig could come up with is a 3 percent across-the-board spending cut (that math seems a little fishy to us), while businessman and candidate Charles Loller seems to have bought into Arthur Laffer’s wild claims that tax cuts pay for themselves. But even if the cost of repeal weren’t an issue, it’s still the case that the personal income tax is an essential element of any fair and sustainable tax system, and should not be on the chopping block in any state.

Lawmakers in Iowa are poised to give NASCAR a $9 million tax rebate. The bill (PDF), which passed a key Senate subcommittee last week, would extend a five percent rebate for all sales tax collected at Iowa Speedway, a racetrack located about 30 miles outside of Des Moines. The sweetheart deal had originally required that the track be owned at least 25 percent by Iowans, but the Florida-based NASCAR company bought the track last year, prompting legislators to scramble to amend the law. (Racetrack owners are already the beneficiary of a notorious federal tax break, which is part of the group of tax “extenders” currently languishing in Congress.) It is unclear why NASCAR, a profitable company in its own right, needs the handout. It already owns the facility and has plans to host four races there in 2014. Some in the state are hoping that the rebate will be used to upgrade the track so that it can host a lucrative Sprint Cup race, but NASCAR has made no such promise.

Our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) have seen a lot of attention directed toward their analysis of an Oklahoma proposal to cut the state’s top income tax rate–including two opinion pieces, a front-page news story, and a paid advertisement (PDF) taken out by the state’s former Governor. While the top rate cut proposed by current Governor Mary Fallin is extremely lopsided (contrast a $29 tax cut for a middle-income family with a $2,000+ tax cut at the top), it appears that the Senate has some interest in improving upon the bill. Rather than simply cutting the top tax rate and slashing public investments, the Senate’s tax-writing committee recently advanced a bill that pairs the cut with a very sensible expansion of the state’s income tax base: eliminating the nonsensical state income tax deduction for state income taxes paid.

House of Cards–a Netflix show about politicians making bad decisions–is trying to get Maryland’s politicians to make some bad decisions in real life. The Media Rights Capital production company says they’ll shoot the third season of their program elsewhere unless lawmakers direct more taxpayer dollars their way in the form of an expanded film tax credit. Upon learning of the threat, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had some entirely appropriate reactions: “Is it possible that they would just leave after we gave them $31 million?” “We’re almost being held for ransom.” “When does it stop?”



State Tax Breaks Pile Up



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

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

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

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

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



Either Way - Reducing Ohio's Top Income Tax Rate to 4 or 5 Percent is a Bad Idea



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Ohio Governor John Kasich is expected to unveil his latest tax cut proposal soon and it doesn’t take a deep understanding of Ohio politics to know that the Governor’s plan will likely include large across the board income tax rate reductions. Last week he mentioned wanting to lower the top income tax rate to below 4 percent after persistently advocating in recent months for reducing the top rate to less than 5 percent (the current top income tax rate is 5.333 percent).

In anticipation of the governor’s latest proposal, Policy Matters Ohio (PMO) released a new report, using ITEP data,“Income-tax cut would favor well-to-do”, which shows the impact of an across the board income tax rate reduction that lowers the top income tax rate to just under 5 percent. The biggest beneficiaries of this proposal are by far the wealthiest Ohioans. In fact, 69 percent of the benefits go to Ohioans in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

We often don’t get to talk about tax policy as it relates to pizza, but PMO finds “that the across-the-board cut in rates needed to [get the top rate to below 5 percent] may allow low-income Ohioans to buy a slice of pizza a year, on average. Middle-income Ohioans could purchase a cheap pizza maker. For the state’s most affluent taxpayers, on average it would cover round-trip airfare for two to Italy, with some money left over to pay the hotel bill and buy some real Italian pizza.”

If the Governor aggressively pushes getting the top rate below 4 percent the benefits to the wealthy will be even greater and could mean a second trip to Italy with a stop over in France to pick up a bottle of wine. Either way, reducing the top income tax rate below 4 or 5 percent would enhance the unfairness already apparent in Ohio’s tax structure and makes it more difficult for the state to fund necessary services.



The Tax Foundation's Summary of Economic Growth Studies is Misleading



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Whenever it’s trying to justify cutting taxes (or not raising them), the Tax Foundation likes to direct readers toward one of its reports from 2012, in which it concluded that “nearly every empirical study of taxes and economic growth published in a peer reviewed academic journal finds that tax increases harm economic growth.”  As it turns out, this conclusion is simply wrong.

In a new report just released this week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) digs more deeply into the literature and finds that “12 of the 26 studies that the Tax Foundation cites do not support its flat assertion that tax increases harm growth.”  To take just one example, the Tax Foundation selectively cited a 1997 study in order to obscure its finding that tax increases could actually improve economic growth if they were used to fund education or deficit reduction.

Equally damning is CBPP’s finding that the 26 studies the Tax Foundation cited are hardly the only research on this topic, noting that “the Tax Foundation’s review omitted dozens of relevant studies published in major journals or edited compilations since 2000.”  This is a serious shortcoming given that the Tax Foundation claims to possess insights into the findings of “nearly every empirical study of taxes and economic growth,” and that it says it’s discovered a “consensus among experts” about the negative economic impacts of taxes.

Unsurprisingly, many of the studies omitted by the Tax Foundation contradict its claims about the disastrous effects of higher taxes—and some directly contradict the exact studies that the Tax Foundation chose to cite.

This CBPP study, as well as an earlier one looking just at the state-level studies included in the Tax Foundation report, reveal that the Tax Foundation’s so-called “literature review” is more spin than substance.



Missouri: Done Deal? Let's Hope Not



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Last year, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed a regressive tax cut package passed by Republican lawmakers that would have cost the state $700 million annually. In his veto message the Governor called the legislation an “ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible experiment that would inject far-reaching uncertainty into our economy, undermine our state’s fiscal health and jeopardize basic funding for education and vital public services.” In a victory for tax justice advocates, his veto withstood an attempted override by the legislature.

But, last week, Nixon reached a flawed tentative agreement with Republican State Senator Will Kraus to reduce the top individual income tax rate by half of one percentage point, but only if certain budget conditions are met. Half of the tax cut is contingent on the state bringing in $200 million in revenue growth and fully funding the state’s schools. The other half would be triggered by legislation that lowers the cap on two tax credits: one for low-income housing development and the other for historic building preservation. If all the contingencies are met, the Governor’s proposal would cut taxes by roughly $400 million a year, less than half of what Republicans in the legislature are asking for ($928 million a year when fully phased in), but still a significant tax cut.

In terms of fairness, an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis published in a brief from the Missouri Budget Project (MBP) found that reducing the top rate to 5.5 percent overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest Missourians. In fact, ITEP found that 76 percent of the tax reduction would fall to the wealthiest 20 percent of Missourians. The impact by income group of this tax cut clearly illustrates that the wealthier do better under this proposal, Missourians in the top 1 percent, those with average incomes over $1.094 million – would receive a tax cut averaging $3,779 per year. In contrast, the average Missouri family with incomes from $33,000 - $52,000 would receive just a $47 tax cut per year, about enough to buy one hamburger each month. And the lowest income Missourians, those with incomes under $18,000, would get zero benefit.

In terms of adequacy, MBP rightly notes that over the long term there is no guarantee that school funding won’t be cut, “there are no ongoing protections for funding of public education.” There is a long history of states promising to hold services harmless and failing to do so.

Of course, there is a better way. Missouri’s Governor and lawmakers could work together to cut taxes for those who can least afford them and further invest in schools, healthcare and transportation by asking the wealthy to pay more. Let’s certainly hope this “deal” isn’t done.



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



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

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

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

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



Say it Ain't So: Kentucky's Missed Opportunity



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Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has unveiled a 22-point tax reform plan that includes a new refundable state earned income tax credit (EITC), limits on the generous $41,110 pension exclusion and expanding the sales tax base to include a wider range of services. The plan is based in part on the recommendations of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform, which were released in 2012. Beshear’s plan also includes a cut in the personal and corporate income tax rates and an increase in the cigarette tax. In total the proposal increases state revenues by $210 million a year.

The proposal is a mixed bag.  While it raises much needed revenue and includes several reform-minded options, it falls short of improving the fairness of the state’s tax structure. The introduction of an EITC and limiting the current pension exclusion are a good start, but changing the corporate income tax apportionment formula to single sales factor and lowering personal and corporate income tax rates are costly ideas that benefit wealthier Kentuckians.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP) issued a brief containing an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis showing that Governor Beshear’s proposal doesn’t improve tax fairness in any meaningful way. KCEP concludes that “the combined impact of the tax increases and tax cuts in Governor Beshear's reform proposal would not help improve the regressive nature of Kentucky’s tax system.”  This is because the new revenue raised from the Governor’s plan comes almost entirely from regressive changes to the sales tax base and hiking cigarette taxes.

Governor Beshear deserves some credit for proposing tax reform despite this being an election year, but he missed an opportunity to truly reform the state’s tax structure by making it more fair and adequate. Let’s hope that Kentucky legislators follow KYCEP’s advice and “build on the good parts of the plan while making improvements.”



The States Taking on Real Tax Reform in 2014



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Note to Readers: This is the fifth post of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014. Over the course of several weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) highlighted tax proposals that were gaining momentum in states across the country. This final post focuses on progressive, comprehensive and sustainable reform proposals under consideration in the states.

State tax policy proposals are not all bad news this year.  There are some promising efforts underway that would fix the structural problems with state tax codes and improve tax fairness for low- and middle-income families. All eyes are on Illinois as lawmakers grapple with how to raise much needed revenue after their temporary income tax hike expires. Many are hoping the timing is now right for a real debate about a graduated income tax. Washington DC’s Tax Revision Commission has proposed a number of sensible reforms. And, lawmakers in Hawaii and Utah are expected to seriously debate ways to improve their states’ tax fairness.

Illinois - Though there has been much legislative activity in Springfield about corporate tax breaks, the arguably more important issue facing lawmakers is the state’s temporary income tax rate increase that is set to decrease in 2015. Given this upcoming rate reduction, lawmakers and the public are weighing in on alternative ways to fund vital services, including the merits of a progressive income tax.

District of Columbia - DC’s Tax Revision Commission set the stage for real tax reform this Spring when it recommended expanding the sales tax base, enhancing the city’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers, boosting the personal exemption and standard deduction, reforming the District’s income tax brackets, and phasing-out the value of personal exemptions for high-income taxpayers. The Commission’s proposal is hardly perfect: it includes an expensive giveaway for people with estates worth over $1 million, as well as a slight cut in the city’s top income tax rate (in exchange for making that temporary rate permanent).  But the plan still contains a lot of good ideas worthy of the word “reform.”

Hawaii - Hawaii levies the fourth highest state and local taxes on the poor in the entire country, but some lawmakers would like to change that.  Proposals to enact an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) managed to pass both chambers of the legislature last year before eventually being abandoned, and lawmakers gave serious consideration to other low-income tax credit changes as well.  The Hawaii Appleseed Center’s recent report (PDF) on enhancing low-income tax credits, and options to pay for those enhancements, provides a wealth of information for the many lawmakers and advocates who intend to pick up where they left off last year.

Utah - Last year’s effort to improve Utah’s regressive tax system (PDF) by enacting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) ultimately fell short, though a bill that would have created such a credit did make it out of the state’s House of Representatives.  That push will be resumed this year.



Is Tax Reform Coming to the District?



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This week the DC Council will be hearing tax reform recommendations from the experts they appointed to study the District’s tax system. While far from perfect, the DC Tax Revision Commission’s suggested changes include many sensible reforms. Here’s a quick overview of what’s being discussed.

The Commission recommends expanding the District’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for workers without children—the one group for whom this important anti-poverty and pro-work program currently provides little benefit.

Some middle-income taxpayers would benefit from lowering the middle tax bracket’s rate from 8.5 to 6.5 percent. And both lower- and middle-income families would benefit from a substantially increased personal exemption and standard deduction.

In order to partially fund these targeted low- and middle-income tax cuts, the Commission also recommends phasing out (PDF) the District’s personal exemption for high-income taxpayers, and making permanent the city’s temporary top tax bracket on incomes over $350,000 (albeit at a reduced rate).

And as with many tax reform efforts, the DC Commission’s plan also includes a long-overdue expansion of the District’s sales tax to include more personal services. Haircuts, tanning studios, car washes, and various other services (PDF) would finally be included in the sales tax base.

Among the more troubling aspects of the Commission’s plan is its price tag. The Commission wants to cut into the District’s revenues by $48.8 million, despite the fact that the DC Council only set aside $18 million to fund the Commission’s recommendations. And not all of the tax cuts contained in the Commission’s proposal are justified. A $15.8 million estate tax cut is unlikely to benefit (PDF) the District’s economy, and a $57 million corporate and business tax rate cut won’t do any good, either.

Against this backdrop, the Commission’s decision to recommend increasing the sales tax rate from 5.75 to 6 percent is an odd one. The $22 million in revenue raised by this regressive tax increase could easily be generated in a fairer way by scaling back the estate and corporate tax cuts, and/or by retaining the 8.95 percent rate on incomes over $350,000, as opposed to the lower 8.75 percent rate the Commission suggests.

Overall, the Commission’s proposal is a good starting point, but there’s still plenty of room for the DC Council to improve upon it before enacting any reforms into law.



State News Quick Hits: EITC Awareness, Grover Norquist's New Target and More



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Community organizations, state tax departments, and editorial pages across the country celebrated National EITC Awareness Day last Friday. Roughly 80% of those eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit take advantage of it each year, a higher participation rate than most other social programs. But keeping this figure high -- and ensuring that busy, working people are also aware of state and local EITCs they may qualify for -- requires continued vigilance. One way to boost participation, and to save beneficiaries from wasting their refund on paid tax preparers, is by joining the volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) program. We also need anti-poverty advocates on the front lines fighting plans in some states to eliminate or weaken their state EITC, as North Carolina did last year.

Like many Americans, Grover Norquist is apparently sick of Congressional gridlock (despite having played no small part in causing it through his inflexible no-new-taxes pledge).  But rather than sit around while federal tax reform continues to stall, Grover has turned his sights toward Tennessee.  Grover wants to see Tennessee repeal one of the few bright spots of its staggeringly regressive tax system (PDF): its “Hall Tax” on investment income.  The Massachusetts native and current DC resident is signaling his intention to push lawmakers to repeal the tax, according to The Tennessean.

With an election just a few months away, Florida Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he wants tax cuts, yet again, to be a top priority in the Sunshine State.  His newest list of ideas includes cutting motor vehicle taxes, cutting sales taxes on commercial rent, cutting business taxes, and cutting business filing fees.  He’d also like to give shoppers a couple of sales tax holidays — a perennial favorite among politicians that like their tax cuts to be as high-profile as possible.

Check out the Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s new blog! Their latest post makes the salient point that two rounds of radical income tax cuts “have failed to create prosperity and are leaving low- and middle- income Kansas families struggling to make ends meet.”



Gas Tax Remains High on Many States' Agendas for 2014



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Note to Readers: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This series, written by the staff of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), highlights state proposals for “tax swaps,” tax cuts, and tax reforms.  This post focuses specifically on proposals to increase or reform state gasoline taxes.

Six states and the District of Columbia enacted long-overdue gas tax increases or reforms last year, despite the tough politics involved in raising the price drivers pay at the pump.  Will 2014 bring the same level of legislative activity on the gas tax?  Maybe not; but there are a number of states where the issue is receiving serious attention.

Delaware: Governor Jack Markell of Delaware is pushing for a 10 cent increase in his state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in over 19 years.  The idea faces an uphill battle in the legislature, but without the increase the Delaware Department of Transportation’s capital budget will have to be slashed by about 33 percent next year.  Delaware’s House Minority leader would rather raid the state’s general fund budget (most of which goes toward education and health care) as opposed to addressing the state’s transportation revenue problems directly through reforming the gas tax.

Iowa: Governor Terry Branstad isn’t going to lead the fight for a gas tax increase, but he won’t veto one, either, if it makes it to his desk. Last week, an Iowa House subcommittee unanimously passed a 10 cent gas tax hike just a few hours before Branstad made clear his intention to remain on the sidelines during this important election-year tax debate.

Kentucky: Governor Steve Beshear wants to reverse a 1.5 cent gas tax cut that went into effect last month as a result of falling gas prices (Kentucky is one of eighteen states where the tax rate changes alongside either gas prices or inflation).  Doing so would raise about $45 million in additional funds to invest in the state’s transportation infrastructure.  And putting a “floor” on the gas tax to prevent further declines in the tax rate could avoid up to $100 million in funding cuts in the next two years.

New Hampshire: The chair of New Hampshire’s Senate Transportation Committee wants to raise the gas tax and index it to inflation.  The tax has been stuck at 18 cents per gallon for over twenty-two years, and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation is optimistic that could finally change this year.  Governor Maggie Hassan hasn’t been a major player in the push for a higher gas tax, but it seems likely she would sign an increase if it made it to her desk.

Utah: Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser is rightly concerned about the fact that “more and more money is coming out of the state's general fund for transportation,” and would like to reform the state’s gas tax to provide transportation with a sustainable revenue stream of its own.  Familiar concerns about not wanting to hike the gas tax in an election year have been raised, but Governor Gary Herbert seems to realize that some kind of change to the gas tax is needed.  To provide some context to this debate, we recently found that Utah’s gas tax is currently at an all-time low, after adjusting for inflation.

Washington: Last year’s unsuccessful push to raise the gas tax in Washington State has spilled over into the current legislative session.  Governor Jay Inslee still supports raising the tax, and House and Senate leaders have spent a significant amount of time trying to cobble together an acceptable compromise.

But while these six states are the most likely to act this year, they’re hardly the only places where the gas tax is generating a lot of interest.  In Oklahoma, both of the state’s largest newspapers have urged lawmakers to consider gas tax reform, as has the Oklahoma Policy Institute and the Oklahoma Academy.  In Minnesota, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation wants to see the gas tax rise on a yearly basis, and a coalition has been formed seeking more revenue for transportation.  The chairman of the South Carolina Senate Finance Committee supports a gas tax hike, as does the chair of New Mexico’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, some members of New Jersey’s legislature, and the editorial boards of both New Mexico’s and New Jersey’s largest newspapers.  And in Michigan, Governor Snyder’s laudable attempt to raise the gas tax last year has stalled, though it remains a topic of discussion in the Wolverine State.

Altogether, thirty-two states levy unsustainable flat-rate gas taxes, twenty-four states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, and sixteen of those states have gone two decades or more without an increase.  With so many states reliant on outdated gas tax structures, there’s little doubt that reforming the tax will remain a major topic of discussion for the foreseeable future.

Photo via herzogbr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 



A New Wave of Tax Cut Proposals in the States



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



State News Quick Hits: Transformers and Tax Breaks for the Rich in Disguise



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Editorial boards at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal have both (rightly) responded to Governor Walker’s property and income tax cut proposals by encouraging lawmakers to instead curb the state’s growing structural deficit, or put any surplus revenue toward serious problems like poverty reduction and enhancing K-12 education. Perhaps the editorial boards were persuaded by Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) findings that wealthier folks benefit more from the tax cuts than low-and middle-income families. For more on ITEP’s analysis read this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece.

Idaho’s House Speaker has proposed dramatically scaling back the state’s grocery tax credit in exchange for a regressive $70-80 million cut to the individual and corporate income tax rates. But economist Mike Ferguson of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy points out that the Speaker’s plan would amount to a giveaway to the rich, while further squeezing the middle class.  An Idahoan making $50,000 per year, for example, could expect to see about $305 tacked on to their state tax bill under this change. Governor Butch Otter has been saying the right things about taking a break from tax cuts (kind of) and instead making education spending a priority this year. But the Governor recently said he was open to the Speaker’s idea, and the Idaho Statesman provided a partial endorsement. Idaho legislators should tread carefully: raising taxes on the middle class to pass another trickle-down tax cut is bad public policy and even worse politics.

A Wichita Eagle editorial, “Pressure on sales tax”, shares our concerns about one of the major consequences of the tax cuts and “reforms” enacted in Kansas over the past two years.  With the gradual elimination of the state’s personal income tax and pressure on local governments to raise revenue, it is inevitable that the state’s sales tax rate will continue to rise at the detriment of low- and moderate-income working families who are stuck footing the bill. And, in order to have sufficient revenue to fund services over the long-run, Kansas lawmakers will need to make the politically difficult decision to broaden the sales tax base, something they’ve shown little stomach for so far. The editorial states, “as Kansas strains to deal with declining tax collections and reserves according to Brownback’s plan to become a state without an income tax, the sales tax will be one of the only places to go for more revenue.”

Indiana lawmakers want to get a better handle on whether their tax incentives for economic development are actually doing any good.  Last week, the House unanimously passed legislation that will require every economic development tax break to be reviewed ov

er the course of the next five years.  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), recommends that all states implement these kinds of ongoing evaluations.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is pushing back against a string of bad publicity regarding film tax credits. Quinn says that an entertainment boom is occurring in Illinois in part because of the Illinois Film Services Tax Credit, an uncapped, transferable credit that was extended in 2011. What Governor Quinn fails to mention, however, is how much taxpayers lost in the process. The credit costs roughly $20 million a year, requiring higher taxes or fewer public services than would otherwise be the case. Research from other states indicates that only a small fraction of that amount would be recouped via higher tax receipts. Moreover, film subsidies often waste money on productions that would have located in the state anyway and are unlikely to do much good in the long-term since the industry is so geographically mobile. Indeed, one of the producers of Transformers 3 admitted that he would have filmed in Chicago even without the credit, which cost taxpayers $6 million. Instead, the decision was based on “the skyline, the architecture and the skilled crews here, among other factors.”



State News Quick Hits: High Crime at Universal Studios, Keeping the Estate Tax and More



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After some high-quality investigative journalism from the Orlando Sentinel last year, prominent state lawmakers in Florida are setting their sights on sunsetting or redesigning a poorly tailored tax break for companies that locate in high-crime areas. The tax provision at issue — the Urban High-Crime Area Job Tax Credit Programallows cities to draw expansive (and unalterable) borders around purported “high crime areas” that are anything but. Companies benefiting from the loophole include Universal Orlando, which has received over $8 million from the program since the provision’s adoption sixteen years ago. Universal is planning to cash in again this year with the opening of its second Harry Potter-themed amusement park (prompting one columnist to ask jokingly if being chased by an imaginary dragon constitutes attempted murder). Dubious corporate subsidies are nothing new in Florida, and the value of this credit is not about to break the bank ($500 to $1,500 per employee and capped statewide at $5 million each year). But by highlighting these abuses, the Sentinel has provided a healthy reminder that even well-meaning corporate tax breaks often create unintended, negative consequences and should be eliminated.

Despite failing to win over the legislature with his tax swap proposal last year, Nebraska’s Governor Heineman is back to hawking large reductions in the personal income tax. While it’s true that Nebraska is sitting on a budget surplus, the legislature's Tax Modernization Committee held hearings last year and recently recommended only minor changes. Perhaps some middle ground comes in the form of two tax proposals introduced by legislators this month that target relief to low- and middle-income families (imagine that!). Senator Conrad (D-Lincoln) has called for an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). And Senator Bolz (D-Lincoln) is proposing an increase in the state’s child care tax credit for middle income families. Conrad’s legislation would increase the refundable state EITC from 10% of the federal credit to 13%, which would make a substantial difference in the lives of Nebraska’s working poor. For a family with three children earning the maximum EITC benefit in 2014, such a change would put more than $180 back in their pockets. Bolz’s bill would increase the child care credit for those making more than $29,000 from 25% of the federal credit to 28%. Unlike the federal government, Nebraska already makes its child care tax credit partially refundable (for those making less than $29,000 a year), an admirable feature of the state’s tax code. Bolz’s proposal wouldn’t change the refundability equation and could be better targeted at low-income families, but, like Conrad’s EITC bill, is a step in the right direction.

The Baltimore Sun has rightly poured cold water on an idea from some Maryland legislators to gut the state’s estate tax. House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller have proposed increasing the value of an estate that can be passed on tax-free from $1 million to $5.25 million (more information on the mechanics of state estate and inheritance taxes can be found here).  The state comptroller has also signed onto the idea.  But the Sun editorial points out that supporters’ reasoning — that Maryland has become an inhospitable place for rich people to die — is faulty.  According to a recent study, 7.7 percent of Maryland households are millionaires — the highest percentage of any state — and only 2.8 percent of Maryland estates pay any state tax under the current regime.  Maryland policymakers — including Governor O’Malley, who has not yet committed either way hould resist this election-year giveaway to the rich.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker learned last week that the state is expecting a $912 million surplus. The Governor is expected to propose both property and income tax cuts.  But the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP) rightly cautions that tax cuts aren’t necessarily the best way to spend the surplus.  WBP argues that this revenue “gives lawmakers an excellent opportunity to invest in Wisconsin’s economic future and to put the state on a sounder fiscal footing by filling budget holes.”



Beware of the Tax Shift (Again)



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

The most radical and potentially devastating tax reform proposals under consideration in a number of states are those that would reduce or eliminate state income taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing consumption taxes. These “tax swap” proposals appeared to gain momentum in a number of states last year, but ultimately proposals by the governors of Louisiana and Nebraska fell flat in 2013. Despite this, legislators in several states have reiterated their commitment to this flawed idea and may attempt to inflict it on taxpayers in 2014. Here’s a round-up of where we see tax shifts gaining momentum:

Arkansas - The Republican Party in Arkansas is so committed to a tax shift that they have included language in their platform vowing to “[r]eplace the state income tax with a more equitable method of taxation.” While the rules of Arkansas’ legislative process will prevent any movement on a tax shift this year, leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson has made income tax elimination a major theme of his campaign.  

Georgia - The threat of a radical tax shift proposal was so great in the Peach State that late last year the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published this report (using ITEP data) showing that as many as four in five taxpayers would pay more in taxes if the state eliminated their income tax and replaced the revenue with sales taxes. This report seems to have slowed the momentum for the tax shift, but many lawmakers remain enthusiastic about this idea.

Kansas – In each of the last two years, Governor Sam Brownback has proposed and signed into law tax-cutting legislation designed to put the state on a “glide path” toward income tax elimination.  Whether or not the Governor will be able to continue to steer the state down this path in 2014 may largely depend on the state Supreme Court’s upcoming decision about increasing education funding.

New Mexico - During the 2013 legislative session a tax shift bill was introduced in Santa Fe that would have eliminated the state’s income tax, and reduced the state’s gross receipts tax rate to 2 percent (from 5.125 percent) while broadening the tax base to include salaries and wages. New Mexico Voices for Children released an analysis (PDF) of the legislation (citing ITEP figures on the already-regressive New Mexico tax structure) that rightly concludes, “[o]n the whole, HB-369/SB-368 would be a step in the direction of a more unfair tax system and should not be passed by the Legislature.” We expect the tax shift debate has only just started there.

North Carolina - North Carolina lawmakers spent a good part of their 2013 legislative session debating numerous tax “reform” packages including a tax shift that would have eliminated the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and replaced some of the revenue with a higher sales tax. Ultimately, they enacted a smaller-scale yet still disastrous package which cut taxes for the rich,hiked them for most everyone else, and drained state resources by more than $700 million a year. There is reason to believe that some North Carolina lawmakers will use any surplus revenue this year to push for more income tax cuts.  And, one of the chief architects of the income tax elimination plan from last year has made it known that he would like to use the 2015 session to continue pursuing this goal.

Ohio - Governor John Kasich has made no secret of his desire to eliminate the state’s income tax. When he ran for office in 2010 he promised to “[p]hase out the income tax. It's punishing on individuals. It's punishing on small business. To phase that out, it cannot be done in a day, but it's absolutely essential that we improve the tax environment in this state so that we no longer are an obstacle for people to locate here and that we can create a reason for people to stay here." He hasn't changed his tune: during a recent talk to chamber of commerce groups he urged them “to always be for tax cuts.”  

Wisconsin - Governor Scott Walker says he wants 2014 to be a year of discussion about the pros and cons of eliminating Wisconsin’s most progressive revenue sources—the corporate and personal income taxes. But the discussion is likely to be a short one when the public learns (as an ITEP analysis found) that a 13.5 percent sales tax rate would be necessary for the state to make up for the revenue lost from income tax elimination. 



What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy



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Note to Readers: This is the first of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This post provides an overview of key trends and top states to watch in the coming year.  Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals and take a deeper look at the four key policy trends likely to dominate 2014 legislative sessions and feature prominently on the campaign trail. Part two discusses the trend of tax shift proposals. Part three discusses the trend of tax cut proposals. Part four discusses the trend of gas tax increase proposals. Part five discusses the trend of real tax reform proposals.

2013 was a year like none we have seen before when it comes to the scope and sheer number of tax policy plans proposed and enacted in the states.  And given what we’ve seen so far, 2014 has the potential to be just as busy.

In a number of statehouses across the country last year, lawmakers proposed misguided schemes (often inspired by supply-side ideology) designed to sharply reduce the role of progressive personal and corporate income taxes, and in some cases replace them entirely with higher sales taxes.  There were also a few good faith efforts at addressing long-standing structural flaws in state tax codes through base broadening, providing tax breaks to working families, or increasing taxes paid by the wealthiest households.

The good news is that the most extreme and destructive proposals were halted.  However, several states still enacted costly and regressive tax cuts, and we expect lawmakers in many of those states to continue their quest to eliminate income taxes in the coming years.  

The historic elections of 2012, which left most states under solid one-party control (many of those states with super majorities), are a big reason why so many aggressive tax proposals got off the ground in 2013.  We expect elections to be a driving force shaping tax policy proposals again in 2014 as voters in 36 states will be electing governors this November, and most state lawmakers are up for re-election as well.

We also expect to see a continuation of the four big tax policy trends that dominated 2013:

  • Tax shifts or tax swaps:  These proposals seek to scale back or repeal personal and corporate income taxes, and generally seek to offset some, or all, of the revenue loss with a higher sales tax.

    At the end of last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made it known that he wants to give serious consideration to eliminating his state’s income tax and to hiking the sales tax to make up the lost revenue.  Even if elimination is out of reach this year, Walker and other Wisconsin lawmakers are still expected to push for income tax cuts.  Look for lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina to debate similar proposals.  And, count on North Carolina and Ohio lawmakers to attempt to build on tax shift plans partially enacted in 2013.  
  • Tax cuts:  These proposals range from cutting personal income taxes to reducing property taxes to expanding tax breaks for businesses.  Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering using the revenue rebounds we’ve seen in the wake of the Great Recession as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts.  

    Missouri
    lawmakers, for example, wasted no time in filing a new slate of tax-cutting bills at the start of the year with the hope of making good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year.  Despite the recommendations from a Nebraska tax committee to continue studying the state’s tax system for the next year, rather than rushing to enact large scale cuts, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Dave Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.  And, lawmakers in Michigan are debating various ways of piling new personal income tax cuts on top of the large business tax cuts (PDF) enacted these last few years.  We also expect to see major tax cut initiatives this year in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

    Conservative lawmakers are not alone in pushing a tax-cutting agenda.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates are making tax cuts a part of their campaign strategies.  
  • Real Reform:  Most tax shift and tax cut proposals will be sold under the guise of tax reform, but only those plans that truly address state tax codes’ structural flaws, rather than simply eliminating taxes, truly deserve the banner of “reform”.

    Illinois and Kentucky are the states with the best chances of enacting long-overdue reforms this year.  Voters in Illinois will likely be given the chance to convert their state's flat income tax rate to a more progressive, graduated system.  Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has renewed his commitment to enacting sweeping tax reform that will address inequities and inadequacies in his state’s tax system while raising additional revenue for education.  Look for lawmakers in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Utah to consider enacting or enhancing tax policies that reduce the tax load currently shouldered by low- and middle-income households.
  • Gas Taxes and Transportation Funding:  Roughly half the states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, so there’s little doubt that the lack of growth in state transportation revenues will remain a big issue in the year ahead. While we’re unlikely to see the same level of activity as last year (when half a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, enacted major changes to their gasoline taxes), there are a number of states where transportation funding issues are being debated. We’ll be keeping close tabs on developments in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, and Washington State, among other places.

Check back over the next month for more detailed posts about these four trends and proposals unfolding in a number of states.  



State News Quick Hits: Return of the "Fair Tax", Business Tax Cuts and More



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Some Indiana legislators aren’t too excited about Governor Mike Pence’s plan to take a major revenue source away from local governments.  Instead of prohibiting localities from taxing businesses’ equipment and machinery, House Speaker Brian Bosma has a more modest plan that would give local governments the option of eliminating those taxes on new investments.  But the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns doesn’t think Bosma’s plan is likely to do much good, explaining that “the more we slice the revenue side the less opportunity we have to create those kind of things which are just as big an economic development tool as reducing taxes.”

After cutting taxes for businesses and wealthy individuals these last couple years, Idaho Governor Butch Otter has changed his tune--at least slightly.  While the Governor wants to continue the state’s tax cutting race to the bottom, he says that boosting funding for education is actually his top priority this year.  Otter’s realization that public services matter to Idaho’s economic success is certainly welcome.  But rather than setting aside $30 million for tax cuts in his current budget, he may want to address the fact that “he’s not proposing any raises for teachers … nor is he proposing funding raises for any of Idaho’s state employees, despite a new state report showing state employee pay has fallen to 19 percent below market rates.”

Jason Bailey, Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy gets it right in this op-ed describing how desperately the state needs tax reform and what the goals of tax reform should be. He notes that first and foremost “tax reform should raise significant new revenue now to begin reinvesting in Kentucky's needs.” He goes on to make the case that the tax reform should also improve the state’s tax structure in terms of fairness. He cites an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis which found that  currently ”low- and middle-income people pay nine to 11 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in Kentucky while the highest-earning one percent of people pay only six percent.” Thankfully it looks like Governor Steve Beshear is on board with at least some of the principles outlined in this piece. During last week’s State of the Commonwealth (PDF) address he called for “more resources” to help restore cuts to vital services. The Governor’s own tax reform plan is scheduled to be unveiled later this month.

This piece in the Marietta Daily Journal discusses the radical “fair tax” proposal in Georgia. Some lawmakers are interested in eliminating the state’s income tax and replacing the revenue with a higher sales tax. When the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analyzed this proposal we found that this tax shift, despite not raising a dime of new revenue for the state, would actually increase taxes on most families.

Economists agreed last week that Michigan is set to see a nearly $1 billion revenue surplus over the next three years.  But, deciding on what to do with the boost in revenue will not be quite so easy.  There is some agreement amongst lawmakers that at least a portion of the surplus should be spent on tax cuts, some even calling tax cuts “inevitable.” Proposals vary greatly from lowering the state’s flat income tax rate (a permanent change) to handing out one-time rebate checks to taxpayers (recognizing that most of the surplus is one-time money) to restoring cuts to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (targeting tax cuts to low- and moderate-income taxpayers).   



How to Understand New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Proposed Tax Cuts



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Of all the governors across the United States supporting tax cutting proposals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been one of the most aggressive in promoting his own efforts to cut taxes. Taking his tax cut efforts one step further this election year, Cuomo is now proposing to expend the entirety of his state’s hard-won budget surplus on more than $2 billion in annual tax cuts.

While the term "budget surplus" may make it sound like that there is extra money lying around in Albany, the reality is that the surplus is the product of five consecutive years of austerity budgets and a budget plan that would continue this austerity for years to come. In other words, rather than using the surplus to restore funding to state and local services that have taken a hit over the past years, Cuomo is insisting that the money be used for tax cuts (many permanent) instead.

Unfortunately, tax cutting has become a pattern during Cuomo's time as governor. In June 2011, Cuomo pushed through a property tax cap, which severely limited the ability of cash-strapped local governments to raise enough revenue to fund basic services. In December of the same year, Cuomo further starved the state of much needed revenue by killing efforts to fully extend a millionaire's surtax, and instead pushing through a scaled back surcharge that raised half as much revenue as the original. Just last year, Cuomo pushed through a program of unproven and expensive corporate tax breaks, which a CTJ investigation found could actually harm many existing New York companies.

Even worse, to defend his past and newest tax cut proposals, Cuomo has embraced the cringe-worthy rhetoric of anti-tax governors like Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in arguing that ending "high taxes" and enacting corporate tax breaks will make the state more "business-friendly" and help improve New York's economy. The problem, of course, is that taxes are crucial to funding what really drives economic development: a highly educated workforce, good infrastructure and quality healthcare.

Cuomo's anti-tax approach is in direct contrast to the newly-elected New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, who ran and won a landslide victory on a campaign platform of addressing growing income inequality primarily through hiking taxes on the rich to provide universal citywide pre-kindergarten classes. De Blasio's call for higher taxes has proven not only popular in New York City, but also garnered the support of 63% of New York voters statewide. What de Blasio's election proves is that a significant majority of New Yorkers, unlike Cuomo, are not only willing to forgo tax cuts, but are actually willing to support higher taxes in order to help fund critical public services.

Cuomo's Tax Proposal a Mixed Bag in Terms of Tax Fairness

While many of Cuomo’s past tax proposals have offered little or nothing to those in need, Cuomo's new plan does includes a few potentially good ideas as well as few a very bad ones. On the good side of things, Cuomo proposes to substantially expand the state's property tax circuit breaker and create a renters credit, which could potentially provide a well-targeted income boost to low-income families. While the proposals sound good, their effectiveness will really depend on their details, which are yet to be released.

Regrettably, Cuomo is also proposing a significant cut in the state's corporate income and estate taxes, which will almost exclusively go to only a very small portion of the richest New Yorkers. Considering the recent series of tax cuts already passed by Cuomo and the years of budget cuts, piling on these additional tax breaks for the rich is simply unconscionable and would make an already unfair tax system (PDF) even worse.

 



DC Council Gets it Half Right on Property Taxes



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Much like their colleagues to the north, District of Columbia lawmakers are giving serious thought to cutting taxes now that an election is approaching.  According to the Washington Post, “10 of the council’s 13 members [are] running for re-election or higher office this year.”  It should come as little surprise, then, that the Council recently voiced unanimous support for a generous (but ill-conceived) property tax break for one of the city’s most politically popular groups—its senior citizens.  More encouraging, however, was the Council’s decision to delay action on an even more problematic bill that would have showered most of its benefits on owners of the city’s most valuable homes.

The first bill, introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds, completely eliminates the property tax for any long-term DC resident over age 75 as long as they earn less than $60,000 per year.  But as Ed Lazere of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) points out: “If you're 74, you get nothing … If you're 75, you have your taxes entirely limited.”  While it’s true that some senior citizens struggle with their property tax liabilities because they are “house-rich” but “cash-poor,” this isn’t a problem limited to taxpayers over age 75.

Rather than wiping out property taxes altogether for those taxpayers fortunate enough to have lived a long life, the District is better off providing this kind of relief more broadly through its property tax “circuit breaker” credit.  The credit, which is currently being expanded, will soon be available to both renters and homeowners of all ages earning up to $50,000 per year.  It also uses a more sophisticated formula than Bonds’ proposal to ensure that Washingtonians’ property tax bills do not exceed the income they have available to pay those bills.  An expert commission created by the Council recently recommended making no further changes to DC’s property tax system, but if the Council nonetheless wants to charge ahead with property tax cuts, the city’s circuit breaker credit is the better tool for the job.

The second bill, introduced by Councilmember (and current mayoral candidate) Jack Evans, would have tightened the District’s existing property tax cap to prevent tax increases of more than 5 percent per year.  As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, these kinds of tax caps are poorly targeted, extremely costly, and often grossly inequitable.  Most of the tax breaks doled out under such a cap would flow to owners of expensive homes.  For example, DCFPI estimates that nearly two-thirds of the benefits of Evans’ proposal would go to owners of homes worth over $550,000, despite the fact that this group makes up just 31 percent of all DC homeowners.  Further inequity arises when, for example, a resident who has owned their current home for a number of years (and racked up substantial tax cap benefits over that time) ends up enjoying a significantly lower tax bill than the first-time homebuyer in an identical rowhouse next door.

Mayor Vince Gray opposes the 5 percent property tax cap because of its “negative financial impact on the District’s revenues, its inequitable treatment of District homeowners and because it does not increase the District’s competitiveness regionally.”  These objections are well stated, though all of them also apply, to a lesser extent, to the over-75 giveaway sought by Councilmember Bonds.



Will Basic Constitutional Rights Be the Next Casualty of Kansas' Supply-Side Experiment?



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Almost every American would agree that education is a fundamental right. Any serious commitment to the notion of “equal opportunity” means ensuring that kids have an opportunity for a quality education—and that this opportunity should be as available to the very poor as it always has been to the very rich. As it happens, every state’s constitution includes a provision guaranteeing a basic education to its residents. But as an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times notes, if some Kansas policymakers have their way, that state’s constitutional guarantees may be the latest victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts.

It’s worth reviewing how Kansas lawmakers found themselves talking about jettisoning fundamental constitutional rights. In 2012, Governor Brownback pushed through huge tax cuts for the affluent based, in part, on the argument that these tax cuts would be largely self-financing. (Brownback was apparently influenced heavily by the half-baked supply-side claims of Arthur Laffer that cutting income taxes will automatically spur economic growth.) Rather than requiring harmful cuts in state and local public investments, Brownback argued, his tax cuts would be “a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” generating new economic activity that would actually boost tax collections.  But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, it hasn’t worked out that way. State lawmakers were forced to enact substantial spending cuts across the board, and per-pupil funding plummeted from nearly $4,500 less than a decade ago to $3,838 last year. After a group of Kansas parents brought suit against the state, a lower state court ruled (PDF) that these cuts were an unconstitutional violation of the state’s basic education guarantees—and prescribed a remedy that returns per-pupil funding to the levels achieved in the last decade.

In response to the court’s finding (which is now being reviewed by the state Supreme Court), policymakers in the Brownback administration have argued that the court’s mandate for more school spending prevents them from adjusting spending levels to reflect economic downturns. As the state’s solicitor general argued last year, “The Legislature has to deal with the real world…the constitution shouldn't be a suicide pact." But this argument is ludicrous: as the court sensibly pointed out in its ruling, state lawmakers gutted education spending at the same time that they were pushing through huge tax cuts, making it “completely illogical” to argue that the unconstitutional education cuts are anything other than “self-inflicted.” Notwithstanding this, some policymakers have called for amending the state constitution to modify or even eliminate the guarantee of a basic education in response to this ruling. In other words, when the state constitution conflicts with supply-side tax cuts, it must be the constitution’s fault.  

The good news is that most other states have, so far, resisted the siren call of Laffer’s calls for huge income tax cuts. But in Kansas, some policymakers are so enamored with the Brownback tax cuts that they appear to be willing to write off their most basic constitutional guarantees. 



State News Quick Hits: 2014 Off to Rocky Start



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2014 is just a few days old, and already it’s not off to such a happy start in terms of tax fairness:

This editorial in the Kansas City Star predicts that in Missouri, “[m]any state lawmakers, and their constituents, found 2013 to be a taxing legislative session. But it may pale in comparison to what’s ahead in 2014.” Republican legislators aren’t going to give up on “tax reform” after their failure to override Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of an extreme tax plan last year. Instead, those lawmakers are pledging to propose another round of income tax cuts and potentially a ballot initiative if the tax cuts can’t be passed through the legislative process.

The proliferation of state film tax incentives among states seeking to siphon off Hollywood production spending has been widely criticized. But the fact that some in California are now contemplating enacting film tax breaks to prevent a home-grown industry from leaving the state is a stark reminder that the “race to the bottom” in state corporate income taxes will leave every state poorer.

January 1st marked the beginning of a new, highly regressive era in North Carolina tax policy.  An array of tax changes went into effect which will further shift the responsibility for paying for North Carolina’s public investments away from wealthy households and profitable corporations onto the backs of middle- and low-income families.  Most notable among the changes includes the collapse of the state’s graduated personal income tax structure which was replaced with a flat rate of just 5.8% and allowing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to expire. Lawmakers who championed the tax package have falsely claimed for months that every North Carolina taxpayer will benefit from the changes.  As  ITEP and the NC Budget and Tax Center have repeatedly pointed out (and NC fact-checking reporters and the NC Fiscal Research division have substantiated), many families will pay more.  

This week, the Small Business Development Committee in the Wisconsin Assembly heard a bill about two proposed sales tax holidays. The first two-day holiday would be held in early August and would suspend the state’s 5 percent sales tax on computers and back-to-school items. The other two-day holiday would take place in November and be available for Energy Star products. Thankfully the proposal seems to be getting mixed reviews. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald views the proposal as a gimmick and he couldn’t be more right. For more information read ITEP’s Policy Brief.



State News Quick Hits in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Oklahoma



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The LaCrosse Tribune gets it right in this editorial titled, “Don’t Conduct Tax Talks in Private.” As we told you last week , Wisconsin  Governor Scott Walker asked Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Revenue Department Secretary Rick Chandler to host a series of roundtable discussions about the state’s tax structure. Unfortunately, the first invitation-only discussion happened behind closed doors. We couldn’t agree more with the Tribune that, “true tax reform deserves feedback and input from all Wisconsin citizens because while we may not all contribute to political candidates or align ourselves with political parties, we all pay taxes.” Now we hear that the Governor is interested in  income tax repeal. Let’s hope this debate doesn’t happen behind closed doors.

 

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has come out in favor of reviewing tax breaks given to businesses over the last several years in order to see if they really had a positive impact on the state’s economy.  We’ve been critical of the Governor for offering such tax incentives to specific companies.  Reviewing those giveaways for effectiveness is long overdue.

 

In more good news for those of us concerned with the “race to the bottom” in which states are doling out massive tax incentives to businesses with little oversight, Archer Daniels Midland is set to announce that they will move their headquarters to Chicago without receiving any state or city incentives in return.


Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear is (again) committing himself to tax reform. He recently said in 

an interview, “Tax reform remains a top priority of mine, and I am hopeful that we can address it in some way in the upcoming session.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently struck down a regressive and unpopular cut to the state’s top income tax rate that Governor Mary Fallin signed into law earlier this year.  According to the court, the bill containing the tax cut violated a provision in the Oklahoma constitution requiring each bill to be focused on a “single subject.”  In addition to cutting the state’s income tax, the bill would have also provided funding to repair the state’s Capitol building. 



Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Tax Simplicity Has Got to Go, says Iowa Governor



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Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is reportedly interested in implementing an alternative income tax structure for the Hawkeye State’s wealthiest taxpayers.

The state’s income tax rate structure is a bit deceptive because Iowa is one of just six states offering a deduction for federal income taxes paid. ITEP has written a whole report on this costly and regressive loophole available here (PDF). The ability of Iowans to write off all of their federal income taxes on their state income tax forms means that the state needs higher income tax rates in order to raise necessary revenue. The state’s top personal income tax rate is 8.98 percent—and some elected officials believe this makes it difficult to attract businesses to the state. But, Iowans pay an effective tax rate far lower than 8.98 percent because of the generous deduction for federal income taxes paid.

In order to combat this public relations problem, Governor Branstad is considering proposing an alternative income tax that has lower rates and no deduction for federal income taxes paid. Iowans would be allowed to file their taxes either way, but of course, most taxpayers would compute their income tax bills twice to determine which results in lower tax liability. In other words, the proposal completely disregards the tax policy principle of simplicity. It’s also likely that offering this “optional” income tax would cost the state in terms of revenue, since most people will choose it only if it saves them money.

The Governor’s proposal has come under scrutiny from some in the legislature and from various advocacy groups. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement released a statement saying, “Iowa’s wealthiest citizens need to pay their fair share in taxes. They don’t need more options for how to pay less.”

The track record for proposals of this type isn’t very good. One need only look to the 2008 presidential campaign and Senator John McCain’s tax proposal. During the campaign Citizens for Tax Justice analyzed the Senator’s alternative “simplified” tax and found that in 2012 alone, the alternate tax “would cost $98 billion, and 58 percent of this would go to the richest five percent of taxpayers.” Let’s hope Governor Branstad’s proposal falls the way of McCain’s.



State News Quick Hits: Wisconsin Tax Policy Round Tables, Unpopular Tax Cuts in Kansas, and More



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Governor Scott Walker says that one of his goals is to lower taxes for all Wisconsinites. He’s asked Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Revenue Department Secretary Rick Chandler to host a series of roundtable discussions about the state’s tax structure. Regrettably, transparency clearly isn’t another one of the Governor’s goals as the first roundtable discussion was closed to the public (and press) and only business leaders were invited.

In “race to the bottom” news, Missouri lawmakers approved a 23-year, $1.7 billion package of tax cuts for Boeing in an attempt to lure the manufacturer to the state. Missouri is one of twelve states vying for the opportunity to make the new 777X passenger jets. As we have explained, Missouri seems eager to repeat the mistakes of of Washington State, which recently provided Boeing with the largest state tax cut in history, at $8.7 billion.

It turns out that Kansas’ recent tax cuts aren’t just 
bad policy.  They’re also unpopular.  The income tax cuts, sales tax hikes, education cuts, and social service cuts that resulted from Governor Brownback’s tax plan are all opposed by a majority of Kansans, according to polling highlighted in The Wichita Eagle.

Due to the extensive changes to North Carolina’s personal income tax starting in 2014, the state’s Department of Revenue has 
asked all employers to distribute new state income tax withholding forms to their employees.  The need for a new form has unfortunately led to a lot of confusion and some really inaccurate press coverage on the regressive and costly tax “reform” package enacted this year.  Some articles mistakenly reported that everyone will get an income tax cut (and thus a little more money in their paychecks next year), but we know this is not the case.  The loss of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, personal exemptions (despite a higher standard deduction), and numerous other deductions and credits will negatively impact many working North Carolina families and seniors living on fixed incomes.  And, these stories all failed to point out that while income taxes may be going down for some, sales tax on items including movie tickets, service contracts and electricity will be going up in 2014.



Oregon Governor has Bad Intel on Corporate Tax Breaks



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State tax giveaways for business are reaching a fever pitch in the Pacific Northwest. Washington lawmakers last month enacted an $8.7 billion “mega-deal” package of state and local tax breaks designed to keep the state’s aerospace industry, dominated by Boeing, in the state. The sheer scale of the package, which is designed to last until 2040, has prompted some to wonder whether the time has finally come to end the tax-incentive arms race between the states. 

But across the Columbia River in Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber is having none of this talk. Computer chipmaker Intel has just inked a new package of guaranteed tax breaks, not through legislative action but through direct negotiation with Governor Kitzhaber. In brief, Intel gets a guarantee that it will be able to use the coveted “single sales factor” manufacturing tax break for 30 years– even if the legislature repeals it for everyone else doing business in the state.

In return for a tax break that will outlive many current Oregon voters, Intel agrees to do...nothing they weren’t already doing. As the Oregon Center on Public Policy points out, the company has already begun construction of a new research facility in the state, and the result of this agreement is simply that they will continue building the facility. Intel senior leaders admit that Intel’s current investments on this site are “nothing new...just continued expansion of the site.”

Why does Governor Kitzhaber have the power to unilaterally negotiate tax deals with Fortune 500 companies? Because the legislature gave him that power. In a special legislative session last year, the legislature enacted a bill (PDF) initially designed to authorize a similar tax break package for the Nike corporation, but ultimately crafted to allow any large company to negotiate directly with the governor on tax incentive packages, as long as those negotiations took place before the end of 2013. (Reminder to mom-and-pop businesses in Oregon: you’ve got just two short weeks left to set up your personal meeting with Kitzhaber if you want to secure similar tax breaks– better get with the program!)

The good news is that in the limited time Kitzhaber has had access to his “magic wand” for granting tax breaks, he’s only done it for Intel and Nike. So when Kitzhaber turns over a new leaf and starts pushing for comprehensive tax reform after the next gubernatorial election, he’ll have to spend a bit less time undoing the damage he’s wrought in 2013.

What makes this all the more astonishing is that Kitzhaber and the legislature have no idea whether these companies are paying a meaningful amount of income tax to Oregon to begin with—and there’s anecdotal evidence that they don’t. A 2011 report from Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that Intel was one of over a dozen Fortune 500 companies that, despite being hugely profitable between 2008 and 2010, managed to pay not even a dime of state corporate tax nationwide during this three-year period.

Public disclosure of corporate tax payments (PDF) remains a terrific, if largely unfulfilled, step toward reform, and it’s worth asking: if Kitzhaber, to say nothing of Oregon taxpayers, knew just how little income tax Intel is paying right now to Oregon, would this horrific deal have ever seen the light of day?



Will Indiana Cut Local Revenues Yet Again?



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Having already cut taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents, Governor Mike Pence and Indiana’s legislative leadership have shifted their focus toward cutting taxes for businesses.  Specifically, they’ve declared eliminating or reducing the business personal property tax to be a top priority for the upcoming legislative session.  The business personal property tax, levied mainly on equipment and machinery, currently raises over $1 billion each year for localities, school districts, and library districts.  State lawmakers would not see their revenues directly affected by repeal of the tax.

Governor Pence says that he wants to take this revenue source away from local governments in a way that would not “unduly harm” them, though he did not specify how he would accomplish this goal, or what an acceptable level of “harm” would be.  While some localities collect just 3 percent of their total property tax revenues from business property, others depend on the tax for as much as 40 percent of their property tax collections.

If the tax is repealed, state aid would be hugely important in avoiding deep cuts in local services, but other states’ track records in providing such aid is less than encouraging.  Lawmakers face a constant temptation to renege on promises they’ve made to localities as they begin to look for ways to pay for their own tax or spending priorities, or when the state budget eventually falls on hard times.

Unsurprisingly, then, the head of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns says that “every mayor that I have spoken with is deeply concerned about what the elimination of the personal property tax might mean to local government.”  The Associated Press also provides some important context for their concern, noting that “many communities are still struggling with their budgets five years after the enactment of statewide property tax caps.”

If the business personal property tax is repealed and local governments are left to fend for themselves, Dr. Larry DeBoer of Purdue University estimates that other property owners would be asked to make up about half of the lost revenue.  Specifically, he expects that they would see their property taxes raised by a combined total of about $453 million per year.  In part because of the 2008 property tax caps, however, localities would also have to cut their budgets to make up much of the difference.  Unless state lawmakers devise a plan to truly make localities whole (and actually to stick to that plan), Indiana residents could expect their local services to be cut by up to $510 million each year, on top of the cuts that have already gone into effect.



Missouri Lawmakers to Washington: We'll See Your $8.7 Billion, And...



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When Washington State lawmakers approved a record $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing and other aerospace companies last month, many observers hoped that the unprecedented scale of the new tax cuts—which will last through 2040—might open policymakers’ eyes to the folly of the “race to the bottom” that will eventually result from ever-increasing corporate giveaways. But Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s eyes remain firmly shut. Nixon has called a special legislative session to urge the Missouri legislature to approve tax cuts totaling $1.7 billion , also geared toward Boeing and other aerospace companies.

Nixon’s professed hope is that the tax breaks will entice Boeing to produce their 777X commercial aircraft in Missouri. But Boeing’s own taxpaying behavior suggests that for some, the “race to the bottom” may already be over: a recent CTJ report found that over the past decade Boeing managed to avoid paying even a dime of state income taxes nationwide on $35 billion in pretax U.S. profits.



Supreme Court Won't Rule on New York's "Amazon Law"



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This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear the e-commerce industry’s challenge to New York’s trend-setting “Amazon law.”  The law, which was upheld by New York’s highest court, successfully expanded the number of online retailers collecting New York sales taxes.  It did this by requiring any e-retailer to collect the tax if they partner with New York based “affiliates” to generate over $10,000 in sales.  Because of the law, Amazon.com has been collecting sales taxes from its New York customers for more than 5 years, generating millions in revenue for public services and making the state’s sales tax base slightly more rational.

In the wake of the Court’s refusal to hear Amazon.com and Overstock.com’s appeals, some observers are already predicting that more states will be tempted to follow New York’s lead.  And follow it they should.  More than a dozen states have “Amazon laws” patterned after New York’s and while they’re not a panacea for the tax base erosion that online shopping has caused, they are the best option states have available to them right now.

If anybody needs to pay attention to the Court’s ruling, though, it’s the U.S. House of Representatives.  Almost seven months ago the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would have made New York’s law irrelevant by empowering all states to apply their sales tax collection laws more broadly to all e-retailers above a certain size.  The bill has widespread support among traditional retailers and a broad coalition of state-level lawmakers, but has so far been stopped—like many other reforms—by the House’s aversion to virtually anything that would improve tax collections at any level of government.



This Holiday, The Tax Justice Team Is Thankful For...



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During Thanksgiving we tend to reflect on the year’s events and remember what we’re grateful for. This was a doozy of a year for tax analysts, with the federal government shutting down and state legislatures across the nation threatening deep cuts to major sources of revenue. But, nonetheless, as we look back on the year we have many things to be grateful for:

— That the taxes we all pay help make our communities, our states and country stronger and more vibrant.  Our tax dollars are used to provide public education, clean air and water, well-connected road and public transit systems, safe streets, affordable health care, and income supports for working families.

— That every state that started 2013 with a personal income tax continues to have one, despite efforts in LouisianaNebraska, and North Carolina to dismantle their most progressive form of taxation.

— That poor families in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and Montgomery County, Maryland will find it a little easier to make ends meet now that lawmakers in those states and localities approved expansions to various low-income tax credits.

— For the Americans who have demanded that Congress address the tax avoidance uncovered by CTJ and carried out by huge corporations like GE, Apple, and Boeing.

— That CTJ’s proposal to increase the Medicare payroll tax for the wealthy, and subject their investment income to the same type of tax, is part of the health care reform law in effect now.

— That Senator Max Baucus’s tax reform proposals (so far) do not give corporations their dream of ending all U.S. taxes on profits they claim to earn offshore and that many members of Congress are signalling a new seriousness about closing loopholes that allow corporations to shift profits into offshore tax havens.

Additionally, we thank our donors and friends for making our work possible.  Unlike other groups, who have one large benefactor, CTJ and ITEP rely on our thousands of supporters for funding.  2013 has been a banner year for CTJ and ITEP as we have seen a dramatic increase in online contributions, but our work has never been so important, so please consider CTJ or ITEP in your holiday giving to help us prepare for the tax fights ahead in 2014.

We wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving!



Scott Walker's Tax Record Will Be on the Wisconsin Ballot Next Year



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Voters in 36 states will be choosing governors next year.  Over the next several months, the Tax Justice Digest will be highlighting 2014 gubernatorial races where we expect taxes to be a key issue. Today’s post is about the race for the Governor’s mansion in Wisconsin.

To many Wisconsinites, it may seem like yesterday that Governor Scott Walker survived a recall election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. But in less than a year, he’ll be up for reelection. This time Mary Burke, a Trek Bicycle Corp. executive and state Commerce Department secretary, is the Democrat hoping to unseat him.  During the campaign, Walker will most certainly tout his record of cutting taxes, but anyone who’s paid attention knows his record is nothing to be proud of.

This year alone he signed legislation that both cut property taxes and reduced income tax rates in a way that does little for Wisconsin’s neediest residents – the opposite, actually. In fact, the budget he introduced in 2011 was called a betrayal of Wisconsin values by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and other public interest groups because he ultimately approved legislation that reduced the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), thus increasing taxes on the state’s poorest working families. That budget also included $2.3 billion in tax breaks over a decade, in the form of a domestic production activities credit, two different capital gains tax breaks for the rich, and a variety of new sales tax exemptions, including for snowmaking and snow grooming equipment.

Challenger Mary Burke is being cautious and has yet to put out her own tax plan. She recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however, that she would not take a pledge to not increase taxes, saying, “I'd want to look at the totality. We collect revenue in a lot of different ways. I certainly wouldn't look at raising (taxes), but I'd also want to look at it in the context of our finances, our budgets …” When we learn more about her plan, we’ll review it for you here.

 



Gas Tax Reform Draws Close in Pennsylvania as Debate Continues in 3 More States



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Update: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed the gas tax increase described below into law on November 25, 2013.

One of 2013’s biggest state tax policy issues—the gasoline tax—continues to make headlines long after most state legislative sessions have come to a close for the year.  We’ve already written about how lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia enacted gas tax increases or reforms earlier this year.  But within just the last week, four more states have been in the news with high-profile proposals to raise their own gas taxes—including Pennsylvania, which appears to be on the verge of both increasing and reforming its tax.  Here’s what’s been happening:  

Pennsylvania is one of a small number of states where the legislature is still in session (most state sessions ended this spring).  This week, both the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed a bill that would gradually raise the gas tax by allowing it to rise alongside gas prices, much like an ordinary sales tax.  This is not a new idea in the Keystone State.  Prior to 2006, Pennsylvania’s gas tax actually functioned in exactly this manner, though the 32.3 cent tax has since run up against a poorly designed gas tax “cap” that the legislature is now seeking to lift.  When combined with increases in vehicle registration fees, license fees, and traffic fines, the overall package is expected to raise $2.3 billion per year for roads and transit.  As of this writing the bill needs to be approved by the House one more time before going to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk where it is expected to be signed into law.

In Washington State, The Olympian is reporting that “a bipartisan transportation revenue package now looks possible” after the coalition of lawmakers in control of the state senate backed an 11.5 cent gas tax increase.  The tax increase would be phased-in over the course of three years and is actually somewhat larger than the 10 cent increase sought by Governor Jay Inslee and House Democrats earlier this year.  As we explained in June, Washington’s gas tax would remain relatively low by historical standards even if the Governor’s 10 cent increase had been enacted into law.  The same is true of an 11.5 cent increase.  Lawmakers could potentially act on the 11.5 cent plan within the next few weeks if a special legislative session is called.

Utah business leaders, local officials, and other stakeholders are continuing to make the case that public investments in infrastructure will help the state’s economy succeed, and that the gas tax is the best way to pay for those investments.  On Wednesday, local officials testified before an interim transportation committee in support of a plan to allow localities to levy a 3 percent gas tax.  Unlike Utah’s fixed-rate gas tax—which actually stands at its lowest level in history as a result of inflation—this 3 percent tax should do a reasonably good job keeping pace with future growth in the cost of transportation construction and maintenance.  At the same hearing, a Republican state representative testified in support of his own plan to raise the state’s gas tax by 7.5 cents per gallon, phased-in over the course of five years.

The gas tax has been a frequent topic of discussion in Iowa these last few years, and it doesn’t seem like that’s about to change any time soon.  As in Utah, Iowa’s gas tax is at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation), but one of the state’s candidates for governor in 2014 would like to change that.  Democrat Jack Hatch has proposed raising the tax by a total of 10 cents over the course of 5 years.  Current Governor Terry Branstad, who is eligible to seek reelection next year, is noticeably less excited about the idea.  But Branstad has said he won’t veto a gas tax increase if one makes it to his desk.



State News Quick Hits: Expert Advice Versus Politics in DC, NE, NY and KY



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The District of Columbia’s Tax Revision Commission heard from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP, CTJ’s partner organization), last week about options for lessening the regressivity of DC’s tax system. In testimony before the Commission, ITEP’s Matt Gardner explained how enhancements to DC’s standard deduction, personal exemption, and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) could be enacted without breaking the bank, as long as they’re paired with reforms like phasing-out exemptions and deductions for high-income taxpayers, or eliminating the District’s unusual tax break for out-of-state bond interest.

We got our first glimpse this week of what tax reform could mean for Nebraskans next year.  Members of Nebraska’s Tax Modernization Committee sketched out details of a potential tax reform proposal, but will wait until next month to finalize the plan.  And so far, it looks like the Committee will be sticking to modest, sensible ideas like expanding the sales tax to some household services, indexing tax brackets for inflation, and cutting property taxes (slightly). Considering that Governor Dave Heineman’s commitment to doing away with the personal income tax (or at least significantly cutting it) is the reason for the Committee’s existence, it is a positive sign that its members are steering clear of more radical changes to the income tax.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first appointed tax commission, the one charged with finding revenue-neutral options to reform the state’s tax system, released its recommendations last week for making the state’s tax code “simpler and fairer”.  Our friends at the Fiscal Policy Institute and New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness called the recommendations “a smorgasbord of reforms with a little something for everyone."  The ideas include: expanding the sales tax base to services and currently exempted goods and using the new revenue to cut taxes for low- and middle-income families; reforming the corporate and bank franchise tax; and exempting middle-income families from New York’s estate tax. The question now is whether the Governor, (who can hardly find a tax he doesn’t hate), will consider these recommendations. Or, whether he will only focus on ideas coming from a second tax committee he appointed, with former Governor George Pataki at its helm, which is tasked with finding ways to simply cut $2 to $3 billion in taxes next year.

Last September, recommendations from Kentucky’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform were released. ITEP deemed the Commission’s 453 page final report filled with tax reform recommendations “worth legislative consideration.” Yet, the Lexington Herald-Leader is reporting that, like the eight other previous tax studies, this report is simply “gathering dust.” Some lawmakers say that 2014 isn’t the year for tax reform, citing a difficult “political climate.” Let’s hope the tide changes and all the Commission’s work doesn’t go unutilized given the fiscal stress the state is already under.



Jay Nixon's Proposed Truce Is Long Overdue



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For years, the economic border war between Missouri and Kansas has been the topic of discussion in those states’ respective statehouses. In a January report titled The Job-Creation Shell Game, Good Jobs First writes, “There is no jobs border war more intense these days than the one raging in the Kansas City metropolitan area...Both states unabashedly poach businesses from each other, aided by similarly structured tax credits that allow footloose companies to retain large portions of their employees’ state personal income tax.”

Now, it appears, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is finally determined to change that.  Nixon recently told a business group that, “This so-called border war between our two states has gone on long enough” and described it as “bad for taxpayers … bad for our state budget, and it’s not good for our economy.”  Since making these statements, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has indicated that he’s open to the idea of a truce, and the Kansas City Star explained how discussions surrounding how to implement such an agreement have been underway for more than a year.

In testimony before the National Conference of State Legislatures’ tax policy task force, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) made a strong case against the use of tax incentives to lure businesses: they often reward companies for activities they would have undertaken anyway; it’s difficult to ensure that their benefits remain entirely in-state; they often result in simply “poaching” jobs from one jurisdiction to another; and their costs can balloon far beyond what lawmakers anticipated.

The Kansas City border war is a particularly egregious example of many of these problems.  Cutting back on the wasteful use of incentives is the obvious first step that Missouri and Kansas lawmakers should take; the proposed truce would be immediately helpful to both Kansas and Missouri, and in the long run could help more states recognize that there are benefits to ending the tax incentive arms race.



Avoiding Tax Cut One-upmanship in Maryland



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Maryland has made some notable improvements to its tax system these last few years.  In 2012, lawmakers made the state’s regressive tax system (PDF) somewhat less unfair by limiting personal income tax exemptions and raising tax rates on high-income earners.  Then, in 2013, the state increased and overhauled its unsustainable gasoline tax despite the tough politics that accompany any policy that could lead to higher gas prices.

But with a major state election now less than a year away, the conversation seems to be taking a familiar, and less grown-up, tone.  The Baltimore Sun reports that four of the six candidates for governor have already incorporated “crowd-pleasing” tax cuts into their platforms in an effort to woo voters, and that the speaker of the House and president of the Senate appear interested in following their lead.  Corporate income tax cuts have attracted the most attention so far, and the Sun expects that proponents of a corporate tax cut will get a boost from some business leaders when they unveil their legislative priorities next month.

Rather than stand idly by and risk the election becoming a contest to see who can promise the longest list of tax cuts, some advocates in the state have already begun to do the hard work that’s needed to explain to lawmakers, candidates, and voters the ways in which taxes benefit the state.  The goal is to make the election year tradition of demonizing taxes a little less politically rewarding.

One recent example of such work comes from the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute (MBTPI), who spotlights a recent nonpartisan study that found that a corporate income tax cut could actually result in fewer jobs, less disposable income, and/or slower population growth.  More publicity around these kinds of basic facts will be needed if the candidates whose names will appear on Maryland’s (and other states’) ballot next year are going to be convinced that they should drop their familiar refrain about the job-creating power of tax cuts

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State News Quick Hits: Corporations Across the States Push for Tax Breaks and More



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Washington Governor Jay Inslee testified before legislators on the first day of a special session in favor of allowing tax breaks for Boeing that are estimated to cost the state $9 billion. Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s Remy Trupin issued this statement reminding lawmakers “It does not do our state’s economy any good to subsidize Boeing as they ship jobs out of state. We must ensure that significant state investments in Boeing benefit all Washingtonians.” Update: Governor Jay Inslee signed into law  tax breaks for Boeing.
 

There is a promising movement afoot in Minnesota to better fund the state’s transportation needs. The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, in next year’s legislative session, is going to propose either increasing the gas tax or, better yet, reforming it so that it grows alongside gas prices.
 

Here’s some temporary good news: The Illinois Senate adjourned without approving the litany of corporate tax breaks we told you about in an earlier post. So for now at least $88 million will stay in the state’s coffers. But the sponsor of the tax break bill, Sen. Thomas Cullerton says he expects to bring up the bill again next month. The Chicago Tribune is reporting, “even though [Cullerton] is positive he has enough votes to send the ... bill to the House, he would like to secure more.”
 

Amazon.com, the world’s largest online retailer, managed to score a $7 million subsidy from Wisconsin taxpayers in exchange for building a distribution center in their state.  But as our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, these kinds of tax incentives are a zero-sum game that rarely pay off with any real economic benefits.

 



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.



More Illinois Companies Trying to Extort Tax Breaks



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We’ve followed the tactics of corporations in Illinois, from Motorola to CME Group, who again and again ask lawmakers for pricey handouts they claim they need to keep doing business in the state. House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie has called this egregious behavior “blackmail.” She recently said, "[i]t essentially is saying, if you don’t jump to, if you don’t go do this for us we might think about going somewhere else."  

Now the list of companies asking for handouts is growing, including: Archer Daniels Midland Company, OfficeMax, Zurich North America Insurance, Univar, and High Voltage Software. Giving individual companies special treatment is a violation of the neutrality principle and means that similarly situated companies are treated differently based on who can get the Legislature to bend to their will. Granting these singular incentives creates an environment wherein states end up competing in a “race to the bottom” and, ultimately, ordinary taxpayers pay the price through higher taxes or fewer services.

Illinois is facing an enormous budget crisis, due in part to the tax breaks for big multistate corporations that lawmakers have enacted over the years. Now is not the time for pandering to corporations at the expense of investing in the state’s future.

 

 



State News Quick Hits: Amazon's Esoteric Tax Dodge, and More



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Iowa Senator Jack Hatch is one of three Democratic candidates running to unseat Governor Terry Branstad. If elected, the Senator intends to pursue a package of tax changes that would cost the state $415 million in Fiscal Year 2015 and $300 million in the following years. Most components of his plan are quite progressive: eliminating the flawed deduction for federal income taxes paid and asking the wealthiest Iowans to pay more overall.  But we wonder if permanently reducing tax revenues is the best approach when (for example) food insecurity in the state is rising.

Interested in how college textbooks are taxed in your state? Check out this New York Times piece which also explains why Amazon is telling its customers not to carry the textbooks they “rent” from Amazon across state lines. It’s one of the many convoluted steps the company takes in efforts to dodge its sales tax collection responsibilities.

The Kansas City Star explains in an editorial why the gas tax is a better tool for funding infrastructure than the sales tax.  As the Star notes, relying on a general sales tax to pay for roads “is a big leap away from the “user pays” world in which motorists help finance road repair and construction … [and] many drivers from outside the state who use the state’s roads would pay little if anything in sales taxes to maintain them.”  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) makes a similar point in its 50-state report on the gas tax.

Nebraska’s Tax Modernization Committee, which we have been following, has moved on from taking public comment and is now back to deliberating potential changes to the Cornhusker state’s tax system.  At the suggestion of the Committee’s Chairman, members are focusing first on how they would pay for any proposed tax cuts – which could include fully exempting social security from the personal income tax and providing state aid to help reduce property taxes. While tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund and reserves is one option under consideration, many lawmakers wisely cautioned against using one-time money to pay for permanent tax changes. We are also happy to see that some Committee members are making tax fairness an important part of the debate. To this point, State Senator Jeremy Nordquist said, “There's a number of options for us to address the regressivity of our state and local tax system, and that's certainly what my goal will be."

 

 

 

 



Quick Hits in State News: Tricks, Treats and Taxes!



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Happy Halloween to our readers!

 

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s bloodcurdling vision for his state is on display in a new article in Governing magazine, which poses the question “Can Tough Love Help Reduce Poverty?” As the article notes, Brownback has demanded that poverty-stricken Kansans get off welfare and get a job, despite the dearth of quality employment opportunities in the state. What makes this fanciful approach to poverty-alleviation even more revolting is that Brownback’s own policies don’t support the working poor. For example, he has proposed to eliminate the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit -- which, as the name implies, only goes to those with wages earned through work during the year. While that proposal was rejected by the legislature, the tax cut bills he ultimately signed in 2012 and 2013 were wildly unfair, raising taxes on low-income families in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy.
 

The frighteningly incoherent world of online shopping sales taxes is undergoing yet another change this week.  We recently wrote about how a court ruling in Illinois limits the state’s ability to enforce its sales tax laws. In other states, though, things are moving in exactly the opposite direction.  The world’s largest online retailer--Amazon.com--will begin collecting sales taxes in Massachusetts and Wisconsin this Friday under agreements reached with those two states.
 

Advocates of "pay-per-mile" taxes are continuing to tell hair-raising stories about how the gas tax is doomed by the growing popularity of hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles--most recently in the Los Angeles Times.  But while fuel-efficiency gains may spell trouble in the long-term, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently explained that the root cause of our current transportation funding nightmare is much more straightforward.  78 percent of the gas tax shortfall we see today is simply a result of Congress’ failure to plan for inflation.
 

ITEP got a shout-out in a recent New York Times editorial urging voters to reject New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shortsighted plan to increase the number of casinos in the state. As the editorial points out, ITEP has shown that higher state revenues from casino gambling are fleeting, often vanishing like a ghost to neighboring states and leaving in-staters, particularly those afflicted with gambling addictions, holding the bag.


 



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



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

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

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

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

 



Illinois Ruling Strengthens Case for a Federal Solution to Online Tax Collection



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Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down a state law (commonly called the “Amazon law”) that would have helped solve some of the sales tax enforcement problems surrounding online shopping.  As things currently stand in Illinois (and most other states), traditional retailers with stores, warehouses, or actual employees in Illinois are required to collect  state sales taxes from their customers, while online retailers who don’t employ any Illinois residents (or have any other “physical presence”) are given a free pass.  Online shoppers are supposed to pay the sales tax directly to the state when e-retailers fail to collect it, but few shoppers actually do this in practice.

Illinois, along with nine other states, had tried to strengthen its sales tax enforcement by requiring more online retailers to collect the tax (specifically, those retailers partnering with Illinois-based “affiliates” to market their products).  But this court ruling strikes down Illinois’ law on the grounds that it treats companies partnering with online affiliates differently than companies who advertise in Illinois through traditional media.  According to a majority of the justices, this feature of Illinois’ “Amazon law” violates a federal law enacted in 2000 that bars “discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

In his dissent, Justice Lloyd Karmeier points out that Illinois’ “Amazon law” didn’t actually impose any new taxes—it simply required a larger number of retailers to be involved in collecting and remitting sales taxes that are already due.  Karmeier went on to say that he would have upheld the law – in much the same way that New York’s highest court did with a similar law in that state earlier this year.

With Illinois’ and New York’s courts disagreeing on this issue, legal observers seem to think there’s a growing chance that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case next year.  But it’s a shame it’s come to this.  The Supreme Court already made clear over two decades ago that Congress has the authority to set up a more rational, nationwide policy for how states can tax purchase made over the Internet.  The U.S. Senate did exactly that this May with a bipartisan vote in favor of the Marketplace Fairness Act, but so far the U.S. House of Representatives has yet to act on it.  We presume it’s the political disagreements among activists and lobby groups that’s prevented the House from acting so far, but it’s increasingly urgent that states finally be allowed to resolve the mess that is tax collection for online shopping.

Cartoon by Monte Wolverton, available at and courtesy Cagle Cartoons.



Governor Scott Walker Appropriates State Budget Surplus for Campaign Season Tax Cut



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Earlier this month, with an unexpected $100 million biennial budget surplus burning a hole in his pocket, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed to use the one-time surplus to permanently cut local property taxes. In a whirlwind legislative session, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers approved Walker’s tax cut with little opposition. Walker signed it into law over the weekend in a media-friendly event, with a red barn as the backdrop and children as nearby props.

The new law adds $100 million in state aid to local school districts over the next two years—which, due to the state’s strict local revenue limits, means that local governments receiving the new aid will be forced to reduce their property taxes dollar for dollar.

But there’s a hitch. The forecast $100 million surplus may be just a memory two years from now, but the new state aid will be permanently on the books. As the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP) points out, using a one-time budget surplus to fund a permanent property tax cut is a recipe for long-term fiscal difficulties. Down the road, lawmakers will likely be forced to either hike state taxes or cut other areas of spending to pay for Walker’s tax cut. And “down the road” isn’t that far off: the Legislative Fiscal Bureau is already estimating a budget shortfall of about $725 million for the biennium starting in 2015.

Even worse, the new law will offer trivial tax breaks to homeowners, despite its huge price tag. The typical homeowner will see just $33 in property tax cuts over the next two years and many ordinary homeowners will see no cut at all. This is because the Governor’s plan will cut property taxes across the board, offering tax breaks to big corporations, shopping malls and vacation homes in addition to Wisconsin homeowners who happen to live in the right school districts.

In an attempt to disguise this campaign season ploy as a fiscally responsible plan, defenders of the new law argue that a new deal requiring Amazon.com to collect sales taxes in Wisconsin will help pay for the cut. But the estimated $30 million a year from that deal is not “new revenue,” and it’s already got a purpose—it’s legally-owed sales tax revenue that should already have been helping to fund schools, roads and medical care for years.

One of the few responsible legislators who voted against the tax bill offered some illuminating observations. Noting that it amounts to less than a dollar a month for the average home owner, State Senator Tim Cullen said that this trumpeted “tax relief” was aimed at nothing more than ensuring Governor Walker’s re-election. “That at the end of the day is what this is all about — $100 million of property tax relief. Nice headline." More specifically, many share the view that the Governor was more interested in scoring political points than promoting good tax policy, and it’s a shame so many members of his legislature willingly played along.

 

 

 



Will New Jersey Re-elect the Fiscally Reckless Chris Christie?



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In his reelection campaign, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been touting his record as a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, bragging that “not one tax has been raised since I’ve been governor.” Many low-income New Jersey families would disagree. That is because Christie cut the state’s property and earned income tax credits, two critical anti-poverty measures for low-income workers, during his first term.

On property taxes, Christie boasts that he “successfully implemented a 2-percent property tax cap.” But many low- and moderate-income homeowners actually pay more now in property taxes than before the cap took effect. That is because he reduced funding for the Homestead Benefit and Senior Freeze programs, costing working families hundreds of millions of dollars. That is one reason why the public’s view of Christie’s handling of the property tax issue is so low.

On income taxes, Christie reduced the state’s EITC by 20 percent in 2010, costing 1.5 million workers a total of $100 million in tax credits over the last two years. The governor then refused to restore the cuts unless he got his way on an across-the-board income tax cut. In fact, he twice vetoed legislation that would restore the EITC, effectively holding low-income New Jersey workers hostage to his demands.

In contrast, Christie’s opponent, Barbara Buono, has promised to “restore New Jersey’s Earned Income Tax Credit and protect property tax relief for the families who need it most.” At the same time, Buono is supporting a millionaire’s tax that Governor Christie rejected (vetoing it three times) in order to fill in revenues needed for education in particular, which has been severely cut during Christie’s tenure.

A candidate for governor who says, as Buono does, that tax credits and incentives work best when targeted is one who better understands the role of taxes in the economy and budget than one committed to across-the-board income tax cuts (which do zero for a state’s economy and always benefit the wealthiest instead of taxpayers who actually need relief).   



State News Quick Hits: Criticism of "Business Climate" Rankings Grows, and More



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Nebraska’s Tax Modernization Committee, which we promised to keep tabs on in July, is scheduled to hold its final public hearings this week. But rather than wait to hear what the panel has to say, Governor Dave Heineman decided to renew his calls for lower property and income taxes. While some have argued that Nebraska’s property taxes are too high, slashing property taxes without increasing state aid to local governments would put significant strain on vital local services. Today, Nebraska ranks 43rd nationally in the amount of state aid it provides to local governments, and 49th in the aid it gives to schools. If Governor Heineman succeeds in his quest to cut state taxes, increasing local aid will become even more difficult. The Open Sky Policy Institute has issued thoughtful recommendations on this and other issues facing the Committee.

If you’re wondering whether you should put any stock in the Tax Foundation’s newest “Business Tax Climate Index,” the answer is No.  For starters, Good Jobs First has shown that, contrary to popular belief, the Tax Foundation’s rankings aren’t a very good predictor of how much a business would actually pay in taxes if it were located in any given state.  And now Governing magazine has taken a critical look at the rankings in a new article, and concludes that states earning high marks from the Tax Foundation don’t actually have stronger job markets or higher medium wages.

U.S. News & World Report is running an opinion piece by Carl Davis from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), highlighting the fact that the federal gas tax has not been raised in exactly 20 years – and has been losing value ever since. The essay draws heavily from research that ITEP published late last month, and concludes that “it's time for our elected officials to accept that keeping the gas tax cryogenically frozen at 18.4 cents per gallon is costing Americans a lot more than it's helping them.”

West Virginia is thinking about how best to use the tax revenues it expects to collect from sales of its natural gas resources. The Associated Press reports that “[f]or decades, coal from West Virginia's vast deposits was mined, loaded on rail cars and hauled off without leaving behind a lasting trust fund financed by the state's best-known commodity. Big coal's days are waning, but now a new bonanza in the natural gas fields has state leaders working to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.” According to the AP, the state’s Senate president, Jeff Kessler, is looking to use some of the severance tax revenues on oil and natural gas to create an enduring trust fund, as other states with significant natural resources have done. “His goal: a cushion of funds long after the gas is depleted to buoy an Appalachian mountain state chronically vexed by poverty, high joblessness, and cycles of boom and bust.”

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director, Rich Huddleston, was one of four Arkansas leaders invited to contribute to Talk Business Arkansas magazine with ideas for how to “construct a fairer state tax code.” His proposal (citing ITEP data) is here, and begins: “The goal of any good tax system is to raise enough revenue to fund critical public investments that improve well-being of children and families while also promoting economic growth and prosperity.”



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



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

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

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

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

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

Read the report

 



State News Quick Hits: Brownback Under Fire, and More



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Governor Sam Brownback’s tax policies are being challenged by a state legislator who’s running to unseat him, Paul Davis. "Gov. Brownback's `real live experiment' is not working," Davis said, using Brownback’s own description of the extreme tax changes he signed into law. Davis was referring to rising unemployment rates and a new Kansas Department of Revenue report showing revenues are falling below projections. Kansas lawmakers have slashed taxes over the past two legislative sessions and, despite what supply-siders would have you believe, tax cuts really don’t pay for themselves.

The Institute for Illinois’s Fiscal Stability at the Civic Federation in Chicago issued a report describing the lack of movement on fiscal issues as a “lost opportunity” for the state (we agree). Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation said, “This year was a lost opportunity as legislators failed to prepare for the extreme financial challenges everyone knows are on the immediate horizon. We see some progress this year on the backlog of unpaid bills, but nothing to address the unresolved pension crisis or to plan for the revenue loss coming next year.”  Next year, the state’s income tax rate is scheduled to be reduced and with that even larger shortfalls in the state’s budget are expected.

Following up a story from last week about Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) asking for $20 million in tax breaks from Illinois, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is now saying that he won’t approve any ADM tax breaks until the state’s pension system has been reformed.

For evidence of why special “tax incentives” don’t work in boosting state economies, look no further than this Washington Post story on the tax breaks that the District of Columbia tried to give LivingSocial last year.  Shortly after being offered $32.5 million to expand its DC presence, the tech company did exactly the opposite, cutting its DC payroll from nearly 1,000 employees to just over 600.  Today, just 244 DC residents work for the company.  Had LivingSocial seen a rising demand for its product, it would no doubt have expanded its payroll and happily collected a $32.5 windfall courtesy of DC taxpayers. But promises of a special tax break aren’t enough on their own to convince a smart business owner to expand.

 



What's the Matter with Oregon's New Tax Deal?



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After three days of debate and backroom deals, lawmakers in Oregon delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in unwarranted tax cuts to businesses as part of the state legislature’s 2013 special session on Wednesday.

The Governor’s objective for calling the special session was to increase education spending, reduce public employee pensions, and limit regulation of genetically modified agriculture, among other priorities. But buried in one of the five bills that came up for consideration – all of which passed on Wednesday – were tax rate cuts for partnerships, limited liability companies, and "S corporations.”

As we and the Oregon Center for Public Policy have demonstrated, these cuts far outweighed increased assistance for working families, which came in the form of a modest increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Moreover, the budget math only works for the first two years. Oregon’s own Legislative Revenue Office expects the costs of those business tax cuts to grow rapidly starting in 2015, eating away at the limited new revenues in the deal. This will likely create another budget crunch a few years down the road. And despite the political rhetoric about jobs and small business surrounding the tax cuts, the beneficiaries are almost exclusively individuals in the top 1 percent.

Rep. Brent Barton, D-Oregon City, himself a lawyer in private practice, asked an important question about the deal: "What is the message that this Legislature is sending when we cut my taxes 20 percent? We cut taxes on thousands of lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, accountants on the same day that we cut benefits for retirees. What message does that send?"

Unfortunately, advocates for working Oregonians will have little time to recover from the special session fight before they’re confronted with Governor Kitzhaber’s next pet project: weakening Oregon’s so-called “over-reliance” on income taxes.

 



State News Quick Hits: Andrew Cuomo Loves Tax Cuts, So Does ADM, and More



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

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

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

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

 



Inequality for All, Starring ITEP Board Member Robert Reich, Opens Today



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Professor Robert Reich is a former Secretary of Labor, the star of a new documentary generating all kinds of buzz, and he is also a member of the board of our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  His new movie, "Inequality for All," examines the scale and causes of the economic inequality that plagues the United States (including, argues Reich, our democracy). Watch the trailer!

Here at our blog we track new reports and research on the interaction of tax policy and income inequality. We write about the unequal treatment the tax code gives to investment income in contrast to the ordinary income most Americans take home. We tell anyone who will listen there are no freeloaders when it comes to paying taxes – unless you’re talking about the super rich or big corporations.

In a recent interview, Professor Reich explained,

There’s a lot of confusion about inequality. People know that inequality is surging. Many people have a feeling the game is rigged. But they don’t really understand why, how it’s happened and why it is dangerous. Or what they can do about it. This film also provides a kind of guide to people. There’s a social action movement that is connected to the film. We hope that the film really spurs not just a different discussion in this country, but also a movement to take back our economy and democracy.

Click here to find out when "Inequality for All" is coming to a city near you.

And…. If you are in the DC area, join us Monday! After a screening of "Inequality for All" on October 1 at 7:15 PM at E Street Cinema, ITEP's Executive Director Matt Gardner will join a panel to discuss how what should be done to reverse the growth of income inequality locally and nationally.

The Facebook event has the details – see you there!



Special Session in Oregon Over Pensions and Revenues



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At the request of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, the state’s legislature will convene a special session on September 30th to pass a negotiated pension reform and revenue package which lawmakers failed to act on during the regular session this year.  The Governor and key lawmakers have been back and forth for months trying to come up with a “grand bargain” that would please members of both sides of the aisle, allowing the state to move forward on reforming the public pension system and raising revenue to boost education spending.  Lawmakers reached an impasse early this summer because most Democratic lawmakers were willing to raise revenue, but were not eager to support cuts to public employee’s benefits while most Republicans were open to significant changes to the state’s public pension system, but would only accept revenue increases if they are balanced with tax cuts for “small” businesses.  And, even though Democrats have majorities in the House and Senate, thanks to Oregon’s supermajority requirement to enact tax increases, a handful of Republicans were needed to strike a deal. 

Now it appears the impasse has broken.  The Governor and the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate reached a deal on a plan that will initially raise more than $200 million (over two years) in new revenue for education, further reduce costs to the state’s pension system, give tax breaks to some businesses, and slightly increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

Is it time to celebrate?  Not so fast.  Our friends at the Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP) are calling the deal a “Grandly Flawed Bargain” due to three major flaws with the revenue package:

  • The initial revenue gains shrink substantially after the current budget period.
  • The tax cuts included in the revenue package are highly tilted to the wealthiest 1 percent who will benefit from the new business tax break.  And, the special business tax breaks are the reason for the revenue collapse after the first budget period.
  • Despite proponents’ claims, the revenue package will not create jobs.

The bargain contains two progressive revenue raising elements: eliminating the personal exemption credit for high-income taxpayers; and capping the additional deduction for medical expenses available to older taxpayers and phasing it out for upper-income households.  And, it gives a small tax cut to working families by bumping the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit up from 6 to 8 percent of the federal credit.  But, most of the progressive changes are more than offset and overshadowed by the new optional personal income tax rate structure for taxpayers with pass-through business income, which will amount to more than a $100 million tax break each year for those filers once fully phased-in.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), crunched the numbers OCPP highlights in its report.  ITEP found that the so-called revenue raising package largely amounts to a significant tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Oregonians who report pass-through business income on their returns. This group receives almost 70 percent of the tax cuts contained in the package while low- and moderate-income taxpayers (the bottom 40 percent) who benefit from the increased EITC get less than 10 percent of the total tax cut.

More than 60 percent of the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers will actually pay more under the plan thanks to the changes to the personal exemption credit.  So, it is a small number of wealthy business owners sharing the big cut that’s going to cost more than any part of the plan.     

OCPP is recommending lawmakers consider removing the costly wealthy business owner tax break from the bargain package in order to ensure adequate revenue for education, not only for this year but for years to come.  It would also make the tax package more fair, giving tax cuts only to low- and moderate-income working families while raising revenue from the state’s wealthiest residents.

 



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Census Says Poverty Persists, Here's What States Can Do About It



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This week, the Census Bureau released new data showing that the share of Americans living in poverty in 2012 remained high, despite other signs of economic recovery.  While the national poverty rate (15%) and the rates in most states are holding steady, the number of people living in poverty today is much greater than in 2007, prior to the start of the recession.

The good news is that policy makers have at their disposal several affordable, targeted and effective tax policy tools to alleviate economic hardship and help families escape poverty.  An updated report from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), “State Tax Codes as Poverty Fighting Tools,” provides a comprehensive view of anti-poverty tax policies state-by-state, surveys tax policy decisions made in the states in 2013, and offers recommendations tailored to policymakers in each state as they work to combat poverty. As ITEP lays out in its signature Who Pays report, virtually every state and local tax system is regressive, contributing to the challenges of America’s low-income families; State Tax Codes as Poverty Fighting Tools details some options for reversing that.

See ITEP's companion report, Low Tax for Who?

In most states, truly remedying tax unfairness would require comprehensive tax reform. Short of this, lawmakers should consider enacting or enhancing four key anti-poverty tax polices explained in the report: the Earned Income Tax Credit, property tax circuit breakers, targeted low-income tax credits, and child-related tax credits. (Each of these provisions is also described in an ITEP stand-alone policy brief.) Unfortunately lawmakers in a number of states have moved in the wrong direction this year (North Carolina, Ohio and Kansas are top of the list), pursuing massive tax shifts that would hike taxes on their poorest residents while unjustifiably reducing them for the wealthiest individuals and profitable corporations. 

Given the persistence of poverty in the states as documented by the new Census data, policy makers should be focused on finding ways to boost the incomes of low- and moderate-income families rather than taxing them deeper into poverty in order to provide tax breaks to the well- heeled.

 



It Wasn't Property Taxes that Cost DC Residents their Homes



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No one should be taxed out of their homes. It’s a sentiment that finds support across the political spectrum: homeowners, especially senior citizens and low-income families, should not lose their homes because of their property tax bills. Yet as a Washington Post investigation revealed this week, the DC city government’s use of “tax lien sales,” through which the government allows a small number of private agencies to act as debt collectors for unpaid property tax levies, has given “predatory” private investors license to foreclose on the homes of hundreds of city residents over the past five years.  As a result, some low-income and elderly homeowners have been left with nowhere to live and with no equity in the homes many had owned outright.

The Post article profiles Bennie Coleman, a 76-year-old widower who ultimately lost his house after not paying a $134 property tax bill. When Coleman didn’t pay his bill, the city imposed a tax lien on the property, and then sold the lien to a private investor who was allowed to charge Coleman double-digit interest until the debt was paid. But the interest and penalties charged by this predatory investor pushed the total debt up to $5,000, and the investor foreclosed on the property.

Within a day of the Post report’s publication, Mayor Vincent Gray was vowing that “we cannot allow those kinds of things to happen again,” and City Council chair Jack Evans was preparing emergency legislation to limit private investors’ use of tax lien sales.

As the Post’s coverage makes clear, the cause of these foreclosures was not an out-of-control tax system, but rather the practice of allowing private debt collectors to charge exorbitant fees on top of the often minimal property tax debt. As it happens, Washington DC’s property tax system goes further than many states in minimizing property taxes on at-risk families and seniors: the city allows low-income families to claim a property tax credit of up to $750, and also allows low-income seniors to simply defer unaffordable property tax bills.  Until recently, the tax credit was only available to families with incomes under $20,000 – an amount unchanged for 35 years – leaving out many families living at or below the federal poverty level.  But just this summer, the DC City Council made significant improvements to the property tax credit, increasing income eligibility to $50,000 (about 200 percent of poverty for a family of four) and boosting the credit to $1,000.

In most states, there are only limited mechanisms in place to relieve unaffordable property tax bills for low-income taxpayers. And as an ITEP survey finds, virtually every state could take sensible steps to enact more generous low-income property tax relief programs.

The clear lesson of the abuses documented by the Post is that Washington DC's system for collecting unpaid property taxes must be overhauled. But a more basic lesson any state’s policymakers can learn from this harrowing tale is that it’s vital to design property tax rules in a way that don’t jeopardize low-income, fixed-income and senior homeowners through judicious use of “circuit breakers” and tax deferrals.



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



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

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

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

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

 



Washington Post Owner Jeff Bezos Does Not Believe in Taxes



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The news that Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is going to buy the Washington Post for $250 million is shining the light on Bezos’ politics and Amazon's corporate behavior for obvious reasons. The Washington Post is the paper of record in the nation's capital and exerts extraordinary influence over political debates.  As an organization that follows tax policy, we went looking for the track record on taxes and, as it turns out, Bezos and his company have consistently demonstrated a contempt for taxes and an aggressive interest in avoiding them. Here's what you need to know:

1. Bezos personally donated $100,000 to an anti-income tax initiative group in Washington state.
In 2010, Initiative 1098 would have created a five percent tax on income exceeding 200,000 and a nine percent rate on income exceeding $500,000 for individuals in Washington State. It was designed to pay for a cut in the property and business taxes as well as an increase in education spending, but it was defeated with the help of a $100,000 donation from Bezos to the group Defeat I-1098. Passing I-1098 would have not only helped Washington state get on a more sustainable fiscal footing, but it would have gone a long way to improving the fairness of the nation's most regressive (PDF) state tax system.

2. Amazon bullies states to avoid its responsibility to collect state sales taxes.
In late June, Amazon decided to cut ties with all its affiliates in Minnesota to dodge a new law that would have forced it to begin collecting sales tax in the state. This move made Minnesota just the latest casualty among a whole slew (PDF) of states to feel Amazon’s wrath in its relentless pursuit of preserve its tax advantage over local retailers. Fortunately, the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, which would eliminate this tax advantage by allowing states to require Amazon and other websites collect sales taxes, has passed the Senate and could realistically be enacted in the not-too-distant future.

3. Amazon is a notorious international tax dodger.
Amazon has become infamous for its international tax dodging over the last year since the United Kingdom discovered that it "immorally" paid almost no taxes on over £4.2 billion in sales by routing its operations through Luxembourg (a well-known tax haven country). The happy irony is that Amazon’s audacity helped prompt the recent unprecedented international effort to crack down on this sort of international tax dodging.

4. Bezos could reap substantial tax benefits from the purchase of the Washington Post.
Although it is unclear how much time Bezos plans to spend working at the Washington Post, a report by Reuters notes that if he spends about 10 hours each week on it he could realize substantial tax benefits from the purchase of the newspaper. The reason is that business owners like Bezos are able to deduct any losses (of which the Post has tens of millions) from operating the business they own, thus reducing their overall tax bill.

5. Bezos wanted to start Amazon.com on an Indian reservation to avoid taxes.
Illustrating a particularly brash anti-tax philosophy, in an interview almost 17 years ago, Bezos said that he "investigated whether we could set up Amazon.com on an Indian reservation near San Francisco."  He explained the idea was to get "access to talent without all the tax consequences."  Bezos went on to lament that this was not possible because, "[u]nfortunately, the government thought of that first." In other words, Bezos wanted to fully exploit all the "talent" of  Silicon Valley without having to pay for the public investments that nurture that talent and draw the human and other capital that make businesses profitable and industries blossom. 

Front page photo via Dan Farber Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 



Governor Cuomo's Tax-Free Zones Scheme Is More Cost than Benefit



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Earlier this summer, we tracked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state-wide promotional tour where he touted the benefits of his beloved “START-UP New York” (originally called “Tax Free NY”) – a plan to turn college campuses throughout the state into enterprise zones where new businesses would be exempt from all state taxes. The Governor claimed this would be an innovative way to revitalize the up-state economy while costing the state nothing. We, however, found these claims unwarranted at best, showing they were only a call for more of the same unproven corporate tax breaks that would cost the state millions while putting existing local businesses at an extreme disadvantage.

Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo ignored our warning (and the warnings of others) and rapidly pushed the plan through the legislature where it was introduced, approved, and subsequently signed by him, all in the course of a few weeks in June.

Now, less than two months after its passage, a new analysis shows just how poorly conceived START-UP NY really is. This time, however, the analysis comes directly from the Governor’s own budget office – and its findings are in stark contrast to what the Governor promised during his promotional tour.

While Cuomo campaigned on the notion that his tax-free campus scheme wouldn’t cost the state a nickel, the budget office’s projections (PDF) show the plan will cost $323 million in lost revenue over its first three years alone (projections only go through Fiscal Year 2017, and show costs rapidly ballooning over this period of time).

And in a cartoonesque twist, this lost revenue is not from businesses that will move to New York because the START-UP program incentivized them to do so. According to the report, the $323 million in lost revenue is the result of companies that would have come to New York and paid full taxes anyway, but are now exempt thanks to the Governor’s tax-free program.

With projected budget gaps of $1.74 billion in FY 2015 and $2.9 billion in both FY 2016 and FY 2017, START-UP NY has exacerbated the state’s poor fiscal health – making it even more difficult to invest in government services that are proven to grow the economy, like education and infrastructure. Calling START-UP NY an overpriced gimmick, one assemblyman has announced his plan to repeal the program altogether – a move we think should be taken as soon as possible.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), has shown in detail how rolling back business and corporate taxes is not an effective economic development tool and that public investment in schools, transportation systems, public safety, etc. are the real keys to development. Even in practice, enterprise-zone programs like START-UP NY have demonstrably failed to create jobs while costing states billions.

Thus far, Governor Cuomo has demonstrated an unwillingness to listen to experts or look at the evidence. Will he also ignore his own budget team’s assessment and move forward with his plan? If so, it would be hard to conclude that his governing agenda is anything but reckless and self-serving.

Front page Photo via  Governor Andrew Cuomo Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



ITEP to Legislators: Business Tax Breaks Don't Live Up to the Hype



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Some of the country’s most influential state tax-writers heard this week from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), about why they should reject the conventional wisdom about special business tax breaks being economy-boosters. Best known for its work promoting the collection of sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet, the NCSL Task Force on State and Local Taxation asked ITEP to speak at its meeting in Atlanta on the effectiveness of so-called “tax incentives.”

Among the reasons ITEP urged lawmakers to be skeptical of these special breaks:

  • Tax incentives often reward companies for hiring decisions or investments they would have made anyway. These “windfall” benefits significantly reduce the cost-effectiveness of every tax incentive.
  • State economies are closely interconnected, so the taxpayer dollars given to companies through incentive programs never remain in-state for very long.
  • Tax incentives require picking winners and losers. Incentive-fueled growth at one business usually comes at the expense of losses at other businesses – including businesses located in the same state.
  • Tax incentives must be paid for somehow, and state economies are likely to suffer if that means skimping on public services like education and infrastructure that are fundamental to a strong economy.

To address these problems, ITEP recommended a three-pronged approach to the Task Force: cut back on tax incentives (both unilaterally and through cooperation with other states); reform tax incentives to limit their most obvious flaws; and closely scrutinize incentives on an ongoing basis to weed out the least effective programs.

ITEP staff also participated in a follow-up panel on best practices for “tax expenditure reporting”—the main tool states use to keep tabs on the slew of special tax breaks they offer to businesses and individuals. For that panel, ITEP recommended expanding state tax expenditure reports to include more tax breaks, and to include more information, like the purpose of each tax break and a description of its beneficiaries.  ITEP also explained why lawmakers shouldn’t gut state tax expenditure reports by excluding large tax breaks from their scope; every tax break has supporters and a constituency who insist it’s justified, but every tax expenditure requires equal scrutiny.

Read ITEP’s written remarks on the folly of business tax incentives.

Read ITEP’s written remarks on best practices for tax expenditure reporting.



Montgomery County Poised to Expand Its Exemplary EITC



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There is a strong consensus among scholars, think tanks and advocates around the country that there are concrete benefits to providing earned income tax credits (EITCs) – refundable credits (PDF) designed to offset income tax liability for low-income families and individuals. Not only has the EITC been shown to help alleviate poverty, but it has also succeeded in encouraging greater participation in the workforce, improving infant health, and boosting school achievement, among other things.

While most discussions are about the federal and state EITCs, there are two local EITCs that are often overlooked, including Montgomery County, Maryland’s Working Families Income Supplement (WFIS). Originally introduced in 2000 as a tool to help the county’s poorest residents cope with an extremely high cost of living, the WFIS is one of only two local EITCs in the country (the other is in New York City).

When originally implemented in 2000, the WFIS was set at 100 percent of the state EITC – that is, if a worker received $600 from the Maryland EITC, he or she would also receive $600 from the county. This supplement provided low-income Montgomery County families with the most generous combined EITC in the country. It also gave these households the ability to pay for basic day-to-day necessities like child care, school books, utility bills, and groceries – and most of all it helped reduce poverty and promote upward mobility. (Other reference materials on the WFIS can be found here.)

Through the mid-2000s, the number of people living in poverty declined even as unprecedented numbers of people moved into the county. When the Great Recession began to take hold in late 2007, however, these advances were reversed. As jobs were lost and incomes fell, Montgomery County experienced a spike in poverty even as the Washington, DC region as a whole weathered the recession better than most.

In a case of terrible timing, as county tax revenues began to fall, the Montgomery County Council decided to save a little money by scaling back the WFIS to 72.5 percent of the state EITC in FY 2011, 68.9 percent in FY 2012, and 72.5 percent in FY 2013. This decision only made things worse for low-income families: now, not only were they facing wide-spread layoffs prompted by a weak economy, but they were seeing a significant cut in a critical source of income.

Now, however, members of the Council have proposed a plan that would restore the 100 percent credit that was in place for nearly a decade.

Introduced in March and having undergone public hearings in July, Expedited Bill 8-13 (PDF) would gradually return the WFIS to 100 percent of the Maryland credit by Fiscal Year 2016. This expansion is estimated to help over 30,000 low-income households meet their basic day-to-day needs at a cost to the County of $3 million.  (For context, Montgomery County tax revenues are projected to grow by $30 million a year for the foreseeable future – even when factoring in the possible impact of the federal sequester).

With a committee hearing scheduled for early October, the Council members promoting the bill have just under two months to garner support and move its restoration forward. For over a decade, the Council has demonstrated its dedication to the needs of its low-income residents as it championed one of the most forward-looking income tax credits in the nation.  By restoring the Working Family Income Supplement to 100 percent of the state credit, the Council would be offering critical help to its most vulnerable residents, providing a ladder for upward mobility, and adding a boost to the local economy.

For more information on the structure and benefits of Earned Income Tax Credits:

Rewarding Work Through Earned Income Tax Credits

Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, September 2011

“Low-wage workers often face a dual challenge as they struggle to make ends meet. In many instances, the wages they earn are insufficient to encourage additional hours of work or long-term attachment to the labor force. At the same time, most state and local tax systems impose greater responsibilities on poor families than on wealthy ones, making it even harder for low-wage workers to move above the poverty line and achieve meaningful economic security. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is designed to help low-wage workers meet both those challenges. This policy brief explains how the credit works at the federal level and what policymakers can do to build upon it at the state level.”

Earned Income Tax Credit Promotes Work, Encourages Children’s Success at School

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 9, 2013

“The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which went to 27.5 million low- and moderate-income working families in 2010, provides work, income, educational, and health benefits to its recipients and their children, a substantial body of research shows. In addition, recent ground-breaking research suggests, the EITC’s benefits extend well beyond the limited time during which families typically claim the credit.”

Ten Years of the EITC Movement: Making Work Pay Then and Now

Brookings Institution, April 18, 2011

“The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) … has grown to be called the nation’s largest federal anti-poverty program. The EITC has had significantly beneficial effects for its recipients and their communities. These include encouragement of work, reduction of poverty, and boosting of local economic activity.”



PBS Asks Some Hard Questions About Laffer and His Curve



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Supply-side economist Arthur Laffer has been very busy the last few years trying to convince state lawmakers that cutting taxes and making them more regressive will lead to an economic boom.  At the same time, our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), has done a lot of work pointing out the serious flaws in Laffer’s so-called research, and explaining why taxes and the public investments they pay for are key to healthy state economies.

Over at PBS, meantime, the fedora-donning business correspondent for the News Hour, Paul Solman, had gotten wind of ITEP’s critiques.  After reading ITEP’s “States with "High Rate" Income Taxes are Still Outperforming No-Tax States” and deeming it “a convincing piece of work,” Solman decided to sit down with Laffer and ask some questions.  Laffer’s response was predictable and anecdote-heavy.  Aside from recycling the same meaningless statistics ITEP has debunked before, he also included a data point that’s hard to rebut unless you live inside his brain, that he and his family moved to Tennessee “exclusively because of taxes.”  (Of course, a guy who’s made a living bashing taxes is not a particularly representative citizen.)

Happily, PBS’s Solman decided to do a little fact-checking and went looking for an expert, “impartial point of view” (his words, not ours) to help glean whether Laffer’s promise of sure-fire economic growth is all that – or all wet.  For his follow up piece, he turned to Joel Slemrod, noted public finance expert and chair of the Economics Department at the University of Michigan.

In one of many subtle but clear swipes at Laffer’s methods, Slemrod explained that while “economists have developed increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques to try to tease out the causal link between policies and performance … Laffer's analysis is not sophisticated.”

Slemrod’s criticisms of Laffer closely parallel those made by ITEP in 2012 and early 2013.  For one thing, Laffer fails to control for non-tax factors that impact growth. For another, the economic measures he chooses (cherry picks, really) don’t capture “what's happened to the … well-being of a typical resident.”  And, Laffer ignores how tax cuts require cuts in public investments that are hugely important to state economies.

On this last point, Slemrod notes that: “Laffer makes clear that … he believes more money does not provide better public services. This is a controversial statement that he backs with a few anecdotes, but it is not one that is widely held.”

In other words, Laffer and his supply-side compatriots have campaigned to frame most every government program as “wasteful” to make the idea (and their ideological obsession) of defunding government seem somehow justified.

Given all of this and his vast expertise, Slemrod concludes that ITEP’s study “make[s] arguably better methodological choices” than Laffer’s.  (We’ll take that as a compliment!) As Slemrod has pointed out in previous interviews, serious research has shown taxes to have little, if any, effect on economic growth; in fact, that “[r]aising taxes and using the money for education and certain infrastructure could certainly be beneficial to an economy.”  Laffer’s tax-phobic worldview notwithstanding, public services do matter to economic growth, and that means we will always need an adequate, fair, and sustainable tax system to pay for them.



Sales Tax Holidays Are Silly Policy



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18 states across the country are gearing up for their 2013 Sales Tax Holiday season, but these tax-free shopping sprees are also increasingly under fire.  Designed to offer a temporary sales tax exemption for specific consumer items, these holidays typically last two to three days and most take place in time for back-to-school shopping. An updated policy brief (PDF) from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), however, lays out why there is so little to celebrate this Sales Tax Holiday season.

For starters, the economic benefit of sales tax holidays is unclear at best. While one commonly cited rationale for such holidays is that they increase local consumer spending, boosting sales for local businesses, available research concludes this “boost” in sales is primarily the result of consumers shifting the timing of their already planned purchases.

But not all consumers. And that’s one of the other problems with sales tax holidays as policy: they are poorly targeted. Advertised as a way to give hard-working families a break from paying the regressive sales tax, they actually end up benefiting wealthier taxpayers, who have more liquidity and therefore flexibility to shift the timing of their purchases and take advantage of the tax break.  (And that goes for more affluent consumers in neighboring states, too, who can easily make a road trip of a tax-free shopping weekend next door.)

What else is wrong with them? Sales tax holidays also cost states upwards of $230 million each year. Why, one may ask, do state lawmakers continue to approve these holidays year-after-year if they are ineffective and expensive? Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick offered a candid answer, saying he’d support his state’s 2011 holiday “not because it is particularly fiscally prudent, but because it is popular.”

And that’s the thing. Sales tax holidays make great politics but they don’t solve real problems in regressive state tax codes.  They fall far short of accomplishing what advocates claim, that is, helping hard-pressed consumers and local retailers. In fact, those retailers would benefit more from the requirement that out-of-state Internet retailers be required to collect the same sales taxes as brick and mortar stores (that is, if the Marketplace Fairness Act became law).

More important, however, is that lawmakers who really want to help struggling consumers have smart alternatives. Popular tax holidays aside, good tax policy would be targeting tax credits for working families.



Massachusetts Becomes Fourth State to Reform its Gas Tax This Year



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Lawmakers are often criticized for not taking a long-term perspective on important issues.  But when it comes to the gas tax, elected officials in four states this year (Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia), as well as the District of Columbia, have done just that.

As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has shown, collecting a “fixed-rate” gas tax (i.e. one that doesn’t change from year-to-year) leaves state transportation departments totally unprepared to deal with rising infrastructure construction costs and the consequence of growing vehicle fuel-efficiency cutting into gas sales.  At the start of the year, only fourteen states handled this reality by levying gas taxes that gradually grow over time alongside either gas prices or the general inflation rate in the economy.  That number has now risen to seventeen, with Maryland, Virginia, and now Massachusetts joining that group.  (The District of Columbia recently enacted this reform as well, and Vermont reformed its already price-based gas tax in a way that links it even more closely to gas prices.)

The Massachusetts reform comes after months of back-and-forth between Governor Patrick and the state legislature.  The Governor originally proposed a much more far-reaching and progressive revenue package that would not only have raised gas and cigarette taxes, but also reformed the income tax and cut the sales tax rate.  That proposal failed to gain traction, and the legislature ultimately opted just to raise the cigarette tax and the gasoline tax, and to index the gas tax so that it grows alongside inflation in the future.

This reform will put the state’s gas tax on a much more sustainable trajectory.  As the above chart shows, Massachusetts’ gas tax rate was scheduled to fall to its lowest (inflation-adjusted) level in its history next year.  The increase, which takes effect next week, will prevent that from happening.

But lawmakers shouldn’t pretend that the state’s transportation funding problems are completely solved.  While indexing the tax to inflation should make it easier for the state to afford the rising cost of construction materials, it still leaves the gas tax vulnerable to decline as Massachusetts residents switch to more fuel-efficient cars and purchase less gas as a result. Moreover, as Governor Patrick pointed out, the state’s toll road revenue is scheduled to take a major hit in 2017 when tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike will be reduced. Patrick wanted to include an additional gas tax hike in 2017 to compensate for this loss—and even vetoed the package passed by the legislature in an effort to see it included—but his veto was overridden.  These looming challenges mean that Massachusetts lawmakers will likely have to consider another gas tax increase in a few years, but for now this reform is certainly a step forward.

Looking at the rest of the country, legislatures in most states where gas tax reform was a real possibility have gone home for the year, but there’s still a chance Pennsylvania could revisit the idea this fall. With luck, the number of states levying a smarter gas tax could rise to eighteen before the year is over.



Are Special Tax Breaks Worthwhile? Rhode Island Intends to Find Out



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Rhode Island is about to put seventeen of its “economic development” tax breaks under the microscope, thanks to a new law (PDF) signed by Governor Chafee last week.  This reform is a welcome step forward in a national landscape where states often do nothing at all to figure out whether narrow tax breaks are really helping their economies.

Under Rhode Island’s new reform, state analysts must estimate how many new jobs were actually created as a “direct result” of the $45 million worth of tax breaks within the new law’s scope.  Those analysts must also make a bottom-line recommendation on whether each tax break should be allowed to continue, based on how cost-effective it’s been in achieving its intended goals.

Of course, it remains to be seen how rigorous Rhode Island’s analysts will be in conducting these evaluations, and whether their work will actually be used by lawmakers to inform policy.  After all, as the Pew Charitable Trusts has shown, not all tax break evaluations are of equal quality or influence.

But there are reasons to think that Rhode Island’s evaluations will make a difference.  For starters, the new law requires a much more systematic and rigorous evaluation than what most other states require.  Rhode Island’s evaluations, for example, must investigate whether the benefits of the tax break are flowing largely to businesses or investors outside of the state, and whether changes in data collection laws could allow for even better evaluations in the future.  Rhode Island’s reform also requires the Governor to provide their own recommendation on each newly evaluated tax break when she or he submits budget recommendations to the state legislature each year.

But Rhode Island’s new reform isn’t perfect.  Requiring the Governor’s budget to include recommendations is a good way to get lawmakers to acknowledge the evaluations, but a more effective check is attaching a “sunset” provision (or expiration date) to each break; that’s the best way to ensure these tax breaks come up for a vote after new evidence on their effectiveness is released.

Moreover, the Economic Progress Institute points out that Rhode Island offers a total of 235 different tax breaks, at an annual cost to the state of $1.7 billion.  Evaluating just seventeen tax breaks that cost $45 million leaves the vast majority of the state’s tax law unexamined.  Still, if these initial evaluations prove worthwhile, lawmakers and advocates will have a strong case for expanding this new reform to cover a much larger portion of Rhode Island’s tax code



North Carolina Facing Disastrous New Tax Laws



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After months and months of speculation and deliberation on numerous versions of “tax reform,” political leaders in the Tar Heel state reached an agreement this week on a tax package that will leave the state short of more than $700 million a year to spend on public education, health care, and other vital investments.  And, in the end, the wealthiest North Carolinians and profitable, multi-national corporations are the biggest winners under the agreement.  The new plan moved fast, easily passing out of the House and Senate with little opportunity for debate and Governor McCrory will likely sign the legislation this week. (Find its detailed provisions at the end of this post.)

An analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows:

  • The final “tax reform” plan is a big giveaway to the richest taxpayers in North Carolina.  Those with average incomes of nearly $1 million will see their share of their income paid in state and local taxes drop by 1.2% for an average cut of more than $10,000.
  • Furthermore, the top 5% of taxpayers are the beneficiaries of almost 90% of the net tax cut from the combined changes to the personal and corporate income taxes, sales taxes, and the change in tax treatment of electricity, natural gas, and entertainment.
  • Contrary to lawmakers’ claims that everyone in the state wins under this plan, there are many losers, as the state’s own bean counters revealed just today. Losers include some low and middle income families who currently benefit from the $50,000 business income pass-through deduction, families with significant deductible medical expenses and other itemized deductions and some elderly families who lose retirement benefits, among others.
  • And, when considering that many low-and moderate-income working families will lose the benefit of a refundable state EITC (set to expire after this year and not extended under this plan), the plan actually hikes taxes on the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers on average.
  • North Carolina’s tax system will become even more upside down, with the bottom 20% of taxpayers paying on average 9.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes while the top 1% will be paying only 5.7%.  Under the current system (with a state EITC in place), the bottom 20% pay 8.9 percent and the top 1% pay 6.5%.

The final negotiated package is being hailed as “historic” and a “jobs plan” for North Carolina by proponents of the plan.  But, as the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center explains, it’s nothing of the sort and instead is going to be a bad deal for North Carolinians into the future:

“[The tax reform agreement] puts at risk the ability to educate our children, care for our elders, keep our communities safe and support businesses, while failing to fix the problems with the state’s tax code. And, it gets rid of policies that work such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This is not a historic day for North Carolina; tax reform hasn’t been achieved.  Instead, we’ve been handed a plan that will tarnish our state’s reputation as a leader in the South, a place where people want to live and businesses want to grow.

It is very likely that as a result of this failure to pursue real, comprehensive tax reform, state sales taxes and local property taxes will go up in the future.   That’s what happened in every other Southern state that has personal and corporate income taxes that can’t keep up with growing public needs.

Our state cannot be competitive nationally or internationally with this reckless approach. It undermines the education of our workforce and support for research and innovation.  The prospects of an ongoing race to the bottom for North Carolina now are all too real.”

Key components of the negotiated deal:

Personal Income Tax

  • Flat 5.75% rate (fully phased-in)
  • Eliminates the personal exemption, retirement benefit, business pass-through income deduction, and all credits other than the Child Tax Credit.  Notably, the plan does not restore the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) set to expire after 2013.
  • Increases the standard deduction to $15,000 (MFJ),$12,000 (HOH), and $7,500 (Single/MFS)
  • Limits itemized deductions to mortgage interest plus property taxes capped at $20,000 (MFJ), $16,000 (HOH), and $10,000 (single) plus unlimited charitable contributions.  Taxpayers take the higher of the standard deduction or itemized deductions.
  • Retains the child tax credit of $100 and increases it to $125 for taxpayers with AGI under $40,000 (MFJ) or $32,000 (HOH)

Corporate Income Tax (CIT)

  • Reduces the rate from 6.9 to 6% in 2014, to 5% in 2015 and if revenue expectations are met, could be lowered to as low as 3% by 2017.

Estate Tax

  • The state estate tax is eliminated

Sales/Privilege/Franchise Taxes

  • Expands the sales tax base by eliminating a number of exemptions including newspapers, baked goods, some farm exemptions and food sold in dining halls and adds service contracts.
  • Adjusts the tax rates on modular and manufactured homes.
  • Eliminates the gross receipts franchise taxes on electricity and natural gas and in place includes these items in the sales tax base.
  • Eliminates state and local privilege taxes on amusement/entertainment and in place includes these items in the sales tax base.
  • Eliminates the state’s sales tax holiday and energy star appliance tax holiday.

Gas Tax

  • Caps the gas tax at 37.5 cents/gallon for 2 years.

 



Undocumented Immigrants Pay Taxes, and Will Pay More Under Immigration



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As the battle over immigration reform shifts to the U.S. House of Representatives, some opponents of reform continue to focus on the alleged costs of reform. Yet, as a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report reminds us, immigration reform involves both costs (in the form of health, education and other services provided to legalized immigrants) and benefits (in the form of federal taxes paid by newly legal immigrants)—and in the long run, the benefits to the US Treasury from immigration reform are likely to exceed the costs. Put another way, immigration reform will make our federal budget situation better, not worse.

A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows that state and local budgets will also receive a new jolt of needed tax revenues as a result of immigration reform—and that undocumented taxpayers are already paying a substantial amount of state and local taxes across the nation. The report estimates that these families pay $10.6 billion a year in state and local sales, excise, income and property taxes right now, and would pay an additional $2 billion if these families were, as part of immigration reform, allowed to fully participate in state tax systems.

How are undocumented taxpayers contributing such a large amount right now? The main reason is that the sales and excise taxes that fall most heavily (PDF) on low-income taxpayers don't depend on your citizenship status. Anytime you buy a cup of coffee, a pair of jeans or fill up your tank up with gas, you're paying state and local sales and excise taxes. Property taxes are similarly unavoidable-- especially for renters, who pay them indirectly because landlords generally pass some of their property tax bills on to their tenants in the form of higher rents. And many undocumented taxpayers have state income taxes withheld from their paychecks each year.

The $2 billion in new tax revenues ITEP estimates will be paid by currently-undocumented families as a result of legalization is the product of two factors. Most importantly, legalization will bring all undocumented workers into the income tax system. The best estimates are that about half of undocumented workers are currently “off the books.” But legalization will also likely bring a substantial wage boost for these currently-undocumented workers—further boosting state and local income tax collections as well.

There are, of course, costs associated with immigration reform. Newly-legalized families will (eventually) be able to rely on the same important public services, from education to health care, that U.S. citizens can depend on. This is as it should be. But the scope of these costs will vary substantially depending on how future political battles play out, and are virtually impossible to calculate on a state by state basis at this time – one particular think tank’s lonely insistence that they can notwithstanding. However, the recent CBO report’s finding, that at the federal level these costs would be outweighed by the benefits from new tax revenues, suggest that a similarly positive outcome is likely at the state and local level.  

The undocumented population is notoriously hard to measure —but under any reasonable assumptions about the size and income levels of this population, they are already paying billions of dollars a year to support the state and local services from which they benefit, and will likely pay billions more on legalization.

Front Page Photo via SEIU International Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



State News Quick Hits: EITCs Go Local, and More



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

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

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

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



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.



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



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

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

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

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



Amazon.com Bails on Minnesota, Shows Congress Must Act on Online Sales Taxes



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Throughout most of its existence, online retailer Amazon.com aggressively avoided having to collect state sales taxes from its customers.  Its 5 to 10 percent price advantage relative to local retailers who have to collect the tax wasn’t something that Amazon was willing to give up.

More recently, however, Amazon’s business strategy seems to have shifted.  In order to provide faster delivery times to more of its customers, Amazon has opened up warehouses and distribution centers in a growing number of states (Florida being the most recent example), even though doing so means the company will be subject to the same sales tax collection requirements as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, mom-and-pop bookstores and every other brick and mortar retailer.

But recent events in Minnesota confirm that while sales tax dodging is less central to Amazon’s business strategy than in years past, the company still thinks that not collecting the tax is an advantage.  A new law just passed by Minnesota’s legislature redefines what constitutes a “physical presence” in the state, and it means that Amazon has enough affiliates in Minnesota to have to begin collecting the state’s sales tax this month. So in order to save some nickels and dimes, Amazon has decided to cut its ties with businesses based in the Gopher State so it can keep selling to Minnesotans tax-free.

This development points toward a need for Congressional action for lots of reasons, including these two:

First, it reinforces the point that local retailers are being harmed by their online competitors’ ability to dodge sales tax collection requirements. Why would Amazon bother cutting ties with Minnesota businesses if it didn’t think its market share would suffer from having to play by the same rules as companies with actual stores and employees in Minnesota?

Second, it highlights the degree to which online shopping sales tax laws have become an indefensible patchwork. In geographically large and heavily populated states like Florida and Texas, Amazon has little choice but to have a “physical presence” in the state (and collect sales tax) if it wants to offer reasonably fast delivery times. In other states, however, shipping products from outside the state’s borders is much less of a logistical problem.

There’s no question that Amazon is capable of collecting sales taxes in Minnesota, particularly since the state has already taken steps to simplify its sales tax system by adhering to the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement.  In fact, Amazon said it plans to begin collecting Minnesota sales taxes as soon as the federal Marketplace Fairness Act (which it supports and which has passed the U.S. Senate) is enacted into law.  In the meantime, however, Minnesota is out of options for getting Amazon to play by the same rules as other businesses selling to its residents.  Amazon’s recent actions make clear that just because the company can do what’s right, that doesn’t mean it will do so voluntarily.



Governor Cuomo, Meet Governor Brown



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California Shows that Geographically Targeted Tax Incentives Don’t Work

Last week, the New York State Legislature overwhelmingly passed START-UP New York (previously known as Tax-Free NY). The approval came after nearly a month of Governor Cuomo’s state-wide campus PR tour where he touted the plan’s infallible greatness, a claim we have explained is almost completely unjustified.

3,000 miles to the west, in California, fellow Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is telling a different story. He has proposed eliminating the state’s costly Enterprise Zone (EZ) Program, citing its ineffectiveness and huge cost as the rationale for the move.

California’s EZ Program was created in 1986 and has been the state’s primary policy tool in attempting to promote economic development in distressed areas. Like START-UP NY, California’s EZ Program provides geographically targeted tax breaks to 40 “zones” determined by the state. (START-UP NY provides tax breaks to over 70 zones, primarily college campuses.)

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, however, the EZ Program has had “no effect on business creation or job growth.” Furthermore, the California Budget Project has found that EZs “have cost the state a total of $4.8 billion in lost revenue since the program’s inception” while benefiting “less than half of one percent of the state’s corporations.”

Governor Brown’s proposal – initially outlined in his May budget revision (PDF) – signifies an important shift away from using geographically targeted tax breaks as an economic development tool. A growing body of research has shown (and shown again) tax incentives of most kinds to be poor tools for economic development, and California’s three decades of experience with its EZ Program is a case in point.

“California’s thirty-year-old Enterprise Zone program is not enterprising, it’s wasteful. It’s inefficient and not giving taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck,” said the Governor in a meeting with business leaders and labor groups. “There’s a better way and it will help encourage manufacturing in California.”

It must be noted, of course, that Governor Brown’s “better way” is only half better; it throws half of those EZ Program dollars at similarly unproven tax breaks while spending the other half – wisely – on a reduction in the sales tax (PDF) businesses pay.  Still, a governor who is beginning to listen to policy experts over pollsters deserves some credit for moving in the right direction.

If Governor Brown’s proposal is enacted (it may be on the ballot next year), it appears we will have a tale of two states: in California, a state trying to learn from the past; in New York, a state blindly shaping policy based on political interests.



New Hampshire Court Agrees: Tax Breaks Cost Public Dollars



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Last year we wrote about an unwelcome mini-trend in state corporate tax policy: the creation of “neo-vouchers,” tax breaks for businesses that donate money to private-school scholarship funds. At the time, advocates for these neo-vouchers were making the (not very convincing) case that these programs shouldn’t be counted as government spending since the programs were quite specifically designed such that “the money would never go into public accounts, making it less susceptible to court challenges.” (The legal challenges are often based on the argument that most private schools are religious in nature and the First Amendment prohibits public funds from supporting religion.) In other words, the argument went, if a company gets a million dollar tax break for donating money to private school scholarship funds, those million dollars never got collected by the state, so they remain somehow private dollars, outside the grasp of the state government.

At the time, a number of states were contemplating enacting tax breaks of this kind, (available to individuals, corporations or both), and New Hampshire subsequently did enact neo-vouchers in June of 2012, overriding a veto by Governor John Lynch, and took effect in January 2013. The law gives New Hampshire corporations a tax credit equal to 85 percent of any contributions they make to private school foundations. The law’s authors also attempts to codify the “private dollars” argument and inoculate it against constitutional challenges by asserting (PDF), “[c]redits provided under this chapter shall not be deemed taxes paid.” If the money was never handed over to the public treasury, it was never the public’s money, right?

Wrong, at least according to a lower court in the Granite State that just ruled the new tax credit is unconstitutional, explicitly rejecting the “private dollars” charade. The judges wrote:

“The phrases ‘public funds,’ or ‘money raised by taxation,’ focuses the Court’s inquiry not on when the government’s technical ‘ownership’ of funds or monies arises, but on when, or at what point, the public’s interest fairly arises in how funds or monies are spent. The Court concludes that the interest of New Hampshire taxpayers in regard to challenging the legality of legislation such as the program at bar does not arise only after money is deposited in the New Hampshire treasury….”

The Court sensibly notes that if “money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted” for private ends, that is essentially the same as direct government spending. This shouldn’t be news to anyone familiar with the “tax expenditure” concept—the notion that a $1 million tax break for a specific business is not meaningfully different from government writing a $1 million check to the same business.

Of course, it’s not hard to see that the neo-voucher idea is bad policy whether it’s constitutional or not. It erodes corporate tax revenues, takes money away from already-strapped public schools, and (in the case of the New Hampshire laws) sharply limits state policymakers’ oversight of the private schools receiving these state-funded scholarships. But the New Hampshire court’s finding underscores the absurdity of the fiction that neo-vouchers subsidized by corporate tax credits can be thought of as “private dollars” outside the purview of state governments—and offers a helpful precedent for advocates seeking to repeal neo-vouchers in other states.

 



A Reminder About Film Tax Credits: All that Glitters is not Gold



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Remember the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster The Descendants, starring George Clooney? Odds are yes, as it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Perhaps less memorable were the ending credits and the special thank you to the Hawaii Film Office who administers the state’s film tax credit – which the movie cashed in on.

Why did a movie whose plot depended on an on-location shoot need to be offered a tax incentive to film on-location? The answer is beyond us, but Hawaii Governor Abercrombie seems to think it was necessary as he just signed into law an extension to the credit this week.

Hawaii is not alone in buying into the false promises of film tax credits. In 2011, 37 states had some version of the credit. Advocates claim these credits promote economic growth and attract jobs to the state. However, a growing body of non-partisan research shows just how misleading these claims really are.

Take research done on the fiscal implications such tax credits have on state budgets, for example: 

  • A report issued by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor showed that in 2010, almost $200 million in film tax breaks were awarded, but they only generated $27 million in new tax revenue. According a report (PDF) done by the Louisiana Budget Project, this net cost to the state of $170 million came as the state’s investment in education, health care, infrastructure, and many other public services faced significant cuts.

  • The Massachusetts Department of Revenue – in its annual Film Industry Tax Incentives Reportfound that its film tax credit cost the state $200 million between 2006 and 2011, forcing spending cuts in other public services.

  • In 2011, the North Carolina Legislative Services Office found (PDF) that while the state awarded over $30 million in film tax credits, the credits only generated an estimated $9 million in new economic activity (and even less in new revenue for the state).

  • The current debate over the incentive in Pennsylvania inspired a couple of economists to pen an op-ed in which they cite the state’s own research: “Put another way, the tax credit sells our tax dollars to the film industry for 14 cents each.”

  • A more comprehensive study done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examined the fiscal implications of state film tax credits around the country. This study found that for every dollar of tax credits examined, somewhere between $0.07 and $0.28 cents in new revenue was generated; meaning that states were forced to cut services or raise taxes elsewhere to make up for this loss.

Not only do film tax credits cost states more money than they generate, but they also fail to bring stable, long-term jobs to the state.

The Tax Foundation highlights two reasons for this. First, they note that most of the jobs are temporary, “the kinds of jobs that end when shooting wraps and the production company leaves.” This finding is echoed on the ground in Massachusetts, as a report (PDF) issued by their Department of Revenue shows that many jobs created by the state’s film tax credit are “artificial constructs,” with “most employees working from a few days to at most a few months.”

Second, a large portion of the permanent jobs in film and TV are highly-specialized and typically filled by non-residents (often from already-established production centers such as Los Angeles, New York, or Vancouver). In Massachusetts, for example, nearly 70 percent of the film production spending generated by film tax credits has gone to employees and businesses that reside outside of the state. Therefore, while film subsidies might provide the illusion of job-creation, they are actually subsidizing jobs not only located outside the state, but in some cases – outside the country.

While a few states have started to catch on and eliminate or pare back their credits in recent years (most recently Connecticut), others (including Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) have decided to double down. This begs the question: if film tax credits cost the state more than they bring in and fail to attract real jobs, why are lawmakers so determined to expand them?

Perhaps they’re too star struck to see the facts. Or maybe they, too, want a shout out in a credit reel.



Watching a Train Wreck in Kansas



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During the 2013 legislative session, our state policy team has been observing the tenor of the Kansas tax cut debate with some concern. Too many media accounts have focused primarily on the sales tax and whether the temporary hike to 6.3 percent would be extended. (Ultimately the legislature decided to increase the sales tax rate to 6.15 percent.)

But attention is beginning to turn, albeit too late, to some incredibly important provisions of the legislation that was just signed into law by Governor Brownback. As highlighted in this Kansas City Star editorial and this Associated Press analysis, the tax debate was about a lot more than the sales tax.

The Kansas City Star explains the consequences in a sobering editorial: “The two-year spending plan, which Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to approve, places income tax cuts ahead of schools, universities and public safety. Giving tax breaks to wealthy Kansans matters more to state leaders than investing in the state and its citizens.”

The Associated Press reports: “Important but relatively little-noticed provisions in the tax plan approved by Kansas legislators this year embody conservative Republicans' vision for long-term constraints on government spending.” Indeed, the bill that passed the legislature includes arbitrary spending controls and could mandate the eventual repeal of the state’s personal income tax.

Of course all of this is what ITEP argued in a paper (one of many) last April: “Lawmakers and the public should be aware of the devastating impact either the House or the Senate bill would have, regardless of the compromise reached about the current sales tax rate, on the state’s ability to balance its budget and on tax fairness.”

For some combination of political and ideological reasons, lawmakers in Kansas, for two years running, have been falling all over themselves to pass tax cuts of disastrous proportions, despite red flags from experts, editorial boards and their colleagues in other states.  When good policy is not even on the priority list, it seems no amount of evidence can stop elected officials from pursuing their short-term political agendas.



Lots of Losers in Governor Cuomo's "Tax-Free New York"



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Last week we wrote about Governor Cuomo’s ill-conceived Tax-Free NY initiative.  We reserve judgment as to whether it’s politically motivated ( a New York Post column called him “Gov $uck-up”, for instance, and this column also questions the motivation) but we can be pretty sure it will cost more than it will benefit the people of New York, because this is what business tax credits do.

Still, since that post, the Governor has continued his promotional tour of New York campuses, so we spent some time digging into how actual businesses would fare under his plan. As it turns out, the Governor’s focus on rewarding new investment could end up arbitrarily discriminating against existing small businesses (and their employees) who are already doing the same things Cuomo’s plan will reward others to start doing.

Capraro Technologies, Inc. (CTI), for example, has been based in Utica (home to SUNY Institute of Technology) for almost two decades. The company shares the SUNY-IT mission of advancing the field of information technology through research and innovation, and appears to be a model of the kind of business the Governor hopes to attract. But CTI would be ineligible for any benefits under Tax-Free NY, and the company could find itself at a disadvantage relative to other firms who do qualify for the tax-free treatment.

To gain eligibility, CTI would need to “expand its New York operations while maintaining its existing jobs.” But such an expansion would need to take place within one mile from the SUNY-IT campus. Unless CTI were able to obtain a special waiver, this would mean having to open a new office about two miles down the road from its current location; hardly an example of economic efficiency.

CTI is only one of many existing companies throughout the state that could be placed at a disadvantage relative to new competitors. BlueRock Energy, a Syracuse-based company that helps customers lower their energy costs and environmental footprint and would be ineligible for Tax-Free NY benefits if it expanded at its current lots, is another case-in-point. Located about 2.5 miles away from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, BlueRock Energy shares a common mission with SUNY-ESF.

And the list goes on. From mobile app creator miSoft Studios near SUNY Binghamton to software developer Wetstone Technologies near SUNY Cortland, existing local businesses across the state will all reap zero rewards for having already done exactly what the Governor will allegedly incentivize other businesses to do in the future.

And of course, you are not only out of luck if you started your business at the wrong time, but place matters, too. State tax expert David Brunori at Tax Analysts summed up one of Tax-Free NY’s absurdities by highlighting, “if you are in the community you don’t pay taxes. If you are outside, even by six inches, you do.”

Existing small businesses are not the only losers because the plan extends to employees, too. Professor John Yinger, an expert in fiscal policy from Syracuse University, says the Governor’s plan “means some businesses are getting lower taxes than others and in this case it means some people are getting much lower taxes than others, those are new sources of inequities.”

There are so many problems with Governor Cuomo’s idea for tax-free zones, it’s hard to know where to begin. But the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) policy briefs library is a good place to look, and we invite the Governor to consider this guidance (all links are PDF’s).

Taxes and Economic Development 101: “Lawmakers are under intense pressure to create a healthy climate for investment. But the simplistic view that tax cuts are the best medicine can result in unintentionally making this climate worse. Unaffordable tax cuts shift the cost of funding public services onto every business that isn’t lucky enough to receive these tax breaks—and makes it harder to fund the public investments on which all businesses rely.”

Accountable Economic Development Strategies: “Some lawmakers are wising up to the idea that subsidies don’t work. But for policymakers who insist on offering incentives, there are some important, simple, and concrete steps that can be taken to ensure that subsidies aren’t allowed to go unchecked.”

Tax Principles: The principle of neutrality (sometimes called “efficiency”) tells us that a tax system should stay out of the way of economic decisions. Tax policies that systematically favor one kind of economic activity or another can lead to the misallocation of resources, or worse, to schemes whose sole aim is to exploit such preferential tax treatment.”



Governor Cuomo Hearts Tax Cuts



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First it was the ill-advised TV campaign to lure new business to his state by bragging about tax cuts, and now New York  Governor Andrew Cuomo has launched his “Tax-Free NY” initiative which would turn many of the state’s public universities, private universities, and community colleges into tax-free havens. Providing a full complement of tax breaks, the Governor’s plan would exempt qualified businesses from paying any sales, property, and corporate taxes for a decade, and would exempt employees of those businesses from the personal income tax.

These no-tax zones include all state university campuses outside of New York City, some private colleges, up to 200,000 square feet in certain campus-adjacent zones, and 20 undisclosed “strategically located” state-owned properties. The Governor’s plan vaguely defines eligible businesses as companies with a relationship to the academic mission of the university and then includes: new businesses, out-of-state businesses that relocate to New York, and existing businesses that expand their New York operations.

Touting the plan as a way to revitalize the upstate economy, the Governor claims the free pass on taxes would “attract start-ups, venture capital, new business, and investments from across the world.” However, economists from across the political spectrum have their doubts (and so do we).

Professor John Yinger of Syracuse University said in response to Cuomo’s plan that: “In New York we have a dizzying array of tax breaks with no evidence they help, and now here’s a new version. You’d do much better improving our schools and infrastructure than giving tax breaks to businesses who would be in the state anyway.”

Others, such as Danny Donohue of the Civil Service Employees Association, argue the plan is another tax giveaway to businesses at the expense of local communities and the middle-class. Donohue says: “The governor doesn’t get the fact that more corporate welfare is no answer to New York’s economic challenges… it’s outrageous that the governor and legislative leaders think we can give away even more to businesses without any guarantee of benefit to taxpayers.”

In addition to creating little if any economic growth, the plan is likely to worsen the state’s already precarious fiscal situation. With the state budget office projecting (PDF) shortfalls ranging up to $3 billion per year in the coming years, removing entire companies from the tax rolls is hardly fiscally responsible.

To move the plan forward, the Governor will need legislative approval before the state’s legislative session ends on June 20th. Quick – someone get this policy brief (PDF) up to Albany!



Tax Plans for Wisconsin Go From Bad to Worse



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Wednesday, June 5, 2013 Update: The Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved a budget early this morning that included an income tax cut that reduced income tax rates from 4.6%, 6.15%, 6.5%, 6.75%, and 7.75% to 4.4%, 5.84%, 6.27%, and 7.65%. The legislation also reduced the number of tax brackets from five to four. This plan stops short of Rep. Kooyenga’s plan plan described below, but is more costly than Governor Walker’s $340 million initial proposal. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (PDF) these permanent tax cuts cost $632.5 million over two years and the distribution is again skewed to benefit the wealthiest Wisconsinites. Current reporting suggests this plan will pass the full legislature.

This week Wisconsin Representative Dale Kooyenga, an accountant who’s taking a lead roleon tax policy, released his plan to reform the state’s tax code. In a proposal that would more than double the tax cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker, Kooyenga seeks to reduce personal income tax rates and cut the number of income tax brackets from five to three. The latter would, as one report put it, put middle income earners like a secretary at a law firm in the same tax bracket as the high-earning lawyers.  Kooyenga touts simplifying the forms taxpayers file and eliminating nearly 20 tax credits.

Earlier this year, Governor Scott Walker proposed his own income tax cut ,which was slammed for mostly benefiting the wealthy (in large part because an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis showed that it was tilted that way). The Governor’s proposed income tax rate cuts were expected to cost the state $343 million over two years; Representative Kooyenga’s would cost $760 million in the upcoming budget and $914 million in the 2015 budget.

And it’s not just costly, it’s regressive. As the lawmaker himself concedes, “[i]t is nearly impossible to create a tax reform or tax cut that is not going to disproportionately lower taxes for upper-middle-class and rich taxpayers,” and a new ITEP analysis of Kooyenga’s plan shows his is no different. ITEP ran the numbers for the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP) the impact of the Kooyenga income tax plan was shown to be even more skewed to the wealthy that Governor Walker’s, as WBP writes:

Here is how the tax cut would be distributed among income groups:

- The top 5% of earners alone, a group with an average income of $392,000, would receive more than 1/3 of the benefit of the income tax cuts.

- The top 20% of earners, a group with an average income of $183,000, would receive more than 2/3 of the benefit.

- The bottom 60% of earners – those making $60,000 a year or less – would only receive 11% of the benefit of the income tax cuts.

- The 20% of the Wisconsinites with the lowest incomes would receive just two cents out of every $100 in individual income tax cuts under this proposal.

WBP says that the Kooyenga tax plan’s expansion of Governor Walker’s proposal is a “bad idea made worse,” and they are right.  
 



Congratulations to Minnesota for Crossing the Finish Line



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At 2:00am on Monday morning, Minnesota House members passed groundbreaking tax legislation that raises $2.1 billion over two years. The Senate then approved the legislation and Governor Dayton, long a champion of progressive tax reform, signed it yesterday. The bill increases income taxes on the top two percent of earners, raises the cigarette tax to $1.60, closes some corporate tax loopholes, and extends the sales tax to a handful of services primarily used by businesses, including warehouse storage and telecommunications equipment. Wayne Cox, with Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice expects much from the legislation: “Shifting taxes from the middle class to those with highest incomes will help the economy.”

A helpful summary of the compromise legislation is available here from the Minnesota Budget Project. Revenues from the cigarette tax will be used to help pay for a new Vikings stadium. This is round two for stadium funding because gaming revenues that were supposed to pay the state’s share of the stadium came in below revenue projections (not surprisingly, PDF). Of course, cigarette taxes (PDF) aren’t very stable revenue sources either, and are likely to decline overtime.

Nan Madden, Director of the Minnesota Budget Project, said of the legislature’s work, “In past years, the response to budget shortfalls has been deep cuts to services and use of timing shifts to kick the problem down the road. This year’s tax bill and budget take a better approach, raising the revenues needed to balance the budget and invest in the future; and reforming our tax system so that we share the responsibility for funding public services more equally.”

So, kudos to Minnesota’s elected leaders for making some difficult decisions and finding a way to balance the state’s books and still provide for quality services into the future. It’s a model other states can learn from.



Louisiana Film Tax Credit Costs More Than It Brings In



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More than a month after Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal “parked” his widely-panned proposal to repeal the state’s income tax, state policymakers now are returning to what should be a more straightforward tax reform issue. A new report (PDF) from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor critically evaluates the workings of the state’s film tax credit, which gives Louisiana-based film productions a tax credit to offset part of their expenses when they hire Louisiana workers or spend money on production expenses locally.

From a cost perspective alone, it makes sense to take a hard look at this provision: the state has spent over $1 billion on these Hollywood handouts in the past decade.

But the Auditor’s report is also a good reminder of just how little the state is getting in return for this massive outlay. The report estimates that after doling out almost $200 million in film tax breaks in 2010, the state enjoyed just $27 million in increased tax revenue from the film-related economic activity supposedly encouraged by this tax break.

This means a net loss to the state of about $170 million in just one year.

It’s hardly news that film tax credits offer little bang for the buck: last year the Louisiana Budget Project reported (PDF) that each new job created by the film tax credit is costing the state $60,000, and a recent report (PDF) from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue found that a huge chunk of that state’s film tax credits were going to wealthy taxpayers living in other states. Even when these credits create in-state jobs (and they do generate some economic activity), the transitory nature of film productions means those jobs probably will be gone when the production leaves town. And it’s virtually impossible for lawmakers to know whether they’re really attracting film productions to the state—or just rewarding moviemakers for doing what they would have done anyway (as “incentives” often do). Either way, Louisiana taxpayers are still doling out more than they are getting back.

But it’s not all bad, according to the Auditor’s report: the Louisiana credit does appear to be going largely to film productions that are technically eligible for it. So, as far as the Auditor can tell us, the film tax credit is simply ineffective and not an outright scam. Or at least, it wasn’t until this guy pleaded guilty to fraudulently claiming the credit, which is similar to what happened repeatedly in Iowa after that state’s disastrous experiment with Hollywood tax breaks.

After surviving the three-month train wreck that was the rollout of Governor Jindal’s tax plan, Louisiana lawmakers should find the film tax credit an easy problem to solve since they know how much it costs and just how little they’re getting in return. Right now they’re just tinkering around the edges, but pulling the plug on handouts to Hollywood should be high on policymakers’ to-do list.



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



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

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

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

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

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



Veto is the Only Answer to Missouri Legislature's Tax Package



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The Missouri House and Senate have hammered out a hybrid version of the tax bills each chamber recently passed, but with luck, it will never become law.  When the Senate passed its version in March, we wrote:

This package is billed as Missouri’s answer to the radical tax package passed last year by Kansas Governor Brownback. Its sponsor explained, “I’m trying to stop the bleeding. I’m trying to stop the businesses from fleeing into Kansas,” and then invokes the kind of magical thinking that almost always results in a deficit. According to the Associated Press, State Senator Kraus predicted his plan would “create an economic engine in our state” that would generate enough new tax revenues to make up for the losses.”

The bill the legislature will now send to Governor Nixon is a regressive income tax cut package that includes: a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, a 50 percent exclusion for pass-through business income, an additional $1,000 personal and spouse income exemption for individuals earning less than $20,000 in Missouri adjusted gross income, and a reduction in the top income tax rate from 6 to 5.5 percent.

In order for the legislation to become law, Governor Jay Nixon will have to give his okay, but he has signaled he’s going to veto the legislation. Recently he said, "Taking more than $800 million — literally the equivalent of what you spend on higher education, or literally more than you have for all of corrections or mental health — is not the fiscally responsible approach.”  He reiterated that message again this week.

Assuming Nixon, a Democrat, does veto this expensive tax package (its annual cost will be upwards of $700 million), the Republican-controlled legislature will put an override on their agenda when they return in September for a special veto session.



Oklahoma Poised to Implement Tax Cut Voters Don't Want



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The Oklahoma legislature recently approved a cut to the state’s top personal income tax rate, at the urging of Governor Mary Fallin. When the plan is fully implemented in 2016, the state’s top tax rate will fall from 5.25 to 4.85 percent, at a cost to the state of $237 million per year.  While a slim majority (52 percent) of Oklahomans support the idea of an income tax cut in the abstract, that support evaporates (falling to 31 percent) once the plan is explained in more detail.

That detail is as follows. According to an analysis by our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), roughly 4 in 10 Oklahomans—generally lower- and middle-income families—will receive no tax cut at all under the plan, while the average tax cut for a middle-income family will be just $30.  The wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers, by contrast, will receive 40 percent of the benefits, with the state’s top 1 percent of earners alone taking home a tax cut averaging over $2,000 per year.

When these basic facts about the tax plan now on Governor Fallin’s desk were explained to a random sample of registered Oklahoma voters, 60 percent of them said they opposed it, with a full 47 percent describing themselves as “strongly opposed.”

Voters’ reaction was similar upon being informed that the plan will require reducing state services like education, public safety, and health care. This vital piece of information resulted in support for the tax cut dropping to just 34 percent, and opposition rising to 56 percent (with 44 percent “strongly opposed.”)

These polling results are backed up by interviews with Oklahoma citizens conducted by the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. One Oklahoma resident explains, for example, that “If [the tax cut] harmed education I don't want it. I have a niece that is a schoolteacher and I'd rather have more teachers than the little bit of money.” Another says that “It sounds like the rich are just getting richer.”

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI) explains that the plan isn’t just unpopular—it’s fundamentally irresponsible: “We have seen no evidence that Oklahoma will be able to afford a tax cut in [2015, when the first stage of the cut takes effect]. Indeed, we are already seeing signs of faltering revenue collections, with revenue falling below last year.” Concern about the sustainability of Oklahoma’s revenues is compounded by the possibility that “the state could be on the hook for as much as $480 million” in additional expenses if a court ruling against its tax break for capital gains is upheld. The Associated Press reports that when the impact of this court ruling is “combined with an estimated $237 million price tag for a tax cut approved by the Legislature this year and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin… the cost to the state could amount to 10 percent of the total state appropriated budget.”

Given these challenges, it’s hard to argue with OPI’s policy prescription: “Now that cuts are scheduled, the only responsible path forward is to pursue real tax reform that goes beyond the top income tax rate. To fund education and ensure a prosperous future for Oklahoma, we need real action to reign in unnecessary tax credits and exemptions that cost us hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”



Iowa Debates Property Tax Cuts



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The debate over how to effectively tax property in Iowa has raged for years. A new report from the Iowa Fiscal Project (IFP) compares and contrasts the property tax reform proposals put forward by the Iowa House and Senate. The report was described in this Des Moines Register editorial with high praise: “No matter which approach prevails, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership deserves credit for an unbiased examination of the impact of the competing property tax proposals on real businesses in Iowa.”

Currently, commercial property taxes are based on 100 percent of their actual values. Residential property is treated very differently. IFP reports that most recently residential property was assessed at just 52.8 percent of actual value. This disparity is something that Governor Branstad, the Iowa House and Senate are working to address. The Senate bill would create a property tax credit which would ultimately mean that some commercial property would be taxed like residential property. The House bill (which has the support of Governor Branstad) would ultimately tax commercial property at 80 percent of its actual value. In its report, IFP raises important questions about how local governments will be reimbursed for the resulting reductions in a significant local government revenue source should either bill become law. The Senate bill provides more targeted tax relief to corporations, whereas the House bill provides a property tax reduction to all businesses.

It could be that this issue gets put on hold for yet another year because Senator Joe Bolkcom (chair of the Ways and Means Committee) is vowing, as he has before, that no compromise on a tax bill will be reached until an increase in Earned Income tax Credit (EITC) is signed into law.



Rich States, Poor States and Fake Research: "Business Climate" Rankings Mislead Lawmakers by Design



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Good Jobs First (GJF) has a new in-depth report revealing how the most aggressively promoted and publicized measures of states’ “business climates” are nothing more than messaging tools “designed to promote a particular political agenda.”  According to the study’s co-author, PhD economist Peter Fisher, “When we scrutinized the business climate methodologies, we found profound and elementary errors. We found effects presented as causes. We found factors that have no empirically proven relationship to economic growth. And we found scores that ignore major differences among state tax systems.” Yet too often, such rankings are reported uncritically in the media and – worse – cited by lawmakers seeking to change policy. Of course, this is precisely the goal of the corporate-backed, ideologically driven organizations generating these simplistic reports.

Looking at indexes from the Tax Foundation, ALEC and other anti-tax groups, GJF finds that “the one consistent theme that the indexes harp on is regressive taxation, especially lower corporate income taxes, lower or flat or nonexistent personal income taxes, and no estate or inheritance taxes.”  While the biggest problem is that none of the indexes show any actual economic benefits from their policy prescriptions, GJF also spotlights a slew of methodological problems that in some cases border on comical:

The Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index is compiled by “stirring together no less than 118 features of the tax law and producing out of that stew a single, arbitrary index number.” Since the Tax Foundation index gets sidetracked into trivial issues like the number of income tax brackets and the tax rate on beer, it should come as little surprise that their ranking bears no resemblance to more careful measures of the actual level of taxes paid by businesses in each state. GJF concludes that “it is hard to imagine how the [Tax Foundation] could do much worse in terms of measuring the actual amount of taxes businesses pay in one state versus another.”

The index contained in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Rich States, Poor States report fails an even more fundamental test. After running a series of statistical models to examine how states that have enacted ALEC’s preferred policies have fared, GJF concludes that the index “fails to predict job creation, GDP growth, state and local revenue growth, or rising personal incomes.”

The Beacon Hill Institute’s State Competitiveness Report misses the purpose of these indexes entirely by assuming that things like the creation of new businesses and the existence of state government budget surpluses somehow cause economic growth—rather than being direct result of it. 

Finally, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council’s (SBEC) U.S. Business Policy Index has a somewhat more narrow focus: grading states based on policies that the SBEC thinks are important to entrepreneurship and small business development.  But GJF explains that “the authors apparently believe that there are in fact no government programs or policies that are supportable … State spending on infrastructure, the quality of the education system, small business development centers or entrepreneurship programs at public universities, technology transfer or business extension programs, business-university partnerships, small business incubators, state venture capital funding—none of these public activities is included in the [index].”  Unsurprisingly, then, GJF also finds that a state’s ranking on the SBEC index has no relation with how well it actually does in terms of variables like the prevalence of business startups and existence of fast-growing firms.

But while each index has its own problems, GJF also points out that when it comes to tax policy, there’s a much more fundamental flaw with what these organizations have tried to do:

State and local taxes are a very small share of business costs—less than two percent … State and local governments have a great deal of power to affect the other 98+ percent of companies’ cost structures, particularly in the education and skill levels of the workforce, the efficiency of infrastructure, and the quality of public services generally. … The business tax rankings examined here … are worse than meaningless – they distract policy makers from the most important responsibilities of the public sector and help to undermine the long run foundations of state economic growth and prosperity.

Read the report



State News Quick Hits: Pushback on Tax Cuts as Job Creators, and More



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Michigan’s former Treasurer, Robert Kleine, explains in a Detroit Free Press op-ed that “there is no evidence that … [a 2011 tax change] reducing business taxes by $1.7 billion has created new jobs in Michigan.”  Among other things, Kleine observes that “state business taxes are such a small part of a business’ costs that even large changes have a minor impact.”

Gas taxes remain a major topic of debate in the states.  Since publishing our mid-session update on state gas tax debates two weeks ago, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a gas tax increase into law, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad reiterated that a gas tax hike is still on the table in his state, and The Olympian reports that raising Washington State’s gas tax is “now widely seen as a topic for special session.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been traveling the state seeking support for his more than $2 billion tax cut proposal (once fully phased-in) ever since using Tax Day 2013 to announce his renewed push for the plan he first championed last year. An op-ed from the Better Choices for New Jersey Campaign says the proposal was “a bad idea then, and it remains one today.”  Why?  Simply put, the state cannot afford even the scaled-back tax cut the governor is proposing for 2013 without reducing spending.

A new report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center takes on two common myths about the state’s economy that policymakers often use to justify cutting or eliminating taxes: North Carolina’s economy is uncompetitive compared to neighboring states and high tax rates drive North Carolina’s high unemployment. The report found that North Carolina is actually either leading or in the middle of the pack in every major indicator of economic health except for unemployment.  And, the explanation for high unemployment? A decline in specific industries the state has long relied on – like textiles and furniture – that are highly vulnerable to offshoring, outsourcing and other global pressures, not high tax rates.

Anti-Taxer-in-Chief Grover Norquist recently travelled to Minnesota where he met up with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to rally against taxes. Minnesota is actually one of the bright lights this year for tax justice advocates who are supporting House and Senate plans there that would raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans.



Missouri's Kansas-Envy is Self-Destructive



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The Missouri House and Senate have each passed their own versions of a “race to the bottom” tax plan in a misguided effort to keep up with neighboring Kansas, where a radical tax plan that is eviscerating the state’s budget might actually be followed up by another round of tax cuts (currently being debated by the legislature).

Both the Missouri Senate and House plans would reduce income tax rates, introduce a 50 percent exclusion for “pass-through” business income, reduce corporate income tax rates, and increase the sales tax. The Senate plan is summed up in this St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, Missouri Senate Declares Class War Against Citizens.

The poorest 20 percent of Missourians, those earning $18,000 a year or less, will pay $63 a year more in taxes. Those earning between $18,000 and $33,000 a year will pay $129 more. The middle quintile — those earning between $33,000 and $53,000 a year — will pay $150 a year more. The fourth quintile ($53,000 to $85,000 a year) will pay $149 a year more. That’s a grand total of 80 percent of Missourians who will pay more and get less: crummier schools, higher college tuitions (because state aid will continue to fall) and less access to worse state services. The poor are used to this. It remains to be seen whether the middle class will put up with it.”


Despite the fact that similarly reckless tax proposals in other states have failed (Louisiana and Nebraska) or been scaled back (Ohio), it seems the proposals are moving forward in Missouri, thanks in large part to Americans for Prosperity. This national group uses state chapters to throw money at anti-tax, anti-government agendas its corporate funders like, and it has launched a “Bold Ideas Tour” to travel Missouri advocating for deep tax cuts as the state’s legislature approaches its closing date of May 17.

Governor Jay Nixon has vowed he will veto a tax cut bill of this magnitude, rightly saying, "Making a veteran with aches and pains pay more for an aspirin so that an S Corporation can get a tax cut does not reflect our values or our priorities. I have long opposed schemes like this one that would shift costs onto families because they reflect the wrong priorities and do not work.”

The Governor’s position is supported by multiple experts, including the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), and it looks like Missouri could be a state where good information comes between the national anti-tax movement and their legislative agenda.



FACT: Online Sales Tax Does Not Violate Grover's "No Tax Pledge"



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There’s been some confusion in recent days about whether the 258 members of Congress who have signed Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” are allowed to vote in favor a bill that lets states collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.  There is no reason for any confusion on this point.  Anybody with 15 seconds of free time and the ability to read the one sentence promise contained in the national pledge can see it’s completely irrelevant to the debate over online sales taxes:

I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Since federal income tax rates, deductions, and credits are altered exactly zero times in the online sales tax legislation set to be voted on by the Senate, Grover’s federal affairs manager is being less than truthful when she says that “there’s really not any way an elected official [who signed the pledge] can vote for this.”

There’s no doubt that Grover would be tickled pink to have gotten 258 of our elected officials to pledge opposition to improving states’ ability to limit sales tax evasion over the Internet.  For that matter, he would probably be even more excited to have gotten those officials to promise to vote against any increase in the estate tax, gasoline tax, or cigarette tax, as well as the creation of a carbon tax or a VAT.  But none of these things fall within the scope of the pledge, either, and it’s a shame that Grover and his spokespeople have shown no interest in being truthful on this point.



State News Quick Hits: Ohio and Minnesota On Opposite Income Tax Tracks, and More



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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.”



Online Sales Tax: Norquist vs. Laffer and Other Bedfellow Battles



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By now you've probably heard that the U.S. Senate is close to approving a bill that would allow the states to collect the sales taxes already owed by shoppers who make purchases over the Internet.  Currently, sales tax enforcement as it relates to online shopping is a messy patchwork, with retailers only collecting the tax when they have a store, warehouse, headquarters, or other “physical presence” located in the same state as the shopper.  In all other cases, shoppers are required to pay the tax directly to the state, but few do so in practice.  The result of this arrangement is both unfair (since the same item is taxed differently depending on the type of merchant selling it) and inefficient (since shoppers are given an incentive to shop online rather than locally).

Unsurprisingly, two of the strongest proponents of a federal solution to this problem have been traditional “brick and mortar” retailers that compete with online merchants and state lawmakers struggling to balance their states’ budgets even as sales tax revenues are eroded by online shopping.  But this issue has also turned anti-tax advocates, states without sales taxes, and even online retailers against one another in surprising ways, for reasons of ideology and self interest. 

Ideological Frenemies, Norquist and Laffer

Supply-side economist Arthur Laffer recently argued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that states should be allowed to enforce their sales taxes on online shopping as a basic matter of fairness, so that “all retailers would be treated equally under state law.”  We completely agree with this point, but Laffer makes clear that his larger aim is to shore up state sales taxes in order to make cuts to his least favorite tax—the personal income tax. It’s no secret that Laffer wants states to shift toward a tax system that leans heavily on regressive sales taxes, but it’s harder to advocate for such a shift if the tax can be easily avoided by shopping online.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform stands in direct opposition to Laffer on this issue.  Norquist has been “making the case on the House side of either seriously amending it or even stopping” federal efforts to allow for online sales tax enforcement.  But Norquist reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue when he argues that out-of-state retailers should be free from having to collect sales taxes because “you should only be taxing people who can vote for you or against you.”  In reality, retailers aren’t being taxed at all—they’re simply being required to do their part in making sure their customers are paying the sales taxes already owed on their purchases.

Delaware vs. The Other No-Sales-Tax States

Four states levy no broad-based sales tax at either the state or local level: Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon and Senators from these last three states are generally not interested to helping other states enforce their sales tax laws. After all, why vote for a “new tax” if there’s no direct benefit to their own states’ coffers?

But Delaware’s senators see the issue differently, as both Sen. Carper and Sen. Coons voted in favor of the bill.  In fact, Carper introduced his own bill for collecting tax on e-purchases years ago, explaining it this way: “The Internet is undermining Delaware's unique status” because “part of Delaware's attraction to tourists is that people can come and shop until they drop and never have to pay a dime of sales tax.”

Amazon vs. Other Internet Retailers

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that online retailers as a group have opposed legal requirements that their customers pay sales taxes on their purchases since it means these e-retailers would have to charge and collect that tax.  Some companies, however, like Netflix, have long collected (PDF) those sales taxes, even without a legal requirement to do so. But most have clung to online sales tax evasion as a way to undercut traditional retailers by up to 10 percent (or more, depending on the sales tax rate levied where the buyer is located).

One recent exception is eBay, which appears to have seen the writing on the wall and has pivoted from opposing the bill to watering it down – and it’s deploying its 40 million users as an army of online lobbyists to that end.

But it is Amazon that stands apart from other online retailers in fully supporting a federal solution to the patchwork of state laws and the growing number of deals it has finally had to strike with states. The company’s reason is likely two-fold.

First, Amazon has a “physical presence” in a growing number of states and plans to continue its expansion in order to make next-day-delivery a reality for more of its customers. As a result, Amazon will be legally required to remit sales taxes in more states in the future and will find itself at a competitive disadvantage if other online retailers remain free from sales tax collection requirements.  Second, Amazon processes a large number of sales for other merchants through its website and collects sales taxes on behalf of some of them – for a fee.  Amazon’s sales tax collection services could become much more lucrative in the future if more of the merchants it partners with are required to collect sales taxes.

 



State News Quick Hits: Kansas Named Worst in the Nation for Taxes, and More



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This week Missouri is offering a sales tax holiday on energy efficient appliances. Not only are these holidays costly for state budgets, they are poorly targeted. That is, it’s generally wealthier folks who have the cash flow flexibility to time their purchases to take advantage of these holidays, when it’s poorer residents who feel the brunt of sales taxes in the first place. To learn more about why these holidays aren’t worth celebrating, check out The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) policy brief here (PDF).

Here’s a great investigative piece from the Columbus Post Dispatch about the nearly $8 billion in tax code entitlements (aka tax expenditures) Ohio currently offers. The state needs to closely study these tax expenditures and determine if they are actually producing the economic benefits promised. Before debating extreme income tax rate reductions, Ohio lawmakers should also take a look at this ITEP primer on what a thoughtful, productive discussion of state tax expenditures looks like.

In this Kansas City Star article, ITEP’s Executive Director, Matt Gardner, talks about the fate of many radical tax plans this year in the states. “The speed with which these plans have fallen apart is as remarkable a trend as the speed with which they emerged,” he says. Kansas and its budget crisis have become a cautionary tale for other states considering tax cuts, but even the latest plans passed by the Kansas House and Senate are radical and could eventually lead to the complete elimination of the personal income tax.

Criticism of the tax cuts enacted in Kansas last year continues to mount.  We already wrote about Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma’s caution that his state might become another Kansas, but now a number of media outlets have picked up on the fact that both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Tax Foundation called that Kansas tax cuts the “worst” (ouch!) state tax changes enacted in 2012.

Watch out, North Carolinians! It appears that Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is coming to town to the tune of $500,000 to pay for town hall meetings, “grassroots” advocacy and advertising all to support the dismantling of the state’s tax structure. Let’s hope the facts can defeat AFP’s cash.



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.



Louisiana Tax Overhaul Collapse as Bellwether? We Can Only Hope.



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Last week we brought you news that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was abandoning his plan to eliminate the state personal and corporate income taxes and replace the revenue with an expanded sales tax. Instead, the Governor asked the legislature to “Send me a plan to get rid of our state income tax.” But now the legislature is denying the Governor’s request.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Representative Robideaux has asked his colleagues to “defer” the bills they already had in the works to repeal the state income tax, and he’s said that he won’t allow hearings on any income tax repeal bill, closing the door on any attempt to eliminate the state’s income tax. Robideaux said, “I think it’s probably dead for the session, right now, there’s probably income tax fatigue.”  Importantly, he also asks, “Is there a constituent base out there demanding repeal of the income tax?” The answer is that two thirds of Louisianans actually opposed the Governor’s plan for this tax swap, which happens to be about the same percentage of Louisianans who stand to lose the most if any such tax plan gets implemented.

Jindal’s failure is a victory for tax justice advocates and a may serve as a lesson for lawmakers in other states entertaining similarly radical tax ideas.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch, for instance, editorialized, “Louisiana's lawmakers realize what Missouri's don't: Income tax cuts are suicidal.” Missouri lawmakers are debating their own draconian tax plan that would roll back income taxes. The Post Dispatch continues, “What Louisiana has recognized is that the supposed benefits of cutting state income taxes are vastly overstated. The impact of service cuts is vastly understated. The effect is that rich people and corporations get richer. Everyone else gets poorer.”  

In another state, Georgia, income tax elimination has been debated for years, but this columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution is hopeful that the tax justice victory in Louisiana will lead to Georgia lawmakers reconsidering their own proposal, which eliminates the personal and corporate income tax for no good reason.

Tax plans similar to Jindal’s have hit road blocks in Nebraska and Ohio this year. Among the many reasons these plans fail, it seems, is that when people realize that they amount to unwarranted tax cuts for the rich that raise taxes for everyone else and probably bust the budget, too, common sense prevails and these ideas are defeated. 

We know that Louisianans dodged a bullet when the Governor’s plan fell apart.  And while it’s good news that a big reason was widespread concern over its fundamental unfairness, the fact is Bobby Jindal is not the only supply-sider committed to eliminating the income tax. So we savor the victory, yes, but also prepare for the next battle as similar plans are winding their ways through other state capitals.



State News Quick Hits: Promoting Tax Justice in the States on April 15



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On April 15, the majority of Americans file their income taxes, federal and state. As CTJ and ITEP demonstrate in their annual Who Pays Taxes in America, state tax systems are overwhelmingly regressive and the federal system just barely makes up for that. Today we highlight some great, creative efforts in a few states promoting the importance of state tax fairness.

Michigan: The Michigan League for Public Policy organized a social media campaign and video called “Pay it Forward Michigan.” The League explains that “its aim is to remind us about the good things our tax dollars create or protect — clean water, parks, good schools, safe streets, good roads, protection for children, great universities, the arts, bike paths, pristine beaches and more.”

North Carolina: Russell the Public Investment Hound was back and starring in a new film, The Great Tax Shift.  Also, check out this tax day Fair Fight Luchadora (Mexican wrestling) showdown that was staged across the street from the North Carolina General Assembly building. From the press advisory: “Tax Day is a reminder that wealthy and powerful special interests aren’t made to pay their fair share because too few lawmakers in Raleigh and in D.C. care about being champions of the People who elected them. This year, working people will get to settle the score!” Spoiler alert: the people’s champ won!

Ohio: Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters Ohio writes in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer about why income tax cuts won’t help the state’s economy, and highlights research from ITEP to make her case.  She also shares a personal experience with a fire in the basement of her home just days before Tax Day in 2001. “The firefighters arrived in minutes and put out the still-tiny fire ... and I suddenly had a more vivid picture of what my un-mailed taxes would pay for. Twelve years later, I can thank countless teachers, crossing guards, snowplow drivers, police officers, water inspectors and others for helping keep my kids educated, protected, safe and happy in our community.”

Wisconsin: Ever wonder what Wisconsin income taxes help fund? Read all about it here and check out the gorgeous infographic showing how tax revenues are an economic investment.

Photo courtesy of FairFight North Carolina.



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



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

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

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

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

(Photo courtesy Bitterroot Star)



Governor Jindal Admits Defeat, Abandons His Tax Plan



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In a speech to the Louisiana Legislature yesterday, Governor Bobby Jindal announced that he would “park” his tax plan. There is no doubt this is a huge blow to supply-side advocates and Arthur Laffer enthusiasts who tout false claims that tax cuts will ultimately pay for themselves and increase economic development.

The Governor’s controversial plan would have repealed the state’s personal and corporate income and franchise taxes and then paid for these tax cuts by increasing the sales tax. The sales tax changes included increasing the state tax rate from 4 percent to 6.25 percent, and expanding the base of the tax to include a wide variety of previously untaxed services and goods. ITEP found that the Governor’s plan would have raised taxes on the bottom 60 percent of Louisianans, as tax swaps tend to do.

The Governor’s plan met enormous resistance “in recent weeks as business groups and advocates for the poor have assailed its effects and think tanks have questioned whether the math in the proposal adds up.” Now the Governor is backing away from his proposal and urging the legislature to send him its own bill – one that would also eliminate the personal income tax – leaving “tax reform” up to the state legislature.

The key fact to bear in mind for Louisiana is that aside from raising the sales tax, there is really no way for the state to replace nearly $3 billion in revenue that will be lost if the income tax is eliminated. Lawmakers would do better to stay away from supply-side theories and instead close corporate tax loopholes, reverse the regressivity of the state’s tax structure and invest in public infrastructure because that is what real reform looks like.



Two Bills, One Outcome: Kansas Kills Its Income Tax



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Earlier this year, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback proposed another round of personal income tax cuts (on top of those he signed into law last year that are creating a massive hole in the state’s budget). Read ITEP’s analysis of that proposal here.  Now the Kansas House and Senate have each responded with their own tax cut plans, and are expected to reconcile their differences soon.

To date, much attention has been given to the major difference between the House and Senate plans — the Senate bill includes permanently preserving a temporary sales tax rate hike while the House plan would allow the hike to expire. What the two plans have in common, however, is what should be of paramount concern to all Kansans because both plans eventually lead to the elimination of the state’s personal income tax – which would grow the hole in the state’s coffers by another $2.2 billion.  

Policymakers have not proposed a way to pay for this tax cut. Instead they are making an explicit assumption that income tax repeal will at least partially “pay for itself.” Kansas’ balanced-budget requirement means that the state will be forced to offset at least some portion of the revenue loss from income tax repeal, and it’s a sure bet that further increases in the state sales tax will be the primary remaining revenue-raising mechanism lawmakers would look to.

ITEP’s latest analysis runs some scenarios that show the impact on Kansas taxpayers of using a sales tax increase to replace various percentages of the revenue currently raised through the personal income tax.  For example, if 50 percent of the revenues were made up with sales tax hikes, the poorest 40 percent of Kansans would see a net tax increase from this change and the state sales tax rate would have to be raised from 6.3 to 9.11 percent, pushing the statewide average state/local rate up to 10.86 percent.

Read ITEP’s full report here.

Kansas is one of several states contemplating a “tax swap” of some sort, but no state can meet its fiscal needs fairly and sustainably without an income tax -- especially in the absence of extraordinary natural resources (like Alaska’s oil), for example, or out-of-state consumer dollars to tax (like Nevada’s tourism).



This Just In: Louisianans Still Don't Trust Governor Jindal's Tax Plan



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Since January, we’ve brought you updates as best we could about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s controversial tax swap plan, but details remained elusive. Finally, late last week, the Governor released enough information – including a newly calculated, bigger sales tax rate increase – and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) was able to complete a full analysis of the Governor’s tax plan. The centerpiece of the Jindal plan is the outright repeal of the state’s personal and corporate income and franchise taxes. These tax cuts would be paid for primarily by increasing the state sales tax rate from 4 percent to 6.25 percent, and expanding the base of the tax to include a wide variety of previously untaxed services and goods.

ITEP’s analysis shows that, if fully implemented in 2013, the plan would increase taxes on the poorest sixty percent of Louisianans overall, while providing large tax cuts for the best-off Louisiana taxpayers. In fact, ITEP found that the poorest 20 percent of Louisianans would see a net tax increase averaging $283, or 2.4 percent of their income, while the very best-off Louisianans would see a tax cut averaging almost $30,000, or 2.5 percent of this group’s total income.

Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) Executive Counsel Tim Barfield continues to insist that all Louisianians will be better off under the Governor’s plan. But, as ITEP’s report points out, DOR’s estimates are flawed: they only include the impact of taxes paid directly by individuals and they ignore the impact of taxes paid initially by businesses. This approach presents an incomplete picture of how the Jindal plan would affect Louisianans, though, because a substantial share of the current sales tax, and the large majority of the expanded sales tax base the Governor proposes, would be paid initially by businesses. Economists generally agree that these business sales taxes are ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Louisianans themselves aren’t buying the Governor’s numbers either. His tax swap plan has the support of only 27 percent of Louisianans – and that was before he upped the sales tax increase even further.

Read ITEP’s full analysis of Govenor Jindal’s tax plan here.



Exclusive CTJ & ITEP Newsletter Content Going Online



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Just in time for Tax Day 2013, our quarterly newsletter Just Taxes is arriving in mailboxes this week. This edition features original articles discussing the fallacies of anti-tax legislation in state legislatures, Facebook's tax avoidance schemes, the release of ITEP's new report, Who Pays? and highlights of ITEP and CTJ's recent press coverage. Starting this year, we are putting back issues of Just Taxes online, and you can now browse editions from the past nine years.  

Just Taxes is a provided as a service to our current donors – who make our work possible – so we’re not making this special content available until six months after publication. (The current issue, for example, will be posted in October.) So to make sure you receive the most up-to-date edition, please make a contribution to CTJ or you can choose to make a tax-deductible contribution to ITEP.  And thank you for all the ways you show support for our work.



Study: US Tax Code Fails to Slow Widening Economic Inequality



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Are economically disadvantaged families in the US likely to reverse their fortunes anytime soon? Not according to a new report by the Brookings Institution, which found that growing economic disparities between Americans are becoming increasingly permanent and irreversible. In other words, the study confirms that disadvantaged Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to move up the income ladder, while at the same time the position of the well-off is increasingly secure.

Brookings also found that between 1987 and 2009 the US tax system only “partially mitigated” the increase in income inequality and that it was not enough to “sufficiently alter its broadly increasing trend.” This result is not all that surprising given that the overall (combined state and federal) tax system is barely progressive, meaning that it can only have a small redistributive impact.

While many countries have taken dramatic steps to reduce income inequality, the US has allowed income inequality to grow so extreme that it now has the fourth highest level of income inequality in the developed world. Looking at the low end of the scale, the US Census Bureau found that over 46 million (PDF), or 1 in 6, Americans were below the poverty line in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available).

But don’t expect a revolution just yet. Most Americans are wholly unaware of how off track our economic system has gotten. For example, as the viral video “Wealth Inequality in America” explains, there is a huge disconnect between the actual distribution of wealth, the distribution of wealth as the public perceives it, and the distribution that the public believes is desirable.

According to the study (PDF) on which the video was based, Americans believe that the top 20 percent hold only 58 percent of the country’s wealth and that under an ideal system, the top 20 percent would own just 32 percent of the wealth. The reality, however, is that the top 20 percent actually own about 84 percent of the country’s wealth. Consider, for example, that the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune alone own as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.

One of the best ways to combat rising economic inequality and increase economic mobility would be to enact progressive tax reforms and use the additional revenue raised to pay for critical investments in education, healthcare, and other areas that are needed to improve the economic mobility of lower and middle income Americans.



State News Quick Hits: Tech Company Heads to "Hi Tax" California, Arkansas is Opposite World, and More



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Here’s some happy news: a recent poll finds that just 27 percent of Louisianans support Governor Bobby Jindal’s tax swap, and that’s before the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released its latest analysis showing that the poorest 60 percent of taxpayers in Louisiana would see a tax hike as a result of the Governor’s plan.

A robotics company based in Nevada recently decided to abandon the state’s allegedly “business friendly” environment in favor of Silicon Valley in California, where there are better trained employees and plenty of deep pocketed investors. Nevada does not levy a personal or corporate income tax, but as Romotive founder Keller Rinaudo explains: "It was not a short-term economic decision ... We have to find experienced roboticists, and that really only exists in a few places in the world, and California is one of them."

Maryland’s gas tax will be increased and reformed starting July 1 under a bill just sent to Governor Martin O’Malley by the state’s legislature.  This year’s increase will be something less than 4 cents per gallon, but the tax will now rise each year alongside inflation and gas prices, as recommended by ITEP. ITEP showed that even with the increase, Maryland’s gas tax rate will still remain below its historical average and be less than the state probably needs.

Here’s an interesting story in the Minnesota Star Tribune about how Governor Dayton’s tax plan would impact the wealthiest Minnesotans. While opponents resort to the usual tax-hikes-kill-jobs refrain, Wayne Cox of Minnesotans for Tax Justice notes, “Economists believe keeping teachers and firefighters on the payroll is at least three times more helpful to the economy than keeping income tax rates at the top the same.”

Tax cuts for opposite ends of the income spectrum are getting opposite treatment in Maine and Arkansas. This week, Maine lawmakers rejected a bill that would cut taxes on capital gains (which heavily benefits wealthy taxpayers) and approved an increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (PDF), which amounts to a tax cut to low- and moderate-income families. But last week in Arkansas, a House panel approved a cut in taxes on capital gains while passing up an opportunity to enact a state EITC.



No Business Tax Repeal in Idaho, Only a Pared-Back Cut



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Idaho lawmakers have opted for a dramatically scaled back tax cut on business equipment.  Rather than repealing the business personal property tax entirely as Governor Butch Otter had proposed, the House and Senate have sent him a bill that exempts the first $100,000 of property from the tax.  This change eliminates the tax for 90 percent of Idaho businesses while costing the treasury a fraction of the amount of outright repeal.

Even with the bill’s $20 million price tag, the Associated Press (AP) reasonably described it as a victory for counties and schools that would have been hit hard if the tax were repealed.  The AP also called it a “setback” for big businesses’ major lobby—the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI).  IACI has pledged to continue lobbying for full repeal next year.

Had the business personal property tax been repealed in full, the biggest winner would have been Idaho Power, which would have seen its tax bill drop by anywhere from $10.5 to $15.3 million per year. Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), helped put this property tax cut into context with a report explaining that Idaho Power already pays nothing in state corporate income taxes.  Looking at nationwide state corporate tax payments, ITEP showed that from 2007 to 2011, the company actually collected a $7 million state tax rebate despite earning $623 million in profits. That amounts to an overall effective tax rate of negative 1.1 percent.

While it’s discouraging that lawmakers prioritized cutting taxes this session on the heels of last year’s regressive income tax cut, the decision to keep the business personal property tax on the books is a welcome bit of fiscal sanity.



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



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

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

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

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



Mobile Millionaires and the Search for the Holy Grail Tax Jurisdiction



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Actor John Cleese, most famous for his central role in the British comedy group Monty Python, has decided to move back to Great Britain from Monaco, after concluding that the tax benefits of moving to the tax haven last year were not worth it after all. The actor’s return to Great Britain provides a high profile counterpoint to the false narrative that “high” taxes are driving wealthy people to migrate to low-tax jurisdictions, like Florida in the United States, or like Monaco, Russia or Bermuda for the globe trotting set.

The quest for a lower tax rate has not proven to be as much of a factor for wealthy individuals as anti-tax advocates would have you believe. Several studies confirm this, including a recent academic analysis based on actual tax returns that concludes the effect of tax rates on migration is “negligible” between the different tax jurisdictions in the United States.

What anti-tax advocates ignore is the fact that taxes actually play a very small role in an individual’s decision where to live, especially compared to factors like employment opportunities, family and friends, housing and even weather. In addition, lower taxes may actually discourage migration if they result in lower quality government services (a well-funded Ministry of Silly Walks  maybe especially close to John Cleese’s heart for example). What wealthy person wants to move to a jurisdiction with poor public schools, dirty streets and parks, and inadequate law enforcement?

The real lesson is that non-tax benefits of living in a location usually outweigh higher taxes, even in cases where the individual could save substantial sums of money by moving elsewhere. A recent case in point? The billionaire hedge-fund manager John Paulson’s decision not to move to Puerto Rico, despite the fact that doing so would have allowed him to avoid billions of dollars in capital gains taxes. In other words, Paulson has indicated that he’d just as soon keep paying billions more in taxes for the advantages of living in New York City. Colorful anecdotes and threats aside, the holy grail of tax codes ends up being the one that allows for a quality of life worthy of millionaires – and everybody else.



Business Tax Cuts Crammed Into Final Moments of New Mexico Session



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New Mexico lawmakers recently approved a cut in the corporate income tax rate and special tax breaks for manufacturers and filmmakers. State officials estimate that the bill will eventually cost (PDF) the state about $55 million in lost revenue per year, but they admit that they’re not especially confident in their estimates.  The Santa Fe New Mexican explains how the vote in the House literally came down to the final seconds of the legislative session, and says that House Speaker Kenny Martinez “acknowledged that some [House] members may not have been familiar with [the bill] at all.”

The largest single tax cut contained in the bill is a reduction in the corporate income tax rate from 7.6 to 5.9 percent, phased-in over five years.  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), recently found that the corporate income tax is one of New Mexico’s few progressive taxes in a tax system that is sharply regressive overall.  On top of this cut, lawmakers voted to give manufacturers the option to use a tax break known as single sales factor (PDF) that only benefits businesses selling most of their products out-of-state.  The package also expanded tax giveaways for filmmakers that are widely understood to offer little economic benefit.

To pay for a portion of the cost of these cuts, the bill raises sales taxes on manufacturers, cuts aid to local governments (though it lets them raise their own sales taxes), trims some existing tax credits, and limits the tax avoidance opportunities available to some “big box” retailers through the adoption of mandatory “combined reporting” (PDF) for those companies.

Overall, however, the corporate tax rate cut represents a case of misplaced priorities in a state whose tax system is fundamentally unfair and where funding for things like higher education has been slashed in recent years.

 



State News Quick Hits: No Tax Break for Girls Scouts, The Virtue of the Gas Tax and More



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A story in the Arkansas News show why all citizens should be concerned about the bad design (PDF) of state gasoline taxes. Arkansas’ gas tax hasn’t been raised in over a decade, during which time it has lost about a quarter of its value due to rising construction costs alone. In order to offset those losses, lawmakers are debating a bill that would transfer $2.3 billion away from other areas of the state budget in order to pay for roads and bridges over the next 10 years.  At a rally protesting the idea, Rich Huddleston of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families ticked off just some of the state services that would have to be cut: “education, higher education, Medicaid and health services for vulnerable populations, services for abused and neglected children, juvenile justice services for kids … public safety and corrections and pre-K and child care for our youngest populations.”

Girl Scouts in Idaho are seeking out a special sales tax loophole for selling their cookies so that they can keep an extra 22 cents on every box sold. There is no tax policy reason to exempt Girl Scout cookies from the sales tax. If enacted, this break would be a true “tax expenditure” -- a state spending program grafted onto the tax code (PDF) in a way that exempts it from the normal processes used to manage state spending year in and year out.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is traveling the state on a “Meetings with Mark” tour to discuss his budget and tax plans with voters. Last week the Governor unveiled a revised tax plan, but minus the sales tax base expansion from his original proposal.  Wayne Cox of Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice supports the new proposal as it retains two crucial pieces of the original – an income tax hikes for wealthy Minnesotans and a cigarette tax hike. “Gov. Mark Dayton’s new budget is a blueprint for fairer taxes and a brighter future for Minnesota families.  His reforms pave the way for new jobs, healthier lives and a better-educated workforce. Education and health experts around the state have praised Gov. Dayton’s reforms. Future economic growth depends on these changes.”

In response to Ohio Governor John Kasich’s regressive proposal to expand the state sales tax base and lower income taxes, Policy Matters Ohio (using ITEP data) released a paper reminding Ohioans how beneficial an Earned Income Tax Credit (PDF) could be to low-income families hit hardest by an increased sales tax.

Here’s a powerful column from the Atlanta Journal Constitution citing ITEP data. Advocating against a state Senator’s proposal to raise the Georgia sales tax and freeze revenues into the future, Jay Bookman writes: [h]e has proposed two amendments to the state constitution that, if approved by voters, would lead to significantly higher taxes on the vast majority of Georgia households, while sharply reducing taxes on the wealthiest. That ought to be controversial under any circumstances. As it is, lower- and middle-income Georgia households already pay a significantly higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes than do the wealthy. The Shafer amendments would make that disparity considerably worse.”



Chart: New Gas Tax Plan in Maryland House of Delegates



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UPDATE: As of March 29, 2013 this plan has passed both the House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by the Governor.

This week, the Maryland House will vote on a plan to raise and reform the state’s gasoline tax. The plan is very similar to one proposed by Governor Martin O’Malley that our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), analyzed when it was released two weeks ago.

An updated chart from ITEP shows that Maryland’s flat gas tax has long been declining as inflation has chipped away at its value.  If the legislature does not raise the gas tax, ITEP projects that by 2014 Maryland’s gas tax rate will reach its lowest (inflation adjusted) level in 91 years. Only in 1922 and 1923 did Maryland levy a lower gas tax.

Moreover, the gas tax increase under consideration in the House, like the one proposed by the Governor, is actually very modest. The plan (which would tie the gas tax to both inflation and gas prices) would result in roughly a 12 cent increase by 2015. That’s significantly less than the nearly 16 cent increase that ITEP found would be needed to return Maryland’s gas tax to its purchasing power as of 1992, when it was last raised. Taking an even longer-term perspective, ITEP finds that Maryland’s inflation-adjusted gas tax rate has historically averaged 41.1 cents per gallon.  If the House plan is enacted, the inflation-adjusted rate over the next decade would average just 32.8 cents.



Earned Income Tax Credits in the States: Recent Developments, Good and Bad



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Note to Readers: This is the last in a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the past several weeks CTJ’s partner organization, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has highlighted tax reform proposals and looked at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country.

Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed effectively cutting taxes for moderate- and low-income working families through expanding, restoring or enacting new state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) (PDF). Unfortunately, state EITCs are also under attack in a handful of states where lawmakers are looking to reduce their benefit or even eliminate the credit altogether.

The federal EITC is widely recognized by experts and lawmakers across the political spectrum as an effective anti-poverty strategy. It was introduced in 1975 to provide targeted tax reductions to low-income workers and supplement low wages. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide EITCs modeled on the federal credit. At the state level, EITCs play an important role in offsetting the regressive effects of state and local tax systems.

Positive Developments

  • Last week, the Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee approved legislation to increase the state’s EITC from 7 to 20 percent. Committee Chairman Joe Bolkcom said, “This bill is what tax relief looks like. The tax relief is going to people who pay more than their fair share.”

  • The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently reported on the push to create an EITC and a poverty tax credit (PDF) in Hawaii. The story cites data from ITEP showing that Hawaii has the fourth highest taxes on the poor in the country and describes the work being done in support of low-income tax relief by the Hawaii Appleseed Center.  The poverty tax credit would help end Hawaii’s distinction as one of just 15 states that taxes its working poor deeper into poverty through the income tax.

  • In Michigan, lawmakers are looking to reverse a recent 70 percent cut in the state’s EITC.  That change raised taxes on some 800,000 low-income families in order to pay for a package of business tax cuts.  Lawmakers have introduced legislation to restore the EITC to its previous value of 20 percent of the federal credit, and advocates are supporting the idea through the “Save Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit” campaign

  • Pushing back against New Jersey Governor Christie’s reduction of the EITC from 25 to 20 percent, last month the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a bill to restore the credit to 25 percent. Senator Shirley Turner, the bill’s sponsor, said there was no reason to delay its passage as some have suggested because low-income New Jersey families need the credit now.  "People would put this money into their pockets immediately. I think they would be able to buy food, clothing and pay their rent and their utility bills. Those are the things people are struggling to do."

  • Oregon’s EITC is set to expire at the end of this year, but Governor Kitzhaber views it as a way to help “working families keep more of what they earn and move up the income ladder” so his budget extends and increases the EITC by $22 million. Chuck Sheketoff with the Oregon Center for Public Policy argues in this op-ed, “[t]he Oregon Earned Income Tax credit is a small investment that can make a large difference in the lives of working families. These families have earned the credit through work. Lawmakers should renew and strengthen the credit now, not later.”

  • In Utah, a legislator sponsored a bill to introduce a five percent EITC in the state. The bipartisan legislation is unlikely to pass because of funding concerns, but the fact that the EITC is on the radar there is a good development. Rep. Eric Hutchings said that offering a refundable credit to working families “sends the message that if you work and are trying to climb out of that hole, we will drop a ladder in."

Negative Developments

  • Last week, North Carolina Governor McCrory signed legislation that reduces the state’s EITC to 4.5 percent. The future looks grim for even this scaled down credit, though, since it is allowed to sunset after 2013 and it’s unlikely the credit will be reintroduced. It’s worth noting that the state just reduced taxes on the wealthiest .2 percent of North Carolinians by eliminating the state’s estate tax, at a cost of more than $60 million a year. Additionally, by cutting the EITC the legislature recently increased taxes on low-income working families, saving a mere $11 million in revenues.

  • Just two years after signing legislation introducing an EITC, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is recommending it be temporarily reduced “from the current 30 percent of the federal EITC to 25 percent next year, 27.5 percent the year after that, and then restoring it to 30 percent in 2015.” In an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant, Jim Horan with the Connecticut Association for Human Services asks, “But do we really want to raise taxes on hard-working parents earning only $18,000 a year?”

  • Last week in the Kansas Senate, a bill (PDF) was introduced to cut the state’s EITC from 17 to 9 percent of its federal counterpart. This would be on top of the radical changes signed into law last year by Governor Sam Brownback which eliminated two credits targeted to low-income families including the Food Sales Tax Rebate.

  • Vermont Governor Shumlin wants to cut the EITC and redirect the revenue to child care subsidy programs, a move described as taking from the poor to give to the poor. A recent op-ed by Jack Hoffman at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute cites ITEP Who Pays data to make the case for maintaining the EITC.  Calling the Governor’s idea a “nonstarter,” House and Senate legislators are exploring their own ideas for funding mechanisms to pay for the EITC at its current level.


State News Quick Hits: Tax Break Chaos in Georgia, Taxing the Poor in the Southwest, and More



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Need further proof that the poor are often taxed more heavily than wealthier folks? Take a look at this recent New York Times piece by sociologist Katherine Newman based on her book. She writes that “tax policy is particularly regressive in the South and West, and more progressive in the Northeast and Midwest. When it comes to state and local taxation, we are not one nation under God. In 2008, the difference between a working mother in Mississippi and one in Vermont — each with two dependent children, poverty-level wages and identical spending patterns — was $2,300.” Newman concludes with suggestions for offsetting the regressive impact of state taxes.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution is doing an investigative series on tax breaks and incentives, and here’s their latest article – a look into “the Georgia Agricultural Tax exemption program, [designed] to allow farmers and companies that produce $2,500 in agricultural services or products a year to receive sales tax breaks on equipment and production purchases.” What they found, however, is that construction firms, mineral companies, horse ranches and even dog kennels have applied for the breaks, along with hundreds of out-of-state businesses, with addresses as far afield as Texas and Colorado.” The newspaper found very few requests for this tax break were being rejected, and the governor is imploring businesses to police themselves. The newspaper concludes that it was the absence of clear criteria and lack of resources for screening and evaluating applications that’s resulted in the fiscal and logistical chaos.

Washington State lawmakers are trying to get a better handle on the numerous special tax breaks (PDF) being added to the state’s tax code every year. Under a bill that passed the state senate unanimously, new tax breaks would have to include a statement of purpose against which to judge their subsequent success, and an expiration date that would force lawmakers to vote on them again after a certain number of years.  Both of those reforms (along with others) have been recommended by our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick cited a recent report from ITEP’s “Debunking Laffer” series while testifying in favor of his proposed income tax increase: “Last month, the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy issued a report evaluating the economic growth per capita of several states. The report compared nine states with relatively high income taxes to nine states with low or no income tax. The analysis made clear that the nine states with “higher” income taxes actually saw considerably more economic growth per capita than the nine states with low or no income tax. The states with no income tax have seen a decline in median income.”



Missouri Gaining on Kansas in Race to the Backwards Tax Plan



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The Missouri Senate preliminarily approved legislation that would slash the state’s revenues because it is stacked with tax cuts. Though a preliminary legislative step, it’s worth noting that if the law does get implemented, restoring the lost revenues would be nearly impossible given Missouri’s constitutional amendment restricting tax increases. The bill, originating in the state Senate, cuts the top personal income tax rate, reduces corporate income taxes, offers a tax deduction for pass-through business income and increases the personal exemption. The only tax increase is in the sales tax, which is any state’s most regressive revenue source.  

This package is billed as Missouri’s answer to the radical tax package passed last year by Kansas Governor Brownback. Its sponsor explained, “I’m trying to stop the bleeding. I’m trying to stop the businesses from fleeing into Kansas,” and then invokes the kind of magical thinking that almost always results in a deficit. According to the Associated Press, State Senator Kraus predicted his plan would “create an economic engine in our state” that would generate enough new tax revenues to make up for the losses.”

But the revenue losses -- which are certain -- are not justified. A report from the Missouri Budget Project, Racing to the Bottom: Senate Gives Initial Approval to Extreme Tax Cut Bill Which Would Devastate Missouri Services, Infrastructure, and the State’s Economy, using Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) data helps show that the biggest beneficiaries of this tax package are the wealthiest 1 percent who have an average income of over $1 million, and who will see an average tax cut of $8,253 if the legislation becomes law. Middle income families would generally break even, but lower income Missourians would experience a tax increase.  

The Missouri Budget Project points out the obvious: “To truly compete with Kansas and other states, Missouri must invest in its quality of life and what families and businesses need to thrive: strong schools to educate our children and provide a skilled workforce, quality transportation to get to school and work and bring companies’ products to market, and safe, stable communities.”



Governor Christie Budget Plan Panned as Gimmick, His Tax Talk Called Puffery



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Conspicuously absent from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s new 2014 fiscal year spending plan were the across-the-board personal income tax cuts he defended so vehemently just last year.  Governor Christie now wants Garden State residents to believe Democrats in the legislature are to blame for the lack of promised tax relief.  But, the facts are that the state cannot afford a tax cut this year any more than it could last year, the Governor’s overly optimistic revenue growth projections notwithstanding.  

A new editorial from the New Jersey Star Ledger calls Governor Christie’s rhetoric “pure fantasy” and lays out the facts:

Gov. Chris Christie knows that New Jersey can’t afford a tax cut right now, so he didn’t include one in his budget plan.

But he also knows he can’t admit this if he wants to win a Republican presidential primary in 2016. So he made clear during his budget address Tuesday that he intends to campaign on the merits of an income tax cut this year anyway.

“I am content to let the voters decide this in November,” he warned Democratic legislators.

Here we go again. The governor even promised Democrats that if they agree to cut taxes this year, he will find a way to pay for it.

That’s a remarkable claim. Because he says he can’t afford to rescind the tax hike he imposed on the working poor, or restore the funding for the six Planned Parenthood clinics he shut down. He can’t afford to restore property tax rebates, as promised. He can’t afford to provide adequate funding for state colleges and universities, among the most starved in the nation. And he can’t replenish the fund for open-space purchases…

So the governor’s suggestion that he has a secret vault with enough money to finance a tax cut is pure fantasy. The income-tax cut he proposed would cost $1.4 billion a year when phased in, with the wealthiest 1 percent claiming almost half the benefit.

If the governor really campaigns on this, understand that is pure show. It is a pitch designed for national TV, where gullible hosts who don’t know New Jersey will no doubt bobble their heads some more. It is an act for the national audience, and New Jersey is his prop…”

If an unexpected revenue bump does come along, Christie’s tax cuts for the wealthiest cannot be where it gets spent. Instead, it should be used to reverse the Governor’s previous cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit, to restore property tax rebates he gutted and generally reinvest in programs that have been revenue starved since the Great Recession began.



Chart: Maryland Governor O'Malley's New Gas Tax Plan



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Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recently unveiled his plan to raise and reform his state’s gasoline tax.  Local TV stations predictably responded by interviewing drivers unhappy with the high price of gas, while (also predictably) failing to explain that Maryland’s gas taxes are not to blame for those high prices.

A new chart from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows that Maryland’s flat gas tax has long been declining as inflation has chipped away at its value.  If the legislature does not act on the Governor’s recommendation, ITEP projects that by 2014 Maryland’s gas tax rate will reach its lowest (inflation adjusted) level in 91 years.  Only in 1922 and 1923 did Maryland levy a lower gas tax.

Moreover, the gas tax increase proposed by the Governor is actually very modest.  The plan (which would tie the gas tax to both inflation and gas prices) would result in roughly a 9 cent increase by 2014.  That’s significantly less than the nearly 16 cent increase that ITEP found would be needed to return Maryland’s gas tax to its purchasing power as of 1992, when it was last raised.  Taking an even longer-term perspective, ITEP finds that Maryland’s inflation-adjusted gas tax rate has historically averaged 41.1 cents per gallon.  If the Governor’s plan is enacted, the inflation-adjusted rate over the next decade would average just 31 cents.



Two Cool New Tools Make Corporations a Little More Transparent



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PetersonPyramid.org

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), creator of the indispensible wiki, SourceWatch, recently launched a new wiki resource allowing users to explore the funding, leadership, partner groups and lobbyists that make up the Campaign to Fix the Debt. This resource reveals Fix the Debt for what it really is: another coordinated push by large corporations and billionaire Pete Peterson to force Congress to pass large and unneeded cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

We’d be remiss if we failed to also mention Fix the Debt’s naked duplicity in pushing for massive cuts to critical programs while simultaneously pushing for additional tax breaks for its many corporate backers.  Using data from Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), CMD exposes the audacity of some of 151 corporate backers of Fix the Debt by showing that many of them, such as Boeing, General Electric and Verizon, are already paying less than nothing in taxes.


Biz Vizz

371 Productions, the creator of the PBS documentary, “As Goes Janesville,” has launched a corporate transparency website and iPhone app called BizVizz, which provides consumers with easy access to financial information about America’s largest corporations. BizVizz uses CTJ’s corporate tax data to reveal that our broken corporate tax system allows the makers of many of our everyday products to get away with paying little – or sometimes nothing – in income taxes. One especially cool feature of the app allows the user to snap a picture of a product logo and get instant information on how much the company paid in federal taxes.

BizVizz includes other data, too. It shows how major corporations obtain their low tax rates because it includes data from the Sunlight Foundation on how much each corporation gave to politicians in campaign contributions. The other category of data BizzVizz includes is from Good Jobs First, listing subsidies corporations get from state and local governments – subsidies that come straight out of the tax dollars the rest of us pay in.



States with "High Rate" Income Taxes Are Still Outperforming No-Tax States



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Lawmakers looking for an excuse to cut their personal income taxes regularly claim that doing so will trigger an economic boom.  To support this claim, many cite an analysis by supply-side economist Arthur Laffer that our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), exposes as deeply flawed.

In States with “High Rate” Income Taxes are Still Outperforming No-Tax States, ITEP explains that Laffer uses cherry-picked data and simplistic comparisons to claim that the nine states without income taxes are outperforming states with “high rate” income taxes.  He goes on to suggest that the alleged success of those no-tax states can be easily replicated in any state that simply repeals its own personal income tax.

But ITEP shows that residents living in states with income taxes—including those in states with the highest top tax rates—are experiencing economic conditions as good, if not better, than in the no-tax states.  In fact, the states with the highest top income tax rates have seen more economic growth per capita and less decline in their median income level than the nine states that do not tax income.  Unemployment rates have been nearly identical across states with and without income taxes. 

As ITEP explains, Laffer’s supply-side claims rely on blunt, aggregate measures of economic growth that are closely linked to population changes, and the unsupported assertion that tax policy is a leading force behind those changes. Laffer chooses to omit measures like median income growth and state unemployment rates in his comparisons of states with and without income taxes, even as he cites these very same measures in his other studies, when the story they tell fits his preferred narrative.

Even more fundamentally, Laffer’s work falls far short of academic standards in that it completely excludes non-tax factors that impact state growth, including variables like natural resources and federal military spending (variables that Laffer himself has admitted to be important).  In the text of his reports, Laffer concedes that “the drivers of economic growth are many faceted.”  And yet when he constructs analyses designed to show the harm of state income taxes, somehow every non-tax “facet” happens to get left out.  Of course, more careful academic studies often conclude that income tax cuts have little, if any, impact on state economic growth.

Read ITEP’s report.



Front Page Photo of Arthur Laffer and Rick Perry via Texas Governor Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 



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.



It's a Fact: Undocumented Workers Pay Taxes



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After a year in which tax issues dominated national policy debates, President Barack Obama has signaled that immigration issues will be at the forefront of his legislative agenda in 2013. With immigration reform evidently gaining momentum, some old tax-related bugaboos are sure to resurface as the debate gets underway: in particular, some have argued that undocumented immigrants pay no taxes to states or to the federal government.

A couple of years ago, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) worked with the Immigration Policy Center to assess the truth of this claim. Our finding? Far from being tax avoiders, undocumented families pay many of the same regressive taxes that hit all low-income families at the state and local level. We estimated that nationwide, undocumented families paid about $11 billion in state and local taxes in 2010.

The main reason for this is that the sales and excise taxes that fall most heavily on low-income taxpayers don't depend on your citizenship status. Anytime you buy a cup of coffee, a pair of jeans or fill up your tank up with gas, you're paying state and local sales and excise taxes. There are also property taxes, including for renters, who pay them indirectly because landlords frequently pass some of their property tax bills on to their tenants in the form of higher rents. And, many undocumented taxpayers have state income taxes withheld from their paychecks each year.

The bottom line? Even if there were 47 percent of the population paying no taxes (and there isn’t), undocumented immigrants would not be among them. In fact, to find people who don’t pay taxes, take a closer look at the wealthiest among us.

 

 



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).



State News Quick Hits: ALEC Under Scrutiny, Closing Corporate Loopholes in DC, and More!



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A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) outlines the anti-tax agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and ALEC scholar and economist, Arthur Laffer.  It explains the multitude of problems with their policy recommendations and the so-called research they produce to make the case for those recommendations.  The CBPP report builds on the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) work debunking Arthur Laffer as it examines the “weak foundation of questionable economic and fiscal assumptions and faulty analysis promoted by ALEC and its allies.”

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute explains how closing corporate tax shelters has significantly improved the District of Columbia’s finances.  The city saw its strongest growth in corporate income tax collections in almost two decades, due in part to a reform called “combined reporting” (PDF) that makes it more difficult for companies to disguise their profits as being earned in other states, particularly those with low or no corporate income tax.

This Columbus Dispatch article cites academic research, policy experts and the Congressional Budget Office to examine Ohio Governor Kasich’s repeated assertion that tax cuts lead to jobs, including critiques that “when one dives deeper into the numbers, the correlation between income-tax cuts for small-business owners and more jobs is strained at best.”  The story also covers that larger supply-side economics debate, which the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has engaged with here and elsewhere.

Tax hikes on low- and moderate-income working families are under debate in both Vermont and North Carolina where lawmakers have proposed reducing the benefit of their states’ Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) (see this PDF on state EITC policy). Vermont’s Governor Shumlin wants to cut the EITC and redirect the revenue to child care subsidy programs. In North Carolina, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would cut the EITC from 5 to 4.5 percent of the federal credit and potentially let it expire altogether – a rejection of Washington’s recent five-year extension of a more robust federal EITC. A recent op-ed by Jack Hoffman at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute as well as a new brief from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center both cite ITEP’s Who Pays data to make a case for why each state should maintain its EITC.

North Carolina’s newly-elected Governor, Pat McCrory, is keeping everyone guessing about his plans for tax reform in the Tarheel State.  During his state of the state address this week, McCrory said tax reform would be a priority of his administration but was short on specifics, saying only that he wants to lower rates, close loopholes and make North Carolina’s tax code more business friendly. The state’s Senate leadership has been touting a plan to eliminate the personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with a higher sales tax and new business license fee.  It remains to be seen whether the Governor will follow the Senate’s lead or puts forth his own version of reform.



State Tax Proposals Worthy of the Word "Reform"



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Note to Readers: This is the fourth of a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the coming weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country. Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swap” and personal income tax cut proposals.  This post focuses on progressive, comprehensive and sustainable reform proposals under consideration in the states.

State tax reform proposals are not all bad news this year.  There are some good faith efforts underway that would fix the structural problems with state tax codes, rather than simply dismantling or eliminating entire revenue sources and calling it “reform.”  Proposals in Minnesota, Kentucky, Utah, and Massachusetts would improve the fairness, adequacy and sustainability of those states’ tax systems through various combinations of base broadening, tax breaks for low- and moderate-income families, and increases in the share of taxes paid by wealthy households. Other states to watch include Nevada, California, New York and Hawaii, though the specific proposals that will be considered in these states have yet to be fully fleshed out.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton recognizes that his state’s tax structure is in need of an overhaul and is looking at long-term solutions that will set the state’s revenues on a sustainable path now and in the future.  As he sees it, the current system is fraught with problems. It does not reflect the modern economy in many ways. It has shifted the responsibility for funding government to those with the least ability to pay. It is out of balance due to its heavy reliance on property taxes.  And, it is riddled with expensive and ineffective tax breaks that make the state’s revenues less sustainable.  Out of all the high-profile state tax reform plans unveiled this year, Governor Dayton has put forth the best example of a comprehensive and progressive tax reform proposal.  It will make Minnesota’s tax code more fair, adequate, and sustainable.  The Governor’s plan includes: broadening the sales tax base to services and using some of the additional revenue to lower the state’s sales tax rate; reducing property taxes; adding a new personal income tax bracket for the state’s wealthiest taxpayers; and closing corporate tax loopholes.  The plan also raises more than $1 billion a year to boost investments in public education and restore structural balance to the state’s budget.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signaled his support for overhauling the Bluegrass State’s tax code in his State of the State address in early February and indicated he would be looking to the recommendations from his appointed Blue Ribbon Tax Commission as a starting point for a proposal.  With a few exceptions, the Commission’s recommendations (released in December) were courageous and forward-looking, including a proposal to expand the sales tax base to services (PDF) while simultaneously adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (PDF) to offset the impact on low-income working families.  The recommendations also included broadening the personal income tax base by limiting itemized deductions for wealthy households, lowering the very large exclusion for pension income (and phasing it out for high wealth retirees), and lowering personal income tax rates.  Like the Minnesota plan, if taken as a whole, the Kentucky Tax Commission’s recommendations would shore up state revenues over the long term and more immediately raise revenue for current needs.

Utah lawmakers are looking at a proposal to raise the sales tax rate applied to groceries and couple that change with two new refundable credits to offset the impact on low- and moderate-income families: a food credit (PDF) and a state EITC (PDF).  While less comprehensive than the proposals under consideration in Minnesota and Kentucky, an ITEP analysis found that the Utah plan would reduce the regressivity of Utah’s tax code (PDF).  In other words, low-income working families would ultimately pay less of their income in taxes while upper-income families would pay slightly more.  Simply exempting food from state sales taxes (or taxing it at a lower rate) is a poorly targeted and costly policy that narrows the tax base and extends the break to wealthier taxpayers who don’t need it. Therefore, refundable credits of the kind Utah is considering are a smart, less costly alternative that can be designed to reduce taxes for specific groups of taxpayers in need of relief.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s FY14 budget included a tax package that will boost revenues now and in the future and make slight improvements to the fairness of the state’s tax system. While many governors this year are looking to replace progressive income taxes with regressive sales taxes, Governor Patrick wants the Bay State to do the reverse and rely more on the personal income tax and less on the sales tax.  His plan would raise the state’s flat personal income tax rate from 5.25 to 6.25 percent, double the personal exemption, and eliminate more than 40 personal income tax breaks that tend to benefit the wealthiest families.  The sales tax rate would drop from 6.25 to 4.5 percent and computer software, soda, and candy would be newly subject to the tax.  He also recommends a $1 increase to the cigarette tax. Governor Patrick’s plan would raise close to $2 billion when fully phased in. The Campaign for Our Communities coalition praised the proposal, saying that it “creates growth and opportunity through long-term investments in education, transportation and innovation funded by making our tax system simpler and fairer.”

 

 



Idaho Ponders Tax Break for a Company that Pays Nothing in State Income Taxes



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For months, Idaho lawmakers have been seriously considering repealing the personal property tax on business equipment.  If enacted, repeal would cost local governments and public schools over $140 million a year, and would likely force cuts in public services and increases in property taxes on other taxpayers.

The single biggest winner under repeal would be Idaho Power, held by IDACorp, which will reportedly see its taxes fall by $10.5 to $15.3 million per year if repeal is enacted.  A new report from our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), helps put this costly tax proposal into perspective by looking at the state income taxes being paid (or not) by the plan’s largest beneficiary.

According to IDACorp’s financial disclosures, the company earned $623 million in U.S. profits over the last five years (2007-11) but paid nothing in state income taxes to the states in which it operates.  In fact, the company’s effective state income tax rate across all states was actually negative.  IDACorp received $7 million in tax rebates from the states between 2007 and 2011, giving it an effective tax rate of negative 1.1 percent for the five year period as a whole.

The proposed repeal of the personal property tax in Idaho would leave the state corporate income tax as the main means by which companies like IDACorp contribute to the public investments that allow them to do business and generate profits. Before lawmakers take such a step, they should at least know whether the state corporate tax is working to begin with. In Idaho and virtually every other state, however, neither elected officials nor the tax-paying public have access to this kind of information. Obviously, they should (PDF).

Read the report



"Middle Class Tax Cut" Could Send Wisconsin Down Slippery Slope



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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Secretary of Administration, Mike Huebsch, caused a kerfuffle recently when he said that the Governor “is considering” eliminating the state’s income tax and replacing the revenue with a larger sales tax. This is not a new concept, but to say it’s a flawed approach to tax reform is an understatement.  “For the first time in, I would say the last 20 years,” said Huebsch, “this is getting much more discussion across the nation. And I think it’s being led by governors like Bobby Jindal in Louisiana who are trying to figure out ways that they can eliminate their income tax. That’s really the motivation here. They want to eliminate the income tax.”  

Emulating Governor Jindal would be misguided. An Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis found that Jindal’s proposal to eliminate income taxes and replace the revenue with higher sales taxes would actually increase taxes on the bottom 80 percent of Louisianans. Specifically, the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers, those with an average income of $12,000, would see an average tax increase of $395, or 3.4 percent of their income. The largest beneficiaries of his tax proposal would be the top one percent, with an average income of well over $1 million, who'd see an average tax cut of $25,423.

Since Secretary Huebsch’s comments, the Governor’s office has responded saying that Walker will propose a “middle class tax cut,” but not the complete elimination of the state’s income tax. For now, anyway.

The Governor’s spokesman did open the door to future, potentially more radical tax proposals when he said, “Governor Walker will propose a middle class income tax cut in the 2013-15 state budget. He considers this to be a down payment on continuing to drop the overall tax burden in Wisconsin in future years. He will review the impact of tax policy on job growth in other states as he considers future reforms."

Wisconsinites should know that a middle class tax cut is, like a Unicorn, commonly mentioned but rarely seen. While there are tax credits (like the making work pay credit and property tax circuit breakers(PDF)) that are genuinely targeted towards middle income families, a tax rate cut for middle income groups is almost always also a tax cut – and a bigger one, at that – for high income groups. That’s just how marginal tax rates work (and the reason across-the-board income tax cuts are such budget busters).

Income tax cuts and even elimination are practically epidemic this year. We’ll be watching to see if Governor Walker catches the bug, too. Meantime, he can already “review the impact of tax policy on job growth in other states” right here, and see that cuts do not, in fact, lead to growth.



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



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

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

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

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

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

 

Comprehensive New 50-State Study Provides Detailed Profiles and Comparisons of Tax Systems and Distribution Including “Terrible Ten” Most Regressive States

State tax systems take a much larger share from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families, according to the fourth edition of “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States,” released today by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  Combining all of the state and local income, property, sales and excise taxes state residents pay, the average overall effective tax rates by income group nationwide are 11.1 percent for the bottom 20 percent, 9.4 percent for the middle 20 percent and 5.6 percent for the top one percent. The report is online at www.whopays.org.

The ten states whose tax systems are tilted most heavily towards high earners (from most to least regressive) are Washington, Florida, South Dakota, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Alabama. In these states, middle-income families pay up to three times as high a share of their income as the wealthiest families; low-income families pay up to six times as much.

“We know that governors nationwide are promising to cut or eliminate taxes, but the question is who’s going to pay for it,” said Matthew Gardner, Executive Director of ITEP and an author of the study. “There’s a good chance it’s the so-called takers who spend so much on necessities that they pay an effective tax rate of 10 or more percent, due largely to sales and property taxes.  In too many states, these are the people being asked to make up the revenues lost to income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest taxpayers.” State consumption tax structures are particularly regressive, with an average 7 percent rate for the poor, a 4.6 percent rate for middle incomes and a 0.9 percent rate for the wealthiest taxpayers nationwide.

The income tax in particular is being targeted for elimination by self-described tax reformers across the country, and Who Pays? shows that of the ten most regressive states, four do not have any taxes on personal income, one state applies it only to interest and dividends and the other five have a personal income tax that is flat or virtually flat across all income groups.  “Cutting the income tax and relying on sales taxes to make up the lost revenues is the surest way to make an already upside down tax system even more so,” Gardner stated.

The data in Who Pays? also demonstrates that states commended as “low tax” are often high tax states for low- and middle- income families.  The ten states with the highest taxes on the poor are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Noted Gardner, “When you hear people brag about their low tax state, you have to ask them, low tax for who?"

The fourth edition of Who Pays? measures the state and local taxes paid by different income groups in 2013 (at 2010 income levels including the impact of tax changes enacted through January 2, 2013) as shares of income for every state and the District of Columbia.  The report is available online at www.whopays.org.

 



Arthur Laffer Promises Trickle-Down Prosperity, Again



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Lawmakers in North Carolina are looking seriously at repealing the state’s personal and corporate income taxes, and replacing them primarily with a larger sales tax.  As is often the case with plans to gut the income tax, the proposal is being sold as a way to “kick-start” the state’s economy.  In an attempt to bolster that argument, a conservative group in North Carolina called Civitas recently hired supply-side economist Arthur Laffer to write a report claiming that 378,000 new jobs and $25 billion in new income could be created through income tax repeal.  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic (ITEP) took a close look at the study and found that, as with Laffer’s previous work, the study is severely flawed to the point of making it entirely useless.  Among the study’s many flaws:

- Fails to control for a large range of important non-tax factors that affect state economic growth.
- Confuses cause and effect by assuming that recent declines in personal income were due to taxes rather than the Great Recession.
- Does not explain, or completely ignores, the economic impact of various tax changes it proposes to pay for income tax repeal.
- Cherry-picks blunt, aggregate economic measures in comparing state economies, and simply asserts that tax policy is the driving force behind these measures.
- Ignores the important role that public investments have to play in any successful state economy.

ITEP concludes that “In proposing a policy course that no state has ever taken—repealing the personal and corporate income taxes without a wealth of oil reserves to fall back on—ALME and the Civitas Institute have laid out an untested plan without any evidence that it will benefit the state’s economy.”

Read the full ITEP report

 



Beware The Tax Swap



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Note to Readers: This is the second of a six part series on tax reform in the states.  Over the coming weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends  that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This post focuses on “tax swap” proposals.

The most extreme and potentially devastating tax reform proposals under consideration in a number of states are those that would reduce or eliminate one or more taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing another tax.  We call such proposals “tax swaps.”  Lawmakers in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Carolina have already put forth such proposals and it is likely that Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia will join the list.

Most commonly, tax swaps shift a state’s reliance away from a progressive personal income tax to a regressive sales tax. The proposals in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Carolina, for example, would entirely eliminate the personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with a higher sales tax rate and an expanded sales tax base that would include services and other previously exempted items such as food.   

In the end, tax swap proposals hike taxes on the majority of taxpayers, especially low- and moderate-income families and give significant tax cuts to wealthy families and profitable corporations. For instance, according to an ITEP analysis of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s tax swap plan (eliminating the personal income tax and replacing the lost revenue through increased sales taxes) found that the bottom 80 percent of Louisianans would see their taxes increase. In fact, the poorest 20 percent of Louisianans, those with an average annual income of just $12,000, would see an average tax increase of $395, or 3.4 percent of their income. At the same time, the elimination of the income tax would mean a tax cut for Louisiana’s wealthiest, especially in the top 5 percent.  ITEP concluded that any low income tax credit designed to offset the hit Louisiana’s low income families would take would be so expensive that the whole plan could not come out “revenue neutral.” The income tax is that important a revenue source.


These proposals also threaten a state’s ability to provide essential services, now and over time. They start out with a goal of being revenue neutral, meaning that the state would raise close to the same amount under the new tax structure as it did from the old.  But, even if the intent is to make up lost revenue from cutting or eliminating one tax, these plans are at risk of losing substantial amounts of revenue due in large part to the political difficulty of raising any other taxes to pay for the cuts. Frankly, it’s taxpayers with the weakest voice in state capitals who end up shouldering the brunt of these tax hikes: low and middle income families.

Proponents of tax swap proposals claim that replacing income taxes with a broader and higher sales tax will make their state tax codes fairer, simpler and better positioned for economic growth, but the evidence is simply not on their side. ITEP has done a series of reports debunking these economic growth, supply-side myths. In fact, ITEP found (PDF) that residents of so-called “high tax” states are actually experiencing economic conditions as good and better than those living in states lacking a personal income tax. There is no reason for states to expect that reducing or repealing their income taxes will improve the performance of their economies; there is every reason to expect it will ultimately hobble consumer spending and economic activity.

Here’s a brief review of some of the tax swap proposals under consideration:

Last week Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman revealed two plans to eliminate or greatly reduce the state’s income taxes and replace the lost revenue by ending a wide variety of sales tax exemptions. ITEP will conduct a full analysis of both of his plans, though it’s likely that increasing dependence on regressive sales taxes while reducing or eliminating progressive income taxes will result in a tax structure that is more unfair overall.

If Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has his way he’ll pay for cutting personal income tax rates by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction and raising sales taxes. An ITEP analysis will be released soon showing the impact of these changes – made even more destructive because of the radical tax reductions Governor Brownback signed into law last year.

Details recently emerged about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s plan to eliminate nearly $3 billion in personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with higher sales taxes. ITEP ran an analysis to determine just how that tax change would affect all Louisianans. ITEP found that the bottom 80 percent of Louisianans in the income distribution would see a tax increase. The middle 20 percent, those with an average income of $43,000, would see an average tax increase of $534, or 1.2 percent of their income. The largest beneficiaries of the tax proposal would be the top one percent, with an average income of well over $1 million, who'd see an average tax cut of $25,423. You can read the two-page analysis here.

North Carolina lawmakers are considering a proposal that would eliminate the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenues with a broader and higher sales tax, a new business license fee, and a real estate transfer tax. The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center just released this report (using ITEP data) showing that the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers would experience a tax hike under the proposal. In fact, “[a] family earning $24,000 a year would see its taxes rise by $500, while one earning $1 million would get a $41,000 break.” The News and Observer gets it right when they opine that the “proposed changes in North Carolina and elsewhere are based in part on recommendations from the Laffer Center for Supply Side Economics.  Supply-side economics (or “voodoo economics,” as former President George H.W. Bush once called it) didn’t work for the United States…. We wonder why such misguided notions endure and fear where they might take North Carolina.”



Coming to a State Near You: Tax Reform That Might Get It Wrong



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Note to Readers: This is the first of a six part series on tax reform in the states.  Over the coming weeks, CTJ’s partner organization, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country.

Following an election that left half the states with veto-proof legislative majorities, 37 states with one-party rule and more than a dozen with governors who put tax reform high on their agendas, 2013 promises to be a big year for changes to state tax laws.

The scrutiny lawmakers will be giving to their state and local tax systems presents an extraordinary opportunity to assess and address structural flaws and ensure that states have the necessary revenue to provide vital public services now and in the future. Yet, it is already clear that “tax reform” for some state lawmakers may be little more than a vehicle for ideological goals like shrinking government spending or cutting taxes for profitable corporations and the wealthy.

Lawmakers in more than 30 states will take on taxes in some shape or form this year – at least 15 states are expected to consider a major tax overhaul (CA, IA, KS, KY, LA, MN, MO, NC, NE, NY, OH, OK, OR, VA, WI) and the list seems to grow by the week.

In the past week, Governors’ proposals in Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin have been taking shape and what we are seeing is not pretty. Tax cutting and wholesale elimination of the progressive personal income tax is high on these governors’ agendas, and North Carolina is likely to be the next state to join this list.

As a historic number of states gear up for major tax changes, we know that Grover Norquist, Arthur Laffer, and other anti-tax advocates will be making their case for less taxes, smaller government and a higher reliance on the sales tax.  There needs to be a real policy discussion in the states that helps people understand there’s a smart way to do tax reform, that it can’t just mean cuts or eliminating revenue sources, and that reform has wide ranging, long term consequences.

Enter the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), CTJ's partner organization. ITEP is closely monitoring tax reform proposals as they develop and will run them through the microsimulation model to see how proposed changes get distributed across different groups of taxpayers – who benefits and who doesn’t and by how much.

ITEP has identified several emerging trends and this series will examine and explain these five major kinds of proposals anticipated this year:

1) Proposals that would sharply reduce or eliminate one or more taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing another tax (“Tax Swaps”)

2) Proposals that would significantly reduce the personal income tax paid by individuals or businesses

3) Proposals to revamp gas taxes

4) Real tax reform- proposals that fix tax codes’ structural flaws rather than dismantling or eliminating taxes

5) Other tax reform ideas including reducing or eliminating property taxes and cutting business taxes





Previewing Tax Reform in the States: National Trends and State-specific Prospects for 2013



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Following an election that left half the states with veto-proof legislative majorities, 39 states with one-party rule and more than a dozen with governors who put tax reform high on their agendas, 2013 promises to be a big year for changes to state tax laws, and that could end up being a good thing. From the National Governors Association to the State Budget Crisis Taskforce, there is widespread consensus that most states have been patching and punting for too long and their tax systems are no longer able to provide adequate and sustainable revenue to deliver services that citizens rely on.

But it could also be a bad thing. As an historic number of states gear up for major tax changes, we know that Grover Norquist is targeting the states and Arthur Laffer is getting some new clients. There needs to be a real policy discussion in the states that helps people understand there’s a smart way to do tax reform, that it can’t just mean cuts, and that reform has wide ranging, long term consequences.

Enter the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), CTJ's partner organization. They hosted a phone briefing on December 19, 2012 outlining challenges and solutions with a focus on state tax fairness, and going into greater depth on fifteen states most likely to undertake major tax overhauls in 2013 (CA, IA, KS, KY, LA, MN, MO, NC, NE, NY, OH, OK, OR, VA, WI). As the new legislative sesions get underway, ITEP will be monitoring proposals as they develop and will run them through the microsimulation model to see how their costs and benefits get distributed across different groups of taxpayers.

Right now, however, you can read over the briefing materials and listen to the 30 minute presentation from ITEP's state policy experts. It's all at this link.



Taxpayer-Backed Sports Stadiums are a $31 Billion Rip-Off



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We’ve known for a while that government subsidies and tax breaks for sports stadiums are a raw deal for taxpayers. But a new book by Harvard University urban planning professor Judith Grant Long reveals that the costs are worse than we thought. According to Long’s book, Public/Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities, taxpayers spent over $31 billion in tax or direct subsidies for the 121 sport facilities in use in 2010, which is $10 billion more than the cost estimated by the industry itself.

Most of the difference between Long’s and industry calculations is explained by the industry’s failure to fully account for the cost of land, infrastructure, operations, and lost property taxes as part of the cost of stadium construction deals. When all factors are taken into account, cities bore, on average, 78 percent of the cost of the public-private (so-called) partnership stadium construction deals. Long found in some particularly egregious cases, such as Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium and Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, the public’s share of the cost actually surpassed the entire cost of building the stadium because of these unaccounted for external costs to the city.

What do taxpayers get in return for the billions they have to pay in subsidies? Not all that much, frankly. As the watchdog group Good Jobs First has chronicled, the costs of new stadiums do not pay off in terms of economic growth or job creation. The primary reason for this is that these entertainment venues tend to redirect consumer spending from other activities rather than generating entirely new economic activity. Even if you accept that new stadiums do generate some jobs (rather than just shifting those jobs from other industries), they aren’t any bargain considering that they can cost taxpayers as much as $200,000 per job “created.”

Just this week, the Miami Marlins reinforced every bad stereotype of sports teams acting in bad faith when it traded away its best players – and its National League competitiveness – in order to reduce salary costs. The trades were made in spite of the explicit promise by the team’s owner that he would spend whatever it took to build a power house team as part of a sweetheart deal that will end up costing taxpayers an astounding $2.4 billion.

With the case against subsidizing stadiums with public dollars growing ever stronger, lawmakers need to finally put a stop to this ludicrous form of corporate welfare.

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