Sales Tax News

The Truth about Sales Tax Holidays

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Everyone loves a bargain, so it’s no surprise that sales tax holidays are hugely popular in the 17 states hold them.

Over the past few weekends, 13 states temporarily suspended their sales tax, and four more will do so in the coming weeks.  Most state sales tax holidays will coincide with back to school season, but a subset of these 16 states also hold separate sales tax holidays to help consumers save on purchases tied to hurricane and hunting season. State lawmakers reap public relations benefits from these “holidays”, and media tend to cover them favorably.

But taxpayers should look beyond political talking points, long lines and bargains. The truth about sales tax holidays is that they are a costly gimmick. While they may provide taxpayers some savings on necessary purchases, they are a distraction from the bigger picture problem with regressive state tax systems.

Virtually every state’s tax system takes a much greater share of income from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families. Nationwide, the poorest 20 percent of households pay more than 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes on average, compared to just 5.6 percent for the top 1 percent. States’ heavy reliance on sales taxes exacerbates this problem.

In theory, sales tax holidays should help mitigate this problem. But temporary reprieves from taxes on back to school items aren’t well targeted. In fact, temporarily suspending sales taxes often benefits wealthy families more than low- to moderate-income families.  Better-off families are positioned to time their big purchases to occur during sales tax holidays–a luxury that often isn’t available to folks living paycheck to paycheck. One recent study found that households earning more than $30,000 per year are more likely to shift the timing of their clothing purchases to coincide with sales tax holidays than lower-income households. Further, low-income seniors and families without children who have no need to purchase “back to school” items get nothing from sales tax holidays.

Another problem is sales tax holidays often apply to an arbitrary assortment of items that may have more to do with lobbying power than consumer needs.  Maryland, for example, continues to tax wedding veils, but it exempts bridal gowns and tuxedos during its sales tax holiday.  Diapers are also exempt, but don’t expect to buy any diaper bags or receiving blankets tax-free. In New Mexico, ice skates are taxed, but not ski boots; chalkboards are taxed, but not chalk or erasers.  In Texas, golf cleats and football pads are taxed but not swim suits or tennis shoes.

Sales tax holidays will collectively cost states more than $300 million this year. This is money states can ill afford to lose. The revenue lost through sales tax holidays will ultimately have to be made up somewhere else, either through spending cuts or increasing other taxes.

Instead of expending resources planning, promoting and implementing sales tax holidays, policymakers would do better to focus on long-term solutions with real benefits for working families.  They could implement policies such as sales tax credits for low-income taxpayers, expand or implement a state earned income tax credit, or permanently reduce sales taxes rates and shift toward a progressive personal income tax.

If lawmakers really want to help families’ bottom lines, they should look to these more thoughtful and permanent reforms.

Sales Tax Holidays = Not Worth Celebrating

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Consumers in 16 states this year will be given the opportunity to participate in a sales tax holiday (most of which will happen this weekend). These so-called holidays are a temporary break on paying sales tax on purchases of clothing, computers and other select items. These holidays are normally heavily promoted, but really they aren’t worth the hype. Sales tax holidays are poorly targeted, costly and represent a lost opportunity to get tax fairness right.

Sales tax holidays are advertised as a way to give people a break from paying the sales tax. On the surface, this sounds good given that sales taxes fall most heavily on low-income families. However, a two- to three- day sales tax holiday for selected items does nothing to provide relief to low- and moderate-income taxpayers during the other 362 days of the year. In the long run, sales tax holidays leave a regressive tax system basically unchanged. For more on why sales tax holidays aren’t all they're cracked up to be, read ITEP’s brief “Sales Tax Holidays: An Ineffective Alternative to Real Sales Tax Reform.”

Quick Hits, Redux: Bloody Kansas, Bleeding North Carolina

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More bad news for Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. In a stunning development, over 100 current and former Republicans endorsed Brownback’s Democratic challenger, Congressman Paul Davis. The group “Republicans for Kansas Values” includes state legislators, mayors and RNC delegates, among others. Dick Bond, former president of the Kansas state Senate, said “The decision to endorse a Democratic candidate for governor is a big step for all of us and a major departure from our Republican roots. We do not make this decision lightly. But this election should not be about electing a Republican or a Democrat as Governor. It must be about electing a moderate, commonsense Kansan as governor." The group opposes Brownback’s reelection for a number of reasons, including the deep tax cuts he spearheaded.

On Wednesday, the North Carolina Senate Finance Committee voted to cap county sales tax rates at 2.5 percent. If enacted, the proposal will prohibit Mecklenburg County (home of Charlotte) from moving forward with a planned November referendum to raise the county sales tax by 0.25 percent (the county already levies a 2.5% local sales tax). The additional revenue would help the county pay for teacher raises. The move comes at a time when the state is struggling to address a budget deficit and pay for teacher raises due to deep tax cuts passed last year. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that states have become more reliant on federal funds for infrastructure spending because they divert gas tax revenue away from roads and toward other uses. Some states, like Texas and Kansas, use gas tax revenue to fund education and healthcare programs. Others, like New Jersey and Washington, use revenues to service debt incurred by existing infrastructure projects. Congress recently approved a stop-gap measure to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money until May 2015.

Finally, a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives banning states from taxing internet access could cost New Mexico $44 million in tax revenue, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under current state law, New Mexico’s gross receipts tax affects both goods and services – including internet service. New Mexico is one of seven states that currently taxes internet access.

State News Quick Hits: Kansas Budget Woes, Absurd Ohio Tax Cuts

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In an astonishing shift, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has moved beyond calling his tax cuts a great “real live experiment” and is instead likening the state to a medical patient, saying, "It's like going through surgery. It takes a while to heal and get growing afterwards.” Clearly the Governor is feeling the heat of passing two years of regressive and expensive tax cuts. Here’s a great piece from the Wichita Eagle highlighting the state’s fiscal drama.

File this under absurd. Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed his most recent tax cut bill at a food bank touting tax cuts to low-income taxpayers included in the legislation, but in reality the bill actually doesn’t do much to help low-income taxpayers. In fact, the poorest 20 percent of Ohioans will see an average tax cut of a measly $4, hardly enough to buy a box of cereal, while the wealthy will be showered with big tax breaks.

Faced with a giant budgetary hole, New Jersey lawmakers are being offered two very different solutions: State Sen. Stephen Sweeney’s proposed “millionaire tax” and Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to renege on earlier promises to adequately fund the state’s beleaguered pension system. Critics of the governor’s plan argue that Christie is failing to honor the state’s promise to make bigger payments to the pension fund as part of a 2010 agreement, which also required beneficiaries to contribute more in an effort to shore up the fund. Sweeney would instead impose higher tax rates on those earning more than $500,000 to bridge the gap - a proposal that Christie already has vetoed several times but is supported by a majority of voters.

The three Republican candidates running to replace Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (she is not running due to term limits) are campaigning on promises to eliminate the state’s income tax. But, Gov. Brewer has made it clear she does not support such extreme ideas. From the Arizona Daily Star: “I think that you need a balance,” she said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. Beyond that, Brewer said it’s an illusion to sell the idea that eliminating the state income tax somehow would mean overall lower taxes. She said the needs remain: “It’s going to come from all of us, one way or the other.”


Tax Policy and the Race for the Governor's Mansion: Wisconsin Edition

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Voters in 36 states will be choosing governors this November. Over the next several months, the Tax Justice Digest will be highlighting 2014 gubernatorial races where taxes are proving to be a key issue. Today’s post is about the Wisconsin race.

During his first term in office,  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker passed three rounds of property and personal income tax cuts, and now he is on the campaign trail touting the so-called benefits.

But the truth is that Gov. Walker’s tax cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Wisconsinites while lower-income people received little to no benefit. The Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP), using ITEP data, concluded that Gov. Walker’s tax cuts will give the bottom 20 percent – those earning an average of $14,000 a year – an average tax break of just $48 in 2014. In contrast, the top 1 percent of earners, or those whose average income is $1.1 million, will receive an average tax cut of $2,518.

If Gov. Walker is re-elected, tax cuts will likely remain a priority. He’s already pledged that property taxes won’t increase through 2018.  Even more worrisome, Gov. Walker has said he wants to discuss income tax elimination. While telling voters that he’d like to eliminate their state income tax bills may sound good on the campaign trail, Wisconsinites should know that most taxpayers, especially middle- and low-income households, will pay more under his plan. An ITEP analysis found that if all revenue lost from income tax repeal were replaced with sales tax revenue the state’s sales tax rate would have to increase from 5 to 13.5 percent.  ITEP also found that the bottom 80 percent of state taxpayers would likely see a net tax hike if the sales tax were raised to offset the huge revenue loss associated with income tax elimination.

Challenger Mary Burke, a Trek Bicycle Corporation executive and former state Commerce Department secretary, has yet to put out her own tax plan, but she recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 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 asked specifically about her tax plan she remained vague, “My focus would be tax cuts targeted to the middle class and working families instead of breaks to businesses and those at the top that don’t create jobs….I’m particularly concerned about the very high property taxes across the state.”

As with every election, there’s a lot at stake in the upcoming Wisconsin governor’s race. Tax revenue funds every level of government not to mention vital programs and services. Low- and middle-income Wisconsinites pay a disproportionately higher percentage of their income in state taxes than the rich. Voters deserve to know details about each candidate’s plan for the state. In the coming months, let’s hope Burke provides more details about her tax plan, especially since the direction Gov. Walker wants to take the state seems particularly clear.  


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report

State News Quick Hits: 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.”

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.  

    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.  

Governor Walker's 13.5% Problem

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants 2014 to be a year of discussion about the pros and cons of eliminating Wisconsin’s most progressive revenue sourcesthe corporate and personal income taxes.  But Wisconsinites may not need a full year to see the folly of this approach.

It took mere months for Louisiana and Nebraska to abandon their misguided efforts toward income tax elimination. And the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently found that if Wisconsin were to go this route, the state sales tax rate would need to rise to a whopping (highest in the nation) 13.5 percent if cuts in public investments are to be avoided. Wisconsin taxpayers will likely come to the conclusion rather quickly that nearly tripling their sales tax rate isn’t in their best interest.

In terms of how this sort of shift would affect real Wisconsinites, this post from the Wisconsin Budget Project sums it up: “Governor Walker’s Tax Shift Plan Would Raise Taxes for Most.” In fact, ITEP found that the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution would likely see a net tax hike if the sales tax were raised to offset the huge revenue loss associated with income tax elimination.

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.

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, 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 and’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.

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."





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.

Washington Post Owner Jeff Bezos Does Not Believe in Taxes

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The news that Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of, 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 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 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 

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

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Throughout most of its existence, online retailer 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.

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.

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.


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.

Jindal Leaves Inconvenient Details Out of His Tax Plan

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal today announced some details of his long-awaited “tax swap” plan. He proposes to repeal the state’s personal and corporate income taxes in a “revenue-neutral” way—that is, the revenue loss from repealing these taxes would have to be entirely offset by tax hikes in other areas.

We know the Governor’s so-called reform plan would increase the state sales tax rate from 4 to 5.88 percent—which in local-tax-heavy Louisiana means the average combined state and local sales tax rate statewide would shoot up from about 8.75 percent to a whopping 10.6 percent.

Since the sales tax rate hike would only pay for about a third of the revenue lost from repealing the income and corporate taxes, Jindal’s plan also relies heavily on expanding the state sales tax base to make up the remaining difference. Acccording to the Governor, he’d do it by eliminating close to 200 currently-existing sales tax exemptions. Jindal would also raise the cigarette tax by over $1 per pack.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the plan (which was the case with his earlier plan, too). Jindal has said he will provide tax relief to seniors and low-income families to offset the impact of these potentially huge sales tax hikes. But how that would be implemented—and, critically, how much it would cost—remains unknown.

Still, the specific details we’ve heard so far are enough to raise several important concerns about the plan’s plausibility—and its impact on tax fairness and sustainability if it is enacted.

Eliminating sales tax exemptions is perhaps the most politically difficult tax reform challenge for state lawmakers – as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is the most recent to discover. Sure, every state tax commission for decades has identified expanding the sales tax base, mainly to services that account for more consumer dollars every year, as a way of making the sales tax a more sustainable revenue source for the long haul. But the fact is that the potentially devastating impact of this move on low-income families, coupled with the entrenched opposition of lobbyists for the many industries that would be newly taxed under these proposals, have generally meant that these proposals die a quick death in legislatures.

And even if the Louisiana Legislature could achieve what virtually no other state has ever done—wiping the slate clean by broadly erasing sales tax exemptions from the books—it seems inevitable that the plan as a whole would result in a massive tax shift onto middle- and low-income families—and a giant tax cut for the best-off Louisianans. Unless, that is, Louisiana is prepared to enact a low-income tax credit, one so generous it would dwarf anything offered by other states. But it appears that Governor Jindal's plan would only provide a tax rebate only to families earning less than $20,000, which does nothing to offset the sales tax increases facing a large group of middle-income Louisianans.

In recent months, Jindal has also made it clear that his motivation for this tax plan is to be more “competitive” and more like Texas and other “low tax” states. (Never mind that Texas is a high tax state for its poorest residents.)  Jindal has bought into a talking point crafted by Arthur Laffer (and disseminated by groups like ALEC and the Tax Foundation) about job growth resulting from low taxes.  But Laffer’s argument is a house of cards, entirely unsupported by the evidence, as ITEP has shown.  Early news reports of Jindal’s plan are that anti-tax groups love it and it boosts his odds of getting the Republican presidential nomination. But unless a tax plan is well received by ordinary constituents and boosts the state’s odds of economic success, it isn’t worthy of the word “reform.”

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.



Quick Hits in State News: Wisconsin's Income Gap, the Brownbacks' Values Gap

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Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback has been appointed an unofficial advisor to a task force addressing childhood poverty in the state. The Hays Daily News predicts that this could lead to some uncomfortable conversations between Governor Sam Brownback and his wife, especially regarding the tax package he recently signed into law that raised taxes on low-income families. The editors suggest, “[m]aybe the first lady can ask why the governor and state legislature agreed to an unprecedented reduction in income tax rates while at the same time eliminating various tax credits, such as the food sales tax rebate and breaks for child care and renters.”

Monday was the biggest day ever for online shopping. “Cyber Monday” shoppers spent 30 percent more this year than last. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association and other brick-and-mortar business groups used Monday’s online shopping surge to remind shoppers and policymakers alike that sales taxes should be collected on Internet purchases just as on items purchased in traditional stores: “The tax is supposed to be paid. If someone orders something from an online retailer or a catalog retailer that doesn’t collect the tax, the customer owes the money to the state.”

It appears that the gap between Wisconsin’s rich and poor continues to widen. The bottom two fifths of the state’s residents actually saw their incomes decline while the top fifth – and especially the top one percent – saw theirs climb over the last 25 years. One solution to this problem, identified by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Wisconsin Budget Project, is to reform the state’s regressive tax structure because currently, “state and local taxes in Wisconsin increase income inequality rather than reduce it.”

A recent policy brief from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center identifies eight strategies to rebuilding the state’s economy. One of the goals identified is implementing a “Productive, Equitable Revenue System” through modernizing the tax structure and making it more fair. Washington has the most regressive state tax structure in the country; low income people pay far more of their income in taxes compared to wealthy Washingtonians. If state policymakers want to rebuild their economy, improving their tax structure is a good place to start.

Governor Brownback Considers Sales Tax as Band-Aid for Broken Budget

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When Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a $4.5 billion (over six years) tax cut package ealier this year, he told Kansans, “I think we are going to be in good shape.” He promised tens of thousands of new jobs and insisted “[w]e will meet the needs of our schools ... Our roads will be built.”  But after claiming as recently as July that the state was in “an excellent fiscal position,” the Governor is conceding that even across-the-board spending cuts may not be enough to make up for the massive revenue losses (projected to be $2.5 billion over six years) from these tax cuts – that will go disproportionately to the state’s most affluent.  

The Governor received national praise from conservative quarters for the tax package he signed into law in May. The plan included income tax rate reductions, elimination of several low-income credits, completely eliminating taxes on some business income, and was supposed to put the state “on a road to faster growth.” But the reality is that tax cuts cost money and Governor Brownback is now indicating he is open to a sales tax hike to pay for them.

The current 6.3 percent sales tax (a temporary revenue fix from 2010) is scheduled to drop back to 5.7 percent in July.  The Governor’s own original tax package, proposed in January, would have permanently held that sales tax rate steady, and thus cost much less than the tax legislation he eventually signed.  His plan was also seriously flawed: the bottom 80 percent of Kansas taxpayers would have seen a tax hike under the Governor’s plan because it reduced reliance on the state’s income tax in exchange for a higher sales tax. But once again, Governor Brownback finds himself relying on a higher sales tax (even though he ran against it in his 2010 campaign) because of income tax cuts that gut his state’s budget.  He rationalizes the need for a sales tax increase by saying, “There's going to be a two-year dip. That's the nature of these, when you cut taxes. If you cut them right, you get growth on the other side, but there's a dip first."

Unlike a progressive income tax, sales taxes (PDF) require low and middle income taxpayers to pay more of their income in taxes than wealthier taxpayers. This way of handling what Brownback euphemistically calls a “dip” that results from radical tax cuts actually falls hardest on the Kansas families who can least afford it.

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