Is a "No Income Tax Floor" the Best Approach to Tax Fairness? Lessons from North Carolina

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"People in poverty should not pay income tax in this state." It was North Carolina Governor Mike Easley who said it last week in his "State of the State" speech, but it's a sentiment that is widely shared by policymakers of all stripes around the nation. However, Easley's proposed remedy "a tax credit that eliminates all state income tax for some low-income families, and cuts the income tax bill in half for others" shows both the power and the limitations of this sentiment. A new report by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center (BTC) highlights the flaws in Easley's "no-tax floor". The main problem is that the proposed tax credit is non-refundable, which means it can be used to reduce income taxes to zero but can't be used to offset regressive sales and property taxes. As ITEP's Who Pays report has documented, these non-income taxes hit poor families far more heavily, on average, than does the income tax.

This fact may have been unclear to many initially when the proposal was presented. The governor's projections of the number who would be taken off the income tax rolls by his plan erroneously included the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who already pay no income taxes because of the standard deduction and personal exemption already in place.

As the BTC has also documented, there's a better answer for policymakers who are truly concerned about not taxing low-income families further into poverty: a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit. The goal of eliminating income taxes on poor families has gained heightened visibility in recent years, largely due to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' terrific annual report on this topic. Now, the BTC's work is prompting a healthy debate on how best to redress the inequities highlighted in the CBPP report.

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