Louisiana: Nearly to Stelly and Back


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Policymakers in Louisiana this week took one of the final steps towards enacting an unfair and unaffordable personal income tax cut. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives unanimously approved SB 87, a measure that would repeal one more element of the landmark 2002 Stelly Plan, returning the level at which a married couple's income becomes subject to the state's top income tax rate of 6 percent from $50,000 to $100,000. (Single people will also derive some benefits from the bill, as it would push back the start of their top bracket from $25,000 to $50,000.)

As new reports from the Louisiana Budget Project (LBP) and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) show, however, SB 87 not only ignores the Bayou State's perilous long-term fiscal condition, but also the impact of its current tax system on low- and moderate-income Louisianans. While Louisiana may be temporarily flush with revenue due to escalating oil prices, as LBP points out, general fund revenue is expected to decline by 1.5 percent on average over the next four years; indeed, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana further notes, "even if oil prices remain high, state revenues are projected to drop by $377 million from 2009 to 2010". Cutting personal income taxes by $300 million or so, as SB 87 would do, would only add to Louisiana's long-term fiscal woes.

SB 87 also directs the vast majority of its benefits to the most affluent taxpayers in the state, when those taxpayers already pay a much smaller portion of their incomes in taxes than working Louisianans do. Roughly 75 percent of the tax cut that would be spawned by SB 87 would go to the wealthiest fifth of Louisianans, while taxpayers in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution would see virtually no change in their taxes. Conversely, as ITEP's latest analysis demonstrates, the poorest 40 percent of non-elderly Louisianans paid upwards of 12 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in 2006, while the very best-off one percent paid the equivalent of just 6.4 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes. Of course... and leaving questions of fiscal responsibility aside -- far more progressive options for cutting taxes (such as reducing Louisiana's sales tax rate or lowering its bottom income tax rate) were available to the members of the Louisiana House, if only they had chosen to pursue them.

The House's version of SB 87 must now be reconciled with the version passed by the Senate earlier this year, but few should expect this to improve the measure any. The version passed by the Senate ultimately would have repealed the income tax in its entirety, making the House's approach seem positively responsible and equitable in comparison.

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