Enacting an income tax would obviously be a step in the right direction for states like Nevada, New Hampshire, and Florida, but it would only be the first step. As ITEP's latest policy brief explains, states' income taxes must also be progressive, in order to balance out the regressive impact of the other types of taxes that states levy, like sales taxes and property taxes. States that do not have a progressive personal income tax will find it nearly impossible, over the long run, to fund public services in a way that is sustainable and fair.
At the very least, this means states' income taxes should provide meaningful exemptions to poor taxpayers and use a graduated rate structure to ensure that the very wealthy are paying their share. Unfortunately, though, as a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents, some states with personal income taxes are actually taxing the poor deeper into poverty. In fact, the Center's report finds that, in 18 of the 42 states that levy income taxes, two-parent families of four with incomes under the federal poverty level actually paid state income taxes in 2007. It also finds that 15 states make single parents with two children living below the poverty line pay state income taxes.
There are some straightforward solutions to this. For example, 23 states and the District of Columbia offer earned income tax credits (EITCs) which reduce income taxes for poor families and sometimes provide a refundable credit that further offsets the regressive impact of other state taxes. Plenty of states with personal income taxes could also make their rate structures more progressive, which would ensure that high-income families pay a bit more, as a share of their income, than low- and middle-income families.
Also troubling is that some states that do the right thing and use fairly progressive income taxes -- such as Rhode Island and California -- are considering fundamental changes to those taxes. As ITEP's Jeff McLynch observes in yesterday's Providence Journal, policymakers in Rhode Island should be strengthening the progressive character of their state's income tax, rather than seeking to diminish it.