It's probably not often that they are mentioned in the same breath, but both Hawaii and Vermont took steps this week towards using progressive tax increases to help close anticipated budget gaps. In the Aloha State, the Legislature approved a measure that, among other changes, would raise income tax rates for married couples with incomes over $300,000 (and for single people with incomes above $150,000). Governor Linda Lingle has already threatened a veto, but the Legislature may have the votes needed for an override.
The road ahead is a little less certain in the Green Mountain State. The House earlier this month passed legislation to raise additional revenue and the Senate is on the verge of doing so, but substantial differences will have to be resolved before any bill reaches the Governor's desk. The centerpiece of the House's approach is a temporary income tax surcharge that would last three years and that would raise rates by one-tenth of a percentage point for lower-income Vermonters and by one-half a percentage point for upper-income residents. Conversely, the Senate seeks to reduce income tax rates and to generate revenue for the state budget by boosting alcohol and tobacco taxes.
Hawaii and Vermont do share at least one thing in common -- a major flaw in their tax codes in the form of preferences for capital gains income. To date, Hawaii legislators have chosen to leave this flaw in place. Vermont's Senators would pare it back, but use the revenue resulting from such an improvement to reduce income tax rates, particularly for upper income taxpayers. Yet, as recent columns in the Honolulu Star Bulletin and Burlington Free Press observe, both states could improve tax fairness and their fiscal outlooks by repealing those preferences and devoting the funds directly towards deficit reduction rather than further tax cuts. For more on state tax preferences for capital gains income, see this report from ITEP.