Bad and Less Bad: Business Tax Cuts vs. Grocery Tax Cuts


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Some politicians in state capitals across the U.S. seem convinced that tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy are the best way to accelerate economic recovery. In two states, governors are proposing instead to cut taxes on groceries, which is a more effective, though not exactly flawless, way to help ordinary families. The tradeoff to any tax cut, of course, is unaffordable cuts to essential services including education, public safety, and health care.

In Wisconsin, state lawmakers agreed on a business tax cut that would add about $50 million to the budget deficit.  The Republican controlled legislature and newly elected Governor Scott Walker believe that the tax cuts will leave everybody with more money and leave the state with an improved economy.  Incredibly, Walker’s proposal rests on the assumption that the tax cuts will lure businesses away from Illinois, which recently saw an increase in its income tax, rather than fostering young, developing businesses. 

In Iowa, where a similar $300 million business tax cut is being discussed, critics of Governor Terry Branstad point out that essential social services are being axed in favor of pro-business policies.

In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is proposing to cut taxes on high-wage industries while further reducing funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, and K-12 education.  

Similar tax cuts are being proposed in New York, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. All of these plans prioritize tax breaks for business over providing essential services to those most affected by the economic downturn.  

The Governors of West Virginia and Arkansas have arrived at an entirely different tax-cutting proposal: reducing the sales tax on groceries.  Like lawmakers who support business tax cuts, Governors Tomblin and Beebe believe their brand of tax cuts will circulate quickly throughout the economy, providing necessary relief to the taxpaying public while stimulating the economy. 

Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas wants to cut the sales tax on groceries by a half-cent and has said it is the only tax cut he will consider this year.  In West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wants to reduce the grocery sales tax from 3 to 2 cents and would ultimately like to see it eliminated entirely.

While the proposals to cut the sales tax on groceries are a welcome development compared to proposed tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, there are still two problems with them. 

First and foremost, states are in dire need of revenue this year as they face the most significant budget challenge yet since the start of the recession.  Every dollar lost to a tax cut will have to be made up by an even deeper cut in spending. 

Second, reducing the sales tax on groceries is not the most targeted approach available to state leaders looking to support working families.  The poorest 40 percent of taxpayers typically receive only about 25 percent of the benefit from exempting groceries. The rest goes to wealthier taxpayers who can more easily afford to pay the sales tax on groceries. 

Enacting or increasing a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or other low-income refundable credit would be a more affordable and better targeted alternative to ensure that tax cuts reach low- and middle-income working families.  Tax cuts that directly benefit low-wage workers are especially beneficial to the general economy because low-wage workers immediately spend their refunds out of necessity.  By pumping the money back into the economy, the tax cut goes further in stimulating the economy than tax cuts for the wealthy or businesses.

Instead of pursuing tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, state lawmakers should be working to alleviate hardship on the most vulnerable.  Indeed, the governors in West Virginia and Arkansas may end up being much more efficient at helping their state economies rebound than the “business friendly" governors in Wisconsin and Iowa.

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