Last year, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed a regressive tax cut package passed by Republican lawmakers that would have cost the state $700 million annually. In his veto message the Governor called the legislation an “ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible experiment that would inject far-reaching uncertainty into our economy, undermine our state’s fiscal health and jeopardize basic funding for education and vital public services.” In a victory for tax justice advocates, his veto withstood an attempted override by the legislature.
But, last week, Nixon reached a flawed tentative agreement with Republican State Senator Will Kraus to reduce the top individual income tax rate by half of one percentage point, but only if certain budget conditions are met. Half of the tax cut is contingent on the state bringing in $200 million in revenue growth and fully funding the state’s schools. The other half would be triggered by legislation that lowers the cap on two tax credits: one for low-income housing development and the other for historic building preservation. If all the contingencies are met, the Governor’s proposal would cut taxes by roughly $400 million a year, less than half of what Republicans in the legislature are asking for ($928 million a year when fully phased in), but still a significant tax cut.
In terms of fairness, an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis published in a brief from the Missouri Budget Project (MBP) found that reducing the top rate to 5.5 percent overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest Missourians. In fact, ITEP found that 76 percent of the tax reduction would fall to the wealthiest 20 percent of Missourians. The impact by income group of this tax cut clearly illustrates that the wealthier do better under this proposal, Missourians in the top 1 percent, those with average incomes over $1.094 million – would receive a tax cut averaging $3,779 per year. In contrast, the average Missouri family with incomes from $33,000 - $52,000 would receive just a $47 tax cut per year, about enough to buy one hamburger each month. And the lowest income Missourians, those with incomes under $18,000, would get zero benefit.
In terms of adequacy, MBP rightly notes that over the long term there is no guarantee that school funding won’t be cut, “there are no ongoing protections for funding of public education.” There is a long history of states promising to hold services harmless and failing to do so.
Of course, there is a better way. Missouri’s Governor and lawmakers could work together to cut taxes for those who can least afford them and further invest in schools, healthcare and transportation by asking the wealthy to pay more. Let’s certainly hope this “deal” isn’t done.