Fiscal Year Finish Line Part I: Tax Cuts and Tax Shifts


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This is the first installment of our three part series on 2015 state tax trends.  The next article will focus on more positive developments: working family tax credits and revenue raising.  And the final article will discuss one of the most active areas of state tax policy in 2015: transportation funding initiatives.

Thumbnail image for finishline.jpgJuly 1st marked the end of most states’ fiscal years, the traditional deadline for states to enact new spending plans and revenue changes. The 2015 legislative sessions delivered lots of tax policy changes, both big and small. Some states finished early or on time, while others straggled across the finish line after knockdown budget battles. Still others are not yet done racing, operating on continuing resolutions until an agreement is reached. As of now, four states still do not have spending plans in place for the fiscal year that started July 1st (Illinois, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  Alabama has until October to reach a budget agreement). 

A number of states continued the troubling trend of cutting taxes for the wealthy while asking working families to pick up the tab. These tax shift proposals make state tax systems less fair and can contribute to budget shortfalls down the road. Tax shifts come in many forms, though a shift from income taxes to consumption taxes is the most common and most regressive example. Sadly, tax shifts are here to stay; Arizona, New Mexico, Georgia and West Virginia could all see new proposals surface in next year’s legislative sessions.

Several states enacted or considered tax cuts without balancing lost revenue with other tax increases. Instead, these states cut spending or used one-time surpluses to justify long-term changes. The overwhelming majority of these proposals reduce taxes for the best off while doing nothing or little for everyone else, making a regressive tax landscape even worse.

Check out the detailed lists after the jump to see which states enacted or attempted to enact new tax shifts and tax cuts this legislative session:

 

Tax Shifts

Kansas (Enacted): The tax debate in Kansas was watched more closely than in any other state this year. After promising that massive tax cuts would pay for themselves back in 2012 and 2013, Gov. Brownback and anti-taxers were forced to admit the “experiment” went too far. After high melodrama – Gov. Brownback tearfully urging lawmakers to vote for a sales tax hike, staunch anti-tax legislators breaking their anti-tax pledges, and lawmakers accusing Brownback of blackmail – state leaders passed a bill that increased taxes. Governor Brownback claimed that despite the increase, Kansans were still better off because of his earlier tax cuts. But an ITEP analysis revealed that talking point as fiction when it showed that lower-income taxpayers will be paying more than they did prior to Brownback taking office.

Ohio (Partially Enacted): Earlier in the year, Gov. Kasich proposed a large-scale tax shift which would have paid for significant personal income tax cuts with much higher sales taxes.  Legislators agreed to a budget with a net tax cut of $1.85 billion over two years focused just on cutting personal income taxes. The move is sure to make the revenue outlook worse in Ohio and will undermine investments in priority areas like education, infrastructure and healthcare. ITEP’s analysis of the compromise plan found that the top one percent of Ohio taxpayers will get half of the income tax cuts – an average annual tax break of $10,236 for those making $388,000 or more. Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers will see their taxes increase by an average of $20.

Maine (Partially Enacted): Gov. Paul LePage proposed a costly, sweeping tax shift package back in January that would have resulted in a significant shift away from progressive personal income taxes and toward a heavier reliance on regressive sales taxes.  While almost every Mainer would have received a tax cut under this plan, the benefits were heavily tilted in favor of the state’s wealthiest taxpayers. Thankfully, despite its flaws the final tax reform package passed by the legislature over the governor’s veto will actually improve the state’s tax code.  Among the major tax changes it includes are: lower income tax rates, a broader income tax base, new and enhanced refundable tax credits, a doubling of the homestead property tax exemption, an estate tax cut, and permanently higher sales tax rates. Maine will slightly shift its reliance away from its progressive personal income tax onto a narrow and regressive sales tax.  However, this plan is vastly different from other proposed and enacted tax shifts, as it reduces taxes for most low and moderate-income families and somewhat lessens the regressivity of the state’s tax code.

Mississippi (Failed): Legislators defeated efforts to pass significant tax shifts this legislative session. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’s proposal to cut income and corporate franchise taxes by $555 million over 15 years died in the House, while House Speaker Philip Gunn’s plan to phase out the state income tax died in the Senate. Opponents of the cuts noted that they would sap K-12 and higher education budgets while shifting the burden of funding crucial services to the local level.

Idaho (Failed): Thanks in part to ITEP’s analyses, legislators ended the session without enacting a regressive flattening of the state’s income tax. Had that proposal passed, it would have provided an average tax cut of nearly $5,000 per year to the state’s wealthiest taxpayers while raising taxes on most middle-income families. Instead, lawmakers agreed to simply raise the state’s gas tax by 7 cents (the first increase in 19 years) and boost vehicle registration fees by $21 without a corresponding tax cut.

Michigan (Still Active): In May, voters rejected a ballot proposal that would have raised sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and vehicle registration fees to pay for improvements to the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.  Since then, the Michigan House agreed to an alternative plan that would fund roads by repealing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), raising diesel taxes, indexing gas and diesel taxes to inflation, and transferring money away from other public services.  Fortunately, the most regressive component of this plan—repealing the EITC—was not included in the package passed by the state Senate.  But unlike the House, the Senate would implement a tax shift whereby a regressive gasoline tax hike is paired with a cut in the state’s income tax rate that would primarily benefit high-income taxpayers.  As of this writing, it is still unclear what, if any, compromise will be reached between the House and Senate.

North Carolina (Still Active): Lawmakers have reached a budget impasse (which seems to be a yearly ritual in the Tarheel state) and had to pass a stop gap spending measure to keep government functioning while they sort out their differences.  Several spending priorities are at the center of the House and Senate standoff as well as proposed tax changes included in the Senate budget: deeper cuts to the personal income tax, adding more services to the sales tax base, slashing the business franchise tax by a third, and additional corporate income tax cuts.  It will likely take North Carolina lawmakers months to sort out their differences.

Pennsylvania (Still Active): The budget showdown between Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature will continue through the summer. Stating that “the math doesn’t work”, Governor Wolf vetoed the entire budget lawmakers delivered to him in the final days before the start of the fiscal year.  Governor Wolf’s preferred budget included a property tax reform measure and additional spending for education (both paid for with higher personal income and sales taxes) and a new tax on natural gas extraction.  While Republican lawmakers also favor reducing (or even eliminating) school property taxes, there is no common ground on how to achieve that goal and most are adamantly opposed to a severance tax.  Lawmakers will begin to hammer out a compromise early next week and the government will operate in a partial shutdown mode until the state has a budget in place for the new fiscal year.

South Carolina (Failed): South Carolina lawmakers spent the majority of the session exploring ways to improve the state’s crumbling infrastructure while also cutting taxes. Needless to say, this effort sparked enormous debate across the state.  Three proposals were heavily debated: the Governor’s shift away from income taxes in favor of a higher gas tax, a House-passed plan that would have combined some tax increases with a much more modest income tax cut and a Senate Finance plan which would have increased revenues without an income tax cut.  Ultimately, however, the session ended with no income tax cuts, no gas tax hikes, and no progress toward a more adequately funded transportation network. 

 

Tax Cuts 

Arkansas (Enacted): Gov. Asa Hutchinson fulfilled his campaign promise of passing a middle class tax cut. The governor’s plan introduces a new income tax rate structure for middle income Arkansans.

Florida (Enacted): The legislature approved a $400 million package of tax cuts after the resolution of a deadlock over healthcare spending; Florida is expected to lose federal aid to state hospitals, and many lawmakers were reluctant to accept Medicaid dollars offered under the Affordable Care Act. In the end, the size of the tax cuts relative to those initially proposed by Gov. Rick Scott was reduced by almost half in order to cover healthcare costs. The package of cuts includes tax cuts for cell phone and cable bills, college textbooks, and sailboat repairs that cost more than $60,000.

Montana (Failed): The legislature failed to override Gov. Steve Bullock’s vetoes of multiple bills that would have cut personal income tax rates. Opponents argued that the state already faced a $47 million deficit and that the majority of the tax cuts would have flowed to the state’s highest-income taxpayers (a fact confirmed by multiple ITEP analyses). In explaining his veto, Gov. Bullock also made clear that “the experience of other states shows that decimating your revenue base to benefit large corporations and the wealthiest individuals does not work to stimulate the economy.”

Nebraska (Failed): Despite the large number and diversity of tax cut bills circulating in Nebraska this session, no significant cut was enacted.  However, that does not mean that the proposals are off the table.  Rather, expect the tax cutting debates to carry over into next session.

North Dakota (Enacted): For the ninth straight year, North Dakota lawmakers approved cuts to the state’s personal and corporate income taxes.  Starting next year, the corporate income tax rate will drop by 5 percent, and personal income tax rates will be reduced by 10 percent across the board. 

Rhode Island (Enacted): Middle- and upper-middle income older adults will now be fully exempt from paying taxes on Social Security income.  The exemption applies to Rhode Islanders age 65 and over with income below $80,000 (single) or $100,000 (married).  This tax break will largely benefit middle- and upper-middle income older adults since low-income seniors are already exempt from paying taxes on Social Security income in the state.

Tennessee (Failed): Efforts to repeal the Hall Income Tax failed again after the legislature did not act on two repeal measures before the close of session. The Hall Tax is a 6 percent tax on income from stocks, bonds and dividends that is the state’s only tax on personal income. A significant portion of the revenues raised by the tax supports county and municipal governments. Opponents of the Hall tax won a small victory, however, as they succeeded in increasing the exemption allowed for citizens over the age of 55.

Texas (Enacted): Lawmakers passed a number of new tax cuts this year. The first change, a $10,000 increase in the homestead exemption for property taxes, has been described as “the least-worst way to under-invest” since the homestead exemption is spread evenly across taxpayers and the bill will replace local property tax revenue with more state aid to schools. The second change, a cut in the business franchise tax rate of 25 percent, will cost the state $2.6 billion in revenue in a way that decidedly favors the wealthy and corporations.

 

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