What to Watch for in 2016 State Tax Policy: Part 1

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State legislative sessions are about to begin in earnest.We expect tax policies to get major playin statehouses across the nation this year with many states facing revenue surpluses for the first time in years and others having to grapple with closing significant deficits. Regardless, officials should focus on policies that create fairer, more sustainable state tax systems and avoid policies that undermine public investments.

ITEP this year once again will be taking a hard, analytic look at tax policy proposals and legislation in the states. This is the first in a six-part blog series providing analyses on the implications of policy proposals, as well as thoughtful commentary on best policy practices.

 Part 2: Revenue Surpluses May Prompt Tax Cut Proposals

In some states, economies have recovered well since the economic downturn, and lawmakers are considering spending surpluses on tax cuts instead of providing much-needed boosts to public investments that were scaled back during the recession. The economic recovery has been uneven, however, and some states that find their economies still struggling or newly sputtering may consider tax cuts on high-income residents under the misguided premise that tax cuts at the top trickle-down and stimulate economic growth.

One trend we expect to see is tax cuts that take effect in small increments over a very long period based on revenue performance or some other automatic "trigger." The effect of these incremental cuts is to push the brunt of revenue losses into the future. Another trend is to move toward single-rate income taxes, negating the chief advantage of the income tax: its ability to reduce tax unfairness by requiring people with higher incomes to pay higher rates and those with less income to pay lower rates. Keep an eye in 2016 on Georgia where there is a proposal to cut and flatten the income tax and then further reduce it in future years based on automatic triggers.

Part 3: Revenue Shortfalls Create Opportunities for Meaningful Tax Reform

A number of states including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, New Mexico, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming are grappling with current and future year revenue shortfalls. Pressed for revenue, we anticipate that some states may turn largely to spending cuts or more regressive and less sustainable tax options (like a small hike in the cigarette tax) to close their budget gaps. The scale of the problem in many of these states could also present a real opportunity for lawmakers to debate and enact reform-minded tax proposals that could raise needed revenue, improve tax fairness, and craft more sustainable state tax systems for the future. 

The most significant revenue downturns and best opportunities for reform are in states dependent on oil and gas tax revenue, most notably Alaska and Louisiana. Alaska Governor Bill Walker unveiled a proposal in December that would among other things bring back a personal income tax. Louisiana's new governor, John Bel Edwards, will call a special session next month to pitch short- and long-term revenue raising ideas, including much-needed reforms to the state's income tax. We are also watching Illinois and Pennsylvania where lawmakers are now more than seven months overdue on putting together a budget for the current fiscal year, largely over disagreements on how to find needed revenue to pay for public investments.

Part 4: Tax Shifts in All Shapes and Sizes

Tax shifts, which reduce or eliminate reliance on one tax and replace it with another source, are one bad policy idea we expect to continue to rear its ugly head. The most common tax shifts in recent years have sought to eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and make up the lost revenue with an expanded sales tax. Such proposals result in a dramatic reduction in taxes for the wealthy while hiking them on low- and middle-income households, increasing the unfairness of state tax systems and exacerbating already growing income inequality.

Lawmakers in Mississippi  and Arizona  have expressed support for lowering and eliminating income taxes. Changing political and revenue pictures in both of these states could lead to lawmakers finally making good on their promises in 2016. Also watch for smaller scale shifts like a plan in New Jersey where lawmakers want to pair a much needed increase in the state’s gas tax with an elimination of the estate tax to “offset” the tax hike.

 Part 5: Addressing Poverty and Inequality Through Tax Breaks for Working Families

In 2016, we expect states to focus on a range of policies to support working families, building off the momentum of their 2015 reforms and national dialogue on poverty and income inequality. In particular, developments to enact or improve state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) are likely in a dozen states across the country. For instance, Louisiana’s new governor John Bel Edwards called for doubling the state EITC as part of his commitment to reduce poverty. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, called to accelerate the planned EITC increase. Delaware lawmakers are looking to take a step forward by making the state’s EITC refundable, but unfortunately are also considering a drop in the percentage of the credit.

Tax breaks for working families may also appear as proposals to provide targeted cuts to offset regressive tax increases in states where lawmakers plan to raise revenue. We suggest also keeping an eye on working family tax break proposals in the following states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Part 6: Overdue Increases in Transportation Funding

The recent momentum toward improvements in funding for transportation infrastructure is likely to continue in 2016. Governors in states such as Alabama, California, and Missouri have voiced support for gasoline tax increases, and gas taxes seem to be on the table in Indiana and Louisiana as well. These discussions on a vital source of funding for infrastructure improvements are long-overdue, as many of these states haven’t updated their gas taxes for decades

But not all transportation funding ideas being discussed are worth celebrating. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, has proposed that additional infrastructure funding come from diverting significant revenues away from education, health care, and other services. Meanwhile, lawmakers in other states (Mississippi, New Jersey, and South Carolina) would like to leverage a gas tax increase to slash income or estate taxes for high-income households. While these plans would result in more funding for transportation, their overall effect would be to worsen the unfairness and unsustainability of these states' tax codes.

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