2016 State Tax Policy Trends: Budget Surpluses and Misguided Economics Drive Calls for Tax Cuts


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This is the second installment of our six part series on 2016 state tax trends.  An overview of the various tax policy trends included in this series is here

A number of states are experiencing much-welcome revenue surpluses this year, but some lawmakers in these states seem to have already forgotten the fiscal pain of the Great Recession, during which revenues plummeted and many states cut back investments in their schools, roads, and other vital services. Rather than take this opportunity to recompense for those cuts and/or re-stock their Rainy Day Funds, lawmakers in some states are considering tax cuts that would further erode their revenue streams.

Even states that are not enjoying surpluses and find their economies still struggling or newly sputtering are still hearing calls for tax cuts on high-income residents under the misguided premise that tax cuts at the top trickle down and stimulate economic growth.

Here's a list of states we are watching in 2016:

Florida: In Florida, an expected revenue surplus is bringing tax cut proposals out of the woodwork. Gov. Rick Scott has called for about $1 billion in cuts, mostly through a $770 million tax giveaway that completely eliminates the corporate income tax for manufacturers and retailers. The House has its own $1 billion plan that includes some elements of the governor's plan, such as continuing a sales tax exemption for manufacturers, and adds a number of other components, including a litany of gimmicky (and generally ineffective) sales tax holidays for everything from guns and fishing poles to computers and tablets. Members of the state Senate have called these massive tax cut plans "ridiculous" and "laughable." Meanwhile, the revenue forecast on which these plans are based has been revised downward by $400 million, though even that may not dampen the tax cut fervor in Florida. With the Florida legislature in a short, 60-day session, we should learn more about the Senate's plans soon, and the debates will play out in February and early March.

Idaho: Idaho finished last year with a budget surplus but may not be so lucky this year, as revenue estimators have recently revised their forecast downward. Yet despite this news and the fact that Idaho is already a relatively low-tax state, a tax cutting effort is proceeding in the Legislature. That proposal would reduce personal income tax rates for Idahoans in the top two income brackets, cut the corporate income tax rate, and provide a small increase in the state's grocery tax credit. A recent report using an ITEP analysis shows that these changes would be skewed in favor of the highest-income Idahoans.

Maryland: Maryland faces a budget surplus of $450 million as well as a surplus of tax cut proposals. Gov. Larry Hogan's plan would accelerate a scheduled increase in the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a smart policy that delivers assistance to the low-income working families who need it most and are most likely to put the money back into the economy. But Hogan's EITC proposal accounts for just $16 million of his $480 million plan. Much of the rest is either unfocused, like the $100 million tax exemption for elderly Marylanders regardless of their need, or unproductive, like the easily abused 10-year tax hiatus for certain manufacturers. Meanwhile, others in the state have recently called for regressive and costly cuts to the corporate income tax and estate tax.

New York: Tax cut debates are active in New York as well. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed tripling (from 5 percent to 15 percent) a tax exemption on "pass-through" income earned by businesses that pay personal income tax instead of corporate income tax. His plan would also expand eligibility for that exemption to include more businesses and would eventually lower the tax rate paid on that income to 4 percent. Meanwhile local entities, including New York City, feel the state has already gone too far in pushing costs onto the local level, a development that has contributed to high local property taxes. Those local officials are pushing for the state to find ways to increase its investments in local communities and statewide infrastructure. In fact, the mayor of Syracuse is advocating for tax increases on New York's wealthiest residents to fund a better system of aid to local schools.

Virginia: Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe, too, is proposing tax cuts (PDF). His proposed package includes removing businesses with sales between $2.5 million and $25 million from the state's accelerated sales tax; reducing the corporate income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.75 percent; increasing income tax exemptions; increasing existing tax credits for angel investors, research and development, and neighborhood assistance; and creating three new credits. The largest piece of the proposal is the corporate tax cut, a change that will reduce funding available for vital public services, primarily benefit large profitable corporations, and have negligible effects at best on Virginia's economy.

Other states to watch: Minnesota, another state currently enjoying a surplus, may see tax cut efforts but as in New York there will be strong competition from others who feel the state has more pressing needs to address such as broadband access, transportation, and career and technical education. In Ohio, where some major tax cuts enacted in recent years are only now taking effect, some lawmakers may push to reduce taxes even further. Rhode Island is another state where there may be efforts to slash taxes on its wealthiest residents this year, similar to a push that took place last year (PDF).

Trigger Warning

Putting our state tax systems on cruise control might sound like a nice idea, but the reality is very different. Imagine if our cars automatically let a little bit of air out of the tires each time we sped up. Before long, we'd all be driving on flats and would have no way to get back up to speed after a slowdown (not to mention the state our roads would be in!). Yet that's what policymakers in many states are proposing to do to their tax systems by implementing automatic tax cut "triggers" that reduce taxes whenever economic tailwinds give the state a boost. Such trigger proposals hamper states' ability to save for the inevitable rainy day, and leave their budgets even further underwater when that day does come (not to mention the state their roads will be in!).

Georgia: Georgia is the latest state to consider such a trigger-based tax cut. In addition to legislation that would immediately increase personal and dependent exemptions, eliminate many itemized deductions, and convert the state's graduated rate structure to a flat 5.4 percent rate, a proposed constitutional amendment would then lower that to 5 percent when revenues and reserves hit specified targets.

Nebraska: In Nebraska a trigger bill introduced last year remains in committee and could re-emerge. That proposal could take many years to reach full implementation but nonetheless would be dramatically tilted in favor of high-income Nebraskans and put a major hole in the state's budget.

Another state to watch: Indiana: While not a "trigger" proposal, Indiana is an example of a state where some are trying to pass tax cuts now that don't take effect until future years, often a way of scoring immediate political points while pushing the difficult budget-balancing decisions into the future. Under the proposal, the state's income tax rate would drop from 3.23 percent to 3.06 percent, but not until 2025.

And Speaking of Driving on Flats

Another very troubling trend is that many of these proposals are efforts to abandon progressive income taxes -- in which rates go up as income goes up -- in favor of single-rate "flat" income taxes. State and local tax systems already lean more heavily on low-income families than their higher-income neighbors, and moving to flat taxes would only exacerbate this unfairness. The Georgia proposal linked above, as well as a question that may be put to voters in Maine, both aim to flatten their states' income taxes.

Up Next

If you found these tax cut updates deflating, be sure to tune in to the rest of our 2016 Trends series, in which we'll try to pump you back up with some examples of states considering more meaningful and positive tax reforms.

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