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State Rundown 4/1: Foolish Games


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown! Here's a sneak peek:  New York lawmakers reach agreement on a $4 billion per year income tax cut. Connecticut lawmakers want to repeal their estate tax despite a major budget deficit. Oklahoma lawmakers are dragging their feet on tax increase proposals to close the state's billion-dollar shortfall. Missouri's Senate passes a gas tax increase for the first time in decades but the state House and voters will have the final say.

-- Carl Davis, ITEP Research Director


 

Last night, New York's legislative leaders agreed to a plan to cut personal income taxes by $4 billion per year. The plan, which is being described as geared toward taxpayers earning between $40,000 and $300,000 per year, will be phased-in between 2018 and 2025. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the plan "is not being paid for" since its delayed start date pushes its cost outside of the current budget window. A previous proposal championed by Democratic members of the Assembly would have combined $450 million in tax cuts for middle and working-class families with a tax increase on millionaires. Additionally, a group of 40 New York millionaires recently petitioned the state government to raise their taxes, saying they were "deeply concerned that too many New Yorkers are struggling economically, and the state’s ailing infrastructure is in desperate need of attention.”

Despite a looming budget deficit, some Connecticut lawmakers are pushing for repeal of the state's estate and gift taxes. If the taxes are repealed, the result would be a major giveaway to the state's wealthiest families at a time when the legislature's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projects a $2 billion revenue shortfall over the next biennium. Proponents of repeal argue that the tax encourages well-heeled Nutmeggers to flee to more welcoming climes, but research shows that tax flight is largely a myth. Opponents of repealing the estate tax argue that the state's tax system has favored the wealthy for decades, and that the hundreds of millions in revenue the tax generates annually are a lifeline for crucial public services. The estate tax is expected to bring in $217 million in FY 2017, and applies only to estates worth more that $2 million.

Legislators in Oklahoma are squeamish about tax increases during an election year, despite the state's budget woes and the advocacy of Gov. Mary Fallin. Many legislators are dragging their feet on considering the governor's proposed tax increases or bond issues until they know if they'll face opposition. Fallin has made a number of suggestions to close the $1.3 billion budget gap, including an increase in the per-pack cigarette tax and expanding the sales tax base to include some currently-exempt services. Without new revenue, state agencies could face cuts of 15 percent or more next fiscal year. Some lawmakers argue that increasing regressive sales and cigarette taxes makes no sense when the legislature recently cut taxes on income and oil and gas production by billions of dollars.

The Missouri Senate approved an increase in the state's gasoline excise tax for the first time in almost 20 years. The current rate of 17-cents-per-gallon is among the lowest in the country. The Senate would increase the tax by 6 cents to 23-cents-per-gallon, and the new revenue would pay for road and bridge projects. The plan would also require voters to approve the measure at the ballot box. The tax increase now moves to the Missouri House, where it is expected to face opposition.


If you like what you are seeing in the Rundown (or even if you don't) please send any feedback or tips for future posts to Sebastian Johnson at sdpjohnson@itep.org. Click here to sign up to receive the Rundown via email.


2016 State Tax Policy Trends: States Considering Raising Revenue in Both Big and Small Ways


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This is the third installment of our six part series on 2016 state tax trends.

Significant revenue shortfalls and the desire to increase funding for public education and other public investments are spurring lawmakers in more than 16 states to consider revenue raising measures both big and small this year.  The need to raise a significant amount of revenue, due either to dips in oil and gas tax revenue or ongoing budget impasses, will provide an opportunity to overhaul upside-down and inadequate tax systems with reform-minded solutions.

A new report from the Rockefeller Institute (PDF) quantified what we all instinctively already know--states with a heavy dependence on revenue from natural resources suffer when oil and gas tax prices tumble.  Revenues dropped by 3.2 percent between September 2014 and 2015 in Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming while the other 42 states experienced a combined growth in revenues of more than 6 percent. So, it should be no surprise that some of the biggest revenue challenges in the country are found in these energy dependent states, many of which shortsightedly reduced or even eliminated reliance on broad-based taxes during their "boom" years.  Of this group, Alaska and Louisiana are of particular interest as both states will explore transformative changes to their tax systems.

More than seven months into the current fiscal year, Illinois and Pennsylvania are still working without budgets, or much needed new revenue, in place. We will be watching both states closely this year for proposals that will finally help to break the stalemates.  And, many other states including Connecticut, and Vermont have lingering revenue problems leftover from the recession that will require lawmakers to take a hard look at their state tax systems to avoid yet more spending cuts. 

On a brighter note, not all of the anticipated revenue raising in the states this year will happen in response to revenue crises.  There are a number of efforts across the country to raise new revenue for much needed investments in public education, health care and transportation.  Voters in California, Maine, and Oregon will be asked to support higher taxes on the wealthy or corporations at the ballot in November and a similar effort could make it onto the ballot in Massachusetts in 2018.  Lawmakers in New York and Utah have filed bills to increase taxes on their states' wealthiest residents to allow for more revenue for public investments.  Even South Dakota is considering raising revenue--lawmakers from both parties want to increase the state's sales tax in order to pay for teacher salary increases (a regressive choice, but one of the few options available in a state that does not have a personal income tax). 

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

Alaska

Alaska sticks out like a sore thumb compared to all of the other states with natural resource dependent economies experiencing revenue shortfalls.  The state has no personal income tax or sales tax to turn to in times of crisis and more than 90 percent of state investments are funded via taxes on the energy sector.  (Alaska is the only state to ever repeal a personal income tax and has been without one for 35 years.)  Thus, there are few options short of drastic measures to plug a growing budget gap of more than $3.5 billion.

Gov. Bill Walker proposed a plan in December that would, among other things, institute an income tax equal to 6 percent of the amount that Alaskans pay in federal income taxes and cut the annual dividend paid out to every Alaska resident.  Other lawmakers have discussed enacting a state sales tax.  No matter the outcome of the debate in the Last Frontier State this year, one things is for certain -- lawmakers in other states that are interested in cutting or eliminating their personal income taxes must now think twice before holding up Alaska as a model for what they would like to achieve.

California

Back in 2012, California voters soundly approved a ballot measure, Proposition 30, that raised more than $6 billion in temporary revenue via a small hike in the sales tax and higher taxes on the state's wealthiest residents.  The revenue raised from the measure helped get the Golden State back on its feet following the Great Recession and has allowed lawmakers to make much needed investments in education and health care.  Now there is an effort afoot to place a new question on the ballot this coming November to extend the income tax changes (higher brackets and rates on upper-income households) through 2030 with the revenue going largely towards expanding and sustaining investments in public education.

Illinois

More than seven months into the fiscal year, Illinois continues to operate without a budget in place because Gov. Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers are still battling over the best way to address the state's massive $6 billion revenue shortfall.  Revenues are short largely due to a 25% income tax cut that took effect the beginning of 2015, leaving the state on even rockier fiscal ground. Democrats have proposed some tax increases, but the governor says he will not consider revenue raising proposals until lawmakers agree to his so-called "pro-business" reforms. 

Louisiana

Louisiana faces a current year shortfall of $750 million as well as a $1.9 billion hole next year thanks to anemic oil and gas revenues and the nearsighted tax policies (all cuts and no investments) of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.  Lawmakers will get to work post- Mardi Gras celebrations on a plan to address the state's immediate and long-term revenue problems.

The state's new leader, Gov. Jon Bel Edwards has proposed a number of revenue raising options including much needed reforms to the state's personal and corporate income tax.  But, given that most reform options would take time to implement and that the state has an immediate need for cash to plug the current year gap, he is starting with a call for a one cent increase in the state sales tax (an approach the governor has conceded is less than ideal).  Gov. Edwards'  more long-term solutions to Louisiana's structural budget problems come with a focus on the income tax -- specifically calling for the elimination of the federal income tax deduction as a reform-minded idea that would raise much needed revenue and improve tax fairness. 

Maine voters will likely have the opportunity in November to approve a ballot measure that would raise more than $150 million in dedicated revenue for the state's public schools. Under the initiative, taxpayers with $200,000 or more in income would pay a 3 percent surcharge on income above that amount.  The campaign behind the measure, Stand Up for Students, has collected well above the threshold of needed signatures to qualify for the ballot, but the question along with others must still be certified by the state.

Massachusetts

The Raise Up Massachusetts coalition is behind an effort to create a millionaires tax, dubbed the "fair share amendment", in the Bay State.  Due to the lengthy ballot process involved, the question will not go before voters until 2018, but the campaign is already in high gear. They have collected the needed signatures to move forward and last month the initiative won overwhelming approval from the Legislature's Committee on Revenue.  If approved by voters in 2018, taxpayers with incomes over $1 million would pay an additional 4 percent on that income on top of the state's flat 5.1 percent income tax.

New Mexico

Gov. Susana Martinez continues to stand by her no-new-taxes pledge despite a growing revenue problem in her state, but that has not stopped other lawmakers from filing bills to increase taxes. Proposals have been introduced to delay the implementation of corporate income tax cuts enacted in 2013, raise gas taxes, and increase personal income tax rates.

New York

The New York Assembly unveiled  a proposal to raise taxes on millionaires and cut taxes for working families. Under the proposal, individuals earning between $1 million and $5 million would pay a tax rate of 8.82 percent on that income. Income between $5 million and $10 million would be taxed at 9.32 percent, and income over $10 million would be taxed at 9.82 percent. If enacted, the tax plan would raise $1.7 billion in revenue to increase spending on public education, and infrastructure projects . The plan also includes tax cuts for New Yorkers earning between $40,000 to $150,000 and an increase the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break targeted to low-income working families.

Oklahoma

Gov. Mary Fallin recently unveiled a revenue raising package relying heavily on regressive cigarette and sales tax increases to plug the state's more than $900 million shortfall.  The governor deserves some kudos for recognizing her state's revenue problem needs a revenue-backed solution.  However, it should be noted that the state has cut the personal income tax by more than $1 billion since 2004, including a more than $140 million cut that went into effect at the start of the year despite the state's revenue woes. Other than a proposal to eliminate a truly nonsensical income tax deduction, her plan mostly ignores income tax options.  Raising significant new revenue from sales and cigarette taxes will continue to shift more of the state's tax reliance onto low- and moderate-income Sooner taxpayers, especially if some lawmakers succeed in their wish to eliminate the state's 5 percent Earned Income Tax Credit.  Without this targeted tax break for low-income working families, the kinds of revenue raisers being discussed would certainly exacerbate tax inequality in the state.   

Oregon

An Oregon ballot initiative, sponsored by Our Oregon, would create an additional minimum tax on corporations with Oregon sales of at least $25 million (a 2.5 percent tax would apply to sales in excess of $25 million). If the initiative wins approval, it would raise close to $3 billion annually in new revenue for public education and senior health care programs. Currently, corporations doing business in Oregon pay the greater of a minimum tax based on relative Oregon sales or a corporate income tax rate of 6.6 percent on income up to $1 million and 7.6 percent on income thereafter.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania government continues to operate more than 7 months into this fiscal year without a budget (there is an emergency funding budget in place that is more than $5 billion less than the proposed budget).  Yet, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to propose a budget for next fiscal year on February 9th.  An ongoing disagreement on revenue raising measures and spending priorities between the governor and House and Senate lawmakers explain the hold up and several compromise budget and tax plans last summer and fall failed to gather enough support to break the impasse.  The situation is reaching crisis stage as the state now faces a $2.6 billion structural revenue gap and cannot continue to operate much longer on emergency funding if there are no longer enough revenues coming in to fund core government services.  Gov. Wolf is likely to try yet again to solve the problem with a balanced revenue proposal including income and sales tax increases and a new severance tax. 

South Dakota

South Dakota lawmakers led by Gov. Dennis Daugaard are proposing a 0.5 cent increase in the state's sales tax that will raise more than $100 million annually.  Most of the revenue will be used to increase teachers' salaries, a long sought after policy goal in a state that ranks 51st in teacher pay.  Democrats are proposing a similar measure, but their plan would first remove food from the state's sales tax base and then raise the rate by a full cent.  While both measures fall more heavily on low-income households, the Democrats' proposal is slightly less unfair (although it raises more revenue) since taxes on food hit low-income households especially hard.  South Dakota is one of nine states without a broad-based personal income tax, so their options for a more progressive tax increase are limited.

Utah

Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis has proposed adding two new brackets with higher rates to his state's flat income tax to raise revenue for public education.  Taxpayers with income greater than $250,000 would pay more under his plan.  Dabakis argues that the state's flat tax is a "disaster" and is largely to blame for the underfunding of K-12 schools.

West Virginia

Just a few short months ago, we were watching West Virginia for a large-scale tax reform package that would have likely reduced reliance on the state's personal income tax.  But now that the state faces a revenue shortfall of more than $350 million this year (and more than $460 million next year), attention has turned to options for filling the gap.  As in Louisiana, past tax cuts are as much to blame for the state's revenue woes as the hit to the state's coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's budget proposal included higher taxes on tobacco and adding cell phone plans to the state's 6 percent sales tax that together would raise around $140 million when fully implemented.

Other States to Watch: While governors in Vermont and Connecticut have said no to raising taxes to address budget gaps, lawmakers in those states are likely to challenge those sentiments and propose reform-minded tax increases that ask the wealthiest residents in their states to pay more. And Iowa lawmakers are considering a series of bills to increase the state's sales tax to pay for everything from school construction to water quality projects and transportation infrastructure. 


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.


GE's Move to Boston Fueled by Hospitable Business Environment Not Tax Rates


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Ending months of media speculation, General Electric announced this week that the company will relocate its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to Boston, Mass.The company’s press release announcing the move explained that its choice is driven by amenities Boston and the state of Massachusetts offer, including its “diverse, technologically fluent workforce” and its emphasis on research and development.

Conspicuously absent from the announcement is any reference to tax-related reasons for the relocation. Earlier this year after the Connecticut legislature marginally increased business taxes, GE threatened to move and anti-tax advocates wrongly held up the state’s tax increases as a cautionary tale. GE’s choice of Massachusetts (New York was the company’s other consideration), hardly a tax haven for footloose corporations, demonstrates that a wide variety of factors, not simply the lowest tax rate, determine where businesses will locate. Boston and runner-up New York are recognized as centers of commerce and innovation. As GE said in its own press release, it chose Boston as its new corporate headquarters because of the broader “ecosystem” it offers.

It should be noted, however, that the biggest winner in this move is GE, not other taxpayers. The company has long been spectacularly successful in avoiding state income tax obligations as a Connecticut resident. In 2014, the company enjoyed $5.8 billion in pretax profits and didn’t pay a dime in state income tax on these profits. Over five years, the company paid just a 1.6 percent state income tax rate on $34 billion in U.S. profits, and it paid less than 1 percent in federal income taxes. The company is one of the nation’s most notorious tax dodgers.  

These hard facts haven’t stopped idle speculation over the role of recent Connecticut tax changes in prompting the move. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt fanned the flames when he wrote a memo earlier in 2015 complaining about tax changes enacted by the state legislature last year. But it’s unlikely that these changes really factored into the company’s decision. After all, the “combined reporting” changes corporate lobbyists in Connecticut complained most vocally about have been in place in Massachusetts since 2008. Moreover, the Connecticut Legislature quietly enacted special new tax breaks for GE in November, and the company itself has been very clear that “GE's move is not being driven by tax policy. It's being driven by a major change in GE's strategy.” Further, the company’s press release admits that corporate leaders had “been considering the composition and location of its headquarters for more than three years,” long before Connecticut’s recent corporate tax changes saw the light of day.  

Long-time business leader Michael Bloomberg said that “any company that makes a decision as to where they are going to be based on the tax rate is a company that won’t be around very long.” General Electric’s latest announcement strongly suggests that tax rates weren’t even a blip on the radar in the company’s relocation move. 


Connecticut Lawmakers Cave to Threats from General Electric Yet Again


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Connecticut lawmakers earlier this year passed a budget with more than $1 billion in new revenue, including increased corporate taxes, to plug a budget gap and ensure the state has resources to make needed investments in education, transportation and health care.  In late June, Gov. Dannel Mallow called lawmakers back to the capital for a special session, essentially caving to notorious tax dodger General Electric (GE) and other corporations' demand that the state pare back just enacted tax chages. The most significant change enacted in the special session was a delay in the start date for combined reporting. Combined reporting requires a multi-state corporation to add together the profits of all of its subsidiaries, regardless of their location, into one report for tax purposes. Connecticut Voices for Children puts it this way:

 “Combined reporting is an essential policy aimed at preventing corporations from using accounting gimmicks to shift profits actually earned within their borders to states and foreign countries where they will be taxed at lower rates or not at all.”

This week, the governor and legislature once again put GE’s interests over the health and well-being of the state’s residents.  Due to underperforming personal income tax collections, the state faces a projected $350 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year and another $552 million in the next fiscal year.  To close the current year gap, the legislature voted this week to cut early-childhood programs, conservation efforts, and medical services for inmates. But, it also agreed to spend money to cut corporate taxes including modifying combined reporting requirements and changing how some corporate deductions can be claimed.

The new corporate tax changes are largely seen as an effort to keep GE headquartered in the state.  But not surprisingly GE hasn’t committed to staying put and news leaked this week they may be considering a move to Boston. Since Massachusetts also requires multinational corporations to file combined returns, this latest news would suggest that Connecticut is being played by GE executives.  


State Rundown 9/3: Back to School, Back to the Drawing Board


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The Texas Supreme Court this heard oral arguments in a school finance case regarding recession-era education budget cuts. In 2011, the Texas Legislature cut K-12 education spending by $5.4 billion and per-pupil spending declined by more than 8 percent. More than 600 school districts sued the state, arguing that the cuts make it impossible to meet minimum education standards and that funding is inadequate and unfairly apportioned. Over the past four years, the state has restored about $5 billion in funding, but District Judge John Dietz still sided with the plaintiffs, declaring that the funding system is unconstitutional. The state then appealed the case. Texas, which has no income tax, relies on local property taxes to fund its public schools. In 1993 the legislature passed the “Robin Hood” plan, which mandated some revenue sharing between wealthy and poor school districts.

The latest group to be fed up with the interminable budget impasse in Illinois is credit rating agency Moody’s, which said that the stalemate is a sign of “weak governance.” Moody’s warned Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers that failure to reach an agreement by late September would turn a projected deficit of $5.14 billion into an actual one. Moody’s suggested that raising the income tax would be the most logical solution, as the state “has the economic capacity to absorb higher income tax rates. It is one of only eight states that levy a flat individual income tax. Among those states, Illinois’ current rate is comparatively low: the average among these states is 4.4%, compared with 3.75% in Illinois.” Increasing the personal income tax by 1 percent and the corporate income tax by 1.5 percentage points would generate approximately $2.4 billion in additional revenue.

Michigan group Citizens for Fair Taxes is fighting for a ballot initiative that would increase the state corporate income tax rate from 6 percent to 11 percent, a change they say would bring in $900 million annually for public roads and reverse the tax shift from businesses to working families begun under Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011. About one-third of Michigan businesses are subject to the corporate income tax. If the group collects 253,000 signatures, the proposal would go before the legislature. If the legislature fails to act or votes down the proposal, it will be put to the voters on the November 2016 ballot.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy is fighting to keep GE headquarters in the state after the company threatened to move. Some state leaders want to repeal the combined reporting requirement just enacted as part of the tax package supporting the two-year budget in June. Malloy is working with officials to create a sweetheart package of tax incentives to keep GE in the state. The move comes after GE used its political clout to force the legislature into special session this June, after the tax package narrowly won legislative approval despite business objections. Numerous studies have shown that taxes are not the primary driver behind business relocation decisions, but GE and other business still use the threat of relocation to wring concessions out of state and local governments.

Speaking of dubious tax claims, Art Laffer urged West Virginia leaders to slash income taxes to stimulate economic growth, weeks after the state’s commerce secretary said taxes were a non-issue in business relocation decisions. The secretary stated that West Virginia’s uneducated workforce was a larger factor in attracting new companies to the state. Unmoved by facts, Laffer told the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce that lower taxes and a reduced social safety net would result in more growth: “If you tax rich people and give money to poor people, you're going to get lots and lots of poor people and no rich people.” Laffer’s remarks were praised by Senate President Bill Cole, who said, “There's no question in my mind that, by itself, it could be the single biggest and largest economic driver that this state has ever seen. I think he's spot on. I think, virtually, everything he's said has proven itself out in history.” Clearly Sen. Cole has never been to Kansas.

A recent op-ed in The Huntsville Times outlines how Alabama legislators could reform the state’s tax system without constitutional amendments. The four proposals outlined would reform the state’s business privilege tax by reducing rates for small businesses and increasing them on large multinational businesses, require combined reporting on corporate income tax forms, increase the cigarette excise tax, and transfer use tax revenues to the General Fund. Author Carol Gundlach of Arise Citizen’s Policy Project says these reforms would avoid harmful cuts to Medicaid, prisons and mental health being considered by legislators.

 

Do you have a hot state tax tip? Send it to sdpjohnson@itep.org for the next State Rundown!

 

This is the second installment of our three part series on 2015 state tax trends.  The first article focused on tax shifts and tax cuts, and the final article will discuss transportation funding initiatives.

finishline.jpgJuly 1 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 1 (Illinois, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  Alabama has until October to reach a budget agreement).  

While every state’s tax system is regressive, some states chipped away at this problem by enacting new tax policies to support working families. Most commonly, states adopted or strengthened their Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs). But a number of proposals to enact or improve tax credits for working families stalled, including bills in Mississippi, Louisiana and Nebraska. There is still a chance that Illinois could improve its state EITC before the end of its legislative session.

In addition to policies supporting working families, a number of states, facing deep budget deficits, discussed or enacted revenue-raising plans this year. These plans will also help the public by supporting crucial services.

Check out the detailed lists after the jump to see which states created new tax policies to support working families and which states increased taxes to raise needed revenue.

 

Wins for Working Families

California (Enacted): Lawmakers reached a deal with Gov. Jerry Brown, passing a $115.4 billion budget that includes a new EITC for working families. This new EITC is worth approximately $380 million and is expected to help 2 million Californians. 

Hawaii (Still Active): Assuming Gov. David Ige signs a bill approved by the state’s legislature, most low-income families receiving the state’s refundable food tax credit will see their credit grow somewhat starting in 2016.  The credit is designed to offset highly regressive sales taxes on food in a state that ITEP has ranked as having higher taxes on the poor than anywhere except Washington State.

Massachusetts (Enacted): Massachusetts lawmakers included an increase in the state’s refundable EITC from 15 to 23 percent of the federal credit in their final budget agreement.

New Jersey (Enacted): The legislature increased the state EITC to 30 percent of the federal credit after a surprise endorsement from Gov. Chris Christie. As New Jersey Policy Perspective notes, the increase will help more than 500,000 working families and boost the state economy: “It’s been estimated…that the EITC has a multiplier effect of 1.5 to 2 in local economies – in other words, every dollar of tax credit paid ends up generating $1.50 to $2 in local economic activity.”

Rhode Island (Enacted): As part of the budget deal, Rhode Island lawmakers approved an increase in the state’s refundable EITC from 10 to 12.5 percent of the federal credit. 

Maine (Enacted): The final budget package approved by lawmakers converted the state’s nonrefundable 5 percent EITC to a refundable credit and introduced a new refundable sales tax fairness rebate, which will help to offset the impact of higher sales tax rates also included with the budget.

New York (Enacted):  Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Assembly, and the Senate all proposed separate versions of a refundable property tax credit this session – some more targeted than others.  In the closing days of the session, lawmakers agreed to a compromise credit that is a sliding scale percentage of homeowners’ STAR property tax exemption, with benefits targeted to low- and moderate-income homeowners.  The credit is unavailable to homeowners with income above $275,000, and those residing in New York City or other jurisdictions that do not comply with the state’s property tax cap.  Unfortunately, the final agreement did not include any support for renters.

 

Significant Revenue Raising:

Alabama (Still Active): Lawmakers left their regular legislative session without a budget—or a needed revenue raising plan—in place (their fiscal year starts Oct. 1, so they are working on borrowed time).  Gov. Robert Bentley proposed a $541 million revenue package earlier in the year, including a higher cigarette tax, higher sales taxes on car purchases, and enacting combined reporting under the corporate income tax.  Unable to reach agreement on which taxes to raise and by how much to raise them, lawmakers sent the governor a budget with no new revenues, which he swiftly vetoed.  Lawmakers reconvened briefly on July 13 to receive Gov. Bentley’s latest revenue raising proposal that would raise more than $300 million: eliminating a state deduction for social security payroll taxes (only taken by lawmakers), a 25-cent cigarette tax increase, and a few small business tax changes.  His proclamation also suggested lawmakers could consider a soda tax as an alternative to eliminating the payroll deduction.  Lawmakers are expected to review the revenue changes over the next three weeks and will meet again on August 3 to vote on the proposal.

Connecticut (Partially Enacted): Connecticut lawmakers passed a budget with more than $1 billion in new revenue to plug a budget gap and ensure the state has resources to make needed investments in education, transportation, and health care.  In late June, lawmakers were called back to the capital for a special session after Gov. Dannel Malloy caved to the behest of corporate lobbyists. At issue was an increase in the state’s sales tax on computer and data processing services from 1 to 3 percent, as well as new combined reporting rules for businesses operating in Connecticut. The legislature backed down on those changes after corporations decried the measures and leaned heavily on the governor. The new deal maintains the sales tax rate on computer and data processing and delays the start of combined reporting by one year.  The close to $1 billion revenue package also includes higher personal income taxes for very wealthy households, the elimination of an exemption on clothing under $50, cuts to a property tax credit, and a cap on car taxes paid in some districts.  

Illinois (Still Active): Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers face a reckoning of their own making; the state could be headed toward a shutdown without a resolution. Rauner wants to address the state’s $6.1 billion budget gap with massive spending cuts to healthcare, education and other public services in a budget proposal denounced as “morally reprehensible” by critics in the state. The legislature and the Governor are at a standstill.

Louisiana (Enacted): State leaders grappled with how to close a $1.6 billion budget gap all session long. Eventually, they passed a package of eleven bills that will raise about $660 million in revenue. The package increases the state cigarette tax by 32 cents per pack, scales back business subsidies, and decreases many of the state’s existing tax breaks through a 20 percent across-the-board cut. Most of the new revenue raised by the package of bills will go toward preventing deep cuts to higher education and healthcare programs. To win approval from Gov. Bobby Jindal, lawmakers were forced to adopt a convoluted plan with a fake fee and fake tax credit as a smokescreen for raising revenue so that the governor could keep his promise to Grover Norquist not to raise taxes.

Vermont (Enacted): In order to address a revenue shortfall, Vermont lawmakers enacted a handful of tax increases this year.  Most notably, they broadened the income tax base by capping itemized deductions (mostly used by upper-income taxpayers) at just 2.5 times the value of the state’s standard deduction.  Sensibly, lawmakers also eliminated the ability to deduct Vermont state income tax from, well, Vermont state income tax.  They also expanded the state’s sales tax base to include all purchases of soda beverages.

 


State Rundown 7/1: Fiscal Year Blues


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The budget showdown between Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature continues. Republican lawmakers want to close a large budget gap without new taxes, while the governor has proposed a property tax reform measure and a new tax on natural gas extraction. Wolf has threatened to veto a budget with no tax increases. With the fiscal year ending today, pressure is on for leaders to make a deal. If that deadline is passes without a resolution, most observers expect business to continue as usual for state workers in the short term.

Washington state legislators reached an agreement on transportation spending that includes an increase in the state’s gas excise tax. The $15 billion package will increase the tax by 11.9 cents-per-gallon over three years. Gov. Jay Inslee previously pledged to sign any deal between the House and Senate, making enactment of this deal likely.

New Jersey is poised to increase the state EITC to 30 percent of the federal credit after a surprise endorsement from Gov. Chris Christie. As New Jersey Policy Perspective notes, the increase will help over 500,000 working families and boost the state economy: “It’s been estimated…that the EITC has a multiplier effect of 1.5 to 2 in local economies – in other words, every dollar of tax credit paid ends up generating $1.50 to $2 in local economic activity.”

Connecticut lawmakers reached a deal on the budget in a special session after Gov. Dannel Malloy called lawmakers back to the capital at the behest of corporate lobbyists. At issue was an increase in the state’s sales tax on computer and data processing services from 1 to 3 percent, as well as new combined reporting rules for businesses operating in Connecticut. The legislature backed down on those changes after corporations decried the measures and leaned heavily on the governor. The new deal maintains the sales tax rate on computer and data processing and delays the start of combined reporting by one year.  To make up the lost revenue from those changes, lawmakers reduced Medicaid spending by $12.5 million, reduced a scheduled state employee pay increase by .5%, partially delayed a transfer of sales tax revenue to transportation projects, and delayed some new municipal revenue sharing.  

Oregon will launch a new experiment this month that aims to change the way we fund road construction and repair. The program, called OReGO, will charge 5,000 volunteer drivers a 1.5 cent-per-mile road usage charge, also known as a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, rather than the traditional state gas excise tax at the pump. The program is meant to address declining revenues from the gas tax, as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and the maintenance needs of aging infrastructure skyrocket. While some observers are optimistic that VMT taxes could prove to be a more sustainable revenue source, there is reason to be more skeptical. As ITEP’s Carl Davis points out in a new report, “[Oregon’s] new VMT tax is an unsustainable revenue source because it contains the same design flaw that has plagued the state’s gasoline tax for almost a century—a stagnant, fixed tax rate that is incapable of keeping pace with inflation.” Davis suggests indexing current state gas excise tax rates to inflation before beginning to experiment with entirely new funding mechanisms.

 

States Still In Legislative Session:
Alabama
Illinois
Maine
Massachusetts
Michigan
New Hampshire
North Carolina
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Washington
Wisconsin

 


Gas Tax Changes Take Effect July 1


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On Wednesday July 1, six states will raise their gasoline tax rates.  While some drivers may view this as an unwelcome development during the busy summer travel season, the reality is that most of these “increases” are simply playing catch-up with inflation after years (or even decades) without an update to the gas tax rate.  Moreover, these increases will fund infrastructure improvements that directly benefit drivers and other travelers—an especially important step at a time when Congress’ commitment to adequately funding infrastructure remains highly uncertain.

The largest gas tax increases are taking place in Idaho (7 cents per gallon) and Georgia (6.7 cents for gas and 7.7 cents for diesel).  Each of these increases is occurring due to legislation enacted earlier this year.  Maryland’s increase of 1.8 cents is a result of legislation signed by former governor (and current presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley in 2013.  Rhode Island’s 1 cent increase is the first automatic update for inflation to take place under a law signed by former Gov. Lincoln Chafee in 2014 (Chafee is now a presidential candidate as well).  Finally, Nebraska’s 0.5 cent hike and Vermont’s 0.35 cent increase are automatic changes resulting from these states’ variable-rate gas tax structures.

By contrast, the gasoline tax rate will fall by 6 cents in California and the diesel tax rate will drop by 4.2 cents in Connecticut as a result of laws linking those states’ gas tax rates to gas prices (a unique quirk in California’s law will cause the diesel tax to rise by 2 cents).  These cuts will reduce the level of funding available for transportation at a time when basic infrastructure maintenance is already lagging far behind.  Earlier this year, similar automatic cuts had been scheduled to take place in Kentucky and North Carolina, but lawmakers in both of these states wisely intervened by placing a “floor” on their gas tax rates that minimized the loss of infrastructure revenue. 

View chart of states raising gasoline taxes 

View chart of states raising diesel taxes

 

 

 


Flaw in Connecticut's Budget Is Its Increase in Taxes on Working Poor- Not Corporate Tax Changes


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Connecticut’s legislature approved a two-year $40 billion budget last week with wide-ranging tax increases to help close a $1 billion budget gap. 

The changes include fully applying the sales tax to all clothes purchases and reducing a targeted property tax credit. But the two provisions that have received widespread attention are corporate tax reforms and increasing the personal income tax rate on the richest 5 percent of taxpayers.

Lawmakers included corporate tax reforms in the final budget despite objections from some of the largest corporations in the state, such as GE and Aetna.  In addition to higher taxes on computer and data processing services, the plan limits tax credits and specifies how business income can be reported.  Most significantly, Connecticut will join the majority of states in requiring corporations to file a combined report that treats subsidiaries of multistate corporations as one entity so they are taxed in aggregate.

General Electric (GE) threatened to relocate its headquarters and established an exploratory committee the day after lawmakers passed the final budget, and other major business interests have issued press releases conveying their discontent for the corporate- and personal income tax changes in the budget.  Gov. Dan Malloy has yet to sign the budget and has agreed to a sit-down meeting this week with the president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association to discuss the corporate tax changes

GE and other corporations’ complaints have misrepresented the budget as a plan that only raises needed revenue by solely increasing taxes for the wealthy and profitable businesses. This is far from reality.  An ITEP analysis found that all income groups will pay more under this plan, and the lowest-income taxpayers in the state will experience the largest tax increase as a share of income.  Connecticut’s tax system is already upside down, and the tax changes included in the contentious budget deal would further exacerbate the gap between low-income and wealthy Connecticut taxpayers. 

Complaints about ‘combined reporting’ are also suspect considering that GE and other major corporations in Connecticut comply with the measure in almost every other state in which they currently operates.

GE is not exactly the best poster child for so-called high taxes. The company is notorious for paying low to zero corporate income taxes.  In 2014, an ITEP analysis found that GE paid an average state corporate income tax rate of negative 1.2 percent on its $5.75 billion in profits in the United States. Looking over the past five years, GE only paid a state corporate income tax rate of 1.6 percent, just about a quarter of the average weighted state corporate income tax rate of 6.25 percent.

Big business will undoubtedly continue to pressure Gov. Malloy into forgoing the good corporate tax changes included in the budget deal awaiting his signature.  The state is certainly in need of new revenue to protect critical public investments, yet if any part of the plan should give him pause it should be the tax increases on low- and moderate-income families rather than the small ask for wealthy taxpayers and profitable corporations to pay a little more.  


State Rundown 4/30: Tax Cuts Stall, Tax Increases Advance


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A proposed constitutional amendment that would implement a flat income tax has stalled in the Alabama Senate. A vote on the measure, titled the “The Simplified Flat Tax Act of 2015,” was postponed by a Senate budget committee after sponsor Sen. Bill Hightower asked for more time to work on the measure. The bill would implement a flat income tax and eliminate some exemptions, credits and deductions. Opponents of the bill, including the advocacy group Alabama Arise, note that the changes would reduce revenue for the Education Trust Fund by hundreds of millions of dollars, and that some of the credits and deductions eliminated would impact retirees and working families. Kimble Forrister, executive director of Alabama Arise, cited ITEP data showing the bill would benefit mainly the wealthy while hurting the poorest Alabamans. He told the committee that “Alabama can't move forward as long as we have an outdated, upside down tax system." Sen. Hightower wants to make the bill revenue neutral and prevent any tax hikes for low-income Alabamans.

A committee in the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that would raise revenues in the state. Members on the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee voted to approve a tax package that increases personal income tax rates for the wealthy and broadens the sales tax base. The top marginal income tax rate would increase to 6.99 percent for individuals making $500,000 or more and joint filers making $1 million or more. The measure also creates a new supplemental tax on capital gains income of 2 percent for the same group. The state sales tax rate would be reduced from 6.35 to 5.35 percent, while the base would expand to include more services, including engineering, veterinary services, laundries and dry cleaners, golf courses, and accountants. The measure is expected to raise $1.7 billion over the next two fiscal years, and would reverse many of the deep cuts proposed in Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget. The bill incorporates some of the progressive tax changes proposed by Connecticut Voices for Children, which incorporated ITEP analysis into their report.

Efforts to repeal the Hall Income Tax have failed again in Tennessee after the legislature failed to 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.

A measure to raise the sales tax in Iowa advanced out of a Senate subcommittee on Monday, while a parallel bill is being discussed in the House. Senate Bill 1272 would increase the sales tax by three-eighths of one percent to generate new revenue for natural resources and outdoor education – as much as $150 million annually, according to its sponsors. The bill has wide support, including “representatives of conservation, environmental, farm and outdoor recreation groups.”

 

Do you have a story you think should be in the next Rundown? Email sdpjohnson@itep.org with your idea!

 


State Rundown 2/19: The Budget Balancing Act


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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner unveiled his budget on Wednesday to mixed reviews.  The proposal does not include any new revenues despite a $7 billion budget gap, and relies heavily on slashing state spending. Democratic legislators, including powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, pushed back against the governors’ budget. They argue that his proposed cuts, including $1.5 billion in Medicaid spending reductions and hundreds of millions of dollars cut from social services and transit, would hurt low-income working families the most. Rauner has also proposed $600 million worth of cuts in local government aid (while paradoxically pushing for a freeze in local government property tax rates) and $387 million in higher education cuts. ITEP’s recent Who Pays report found that the bottom 20 percent of Illinois taxpayers pay almost three times more of their income in state taxes than the top 1 percent. The governor’s budget will make an unequal situation worse by slashing programs that many of the less fortunate depend on.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who likes to tout his bona fides as a “fiscal conservative,” decided to address his state’s $238 million deficit by not paying its bills. Walker made the decision this week to defer over $100 million in debt payments, opting instead to restructure the debt to the tune of an additional $19 million over the biennium. Many observers have pointed out that Walker’s $2 billion in new tax cuts since taking office – most of which went to the wealthy and corporations – are to blame for the state’s current budget woes. Meanwhile, progressive Wisconsinites slammed Walker for continuing to refuse $345 million in federal dollars to expand Medicaid, arguing that accepting the money could reduce the deficit and help reverse $300 million in higher education cuts proposed by the governor. Walker has also supported cuts to the state park system, science positions in state government, and recycling programs, to the consternation of many.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy outlined an ambitious budget on Wednesday that combines tax cuts, spending increases and new revenue to address a $1.3 billion deficit. Malloy wants to lower the sales tax from 6.35 to 5.95 percent to support low-income and middle-class families, but also repeal a sales tax exemption on clothing set to take place in July. On the business side, the governor would make a 20 percent surcharge on the corporate profits tax permanent, reduce the size of business tax credits for research and development and capital purchases, and eliminate the $250 business entity tax on small businesses. Altogether, Malloy’s changes to business taxes would increase revenue by $300 million. The rest of the deficit would be made up for with deep cuts elsewhere; Medicaid and mental health services would be especially hard hit, and the budget for state parks would be cut by 25 percent. Malloy affirmed his commitment to avoiding cuts in state aid to municipalities.  He also did not propose using rainy day funds to close the state’s budget gap.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, not to be outdone by his lieutenant governor, unveiled a budget proposal with $4.2 billion in tax cuts for businesses and property owners. Half of these cuts would come through a reduction in the state’s business franchise tax – $1 billion more than what the Senate budget proposes – and the other half would come from property tax cuts. Abbott pledged that his budget would make whole any school districts impacted by his property tax cuts. Critics feel that the tax cuts are an irresponsible move, given the state’s worsening economic climate.

State of the State Addresses This Week:
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (watch here)

Governors’ Budgets Released This Week:
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (amendments offered)
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (read here)
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (speech here)
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (read here)

 


State Rundown 1/8: All Eyes on the Governors


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Happy New Year and welcome back to the State Rundown, your statehouse insider and source for all things state tax policy related. We’ll provide a preview of the week’s big debates every Monday afternoon, as well as a follow-up post on Thursday afternoons. Eighteen states began their legislative sessions this week, so let’s hit the ground running!

California Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in Monday to a history-making fourth term, delivering his annual State of the State speech at the state Capitol in Sacramento. Brown touted his success in leading California through the Great Recession, turning a severe budget deficit into surplus and presiding over impressive economic growth. However, budget fights over the state’s high speed rail project and temporarily enacted sales and income tax increases, set to expire in 2018, loom this session.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple struck a defiant tone in his State of the State address Tuesday, despite the threat to his spending plans posed by the continuing slide in oil prices. The governor announced plans to increase state support for counties by $1 billion and pledged to make further tax cuts a priority this legislative session. Since 2009, North Dakota has cut taxes by $4.3 billion, and some lawmakers are pushing to eliminate the state income tax. A property tax reform measure has a likelier chance of passage, however.

Lawmakers in the Rhode Island House of Representatives want to pass a major and costly tax cut for Ocean State retirees. Yesterday, a bill was introduced to exempt all state, local and federal retirement income, including Social Security benefits and military pensions, from the state’s personal income tax. An initial ITEP analysis of the bill found that the lion’s share of the benefits would go to well-off elderly taxpayers.  Since some social security income is already exempted from Rhode Island taxes, fixed-income seniors already owe no personal income taxes on those benefits and often have no other retirement income. 

The bad economic news keeps coming for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. A recent report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics on employment growth in metropolitan areas shows that the governor’s tax cuts have failed to produce jobs – in fact, Kansas City, Missouri added jobs at four times the rate of Kansas City, Kansas, right across the state line. Back in 2012, Gov. Brownback promised Johnson County business leaders that steep tax cuts would draw economic activity from Missouri. In another setback for the governor (and victory for Kansas schoolchildren), a state judicial panel ruled that Kansas inadequately funds public schools. The ruling could mean that state leaders need to pony up another $548 million in school funding when they already face a $1.1 billion deficit. Of course, these are self-inflicted wounds that could be reversed through a prudent fiscal policy.

Newly-elected Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is on a gloom-and-doom tour, hoping to drive home just how terrible his state’s finances are and prepare voters for the worst. The governor will inherit a budget short by $1.4 billion, and some state agencies are expected to run out of money in a month. The state’s budget deficit is expected to almost double to $12.7 billion. Rauner, who ran on a platform of lower taxes and higher school spending, has his work cut out for him. A temporary income tax increase is slated to expire this month, which will mean $5 billion less in revenue for a state that desperately needs it.

States Starting Session this Week:
California
Connecticut
Indiana
Kentucky
Massachusetts
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
New Hampshire
New York
North Dakota
Ohio
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
Vermont
Wisconsin

State of the State Addresses this Week:
California Gov. Jerry Brown (watch here)
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (watch here)
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (watch here)
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (watch here)

Governor’s Budgets released this Week:
California Gov. Jerry Brown (Friday)
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (Friday)


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC


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On the heels of state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansions in Iowa, Maryland, and Minnesota and heated debates in Illinois and Ohio about their own credit expansions,  the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released a new report today, Improving Tax Fairness with a State Earned Income Tax Credit, which shows that expanding or enacting a refundable state EITC is one of the most effective and targeted ways for states to improve tax fairness.

It comes as no surprise to working families that most state’s tax systems are fundamentally unfair.  In fact, most low- and middle-income workers pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the highest income earners. Across the country, the lowest 20 percent of taxpayers pay an average effective state and local tax rate of 11.1 percent, nearly double the 5.6 percent tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of taxpayers.  But taxpayers don’t have to accept this fundamental unfairness and should look to the EITC.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia already have some version of a state EITC. Most state EITCs are based on some percentage of the federal EITC. The federal EITC was introduced in 1975 and provides targeted tax reductions to low-income workers to reward work and boost income. By all accounts, the federal EITC has been wildly successful, increasing workforce participation and helping 6.5 million Americans escape poverty in 2012, including 3.3 million children.

As discussed in the ITEP report, state lawmakers can take immediate steps to address the inherent unfairness of their tax code by introducing or expanding a refundable state EITC. For states without an EITC the first step should be to enact this important credit. The report recommends that if states currently have a non-refundable EITC, they should work to pass legislation to make the EITC refundable so that the EITC can work to offset all taxes paid by low income families. Advocates and lawmakers in states with EITCs should look to this report to understand how increasing the current percentage of their credit could help more families.

While it does cost revenue to expand or create a state EITC, such revenue could be raised by repealing tax breaks that benefit the wealthy which in turn would also improve the fairness of state tax systems.

Read the full report


Good News for America's Infrastructure: Gas Taxes Are Going Up on Monday


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The federal government has gone almost two decades without raising its gas tax, but that doesn’t mean the states have to stand idly by and watch their own transportation revenues dwindle.  On Monday July 1, eight states will increase their gasoline tax rates and another eight will raise their diesel taxes.  According to a comprehensive analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), ten states will see either their gasoline or diesel tax rise next week.

These increases are split between states that recently voted for a gas tax hike, and states that reformed their gas taxes years or decades ago so that they gradually rise over time—just as the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure inevitably does.

Of the eight states raising their gasoline tax rates on July 1, Wyoming and Maryland passed legislation this year implementing those increases while Connecticut’s increase is due to legislation passed in 2005California, Kentucky, Georgia (PDF) and North Carolina, by contrast, are seeing their rates rise to keep pace with growth in gas prices—much like a typical sales tax (PDF).  Nebraska is a more unusual case since its tax rate is rising both due to an increase in gas prices and because the rate is automatically adjusted to cover the amount of transportation spending authorized by the legislature.

On the diesel tax front, Wyoming, Maryland, Virginia (PDF) and Vermont passed legislation this year to raise their diesel taxes while Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina are seeing their taxes rise to reflect recent diesel price growth.  Nebraska, again, is the unique state in this group.

There are, however, a few states where fuel tax rates will actually fall next week, with Virginia’s (PDF) ill-advised gasoline tax cut being the most notable example. Vermont (PDF) will see its gasoline tax fall by a fraction of a penny on Monday due to a drop in gas prices, though this follows an almost six cent hike that went into effect in May as a result of new legislation. Georgia (PDF) and California will also see their diesel tax rates fall by a penny or less due to a diesel price drop in Georgia and a reduction in the average state and local sales tax rate in California.

With new reforms enacted in Maryland and Virginia this year, there are now 16 states where gas taxes are designed to rise alongside either increases in the price of gas or the general inflation rate (two more than the 14 states ITEP found in 2011).  Depending on what happens during the ongoing gas tax debates in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, that number could rise as high as 19 in the very near future.

It seems that more states are finally recognizing that stagnant, fixed-rate gas taxes can’t possibly fund our infrastructure in the long-term and should be abandoned in favor of smarter gas taxes that can keep pace with the cost of transportation.

See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st gasoline tax increases.
See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st diesel tax increases.


A Reminder About Film Tax Credits: All that Glitters is not Gold


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Remember the 2011 Hollywood blockbuster The Descendants, starring George Clooney? Odds are yes, as it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Perhaps less memorable were the ending credits and the special thank you to the Hawaii Film Office who administers the state’s film tax credit – which the movie cashed in on.

Why did a movie whose plot depended on an on-location shoot need to be offered a tax incentive to film on-location? The answer is beyond us, but Hawaii Governor Abercrombie seems to think it was necessary as he just signed into law an extension to the credit this week.

Hawaii is not alone in buying into the false promises of film tax credits. In 2011, 37 states had some version of the credit. Advocates claim these credits promote economic growth and attract jobs to the state. However, a growing body of non-partisan research shows just how misleading these claims really are.

Take research done on the fiscal implications such tax credits have on state budgets, for example: 

  • A report issued by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor showed that in 2010, almost $200 million in film tax breaks were awarded, but they only generated $27 million in new tax revenue. According a report (PDF) done by the Louisiana Budget Project, this net cost to the state of $170 million came as the state’s investment in education, health care, infrastructure, and many other public services faced significant cuts.

  • The Massachusetts Department of Revenue – in its annual Film Industry Tax Incentives Reportfound that its film tax credit cost the state $200 million between 2006 and 2011, forcing spending cuts in other public services.

  • In 2011, the North Carolina Legislative Services Office found (PDF) that while the state awarded over $30 million in film tax credits, the credits only generated an estimated $9 million in new economic activity (and even less in new revenue for the state).

  • The current debate over the incentive in Pennsylvania inspired a couple of economists to pen an op-ed in which they cite the state’s own research: “Put another way, the tax credit sells our tax dollars to the film industry for 14 cents each.”

  • A more comprehensive study done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examined the fiscal implications of state film tax credits around the country. This study found that for every dollar of tax credits examined, somewhere between $0.07 and $0.28 cents in new revenue was generated; meaning that states were forced to cut services or raise taxes elsewhere to make up for this loss.

Not only do film tax credits cost states more money than they generate, but they also fail to bring stable, long-term jobs to the state.

The Tax Foundation highlights two reasons for this. First, they note that most of the jobs are temporary, “the kinds of jobs that end when shooting wraps and the production company leaves.” This finding is echoed on the ground in Massachusetts, as a report (PDF) issued by their Department of Revenue shows that many jobs created by the state’s film tax credit are “artificial constructs,” with “most employees working from a few days to at most a few months.”

Second, a large portion of the permanent jobs in film and TV are highly-specialized and typically filled by non-residents (often from already-established production centers such as Los Angeles, New York, or Vancouver). In Massachusetts, for example, nearly 70 percent of the film production spending generated by film tax credits has gone to employees and businesses that reside outside of the state. Therefore, while film subsidies might provide the illusion of job-creation, they are actually subsidizing jobs not only located outside the state, but in some cases – outside the country.

While a few states have started to catch on and eliminate or pare back their credits in recent years (most recently Connecticut), others (including Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) have decided to double down. This begs the question: if film tax credits cost the state more than they bring in and fail to attract real jobs, why are lawmakers so determined to expand them?

Perhaps they’re too star struck to see the facts. Or maybe they, too, want a shout out in a credit reel.

Congress hasn’t even granted states the power to collect sales taxes owed on online shopping, but already Tennessee lawmakers are discussing how they might squander the money.  On the heels of inheritance tax, gift tax, sales tax, and interest and dividend tax cuts, Governor Haslam says he’s open to the idea of cutting taxes even further if the state sees a bump in revenue from passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act.  So far the Governor has said he wants to proceed cautiously, but Tennessee lawmakers have guzzled their share of  tax cut snake oil lately.

Uh oh! Watch out for income tax cuts in Iowa in 2014. Already Governor Terry Branstad is looking to next year and potentially reducing income taxes. He recently said, "I think it’s very likely we’ll be looking at reducing the income tax further. When I became governor, the income tax rate in Iowa was 13 percent. We now have it down to 8.98 percent, plus we have full federal deductibility…Remember, the top federal tax is 38.5 percent, so the effective rate in Iowa is only about 5.5 percent. We’d like to see that go lower."

In refreshing news, late last week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a radical tax package passed by the legislature that included: a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, a 50 percent exclusion for pass-through business income, an additional $1,000 personal and spouse income exemption for individuals earning less than $20,000 in Missouri adjusted gross income, and a reduction in the top income tax rate from 6 to 5.5 percent. 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.” Stay tuned. The legislature is expected to come back in September for a veto session during which it’s likely legislators will try to override the Governor’s veto.  

Last week, the Nevada Legislature passed AB 1 (PDF), a bill that changes how the state will handle tax abatements for new or expanding businesses. Under current law, the state grants partial abatement of property taxes, business taxes, and sales and use taxes to a business that locates or expands in the State and has 75 employees, or invests $1 million in capital into the state (businesses in smaller counties can qualify with 15 employees or a $250,000 investment). The new bill would lower the employee requirements to 50 in larger counties and 10 in smaller counties. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reminds us that these kinds of tax incentives are costly and their real impact hard to measure, to say the least.

The Connecticut House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 6566 (PDF), which would require public disclosure of specific details about state economic assistance and tax credits for businesses. The bill would call for the creation of an online database that lists information such as the name and location of the recipient, the number of jobs created or retained, and the amount and detailed nature of the tax subsidy. This bill came only a few weeks after a report was released by Good Jobs First that documented how costly economic development subsidy programs often lack any kind of public transparency. “Despite its widespread practice, this use of taxpayer funds remains controversial,” the report said, “but the absence of good information makes it impossible for citizens to weigh the costs and benefits to their communities.” The bill now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

 


Earned Income Tax Credits in the States: Recent Developments, Good and Bad


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Note to Readers: This is the last in a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the past several weeks CTJ’s partner organization, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has highlighted tax reform proposals and looked at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country.

Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed effectively cutting taxes for moderate- and low-income working families through expanding, restoring or enacting new state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) (PDF). Unfortunately, state EITCs are also under attack in a handful of states where lawmakers are looking to reduce their benefit or even eliminate the credit altogether.

The federal EITC is widely recognized by experts and lawmakers across the political spectrum as an effective anti-poverty strategy. It was introduced in 1975 to provide targeted tax reductions to low-income workers and supplement low wages. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide EITCs modeled on the federal credit. At the state level, EITCs play an important role in offsetting the regressive effects of state and local tax systems.

Positive Developments

  • Last week, the Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee approved legislation to increase the state’s EITC from 7 to 20 percent. Committee Chairman Joe Bolkcom said, “This bill is what tax relief looks like. The tax relief is going to people who pay more than their fair share.”

  • The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently reported on the push to create an EITC and a poverty tax credit (PDF) in Hawaii. The story cites data from ITEP showing that Hawaii has the fourth highest taxes on the poor in the country and describes the work being done in support of low-income tax relief by the Hawaii Appleseed Center.  The poverty tax credit would help end Hawaii’s distinction as one of just 15 states that taxes its working poor deeper into poverty through the income tax.

  • In Michigan, lawmakers are looking to reverse a recent 70 percent cut in the state’s EITC.  That change raised taxes on some 800,000 low-income families in order to pay for a package of business tax cuts.  Lawmakers have introduced legislation to restore the EITC to its previous value of 20 percent of the federal credit, and advocates are supporting the idea through the “Save Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit” campaign

  • Pushing back against New Jersey Governor Christie’s reduction of the EITC from 25 to 20 percent, last month the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a bill to restore the credit to 25 percent. Senator Shirley Turner, the bill’s sponsor, said there was no reason to delay its passage as some have suggested because low-income New Jersey families need the credit now.  "People would put this money into their pockets immediately. I think they would be able to buy food, clothing and pay their rent and their utility bills. Those are the things people are struggling to do."

  • Oregon’s EITC is set to expire at the end of this year, but Governor Kitzhaber views it as a way to help “working families keep more of what they earn and move up the income ladder” so his budget extends and increases the EITC by $22 million. Chuck Sheketoff with the Oregon Center for Public Policy argues in this op-ed, “[t]he Oregon Earned Income Tax credit is a small investment that can make a large difference in the lives of working families. These families have earned the credit through work. Lawmakers should renew and strengthen the credit now, not later.”

  • In Utah, a legislator sponsored a bill to introduce a five percent EITC in the state. The bipartisan legislation is unlikely to pass because of funding concerns, but the fact that the EITC is on the radar there is a good development. Rep. Eric Hutchings said that offering a refundable credit to working families “sends the message that if you work and are trying to climb out of that hole, we will drop a ladder in."

Negative Developments

  • Last week, North Carolina Governor McCrory signed legislation that reduces the state’s EITC to 4.5 percent. The future looks grim for even this scaled down credit, though, since it is allowed to sunset after 2013 and it’s unlikely the credit will be reintroduced. It’s worth noting that the state just reduced taxes on the wealthiest .2 percent of North Carolinians by eliminating the state’s estate tax, at a cost of more than $60 million a year. Additionally, by cutting the EITC the legislature recently increased taxes on low-income working families, saving a mere $11 million in revenues.

  • Just two years after signing legislation introducing an EITC, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is recommending it be temporarily reduced “from the current 30 percent of the federal EITC to 25 percent next year, 27.5 percent the year after that, and then restoring it to 30 percent in 2015.” In an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant, Jim Horan with the Connecticut Association for Human Services asks, “But do we really want to raise taxes on hard-working parents earning only $18,000 a year?”

  • Last week in the Kansas Senate, a bill (PDF) was introduced to cut the state’s EITC from 17 to 9 percent of its federal counterpart. This would be on top of the radical changes signed into law last year by Governor Sam Brownback which eliminated two credits targeted to low-income families including the Food Sales Tax Rebate.

  • Vermont Governor Shumlin wants to cut the EITC and redirect the revenue to child care subsidy programs, a move described as taking from the poor to give to the poor. A recent op-ed by Jack Hoffman at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute cites ITEP Who Pays data to make the case for maintaining the EITC.  Calling the Governor’s idea a “nonstarter,” House and Senate legislators are exploring their own ideas for funding mechanisms to pay for the EITC at its current level.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a new analysis of Ohio Governor Kasich’s “tax swap” plan that “suggests lower and middle income families would not do as well as higher earners under the new system.”  The Plain Dealer notes that its findings bolster a new report by Policy Matters Ohio and our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Online retailer Amazon.com just struck a deal with yet another state to begin collecting sales taxes.  The new agreement with Connecticut will go into effect in November, just in time for the holiday shopping season.  The company also announced that it plans to build an order-fulfillment center in the state – a move which would have clearly established a “physical presence” (PDF) and therefore required the company to begin collecting sales taxes anyway.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia may soon join Connecticut on the long list of states that have struck deals with Amazon.  According to the paper, “the world’s largest online retailer has not collected the tax [this year], despite a new state law requiring online retailers to charge it at the start of the year.”  But the Georgia Retail Association expects that Amazon will build a distribution center in the state soon, which would make it impossible for the company to continue ignoring this legal requirement.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton reaffirmed his support for progressive, comprehensive and revenue-raising tax reform in his State of the State address last week and mentioned our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) when referring to the upside down nature of his state’s tax structure:

“Thanks to the excellent work of Minnesota 2020, I recently became aware of a new study, by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which confirms the Department of Revenue’s analysis. It found that middle-class Minnesotans pay 26 percent more state and local taxes per dollar of income than do the top one percent of our state’s income earners. When people who have the most pay the least, this state and nation are in trouble. When lobbyists protect tax favors for special interests at the cost of everyone else’s best interests, this state and nation are in trouble. My goal is to get us out of trouble.”


Transportation Funding Debacles Around the Country


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Our nation’s gas tax policy is horribly designed, and the consequences have never been more obvious at either the federal or state levels.  Construction costs are growing while the gas tax is flat-lining, and the resulting tension has made even routine transportation funding debates too much for our elected officials to handle.  Just last week, President Obama signed into law the ninth temporary, stop-gap extension of our nation’s transportation policy since 2009, and numerous states are similarly opting to kick the proverbial can down the crumbling road.

Much of our collective transportation headache arises from our “fixed-rate” gas taxes that just don’t hold up in the face of rising construction costs.  The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in over 18 years, and most states have gone a decade or more without raising their tax.  There’s no doubt that we’re long-overdue for a gas tax increase, but political concerns have kept that option largely off the table.  In addition to the embarrassing federal Band-Aid fix just signed into law by the President, here’s what we’re seeing in the states:

The Michigan Senate has voted to permanently take millions in sales tax revenue away from health care, public safety, and other services in order to complete basic road repairs.  But as the Michigan League for Human Services explains, the state would be much better off modernizing its stagnant gas tax.

Both the Oklahoma House and Senate have voted to raid the general fund as a result of lagging gas tax revenues.  These proposals are very similar to the one under consideration in Michigan, and when fully phased-in they would divert $115 million away from education and other services in order to improve some of the state’s wildly deficient bridges.

Luckily, Virginia lawmakers didn’t agree to Governor McDonnell’s proposal to raid the general fund in a manner similar to what’s being considered in Michigan and Oklahoma.  But they also failed to enact a much smarter proposal passed by the Senate that would have indexed the state’s gas tax to inflation.  It looks like rampant traffic congestion will remain the norm in Virginia for the foreseeable future.

Iowa and Maryland appear likely to follow Virginia’s lead and do nothing substantial on transportation finance this year.  Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says that after much talk, a gas tax increase is not happening.  And while Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is trying hard to end almost two decades of gas tax procrastination in the Old Line State, it doesn’t look like the odds are on his side.

Connecticut lawmakers aren’t just continuing the status quo, they’re actually making it worse.  Connecticut is among the minority of states where the gas tax actually tends to grow over time, since it’s linked to gas prices.  But the Governor recently signed a hard “cap” on the gas tax that prevents it from rising whenever wholesale prices exceed $3.00 per gallon.  Lawmakers in North Carolina briefly considered a similar cap last year, but as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, blunt caps are very bad policy and there are much better options available.

For more on adequate and sustainable gas tax policy, read ITEP’s recent report, Building a Better Gas Tax.

Photo of Governor Martin O'Malley and Sunoco Gas Station via  Third Way and MV Jantzen Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

 


Quick Hits in State News: Indiana Kills Its Inheritance Tax, and More


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Indiana’s inheritance tax will soon be no more.  Under a bill signed by Governor Mitch Daniels this week, the state inheritance tax will be gradually eliminated over the next decade.  Of course, this will further benefit the state’s wealthiest taxpayers even as the state’s poorest residents already pay an effective state and local tax rate more than twice that paid by the rich.  

Connecticut lawmakers are seriously considering capping the state’s gasoline tax rate, due to the political pressures created by high gas prices.  A permanent cap, as some lawmakers prefer, would be extremely poor policy because it would flat line the gas tax as a revenue source for years to come.  A temporary cap would be preferable, but the best solution would be one that ITEP recommended for North Carolina last summer: design a cap that limits volatility. This protects consumers from price spikes and stabilizes state budgets without undermining a key source of revenue.

A new ITEP analysis finds that under a South Carolina House Republican plan, poor South Carolinians would see their income tax increase while wealthy taxpayers would pay less. The effect on individual taxpayers in any bracket are not substantial, but the revenue implications for the state are enormous and depend on the working poor to pick up the tab. The Ruoff Group policy shop does a nice job here of explaining why the plan is neither flat nor fair, as its advocates claim.

An outstanding news analysis in the Cincinnati Inquirer describes Ohio Governor John Kasich’s longstanding desire to eliminate the personal income tax altogether, and his current (failing) effort to pay for it with a fracking tax. The story cites a wide range of policy sources, including ITEP’s report debunking the myth that states without income taxes do better, and concludes that low income taxes alone do not make for stronger economies.

 


Trending in the States: Cutting Corporate Taxes Because Lobbyists Say You Should


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Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, ITEP will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country.  This article takes a look at efforts to roll back business taxes in states based on the shopworn, erroneous argument that tax cuts are good for the economy.

Robust corporate income taxes ensure that large and profitable corporations that benefit from publicly subsidized services (transit that delivers customers, education that trains workers, electricity that powers industry, etc.) pay their fair share towards the maintenance of those services. But, as ITEP’s recent report, Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, 2008-2010, found, twenty profitable Fortune 500 companies paid no state corporate income taxes over the last three years, and 68 paid none in at least one of those three years, even as state budgets are stretched to the point of breaking.  

As a new legislative season gets underway, too many political leaders are bashing taxes in general and business taxes in Governor Nikki Haleyparticular.  Here are some states to watch for more bad business tax policy (followed by a few glimmers of hope).

South CarolinaSouth Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is following through on her misguided campaign promise and recently proposed eliminating the state’s corporate income tax over four years. This despite the fact that South Carolina’s corporate income taxes as a share of tax revenue are among the lowest in the country, at a mere 2.4 percent.

KentuckyState Representative Bill Farmer has filed legislation that, instead of strengthening the tax, would repeal the state’s corporate income tax entirely. Farmer worked as a “tax consultant” and has been an anti-tax crusader in the Kentucky legislature since 2003.

Nebraska – Governor Dave Heineman recently unveiled his plan to reduce the top corporate income tax rate from 7.81 to 6.7 percent (and eliminate other key state revenue sources, too).

Florida Governor Rick ScottFloridaIn his recent State of the State address, Governor Rick Scott said that taxes and regulations were “the great destroyers of capital and time for small businesses.”  And – no surprise here – he also called for lowering business taxes.

IdahoGovernor Butch Otter has called for $45 million in tax cuts but is leaving the details to the legislature.  Of course, when a lobbyist from the Idaho Chamber Alliance of businesses calls the governor’s position “manna from heaven,” there’s a good chance some of those cuts will be given to business.

A few signs of sanity. In Connecticut , the governor is looking to improve the return on tax-break investment for the Nutmeg state. Perhaps he’s learned from states like Ohio, where a recent report issued by the attorney general showed that fewer than half of all companies receiving tax subsidies actually fulfilled their commitments in terms of job creation or economic growth.   We also see combined reporting getting attention in a couple of states.  It’s smart policy that discourages companies from creating multi-state subsidiaries to shelter their profits from taxes. We will report on other positive developments as warranted – so watch this space.

Photo of Rick Scott via Gage Skidmore and Photo of Nikki Haley via Mary Austin Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Naughty States, Nice States: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy's 2011 List


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Naughty

Michigan’s legislature and Governor Snyder top the naughty list by giving away more than $1.6 billion in tax cuts for business and paying for it with tax increases on low-and middle-income working and retired families.

Florida continued to dole out more corporate pork this year, including a property tax break that happens to benefit huge commercial land owners, like Disney World and Florida Power and Light, and other corporations (that also happen to be major donors to the state’s Republican governor and legislative majority party).

Minnesota’s legislature missed an opportunity to do the right thing when it rejected a tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. The plan was proposed by Governor Dayton and supported by 63 percent of Minnesotans over the alternative, which was cuts to spending on education, health care and other vital public services.

Anti-tax activists in Missouri were hard at work again. This year they were collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would eliminate the state’s personal income tax and replace it with a broadened and increased sales tax.

Nice

Connecticut’s Governor Malloy and the legislature adopted a $1.4 billion tax increase that improved tax fairness in the state and protected public investments like education and health care.  Most notably, the state added an Earned Income Tax Credit, a significant tax break for low-income working families.

District of Columbia lawmakers greatly reduced the ability of corporations to dodge their fair share of taxes by adopting combined reporting (which makes it harder to hide profits in other states) and a higher corporate minimum tax. The Council also temporarily increased taxes for individuals making more than $350,000 a year and limited itemized deductions, which are most often taken by high income filers.

Hawaii lawmakers also limited upside-down tax giveaways (itemized deductions) for their state’s richest residents and passed other tax changes to raise much needed revenue.

A Little Bit Naughty and Nice

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed his campaign vow not to raise taxes and supported a tax increase on residents earning more than $2 million a year.   The plan, passed by the legislature, also included a tax break for those with income under $300,000.

However, New York lawmakers passed the governor’s cap on property taxes this summer, which is predictably creating crises and forcing dramatic cuts in local education, medical, and public safety services.

Illinois raised significant revenue earlier in the year through temporary personal and corporate income tax rate increases, all designed to stave off harsh spending cuts, but then turned right around and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to Sears and CME, allegedly to keep them in the state.


Raising A Red Flag: Governor Brownback's Tax Plans Are Bad for Kansas


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This week Kansas Revenue Secretary, Nick Jordan, said that by the end of the year Governor Sam Brownback will have recommendations for how to reform the state’s tax structure. He said, “We're looking at tax policy in a very comprehensive way. We're not just focusing on business or individual incomes, I don't know that we are targeting numbers. We're targeting what is the best economic growth policy for the state." This statement, combined with other media reports that the governor is working with supply side guru, Arthur Laffer, and that the governor seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate income tax rates, should cause grave concern for Kansas taxpayers.

In anticipation of the governor’s tax proposals, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently issued a memo to media outlets in Kansas. ITEP’s analysis shows the impact of repealing the Kansas income tax and replacing part or all of the revenue with increased sales taxes.  For example, if every dime of an income tax repeal were ultimately paid for by increases in state sales taxes, the poorest 80 percent of Kansans would, as a group, see a tax hike overall and require a statewide average sales tax rate of a whopping13.5 percent.

Governor Brownback recently told the Kansas Chamber of Commerce that in terms of low taxes and regulation, “We’ve got to look more like Texas and a lot less like California.”

But Kansas shouldn’t want to look more like Texas! The Texas tax structure doesn’t have an income tax, making it the fifth most regressive in the country and chronically unable to fund public investments. Texas ranks 45th in SAT Scores and 50th in terms of the percent of the population with a high school diploma. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens, and the second highest percentage of the population experiencing food insecurity in the nation.

We will keep an eye on the governor’s plans for Kansas, but if he’s looking for a state on which to model his tax reforms, he should take a look at Connecticut.

Photo of Sam Brownback via KDOTHQ Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Connecticut's Taxes Went Up Yesterday, But the Sky Didn't Fall


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fair tax graph.jpgIn a year when most state leaders across the country embraced an anti-tax, cuts-only approach to addressing short- and long-term budget shortfalls, Connecticut lawmakers agreed to a budget for the current fiscal year that addressed the state’s deficit crisis with a balance between spending cuts and (if you can believe it) significant new taxes.

Not just new taxes that fall heavily on the working poor, which are politically easy but fiscally insignificant (and far more common that you’d think), but new taxes on the rich, which are often political suicide even as they are fiscally smart.

Starting yesterday, August 1, high income taxpayers started seeing more taxes withheld from their paychecks, and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, (whose party opposed the package) wailed, “It is a sad day when state government decides to reach back in time to garnish the wages of our hard working residents because it can't get its own fiscal house in order."

But wait. Middle-income households with taxable incomes (not salaries, but adjusted gross income) under $100,000 ($50,000 if single), will not see any change in their withholding. And, as Connecticut for Children’s Voices points out using ITEP data, even though the tax changes boosted fairness by reducing taxes for low-income residents and increasing them for wealthy ones, the state and local tax system remains highly imbalanced: the wealthiest Connecticut households still only pay on average 5.5 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent pay 11.4 percent of their incomes.

The other, mostly progressive, tax package features kick in this summer, too, including sales tax changes that took effect in July.

The Connecticut budget is a national model. It introduces a program (Earned Income Tax Credit) repeatedly proven to boost economic activity, and it increases taxes on those in the highest brackets to help restore revenues needed for core services and municipal budgets.  We wish the state well, and will check back as the results begin to take effect.


New ITEP Report: States Should Look to Connecticut on Tax Policy


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Earlier this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released a new report highlighting the key tax components of Connecticut’s recently enacted budget, which raised more than $1.4 billion in new taxes to mitigate cuts to core services.

 
The mostly progressive tax package includes increases in personal income taxes for the state’s best-off residents, a new 30 percent refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit, a reduction in the state’s property tax credit, an increase and expansion of the sales tax, a new ‘Amazon’ tax, a corporate income tax surcharge, a lowered threshold for the estate tax, and increases in cigarette and alcohol taxes.

In a year when most state leaders across the country have embraced an anti-tax, cuts-only approach to addressing short- and long-term budget woes, Connecticut lawmakers boldly took a stand for the vital role of government and for progressive tax policy.  Connecticut’s approach addresses current fiscal challenges and is forward-looking, putting the state on a path towards fiscal and economic recovery.

State policymakers and advocates still in the throes of crafting their state spending plans for next year should look to Connecticut as a guide for a sensible approach to addressing ongoing fiscal woes.


Connecticut Passes a Pro-Tax, Pro-Government Budget


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Bucking the anti-tax, anti-government, cuts-only approach to state budget shortfalls embraced by most state leaders across the nation this year, Connecticut governor Dan Malloy signed a two-year state spending plan this week that raises $1.4 billion in new taxes to mitigate cuts to core services.
 
The tax package includes increases in personal income taxes for the state’s best-off residents, a new 30 percent refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit, a reduction in the state’s property tax credit, an increase and expansion of the sales tax, a new ‘Amazon’ tax, a corporate income tax surcharge, a lowered threshold for the estate tax, and increases in cigarette and alcohol taxes.

What makes Connecticut truly unique among the states in its revenue-raising approach this year was the care given to make the tax changes progressive and reform-minded rather than simply relying on quick or one-time fixes that postpone fundamental decisions and ignore the more significant structural and fairness flaws in state and local tax systems.


ITEP Data Helps Move Connecticut Budget Debate to a Fairer Outcome


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As previously noted, Connecticut is one of only a handful of states where state leaders have given serious consideration to raising revenue as part of a balanced solution to closing their budget gaps. 

In February, new Governor Dan Malloy (who calls himself the “Anti-Christie” referring to New Jersey’s notoriously conservative governor) released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2012. The plan would have closed roughly half of a $3 billion shortfall with a mix of new revenues from the personal income tax, sales tax, excise taxes, business taxes, and the estate tax. 

As of this week, the governor moved one step closer to enacting his vision for Connecticut when he reached an agreement with House and Senate leadership on his tax and spending packages.

Both chambers’ Finance and Appropriations Committees approved the revised budget plan on Thursday and the full House and Senate will take it up next week.  Not surprisingly, Republican lawmakers criticized the proposal and unsuccessfully offered a no-tax increase amendment that would have meant more than $1.4 billion in additional cuts to essential services.
 
One common criticism of the Governor’s original tax package was that it hit middle-income households the hardest.  While a new 30 percent refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) ensured low-income households would not see a tax increase (and in some cases would receive a net tax cut), the proposed elimination of the state’s property tax credit would have disproportionally impacted middle-income households. 

As a result, an ITEP analysis found that middle-income households would have seen the biggest tax increase as a share of income under the Governor's proposal.  Tied to that criticism, several key House and Senate members as well as the Better Choices for Connecticut coalition pushed for a more progressive tax package (equipped with an ITEP analysis of that plan) that would ask the state’s wealthiest households to pay for the largest share of the tax increase.
 
The revised package appears to have addressed these criticisms.  A scaled back version of the property tax credit would be restored and result in a smaller tax increase for middle-income households.  And, changes to personal income tax rates and a mechanism to recapture the benefits of lower tax rates will mean that the top 5 percent will pay more than under the Governor’s original plan.

The Connecticut tax package also includes several significant changes to the state’s sales tax including broadening the base to include several services and currently exempted goods, a new ‘Amazon’ law, a 7 percent tax on luxury goods, and a small rate increase from 6 to 6.25 percent. 

The governor’s original sales tax proposal was even more comprehensive, but several items (expanding the sales tax to include haircuts and boat repairs, an elimination of the sales tax holiday and elimination of exemption on auto-trade-ins) were left out of the revised package. 

Otherwise, the revised package mostly mirrors the original and includes tax increases on estates, cigarettes, alcohol, and corporate income.


Are Amazon.com's Sales Tax Avoidance Days Coming to an End?


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Last week Illinois joined New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island by enacting legislation requiring Amazon.com and other online retailers working with in-state affiliates to collect sales taxes.  Arkansas’s Senate and Vermont’s House recently passed similar legislation, and Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Mississippi, and New Mexico are considering doing the same.  Interestingly, lawmakers in each of these states are being spurred to do the right thing by major retailers like Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble.

In most states, Amazon and other online retailers are not currently required to collect sales taxes unless they have a “physical presence” in the state, though consumers are still required to remit the tax themselves.  Unfortunately, very few consumers actually pay the sales taxes they owe on online purchases — in California, for example, unpaid taxes on internet and catalog sales are estimated to cost the state as much as $1.15 billion per year.

The so-called “Amazon laws” recently adopted in Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are all designed to limit this form of tax evasion by broadening the class of online retailers that must pay sales taxes.  Specifically, under these new laws, any retailer partnering with in-state affiliate merchants is required to pay sales taxes on purchases made by residents of that state.

Up until recently, the reaction to these laws has been mostly hostile.  Grover Norquist has branded them a (gasp) “tax increase,” despite the fact that they’re designed only to reduce illegal tax evasion.  More importantly, Amazon has challenged the New York law in court, and has ended relationships with affiliates in North Carolina and Rhode Island in order to avoid having to pay sales taxes on sales made within those states.  Amazon has also promised to severe ties with its Illinois affiliates, and has threatened to do the same in California if a similar law is adopted there.  These tactics mirror a recent decision by Amazon to shut down a Texas-based distribution center in order to avoid having to remit taxes in that state as well.

But Amazon may not be able to bully state lawmakers for much longer.  Since New York passed its so-called “Amazon law” in 2008, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and now Illinois have already followed suit despite all the threats.  And it appears that Arkansas and Vermont may very well do the same — as proposals to enact Amazon laws in each of those states have already made it through one legislative chamber.  In addition, at least seven other states (listed in the opening paragraph) have similar legislation pending.

According to State Tax Notes (subscription required), Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble are each attempting to partner with affiliate merchants recently dropped by Amazon.  Even more importantly, several of the large retail companies (like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot) are joining forces to lobby in favor of Amazon laws. These companies’ interest is in large part due to the fact that they already have to remit sales taxes in the vast majority of states because of the “physical presence” created by their large networks of “brick and mortar” stores.  If more traditional retailers begin to voice support for Amazon laws, the progress already being made on this issue is likely to accelerate.

For more background information on the Amazon.com tax controversy, check out this helpful report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


Millionaire Migration Claims Fall Flat in the Media


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CTJ’s critique of claims that wealthy New Yorkers are fleeing the state’s so-called “millionaires’ tax” was publicized by two media outlets this week.  Similar claims being made in Connecticut and Rhode Island were also shot down in the media.

In last week’s Digest, CTJ pointed out numerous distortions in the Partnership for New York’s claims that wealthy New Yorkers were fleeing as a result of a recent tax increase on high-income earners.  (The Fiscal Policy Institute also issued a detailed rebuttal). 

For starters, the Partnership erroneously claimed that a “9.4 percent decrease in the state's taxpayers who earn $1 million or more” occurred between 2007 and 2009.  But the data it used (but failed to cite) actually show a 9.4% drop in New Yorkers with wealth exceeding $1 million.  Since New York’s income tax obviously applies to income — not wealth — this is an important distinction. 

The Partnership has since revised its report to correct this mistake, but it continues to ignore a much more important one: according to the same dataset, every state in the country saw its number of wealthy taxpayers decline between 2007 and 2009 (due to the recession) and 43 states experienced declines exceeding New York’s 9.4% drop.  In fact, Phoenix International – the firm that released the data – made very clear in its 2009 press release that the U.S. as a whole saw its millionaire population decline by nearly 14%.  So it’s a little odd, to say the least, that the Partnership would interpret New York’s 9.4% rate of decline as providing any evidence that could be useful in its crusade against taxing high-income earners.

Fortunately, Robert Frank at the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report quickly publicized CTJ’s analysis, and labeled the Partnership’s migration claims a “myth.”  Frank also followed up with the Partnership’s CEO, who when confronted with the data problems described above retreated by saying: “It’s a very difficult thing to measure… We get a lot of it anecdotally.”

Crain’s New York Business similarly picked up on the CTJ analysis, ultimately declaring that “the nationwide decline suggests that New York lost millionaires primarily because New Yorkers made less money and saw their property values drop during the recession, not because they moved to other states.” 

Crain’s does err, however, in claiming that the data might partially reflect the fact that “New Yorkers could have left the state in mid-2009 and filed 2009 tax returns as residents of their new states.”  The 2009 data in question was actually released in early July 2009, and was left unchanged in the September 2010 update.  It is exceedingly unlikely that a dataset released just two months after the May 2009 enactment of New York’s “millionaires’ tax” could have captured the effects of any tax-induced wealth flight.

In addition to beating back ridiculous claims in New York, the WSJ’s Wealth Report also recently debunked similar claims being made in Connecticut by the Connecticut Policy Institute.  The story is a familiar one:

“How do we know why or even if high-earners moved out? It is possible that some previously high earners simply fell below the $1 million-dollar-a-year mark because their incomes fluctuated. In the land of hedge funds, this seems to be just as likely as people moving to Florida. It also is unclear whether the population of high-earners in Connecticut is aging and simply moved to warmer, more golf-friendly climes...The report doesn’t break down the destinations. Still, it says many go to Florida and New York. Florida, of course, has no state income tax. But New York state has a top tax rate of 8.97% and New York City’s top rate is 3.876%. Combined that is nearly twice as high as Connecticut’s tax. If the rich decide where to live based on taxes, why would they be moving to a higher-tax city? Perhaps because the quality of their life matters as much or more than the quantity of their taxes—up to a point, of course.”

Finally, Rhode Island claims of wealth flight ran into similar resistance in the media when Politifact took a lengthy look at the Ocean State Policy Research Institute’s (OSPRI) migration claims, and ultimately found them to be “false.” 

OSPRI’s report attempts to show that “the most significant driver of out-migration [from Rhode Island] is the estate tax.”  But as Politifact notes, “IRS data cited by OSPRI shows that Florida was increasingly attractive to Rhode Island taxpayers in the years when it had an estate tax. The flow slacked off significantly when the [Florida estate] tax was eliminated. That runs contrary to the trend OSPRI claims to have proven.” 

Moreover, Politifact points out that even the conservative Tax Foundation — hardly a big fan of the estate tax — hasn’t jumped onto the migration bandwagon: “Kail Padquitt, staff economist for The Tax Foundation … said he hasn’t seen any proof that the prospect of paying estate taxes drives people to move.”  We certainly haven’t either.


Glimmers of Hope on Taxes in the States


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It seems that each week brings another round of regressive tax proposals from the states, but there are a few bright spots. As previously reported, the governors in Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota have been strong proponents for taking a balanced approach to their state’s budget gaps and have unabashedly supported raising revenue in mostly reform-minded and progressive ways.  More details emerged this week on the Connecticut and Minnesota governors’ revenue-raising proposals.   Also, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who recently backed a successful initiative to increase the state’s flat personal income tax rate, started sending positive messages this week about the need to make his state’s tax system fairer.

On Wednesday, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy released his plan to deal a budget gap exceeding $3 billion. As promised, his plan would not to rely solely on spending cuts to close the gap. He offered a $1.5 billion package of new revenues including reforms to the personal income tax, sales tax, business taxes, and estate tax.
  
Under his plan, the state’s personal income tax would expand from 3 to 8 brackets, the top marginal rate would increase from 6.5 to 6.7 percent, and the bottom marginal rate of 3 percent would phase out for high-income earners.  The plan also eliminates an existing property tax credit which is most beneficial to middle-income families. 

Perhaps most significantly, Governor Malloy would buck a recent trend by adding a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) set at 30 percent of the federal program.  If enacted, Connecticut would become the 26th state to have an EITC.
 
Governor Malloy also proposed expanding the sales tax base by taxing several services, including pet grooming, boat repairs and hair cuts, eliminating the exemption on clothing under $50, and imposing an additional 3 percent sales tax on “luxury items.  The state sales tax rate would increase from 6 to 6.25 percent. 

Governor Malloy also supports positive changes to business taxation including adopting what is known as the "throwback rule," which mandates that sales into other states or to the federal government that are not taxable will be “thrown back” into the state of origin for tax purposes.  His plan would improve the estate tax by lowering the taxable estate threshold from $3.5 million to $2 million.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton ran on a pro-tax platform, promising to increase taxes on his state’s wealthiest households in order to stave off massive spending reductions.  Governor Dayton released a plan this week to raise $4.1 billion in new revenues over the next two years to help solve a $6.2 billion budget shortfall.   Sticking to his campaign pledge, the majority of the new revenue would be raised from the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers in the state. The plan would add a new top income tax bracket, charge a 3 percent surtax on filers with taxable income above $500,000, and add a new statewide property tax on homes valued at more than $1 million.

The Minnesota Budget Project had the following to say about Governor Dayton’s proposal: “The Governor’s tax proposal seeks to add balance to the state’s tax system. Over time, the state has cut progressive taxes (like the income tax) during good times and increased regressive taxes (like property taxes) during the bad times. These policy changes, combined with economic trends, have led to a tax system that has shifted more of the responsibility for funding state and local services on to low- and moderate-income Minnesotans. People at the highest income levels pay a smaller share of their income in state and local taxes (8.9 percent) than the average for all Minnesotans (11.2 percent).”

Illinois lawmakers should be applauded for temporarily raising the state’s flat income tax rate from 3 to 5 percent in January to help fill a $15 billion budget gap. However, they missed an opportunity to fix the state’s broken, outdated, and unfair tax system rather than just raise rates.  But the opportunity may still be available.  This week, Governor Pat Quinn asked state lawmakers to consider modernizing the tax system and making it fairer.  He did not offer specific suggestions on how to achieve this goal, but explained that Illinois’ tax system is regressive, requiring more from its poorest residents than from the rich. 

In response to his call for reform, some Democratic lawmakers offered a few suggestions, including moving the state to a graduated income tax, expanding the sales tax base to include services, and relying less on property taxes to pay for schools.


Super Bowl Ad about Taxes from Corporate Astroturf Group


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The last place you would ever expect a discussion of tax policy is in the sea of Super Bowl commercials about beer, cars, and Doritos, yet the organization Americans Against Food Taxes spent over $3 million to change that last Sunday.

The ad, called “Give Me a Break”, features a nice woman shopping in a grocery store,  explaining how she does not want the government interfering with her personal life by attempting to place taxes on soda, juice, or even flavored water. The goal of the ad is to portray objections to soda taxes as if they are grounded in the concerns of ordinary Americans.

But Americans Against Food Taxes is anything but a grassroots organization. Its funding comes from a coalition of corporate interests including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It is easy to understand why these groups are concerned about soda taxes, which were once considered a way to help pay for health care reform. The entire purpose of these taxes is to discourage the consumption of their products. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains in making the case for a soda tax, such a tax could be used to dramatically reduce obesity and health care costs and produce better health outcomes across the nation. Adding to this, the revenue raised could be dedicated to funding health care programs, which could further improve the general welfare.

These taxes may spread, at least at the state level.  In its analysis of the ad, Politifact verifies the ad’s claim that politicians are planning to impose additional taxes on soda and other groceries, writing that “legislators have introduced bills to impose or raise the tax on sodas and/or snack foods in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.”

It's true that taxes on food generally are regressive, and taxes on sugary drinks are no exception according to a recent study. It's a bad idea to rely on this sort of tax purely to raise revenue, but if the goal of the tax is to change behavior for health reasons, then such a tax might be a reasonable tool for social policy. We have often said the same about cigarette taxes, which are a bad way to raise revenue but a reasonable way to discourage an unhealthy behavior.

With so many states considering soda taxes and the corporate interests revving up their own campaign, the “Give Me a Break” ad may just be the opening shot in the big food tax battles to come.


Bright Spots for Tax Policy from States with Good Ideas


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Governors are in the midst of crafting their budget proposals for next year, and many state leaders continue to grapple with historic budget shortfalls due to lagging revenue recovery and a high demand for public services.  In 2009 and 2010, most states balanced their budgets with a mix of temporary and permanent tax increases, significant federal assistance, and spending cuts.  This year, state revenues continue to lag, many of the temporary tax increases are set to expire, and federal stimulus assistance will dry up, yet the need for quality education, safe communities, affordable health care, public transit and well-maintained roads has not diminished.

As the Tax Justice Digest has previously noted, so far this year we have seen mostly a slew of bad proposals from state leaders. Many states are offering tax breaks to corporations and wealthy households and refusing to consider new taxes, while choosing to cut state spending to historically low and damaging levels. A few governors, however, have recently bucked the cuts-only trend and have made it clear that taxes must be a part of the solution.
 
In Connecticut, newly elected Governor Dannel Malloy plans to address the state’s $3.7 billion budget shortfall with an almost equal share of spending cuts ($2 billion) and tax increases ($1.7 billion).   While the details of his tax plan will not be unveiled until February, he is likely to support eliminating a majority of the state’s sales tax exemptions as one part of his revenue raising plan.

Hawaii’s new governor, Neil Abercrombie, has also embraced the need to raise new revenues as part of a budget-fixing compromise.  Governor Abercrombie proposed raising $279 million, including taxes on soda, alcohol, and time-shares. Most significantly, Abercrombie would tax pension income (which is generally exempt from taxation currently) for taxpayers with incomes over $50,000, raising around $114 million a year.  He also supports eliminating the state deduction for state taxes, a smart reform measure that would raise $70 million a year.  

North Carolina lawmakers addressed their budget crisis in the previous two years in part with $1.3 billion in temporary taxes which are set to expire this year.  For months, Governor Bev Perdue opposed extending the taxes for another year despite a shortfall of nearly $4 billion.  She recently changed her tune, and is now considering including an extension of these temporary tax increases (a 1 cent sales tax increase and income tax surcharge on high-income households and corporations) in her budget proposal in order to stave off massive cuts to K-12 education.

For a review of the most significant state tax actions across the country this year and a preview for what’s to come in 2011, check out ITEP’s new report, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 2010 State Tax Policy Changes.

"Good" actions include progressive or reform-minded changes taken to close large state budget gaps. Eliminating personal income tax giveaways, expanding low-income credits, reinstating the estate tax, broadening the sales tax base, and reforming tax credits are all discussed.  

Among the “bad” actions state lawmakers took this year, which either worsened states’ already bleak fiscal outlook or increased taxes on middle-income households, are the repeal of needed tax increases, expanded capital gains tax breaks, and the suspension of property tax relief programs.  

“Ugly” changes raised taxes on the low-income families most affected by the economic downturn, drastically reduced state revenues in a poorly targeted manner, or stifled the ability of states and localities to raise needed revenues in the future. Reductions to low-income credits, permanently narrowing the personal income tax base, and new restrictions on the property tax fall into this category.

The report also includes a look at the state tax policy changes — good, bad, and ugly — that did not happen in 2010.  Some of the actions not taken would have significantly improved the fairness and adequacy of state tax systems, while others would have decimated state budgets and/or made state tax systems more regressive.

2011 promises to be as difficult a year as 2010 for state tax policy as lawmakers continue to grapple with historic budget shortfalls due to lagging revenues and a high demand for public services.  The report ends with a highlight of the state tax policy debates that are likely to play out across the country in the coming year.


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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Good Jobs First (GJF) released three new resources this week explaining how your state is doing when it comes to letting taxpayers know about the plethora of subsidies being given to private companies.  These resources couldn’t be more timely.  As GJF’s Executive Director Greg LeRoy explained, “with states being forced to make painful budget decisions, taxpayers expect economic development spending to be fair and transparent.”

The first of these three resources, Show Us The Subsidies, grades each state based on its subsidy disclosure practices.  GJF finds that while many states are making real improvements in subsidy disclosure, many others still lag far behind.  Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio did the best in the country according to GJF, while thirteen states plus DC lack any disclosure at all and therefore earned an “F.”  Eighteen additional states earned a “D” or “D-minus.”

While the study includes cash grants, worker training programs, and loan guarantees, much of its focus is on tax code spending, or “tax expenditures.”  Interestingly, disclosure of company-specific information appears to be quite common for state-level tax breaks.  Despite claims from business lobbyists that tax subsidies must be kept anonymous in order to protect trade secrets, GJF was able to find about 50 examples of tax credits, across about two dozen states, where company-specific information is released.  In response to the business lobby, GJF notes that “the sky has not fallen” in these states.

The second tool released by GJF this week, called Subsidy Tracker, is the first national search engine for state economic development subsidies.  By pulling together information from online sources, offline sources, and Freedom of Information Act requests, GJF has managed to create a searchable database covering more than 43,000 subsidy awards from 124 programs in 27 states.  Subsidy Tracker puts information that used to be difficult to find, nearly impossible to search through, or even previously unavailable, on the Internet all in one convenient location.  Tax credits, property tax abatements, cash grants, and numerous other types of subsidies are included in the Subsidy Tracker database.

Finally, GJF also released Accountable USA, a series of webpages for all 50 states, plus DC, that examines each state’s track record when it comes to subsidies.  Major “scams,” transparency ratings for key economic development programs, and profiles of a few significant economic development deals are included for each state.  Accountable USA also provides a detailed look at state-specific subsidies received by Wal-Mart.

These three resources from Good Jobs First will no doubt prove to be an invaluable resource for state lawmakers, advocates, media, and the general public as states continue their steady march toward improved subsidy disclosure.

While blogging for the Wall Street Journal’s “Wealth Report”, Robert Frank recently highlighted a new study showing that the anti-tax crowd’s claims regarding “tax-driven wealth flight and wealth destruction may be exaggerated.”  Specifically, the study shows that despite all the fear the Journal tried to whip up regarding the “self-destructive” nature of raising state income tax rates on the wealthy, all of the states typically demonized as being “high-tax” actually saw the number of millionaires’ living within their borders rise substantially between 2009 and 2010.

The new study in question was released by Phoenix Marketing International, and shows that the number of households with more than $1 million in assets increased by 8.1% between 2009 and 2010. 

The study also shows that Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut have the highest concentration of millionaires in the country.  And despite the fact that each of these states recently raised their top income tax rate, each saw the number of millionaires living within their borders rise substantially between 2009 and 2010. 

Specifically, three of those states – Hawaii, Maryland, and Connecticut – saw their millionaire population grow at a rate even faster than the 8.1% national average.  New Jersey was only very slightly below average, having experienced a 7.4% gain in the number of millionaires between 2009 and 2010. 

On the flip side, two of the states experiencing the slowest growth in the number of millionaires – Florida and Nevada – levy no state income tax at all!

With this in mind, all the outrage exhibited by the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board regarding the “self-destructive,” “soak-the-rich theology” of “dedicated class warrior” and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley seems to have been very much off target.  After re-reading the Journal’s editorials, it does at least become clear why Frank labeled the debate “increasingly emotional.”

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the facts have run counter to the Journal’s (or Grover Norquist's) gloom and doom predictions regarding higher taxes on the rich.  Both CTJ and ITEP have in the past taken the time to point out the Journal’s factual errors and other exaggerations on this issue.  And in fact, Frank has even helped to highlight some of ITEP’s work in this area on at least one occasion.

One can only hope that the Journal will begin reading their own bloggers’ work and begin to temper their rhetoric next time around.  After all, as Frank’s blog post explains, “that demographics and economics matter more than taxes in increasing and retaining wealth may seem like an obvious point.”  But ultimately, we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath waiting for the Journal to acknowledge it.


New 50 State ITEP Report Released: State Tax Policies CAN Help Reduce Poverty


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ITEP’s new report, Credit Where Credit is (Over) Due, examines four proven state tax reforms that can assist families living in poverty. They include refundable state Earned Income Tax Credits, property tax circuit breakers, targeted low-income credits, and child-related tax credits. The report also takes stock of current anti-poverty policies in each of the states and offers suggested policy reforms.

Earlier this month, the US Census Bureau released new data showing that the national poverty rate increased from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent in 2009.  Faced with a slow and unresponsive economy, low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to find decent jobs that can adequately provide for their families.

Most states have regressive tax systems which exacerbate this situation by imposing higher effective tax rates on low-income families than on wealthy ones, making it even harder for low-wage workers to move above the poverty line and achieve economic security. Although state tax policy has so far created an uneven playing field for low-income families, state governments can respond to rising poverty by alleviating some of the economic hardship on low-income families through targeted anti-poverty tax reforms.

One important policy available to lawmakers is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The credit is widely recognized as an effective anti-poverty strategy, lifting roughly five million people each year above the federal poverty line.  Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide state EITCs, modeled on the federal credit, which help to offset the impact of regressive state and local taxes.  The report recommends that states with EITCs consider expanding the credit and that other states consider introducing a refundable EITC to help alleviate poverty.

The second policy ITEP describes is property tax "circuit breakers." These programs offer tax credits to homeowners and renters who pay more than a certain percentage of their income in property tax.  But the credits are often only available to the elderly or disabled.  The report suggests expanding the availability of the credit to include all low-income families.

Next ITEP describes refundable low-income credits, which are a good compliment to state EITCs in part because the EITC is not adequate for older adults and adults without children.  Some states have structured their low-income credits to ensure income earners below a certain threshold do not owe income taxes. Other states have designed low-income tax credits to assist in offsetting the impact of general sales taxes or specifically the sales tax on food.  The report recommends that lawmakers expand (or create if they don’t already exist) refundable low-income tax credits.

The final anti-poverty strategy that ITEP discusses are child-related tax credits.  The new US Census numbers show that one in five children are currently living in poverty. The report recommends consideration of these tax credits, which can be used to offset child care and other expenses for parents.


ITEP's "Who Pays?" Report Renews Focus on Tax Fairness Across the Nation


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This week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), in partnership with state groups in forty-one states, released the 3rd edition of “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States.”  The report found that, by an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy.  The response has been overwhelming.

In Michigan, The Detroit Free Press hit the nail on the head: “There’s nothing even remotely fair about the state’s heaviest tax burden falling on its least wealthy earners.  It’s also horrible public policy, given the hard hit that middle and lower incomes are taking in the state’s brutal economic shift.  And it helps explain why the state is having trouble keeping up with funding needs for its most vital services.  The study provides important context for the debate about how to fix Michigan’s finances and shows how far the state really has to go before any cries of ‘unfairness’ to wealthy earners can be taken seriously.”

In addition, the Governor’s office in Michigan responded by reiterating Gov. Granholm’s support for a graduated income tax.  Currently, Michigan is among a minority of states levying a flat rate income tax.

Media in Virginia also explained the study’s importance.  The Augusta Free Press noted: “If you believe the partisan rhetoric, it’s the wealthy who bear the tax burden, and who are deserving of tax breaks to get the economy moving.  A new report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Virginia Organizing Project puts the rhetoric in a new light.”

In reference to Tennessee’s rank among the “Terrible Ten” most regressive state tax systems in the nation, The Commercial Appeal ran the headline: “A Terrible Decision.”  The “terrible decision” to which the Appeal is referring is the choice by Tennessee policymakers to forgo enacting a broad-based income tax by instead “[paying] the state’s bills by imposing the country’s largest combination of state and local sales taxes and maintaining the sales tax on food.”

In Texas, The Dallas Morning News ran with the story as well, explaining that “Texas’ low-income residents bear heavier tax burdens than their counterparts in all but four other states.”  The Morning News article goes on to explain the study’s finding that “the media and elected officials often refer to states such as Texas as “low-tax” states without considering who benefits the most within those states.”  Quoting the ITEP study, the Morning News then points out that “No-income-tax states like Washington, Texas and Florida do, in fact, have average to low taxes overall.  Can they also be considered low-tax states for poor families?  Far from it.”

Talk of the study has quickly spread everywhere from Florida to Nevada, and from Maryland to Montana.  Over the coming months, policymakers will need to keep the findings of Who Pays? in mind if they are to fill their states’ budget gaps with responsible and fair revenue solutions.


Connecticut: Rell Takes a Step in the Right Direction on Taxes


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When your state is more than $8 billion in the red over the next two years and has gone more than a month into the current fiscal year without enacting a budget, it’s hard to see how political intransigence gets the bills paid.  Just ask Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell.  After months of opposing needed tax increases, she has begun meeting with Senate President Donald Williams and House Speaker Christopher Donovan to try to craft a plan to bring revenues and expenditures into balance.  These discussions are private and have excluded members of her own party.

The meetings come after the Governor finally capitulated at the end of July and put forward a revised budget proposal that included some tax increases, including a 10 percent surcharge on the corporate income tax over the next 2 years. 

Still, the Governor’s tax proposals come up short – both in terms of adequacy and equity – when compared to those offered by the General Assembly.  The Assembly’s plan would reportedly generate $1.8 billion over the next two years, with two-thirds of that amount arising from increases in the state’s income tax for families with incomes in excess of $500,000.

The consequences of relying more heavily on spending cuts than on tax increases were well documented in a letter several elected officials, including members of the state’s Congressional delegation, sent to the Governor this week.  It points out that, under the Governor’s recommended budget, the entire staff of the Office of the Child Advocate would be eliminated, leaving the state without an independent entity to ensure the safety of children in the state’s care.

For more on the Connecticut’s ongoing budget debate, see Connecticut Voices for Children’s web site.


State Income Taxes: The Jet Set Stays Put?


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In the wake of the worst fiscal crisis in decades, several states -- most notably, New York and Hawaii -- have recently adopted income tax increases targeted at upper-income individuals and families. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has documented, they may well be joined by several other states in the coming months as more lawmakers realize that this is the most responsible way to address budget shortfalls.

Critics of progressive income tax increases like to suggest that such changes will only spur the wealthy to pack up and head to more tax-friendly climes like, say, Wyoming or South Dakota. Yet, as ITEP observed earlier this week, at least three of the states that turned to income tax increases during the last fiscal crisis (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) saw an upturn in the number of affluent taxpayers over the ten year period from 1997 to 2006. Guess it's hard to find the equivalent of Per Se or Le Bernardin in Sioux Falls!


Progress on Progressive Taxation in the States


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Few would envy the position most state lawmakers now find themselves in. Nearly every state is required to balance its budget each year and the vast majority of states face substantial budget deficits in the coming years. Those lawmakers will have to support either cuts in essential public services or increases in politically unpopular taxes -- and do so in the midst of a deepening recession.

Under these circumstances, the best way to eliminate state budget deficits is through tax increases on upper-income individuals and families, as such changes would reduce consumer demand the least. Three states in the northeast -- New York, Connecticut, and Delaware -- seem ready to do just that.

In the Empire State, Governor David Paterson and members of the legislative leadership this week reached agreement on a plan to close a $17.7 billion budget gap. The centerpiece of the plan is the addition of two new tax rates. A rate of 7.85 percent would apply to income in excess of $300,000 and a rate of 8.97 percent would apply to income above $500,000. While those changes would only be temporary in nature (lasting only through 2011) they are expected to bring in about $4 billion per year in revenue.

In the Nutmeg State, budget deficits are projected to total $8.7 billion over the next two years. In response, the Assembly's Finance Committee approved legislation that, among other changes, would add four new income tax brackets, with rates ranging from 6 percent to 7.95 percent, all affecting married Connecticuters with incomes over $250,000 annually (and single taxpayers with incomes above $132,500).

Finally, in the First State, Governor Jack Merkell has put forward a broad-ranging budget plan that would take the constructive step of raising Delaware's top income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 6.95 percent, the first income tax increase since 1974. Even though it would impose pay and benefit cuts on state employees and rely more heavily on gaming and excise tax revenue, this budget plan is a step forward on progressivity.


Tax Amnesty: States' Lack of Self-Control Diminishes Tax Fairness


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Despite their obvious unfairness, tax amnesties are a tool frequently used by states during tough budgetary times. By waiving late fees and sometimes reducing the interest rate charged on overdue taxes, state policymakers can provide their state with a quick band-aid fix without having to make the much harder choice of raising taxes or cutting valued services. But penalizing similar taxpayers at different rates dependent only upon whether they decide to pay up during an amnesty period is plainly unfair. The problems associated with amnesties become even worse, however, as soon as a state establishes a habit of repeatedly offering amnesties during tough economic times.

With the possibility of another amnesty always on the horizon, delinquent taxpayers will think twice before settling their debts with the state during normal times, and at normal penalty rates. Creating multiple sets of penalties (one for normal times, and one, lower penalty when budgets shortfalls are projected) therefore reduces fairness by penalizing similar taxpayers differently based only on the timing of their payment, and can also reduce the effectiveness of enforcement efforts and the tax system broadly. These effects can continue long after the most recent amnesty period ends. (Note that this is very similar to the argument against allowing corporations to "repatriate" their profits to the U.S. at a lower rate, a proposal which was recently rejected at the federal level).

Despite the obvious problems, Maryland and New Mexico are both considering legislation to once again provide temporary tax amnesty programs some time in the coming months. New Mexico last provided an amnesty less than a decade ago, while Maryland's last amnesty came in 2001. After that 2001 amnesty, the Maryland comptroller's office noted that "repeated use of amnesties is likely to create cynicism among law-abiding taxpayers, and lessen the need for voluntary compliance with state tax laws, which is vital for our system of taxation". Should another amnesty be offered less than a decade after the 2001 amnesty, growth in taxpayer cynicism seems unavoidable, especially in light of the fact that a similar program offered in 1987 in the state was billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for delinquent payers.

Without a doubt, the momentum in favor of such programs is strong. Alabama is already in the mist of an amnesty period (the state last offered an amnesty in 1984). Massachusetts is currently in the process of deciding upon a date for its amnesty program (Massachusetts last provided amnesty in 2003). Connecticut's program is already slated to take effect on May 1st (Connecticut's last amnesty took place in 2002). And Oklahoma just recently closed its most recent amnesty period, just seven years after its 2002 amnesty.

In this environment, it is extremely important for state policymakers to not only oppose more amnesties, but also to convincingly state that another amnesty will not be offered any time in the near future. For states looking to responsibly close their tax gaps, stepping-up enforcement spending is often a route that can produce sizeable returns, and is undoubtedly much more fair than trying to get something for nothing by arbitrarily waiving penalties in an effort to boost voluntary "compliance". For more specific alternatives to the tax amnesty approach, take a look at these recent enforcement recommendations from Oregon's Department of Revenue.


Tax Foundation State Rankings Continue to Deceive


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The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has put out a critical appraisal of the Tax Foundation's latest rankings of states by their relative state and local tax levels. Due to some methodological changes and recently revised data, some states underwent huge shifts in their ranking (changes of 10 to 15 places were not uncommon) which are not explained by the minor shifts in tax policy that may have taken place within the states. They've revised downward their estimates of the overall state and local tax burden by a full percentage point since 2007. They also no longer call 2007 a "25-year high" in state and local tax burdens, now considering the year lower tax than the mid-90s.

If history is any indication, the Tax Foundation's inconsistent methodology and reliance on early projections without hard data will lead to further rankings revisions in the future. The problem is that when state and national media pick up a juicy story along the lines of, "Your taxes are too high," they don't report the numbers as estimates or tentative. They report them as fact and don't report it when figures for previous years are revised. This is problematic because if politicians take the numbers at face-value, they may overreact to the almost certainly flawed numbers that indicate an enormous shift like, "New Jersey edged out New York to become the highest taxed state in 2008" after being ranked 10th for two previous years.

But because the numbers used to derive this conclusion are so preliminary and based on a shifting methodology, no responsible policy analyst would confidently claim that New Jersey has higher taxes than New York, Connecticut, or other similarly ranked states. The media don't mention the cautionary details that the Tax Foundation includes in its final report and methodology but excludes in its press releases. Its website even contains a sensational headline that glosses over the limitations of their study.

There are also several more fundamental problems with the Tax Foundation's ranking scheme. The Tax Foundation attempts to determine the combined tax impact from all states on a given state's residents. This is different from how most organizations would identify an average tax load, by simply dividing total state and local tax receipts by total income within a state. This is an important distinction because states generally cannot influence tax policy in other states. Also, while the Census Bureau takes two years or more to compile the official data for a given fiscal year, Tax Foundation relies on proxies (such as dividend income to estimate capital gains) to obtain data for a fiscal year that has barely ended. Using such fly-by-night estimates as a basis for ranking states against one another is so unreliable as to provide almost meaningless numbers.

Of course, the most fundamental criticism of the Tax Foundation report is that it lumps all of a state's residents, from the very poorest to the wealthiest, together in one group for purposes of measuring tax levels. As an excellent Birmingham News editorial reminds us, calling Alabama a "low tax" state conceals the harsh reality that it is among the highest-tax states in the nation in its effect on low-income families. As the editorial points out, "[Our tax fairness ranking] is the ranking that most needs to change. "


New ITEP Report: State Tax Policy a Poor Match for Economic Reality in Key States


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Earlier this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released a brief report using IRS data and revealing that the most unequal states in the country also happen to be states that lack the type of progressive tax provisions that could reduce this inequality and raise badly needed revenue. The most unequal states either don't have a personal income tax or have one in need of improvement. Consequently, these states are left with tax systems that, on the whole, are unsustainable, inadequate, and unfair over the long-run.

The IRS data show that, in 2006, ten states -- Wyoming, New York, Nevada, Connecticut, Florida, the District of Columbia, California, Massachusetts, Texas, and Illinois -- have greater concentrations of reported income among their very wealthiest residents than the country as a whole. Yet, the tax systems in these states generally ignore that very important reality. Of those ten states, four lack a broad-based personal income tax and three either impose a single, flat rate personal income tax or have a rate structure that all but functions in that manner. Three do use a graduated rate structure, but of these, two have cut income taxes for their most affluent residents substantially over the past two decades.

Given this mismatch, it should not be too surprising that over half of these states face severe or chronic budget shortfalls. After all, the lack of an income tax, the lack of a graduated rate structure, or moves to make the income tax less progressive all mean that a state's revenue system will not completely reflect the concentration of income among the very wealthy and therefore will not yield as much revenue.

Case in point: New York. As the Fiscal Policy Institute observes, over the last 30 years, the state has reduced its top income tax rate by more than 50 percent. Most recently, in 2005, it allowed to lapse a temporary top rate of 7 percent on taxpayers with incomes above $500,000 per year. Today, the state must confront a budget deficit of more than $6 billion for the coming year and more than $20 billion over the next three. New York residents seem to understand the disconnect between the enormous disparities of wealth in their state -- where the richest 1 percent of taxpayers account for 28.7 percent of reported income -- and the state's fiscal woes. A poll released this week shows that nearly 4 out of 5 people surveyed support increasing the state's income tax for millionaires. Hopefully, Governor David Paterson is listening. As it stands, he'd rather cap property taxes than ensure that millionaires pay taxes in accordance with their inordinate share of New York's economic resources.


Connecticut: Playing Politics with a Legitimate Crisis


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The Connecticut House and Senate each approved a bill early Thursday morning that adds to the state's existing $150 million deficit by cancelling a scheduled increase in the state's tax on wholesale earnings from gasoline sales. Governor Rell is expected to sign the measure. The bill prevents what would have been a 0.5% increase in the petroleum wholesale earnings tax, which industry lobbyists are claiming would have increased prices at the pump by about 5 cents.

Even if the industry's 5 cent figure is taken at face value, few observers are seriously suggesting that this bill will do anything to improve the financial situation of Connecticut families. During the brief debate that occurred earlier this year over a proposed suspension of the 18.4 cent federal gas tax, that plan was heavily criticized for only providing the average driver with a $30 tax cut. The Connecticut bill would save drivers less than a third of that amount, though it would drive state government millions deeper into debt. Despite the fact that this would only provide a negligible tax cut for the average family, one legislator insisted that it is important to "let our citizens know that we are very concerned about what they're up against" - an unsurprising sentiment given that this is an election year. Pure political motives are the only explanation for why a token gas tax cut is so high on lawmakers' agendas despite the existence of a state government deficit and numerous fiscal problems in many Connecticut counties.

But perhaps even more worrisome than cutting taxes in the face of a deficit is that Connecticut lawmakers have decided to play politics with a very serious issue affecting low-income families. Even if Connecticut legislators don't want to fix their state's regressive tax system, there are still much better options for assisting families hurt by high fuel costs. Instead of providing an across-the-board tax cut that benefits both Connecticut's wealthiest, as well as its poorest families, a targeted low-income gas tax credit of the type enacted in Minnesota could have distributed more gas tax relief to lower-income families at a similar cost. Lawmakers need to admit that the most dramatic impact of the recent economic slowdown has been on lower-income families struggling to make ends meet. Until then, more poorly targeted and gimmicky tax cuts of the kind passed in Connecticut can be expected.


Tax Day Highlights Regressive Tax Systems in Many States


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Just in time for tax day, recent reports from California, Connecticut, and North Carolina remind us that the overall distribution of taxes in most states is tilted heavily in favor of the wealthiest. Those least able to pay almost always pay a much larger share of their incomes towards taxes. For instance, California's tax system, despite featuring a highly progressive income tax, requires the poorest fifth of taxpayers to devote 11.7 percent of their incomes to taxes on average. At the same time, the richest one percent of Californians pays just 7.1 percent of their incomes in taxes.

Indeed, Meg Gray Wiehe of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center could have been writing about almost any state when she recently opined that "when lawmakers consider any changes to North Carolina's current revenue system, they should account for the effect the change will have on low- and moderate-income taxpayers. If fairness is not at the center of every tax policy debate, reform efforts will fall short on achieving long-term adequacy. Focusing on fairness will help the state meet its needs without relying on those with the least to contribute." To read more about how states can make their tax systems more equitable, see ITEP's Guide to Fair State and Local Taxes.


Progress on State Tax Breaks for Low-Income Families


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Advocates in Kentucky have long been pushing for the implementation of a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a popular, targeted tax credit that offers assistance to working families. Similar credits have been enacted in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The House Budget Committee passed a bill that would introduce a credit equal to 7.5 percent of the federal EITC, coupled with a broader state estate tax. The bill will now go before the full House.

Policymakers in Connecticut have revived their efforts - stymied by a veto by Governor Jodi Rell - to enact a refundable EITC equal to 20 percent of the federal credit. A bill creating such a credit was approved by the General Assembly's Human Services Committee in late February; see this recent testimony from Connecticut Voices for Children on the measure's potential impact.

The state of Washington, despite lacking a personal income tax, could also be moving towards adopting a version of the EITC. Called the Working Families Credit, it would provide as many as 350,000 Washington residents with a credit amounting to 10 percent of their federal EITC, thus offsetting some of the impact of Washington's highly regressive tax system.

In more low income tax relief news, the Idaho House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted this week to increase the state rebates offered to offset the state's sales tax on groceries. Currently Idaho residents receive a $20 credit as an offset to the sales tax on groceries (more for seniors). The proposal being debated in the House would provide increased and targeted tax relief. For example, the new expanded credit would offer $50 per family member if the family's income is less than $25,000. The value of the rebates would increase each year until the maximum credit of $100 is reached. By 2015 the proposal is expected to cost about $122 million. Read more about options states have to provide targeted tax relief in ITEP's policy brief.


States React to Economic Turmoil


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Many states are in a fiscal crunch and the number of states facing budget shortfalls may be growing. This week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a state fiscal update saying that, "At least twenty-five states, including several of the nation's largest, face budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2009." A sluggish economy, bursting housing bubble, and the decline of tax revenues have all had a significant impact on states and their ability to keep budgets balanced.

It's not always clear that states can act as effectively as the federal government to kick start a sluggish economy, but that doesn't stop them from trying. For any legislation to be effective as a stimulus to counteract a recession, it must be "temporary, timely and targeted," as argued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the stimulus initiatives being proposed on the state level meet these goals better than others. Tax cuts that are not temporary can do more harm to states in the long-run, and provisions that will not have any benefit until after a recession has passed are useless as a stimulus. Most importantly, those tax cuts not targeted towards low- and middle-income people are not likely to result in new spending that immediately spurs the economy, but will go largely towards savings, which takes much longer to have a positive effect.

Stimulus Plans in the States: Connecticut, Iowa, Georgia, and Ohio

In Connecticut, Governor Jodi Rell has asked legislators to reconsider their economic stimulus proposals, arguing that there is no money available to pay for tax cuts. Senate Democrats there proposed increasing the state's property tax credit by $250 and House Republicans proposed offering tax credits to offset medical and energy costs. It's certainly not obvious that an increased property tax credit is well-targeted, since property-owners tend to have higher incomes than everyone else. Depending on how it's implemented, it may not be timely either.

Policymakers in Georgia have proposed legislation to expand the state's personal exemptions temporarily. The legislation is targeted to the degree that it benefits middle-income people, but it doesn't reach those too poor to pay state income taxes. It's also flawed because it's not entirely timely. A lot of people won't benefit until next year.

Some Iowa lawmakers have adopted a completely different approach to providing economic stimulus by proposing a five-year property tax break for Iowans who improve their homes. According to one state senator, the tax break "really rewards all homeowners that have pursued the American dream of owning their own home." But a five-year tax break does not qualify as temporary, at least for the purpose of responding to a recession. It's also hard to believe that it would be targeted to those who need help and will spend the extra money right away, and it's not clear that any home improvements that result will happen quickly enough to qualify this as timely. Another idea being tossed around is a proposal that would expand the state's sales tax holiday to include all items subject to the sales tax. ITEP has long argued that sales tax holidays are not good policy. In this context it's worth noting that they are usually not targeted well at all, since the benefits go to everyone who shops during the sales tax holiday and because people who need help the most are less capable of shifting the timing of their consumption to take advantage of it.

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland isn't proposing increased tax credits. Instead, his plan includes borrowing $1.7 billion in an attempt to stimulate the state's economy and create 80,000 jobs. If approved by voters, more money would be available for transportation, renewable energy technologies, and local infrastructure projects. Borrowing to fund important investments makes sense in some contexts, but as a stimulus it's unclear whether these investments will give a timely boost to the economy to counteract a recession that is occurring now.


Tobacco Tax Hikes... A Lesser Evil?


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People who follow tax issues know that cigarette taxes are regressive, meaning they take a larger percentage of a poor person's income than a wealthy person's income. This is generally true of other consumption taxes such as sales taxes and gasoline taxes because poor people consume a larger percentage of their income than wealthy people, who have the luxury of saving and investing a large percentage of their income.

So cigarette taxes are not the best way to raise revenues from a fairness perspective. But there seem to be situations in which the only tax increases politicians will tolerate are the unfair ones. The state legislature in Delaware wanted revenue to address health and school construction, and just raised $48 million by increasing cigarette taxes from 55 cents to $1.15 a pack. Raising progressive taxes (for example, state income taxes) would be a fairer alternative, but tobacco taxes may be a second-best option when lawmakers refuse to increase other taxes.

New Hampshire just enacted a budget that includes a cigarette tax increase of 28 cents to $1.08 a pack as well as several other regressive fee hikes. While this is unfortunate, the budget also expands children's health insurance by as many as 10,000 kids, which might be hard to do in tax phobic New Hampshire. In Connecticut, the legislature recently approved a budget that raises the cigarette tax 49 cents to $2 per pack in a compromise between Republican Governor Jodi Rell and the Democratic-controlled Assembly. (Rell had earlier suggested increasing income taxes but quickly changed her mind about that.)

Now members of Congress are eyeing an increase in the federal tobacco tax from 39 cents to $1 a pack to fund an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Some members of both parties on the Senate Finance Committee have come to a tentative agreement to raise $35 billion over 5 years (less than the $50 billion envisioned in the Senate budget passed several months ago). One can imagine many more progressive ways of raising federal revenues. But if the Senate lacks the leadership and courage to fight for more progressive funding sources, this may be the best chance to expand children's health care this year.


Face-Off Over Taxes in New England


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Policymakers in New England saw several budgetary showdowns this week. On Wednesday, members of the Connecticut General Assembly missed an end-of-session deadline for adopting their state's budget for the next two years. One of the most contentious issues in the debates surrounding the spending measure is, not surprisingly, taxes.

Both chambers of the Assembly recently approved bills that would make Connecticut's personal income tax more progressive and that would yield revenue needed to address structural budget shortfalls and to support new initiatives. While there are differences between the bills backed by the two chambers, conflict is much more likely with Governor Jodi Rell, who has already suggested that she would veto any such tax increase.

Interestingly, just four months ago, Rell herself proposed raising the state's top personal income tax rate. She now argues that anticipated budget surpluses are sufficient to meet the state's needs.

In New Hampshire, some substantial differences will likely have to be hammered out within the legislature. The House of Representatives previously passed a budget that relied on an increase in the state's real estate transfer tax and a 45-cent jump in the cigarette excise. The Senate this week was expected to vote on a version of the budget that abandons the transfer tax increase and that would push the cigarette excise up by just 28 cents.


Gas Tax Gimmicks


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It's the start of the summer driving season, and gas taxes are back in the news again across the nation. Gas taxes have long been the main method used by states to fund their transportation system, but recent high gas prices have made gas taxes a hot political issue. Since most states' gas taxes are fixed dollar values, inflation decreases their value every year, forcing lawmakers to pass new laws raising the gas tax every few years. However, this time around, many states just can't seem to find the political will to do so. Nebraska's governor Heineman is threatening to veto the paltry 1.8 cents per gallon gas tax increase passed by the state's legislature. Minnesota's Governor Pawlenty waited less than twenty-four hours to veto an equally modest five cent per gallon gas tax increase. Even worse, some lawmakers in Connecticut and Minnesota have proposed completely suspending their state's gas taxes, for the summer and for one year respectively. While in the short term these gas tax gimmicks may pay political dividends, in the not-so-long term these states cannot afford to play politics with transportation funding.


Tax Debate in Connecticut May Produce Progressive Changes


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Connecticut may be a comparatively small state, but it is now gearing up for what could be a huge debate over tax policy. Already this year, Governor Jodi Rell has proposed increasing the personal income tax rate from 5.0 to 5.5 percent, eliminating the estate tax, repealing the car tax, and capping the growth of local property taxes at 3 percent per year. Senate Democrats have responded with an equally ambitious set of proposals. Legislation approved last week by the Joint Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee would create a much more graduated personal income tax rate structure (with a top rate of 6.95 percent for married couples with annual incomes above $250,000) as well as a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) equal to 20 percent of the federal EITC. The Democrats' plan would also double - from $500 to $1000 - the maximum personal income tax credit for property taxes paid. However, some elements of the Democratic plan are less fair - an increase in the cigarette excise tax from $1.51 per pack to $2.00 and the elimination of the sales tax deduction for clothing purchases of less than $50.

A recent analysis of the two sets of income tax proposals by the state's Office of Fiscal Analysis shows married couples with adjusted gross incomes below $200,000 and individuals with gross incomes below $150,000 faring better under the Democratic approach. At the same time, it shows that married couples with incomes above $600,000 per year - and individuals with incomes in excess of $300,000 - would pay substantially higher taxes if the Democratic plan were to become law instead of the Governor's. Connecticut Republicans have been quick to point out that the OFA's analysis leaves out the impact of higher cigarette and sales taxes.

With Connecticut facing a structural budget deficit of half a billion dollars, the stakes in this debate are obviously quite high. Still, it is an encouraging sign to see that both sides in the debate seem committed to using the state's fairest tax - the personal income tax - as the principal means of addressing existing problems and funding new priorities.


Imitation is the Sincerest Form of...?


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Just weeks after recommending the elimination of Connecticut's car tax, Governor Jodi Rell last Wednesday put forward a plan to limit property tax growth in the Nutmeg State to 3 percent per year. Among the myriad problems with such property tax limits is that they fail to help those individuals and families who are struggling the hardest to make ends meet, while leaving cities and towns more vulnerable to fluctuations in state aid.

Ironically, in offering her proposal, Governor Rell cited Massachusetts' experience with property tax limits as a positive example for her state to follow. Massachusetts was one of the first states in the nation to impose property tax caps, enacting Proposition 2 ½ more than 25 years ago. Yet, as the Boston Globe reports, cities and towns in Massachusetts continue to struggle with the constraints imposed by Prop 2 ½. In the wake of significant cuts in local aid during the early part of this decade, twenty- five cities and towns have already scheduled "Prop 2½ overrides" this year, so that they can raise the funds necessary to provide vital public services. With these votes, libraries, teachers, and policemen are all on the line ... the lasting legacy of an ill-advised approach to property tax reform.

Connecticut Voices for Children has some better ideas on how to improve Connecticut's tax system and how to help low- and moderate-income taxpayers.


EITC Expansion: A Good Idea in Every State


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In a welcome trend, lawmakers and advocates in Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Hawaii, Utah, Ohio, and Iowa are considering enacting Earned Income Tax Credits ... or expanding existing EITCs. The federal EITC has been hailed by policymakers of all stripes as an especially effective tool for lifting working families out of poverty. At the state level, the EITC offers the additional benefit of helping to offset the regressive sales and property taxes that hit low-income families hardest. To find out more about whether EITC legislation is active in your state, check out the Hatcher Group's State EITC Online Resource Center.

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