Mississippi News


State Rundown 3/15: Responses to Revenue Shortfalls Vary Widely


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State tax debates have been very active this week. Efforts to eliminate the income tax continue in West Virginia. Policymakers in many states are responding to revenue shortfalls in very different ways: some in Iowa, Mississippi, and Nebraska seek to dig the hole even deeper with tax cuts, while the Missouri House's response has been to slash funding for a property tax program that helps low-income seniors remain in their homes. Other responses include Oregon lawmakers considering sensible reforms to broaden the income tax base and Delaware's governor who wants to engage the public and "reset" the budget and tax conversation altogether. In other news, Florida and Oklahoma legislators are reconsidering tax breaks and credits given out in previous years, and several states continue to look at their gas taxes for transportation funding needs as well as reforming other consumption taxes.

-- Meg Wiehe, ITEP State Policy Director, @megwiehe  

Major Tax Overhauls Being Debated

  • In West Virginia new changes to SB 335 will be moving on to the state's full Senate Finance Committee for consideration. The bill would still eliminate the state’s income taxes, but over a longer period. Personal income taxes would be decreased to a flat rate of 2.5 percent before phasing out, inching toward elimination if certain triggers are met, between 2023 and 2032. Post personal income tax elimination, if triggers are met, the corporate net income tax would then phase out, followed by a reduction in severance taxes. The elimination/reduction of these taxes would be replaced by an 8 percent general consumption tax and soda and alcohol tax increases.
  • Meanwhile, the West Virginia House of Delegates is considering a 5.1 percent flat tax rate for the state's personal income tax coupled with a 5.5 percent sales tax rate and base broadening.
  • Georgia lawmakers are considering a slew of tax changes, including a harmful regressive proposal to flatten the state's income tax, though that bill includes positive aspects and could be improved with a simple fix.

Varied Responses to Revenue Shortfalls

  • Some Nebraska legislators continue to seek tax cuts despite a large and growing revenue shortfall and political disagreement over tax and funding priorities.
  • Even after sweeping several special funds into the General Fund, Mississippi lawmakers are still faced with a budget gap, and the state is likely to "collect less revenue than it did the previous year for only the second time in modern history," a largely self-imposed problem due in part to repeated tax cuts. Some are arguing this needs to be the wake-up call to convince the legislature to cancel the harmful tax cuts passed last year that are to be phased in over the next ten years.
  • Soon-to-be Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds indicated recently that she is on the tax-cut train and plans to cut income taxes under the long-debunked belief that doing so will grow the state's economy. Meanwhile the revenue forecast has been reduced again, growing the state's revenue shortfall by $131 million for the current fiscal year and $191 million for the upcoming budget.
  • Rather than consider revenue solutions to Missouri's fiscal woes, the House has opted to eliminate funding for a property tax circuit breaker program that helps low-income seniors and people with disabilities stay in their homes as their property taxes rise and their incomes remain fixed. A major contributor to the revenue shortfall appears to be unintended consequences of corporate tax measures passed in 2013 and 2015.
  • Facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit, some lawmakers have suggested limiting Oregon's mortgage interest deduction, which currently costs the state $500 million a year and disproportionately benefits taxpayers in the highest income tax bracket. The bill would cap the deduction at $15,000 and eliminate it altogether for homeowners making over $200,000 (MFJ).
  • Delaware Gov. John Carney is holding "budget reset" conversations around the state, asking for input on how to best fill the state's $350 million budget gap and promoting a balanced approach that includes funding cuts for services as well as additional revenues.
  • North Dakota's revenue shortfall grew again as the official forecast was reduced due to a "double whammy" of low oil prices and farm commodity prices.

Reconsidering Tax Breaks

  • The Oklahoma Senate, struggling with the negative effects of recent tax cuts, approved legislation that would repeal the tax cut's trigger and stop the state's top 5 percent income tax rate from dropping to 4.85 percent next year.
  • The Florida House passed a bill last week with a veto-proof 87-28 vote to eliminate Enterprise Florida, an agency used primarily by Gov. Rick Scott to hand out tax subsidies to businesses.

Transportation Funding Needs

  • South Carolina's glaring need for a gas tax update to fund repairs to its ailing roads and bridges has been fairly uncontroversial so far, as one version passed the House last week and a slightly larger version has now advanced from a Senate committee, but Gov. McMaster has thrown a potential wrench in the plan by hinting he may veto the bill. Local jurisdictions that share in those costs will be watching closely, especially considering a proposed fix to the state's underfunded pension system would push costs onto cities, towns, schools, and other local jurisdictions in what one mayor is calling a local "bailout" to cover for state mistakes.
  • In other transportation funding news, West Virginia's Senate Transportation Committee has advanced a bill to increase some fees and taxes, including a 4.5-cent gas tax increase, to fund the state's roadways, and both California and Colorado have introduced bills that would respectively increase the gas and sales taxes in order to fund infrastructure.
  • Lawmakers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire are all considering proposals to reduce carbon emissions, possibly moving toward a regional initiative.

Consumption Taxes and More

  • Some Connecticut legislators are looking to marijuana as a revenue raiser, using Colorado's experience as a blueprint.
  • The South Dakota Supreme Court has struck down a law requiring online retailers to collect sales taxes, an expected result that puts the question one step closer to being reconsidered in the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Arizona's Governor Doug Ducey has signaled his support for extending a 0.6 percent sales tax hike that is set to expire in 2021. In FY 2016, the tax brought in $644 million.
  • Struggling to retain qualified teachers, two California senators have introduced a bill that would completely exempt teacher income from the personal income tax.
  • A New Jersey lawmaker has introduced a bill to give a $100 tax credit to people who donate blood at least four times per year.
  • Nevada lawmakers are now debating adding a property tax floor to some types of properties to help make up for the revenue issues their two property tax caps have caused, adding further complexity and highlighting why these arbitrary caps are not considered good policy solutions.
  • The Florida House has advanced a bill to the Senate that would restrict local jurisdictions' ability to set their own tax rates.

 Governors' State of the State Addresses

  • Most governors have now given their addresses for the year. The next scheduled address is Gov. Kasich of Ohio on April 4.

What We're Reading...  

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 Meg Wiehe at meg@itep.org. Click here to sign up to receive the Rundown via email.


Surveying State Tax Policy Changes Thus Far in 2016


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With the exception of New Jersey, the dust has now settled on most state legislatures' 2016 tax policy debates.  Many of the conversations that took place in 2016 were quite different than those that occurred over the last few years.  Specifically, the tax cutting craze sparked by the election of many anti-tax lawmakers in November 2010 has subsided somewhat—at least for now.  For every state that enacted a notable tax cut in 2016, there was another that took the opposite path and opted to raise taxes.  And contrary to what you may expect, the distinction between tax-cutting and tax-hiking states did not always break down along traditional partisan lines.

The most significant theme of 2016 was one we've written about before: the plight of energy-dependent states whose budgets have been battered by falling oil and gas prices as well as the growing cost of tax cuts enacted during the "boom" years. In conservative-leaning energy states such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, lawmakers raised taxes to help deal with these issues in the short-term, but long-term solutions are still needed.

Tax increases elsewhere were enacted to fund health programs (California), raise teacher salaries (South Dakota), and expand tourism subsidies (Oregon).  In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a significant but flawed tax package was enacted to cope with a large general fund revenue shortfall.

On the tax cutting side, the "tax shift" craze was less pronounced than usual this year. Again, however, New Jersey lawmakers may be the exception as they continue to debate a shift toward gas taxes and away from some combination of income, estate, and sales taxes.  Moreover, some of the tax cuts that were enacted this year may ultimately set the stage for future "tax shifts," as lawmakers in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee search for ways to fund tax cuts whose full cost won't be felt for many years.

Looking ahead, debates over tax increases in Alaska and Illinois are likely to resume once the November elections have passed.  On the other hand, lawmakers in Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and elsewhere are already positioning themselves for tax cut debates in 2017.  But before that happens, there are also a significant number of revenue raising ballot proposals to be voted on in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

Below is our summary of 2016 state tax happenings, as well as a brief look ahead to 2017.

Tax Increases

Louisiana: Tax increases of varied sorts were among the strategies lawmakers employed this year to address billion dollar deficits for FY16 and FY17. The most significant was a one cent increase to the sales tax, a regressive hike that gives the state the highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the country. Given the severity of Louisiana's revenue shortfall, much of the appeal of this approach came from the fact that it could be implemented quickly. But while a higher sales tax will generate hundreds of million of dollars in needed revenue, it is also set to expire in July 2018 and is not a permanent solution to the state's fiscal stress. Over the course of two special sessions, lawmakers also: increased cigarette and alcohol excise taxes; extended, expanded, or reinstated taxes on telecommunications, hotel, and auto rentals; cut vendor discounts; limited deductions and credits that benefit businesses; and increased a tax on the health insurance premiums of managed care organizations. All of these incremental changes buy the state some time in the short-term, but the need for more substantive reform remains.

Oklahoma: To fill the state's $1.3 billion shortfall, Oklahoma lawmakers enacted a number of policy changes that will harm the state's poorest residents and set the state on an unsustainable fiscal path. Oklahoma's 2016-17 budget relied heavily on one-time funds. Lawmakers opted to change the state portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from refundable to non-refundable, meaning that poor families earning too little to owe state income taxes will now be ineligible for the credit. While this will have a noticeable impact on those families' abilities to make ends meet, the $29 million saved as a result of this policy change is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion in revenue lost every year from repeated cuts to the state's income tax. Thankfully, though, cuts to the state’s sales tax relief credit and the child tax credit were prevented, and full elimination of the state EITC was avoided. Lawmakers also capped rebates for the state's "at-risk" oil wells, saving the state over $120 million. On another positive note, Oklahoma lawmakers eliminated a nonsensical law, the state's "double deduction," that allowed Oklahomans to deduct their state income taxes from their state income taxes. 

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania lawmakers avoided broad-based tax changes, largely relying instead on regressive tax options, dubious revenue raisers, and one-time funds—most of which fall hardest on the average Pennsylvanian—to fill the state’s $1.3 billion revenue shortfall. The state’s revenue package draws primarily from expanded sales and excise taxes. In particular, it includes a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase and a tax on smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and other vaping devices along with changes to the state's sale of wine and liquor. State lawmakers also opted to include digital downloads in the sales tax base and put an end to the “vendor discount”—an unnecessary sales tax giveaway that allowed retailers to keep a portion of the tax they collected from their customers.

West Virginia: Lawmakers in West Virginia punted, for the most part, on solving their fiscal problems this year. Instead, they addressed the state’s $270 million shortfall with budget cuts, tobacco tax increases, and one-time funds. The state increased cigarette taxes by $0.65 per pack and will tax electronic cigarettes and vaping liquids. Even with this $98 million revenue gain, shortfalls are not last year’s news. Ill-advised tax cuts and low energy prices will again put pressure on the state’s budget in 2017.

South Dakota: South Dakota lawmakers enacted a half-penny sales tax increase, raising the rate from 4 to 4.5 percent. The increase will fund a pay raise for the state's teachers, who are currently the lowest-paid in the nation. Though they rejected a less regressive plan to raise the same amount of funding by raising the sales tax rate a whole cent and introducing an exemption for grocery purchases, progressive revenue options are very limited in states like South Dakota that lack an income tax, and lawmakers can be applauded for listening to public opinion that consistently favors raising revenues to fund needs like education.

California: This past session, California lawmakers were able to drum up the two-thirds majority support needed to extend and expand the state's health tax levy on managed care organizations. The prior tax expired on July 1, 2016 and was deemed too narrow to continue to comply with federal requirements. By extending the tax to all managed care organizations, California lawmakers were able to preserve access to over $1 billion in federal match money used to fund the state's Medicaid program.

Oregon: Lawmakers approved an increase to Oregon's tourist lodging tax from 1 to 1.8 percent in order to generate more revenue for state tourism funds, specifically to subsidize the World Track and Field Championships to be held in the state in 2021.

Vermont: Vermont’s 2016 revenue package included a few tax changes and a number of fee increases. Tax changes included a 3.3 percent tax on ambulance providers and the conversion of the tax on heating oil, kerosene, and propane to an excise tax of 2 cents per gallon of fuel. The move from a price-based tax to one based on consumption was meant to offset the effect of record low fuel prices.

Tax Cuts

Mississippi: Mississippi lawmakers made some of the most irresponsible fiscal policy decisions in the country this year. For one, they opted to plug their growing transportation funding shortfall with borrowed money rather than raising the necessary revenue. And at the same time, despite those funding needs and the fact that tax cuts enacted in recent years caused a revenue shortfall and painful funding cuts this very session, legislators enacted an extremely costly new round of regressive tax cuts and delayed the worst of the impacts for several years. By kicking these two cans down the road at once, lawmakers have avoided difficult decisions while putting future generations of Mississippians and their representatives in a major fiscal bind.

Tennessee: Tennessee legislators, who already oversee one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation, nonetheless opted to slash the state's Hall Tax on investment and interest income. The Hall Tax is one of the few progressive features of its tax system. After much debate over whether to reduce, eliminate, or slowly phase out the tax, an unusual compromise arose that will reduce the rate from 6 to 5 percent next year and repeal the tax entirely by 2022. While the stated "legislative intent" of the bill is to implement the phase-out gradually, no specific schedule has been set, essentially ensuring five more years of similar debates and/or a difficult showdown in 2021.

New York: New York lawmakers approved a personal income tax cut that will cost approximately $4 billion per year. The plan, which is geared toward couples earning between $40,000 and $300,000 a year, will drop tax rates ranging from 6.45 to 6.65 percent down to 5.5 percent. The tax cut 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.

Florida: The legislative session in the Sunshine State began with two competing $1 billion tax-cut packages and ended with a much more modest result. In the end, the state made permanent a costly-but-sensible sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment, reduced its sales tax holiday down to three days, and updated its corporate income tax to conform with federal law, along with several other minor changes. Ultimately, the plan is expected to reduce state revenues by about $129 million. The legislature also increased state aid to schools, which is expected to reduce local property taxes and bring the total size of the tax cuts to $550 million if those local reductions are included.

North Carolina:  Billed as a "middle-class" tax cut, North Carolina lawmakers enacted an increase in the state's standard deduction from $15,500 to $17,500 (married couples).  This new cut comes on top of four years of tax changes that are slowly but surely moving the state away from relying on its personal income tax and towards a heavier reliance on consumption taxes. 

Rhode Island: While an increase in the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from 12.5 to 15 percent of the federal credit was a bright spot in Rhode Island this year, lawmakers also found less than ideal ways to cut taxes. Specifically, they pared back the corporate minimum tax to $400, down from $450 in 2016 and $500 the year before. The state will also now provide a tax break for pension/annuity income for retirees who have reached their full Social Security age. It exempts the first $15,000 of income for those earning up to $80,000 or $100,000, depending on filing status.

Hawaii: Hawaii legislators made changes to their state's Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit this year, slightly expanding the credit by altering the method for determining the percentage of qualifying child care expenses.

Oregon: Lawmakers increased the state's Earned Income Tax Credit from 8 to 11 percent for families with dependents under 3 years old. Qualifying families will be able to claim this larger credit starting in tax year 2017.

Arizona: There was much talk of tax reform in Arizona this year. Gov. Doug Ducey expressed interest in a tax shift that would phase out the income tax over time and replace it with a regressive hike in the state's sales tax. That plan, thankfully, did not come to fruition this year. Rather, state lawmakers enacted a grab bag of (mostly business) tax cuts, including an expansion of bonus depreciation and sales and use tax exemptions for manufacturing.

Stalled Tax Debates Likely to Resume in 2017

Alaska: Faced with a multi-billion revenue hole, state lawmakers weighed and ultimately punted on a range of revenue raising options—including, most notably, the reinstatement of a personal income tax for the first time in 35 years. Notably, however, Gov. Bill Walker did scale back the state's Permanent Fund dividend payout through the use of his veto pen.                                         

Georgia: Ambitious plans to flatten or even eliminate Georgia's income tax ultimately stalled as advocates showed (PDF) these measures would have amounted to enormous giveaways to the state's wealthiest residents, drained $2 billion in funding for state services over five years, and even threatened the state's AAA bond rating.

Idaho: Lawmakers in the House enthusiastically passed a bill that cut the top two income tax rates and gave the grocery credit a small bump, but the bill stalled in the Senate where lawmakers were more interested in addressing education funding than a tax break for the state's wealthiest residents.

Illinois: After a year of gridlock, Illinois lawmakers passed a stopgap budget. Unfortunately, this "budget" amounts to no more than a spending plan as it is untethered from actual revenue figures or projections. Its main purpose is to delay the work of much needed revenue reform until after the November election.

Indiana: An effort to address long-standing needs for infrastructure improvement in Indiana resulted in lawmakers abandoning all proposals to raise new revenue, relying instead on a short-term plan of shifting general revenue to the state highway fund. Over the next two years this change will generate some $230 million in "new money" for transportation projects at the expense of other critical public services.

Maryland: Maryland lawmakers rejected two tax packages that included more bad elements than good. While the plans included an innovative expansion of the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless low- and middle-income working families, this valuable reform would have been paired with income tax cuts that would have unnecessarily benefitted the very wealthiest.

What Lies Ahead?

Key Tax-Related Measures on the Ballot in November

California: State officials have announced that seventeen (and possibly more) initiatives will appear on California's ballot this November. Among them are several tax initiatives, including extending the current income tax rates on high-income earners, raising the cigarette tax by $2 per pack, and the implementation of state, and potentially local, taxation on the sale of marijuana if legalized.

Colorado: A campaign is underway to gather the signatures required to place a proposal to raise tobacco taxes on the ballot this November. The measure would raise the tax on cigarettes from $0.84 to $2.59 per pack and increase the tax on other tobacco products by 22 percent. If approved, the proposal would raise $315 million each year for disease prevention and treatment and other health initiatives.

Maine: The Stand up for Students campaign is behind a ballot measure in Maine that would enact a 3 percent income tax surcharge on taxable income above $200,000.  If approved, the additional tax would bring in well over $150 million annually to boost support for K-12 classroom instruction.

Missouri: Three tax-related questions will be posed to Missouri voters in November.  Two are competing tobacco tax increase measures of 23 and 60 cents per pack.  The third measure would prevent state lawmakers from reforming their sales tax by expanding its base to include services in addition to currently taxed tangible goods.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma state question 779, to increase Oklahoma's sales tax 1 cent to fund teacher pay increases and other educational expenses, will appear on the state's ballot this November.

Oregon: Voters in Oregon will have the final say on a proposal to increase taxes on corporations this fall. Measure 97 (previously known as IP-28) would increase the state's corporate minimum tax for businesses with annual Oregon sales over $25 million. Under current law, corporations pay the greater of a tax on income (6.6 percent on income up to $1 million and 7.6 percent on income above $1 million) or a minimum tax on sales ($150 to $100,000). Measure 97 would eliminate the $100,000 cap on the sales-based portion of corporate minimum tax and apply a 2.5 percent rate to sales above $25 million.  If passed the measure would generate $3 billion in new revenue earmarked specifically to education, health care, and services for senior citizens.

Laying the Groundwork for Significant Tax Cuts, Tax Shifts, and Tax Reform in 2017:

The saying "after the calm comes the storm" may prove true for state tax policy debates next year.  Lawmakers in more than 20 states have already begun to lay the groundwork for major tax changes in 2017, most with an eye towards cutting personal income taxes and possibly increasing reliance on consumption taxes.  Lawmakers in energy dependent states including Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia and New Mexico will need to continue to find long-term revenue solutions to their growing revenue problems.  Illinois and Washington lawmakers will also be debating significant revenue raising options.  Governors in Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona and Maryland will take the lead on tax cutting (and possibly income tax elimination) proposals.   Mississippi lawmakers are currently meeting to discuss ways to shift the state's reliance on income taxes towards "user- based" taxes (i.e. regressive consumptions taxes).  And, Kansas lawmakers will likely revisit the disastrous tax changes under Governor Brownback.  


State Rundown 8/3: Looming Revenue Shortfalls and Short-Sighted Tax Reform Talk


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This week’s Rundown features a reiterated commitment to no new taxes in New Mexico, talk of a special revenue session in Oklahoma, tax shifting debates in Mississippi, and a looming shortfall in Missouri. Be sure to check out the What We’re Reading section for a guide to income inequality trends and an article examining studies on tax and spending levels. Thanks for reading the Rundown!

-- Meg Wiehe, ITEP State Policy Director, @megwiehe

  • With New Mexico facing revenue shortfalls, some lawmakers are urging Gov. Susana Martinez to consider revenue solutions and save the state's schools, roads, and public safety services from further funding cuts. But so far, Gov. Martinez has rejected these pragmatic pleas and only reiterated her devotion to her ideologically driven no-tax pledge.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is weighing whether to call the Legislature into special session to consider an alternative plan to fund teachers’ pay. Already under consideration is a 1 percentage point increase to the state’s sales tax, a proposal that will appear on the ballot this fall. Fallin's proposed alternative would use, in part, $140.8 million that the state collected from cuts to state agencies. The call for a special session, however, faces criticism across the aisle.
  • A Mississippi legislative "working group" has begun looking at the state's tax structure with an intent to shift the responsibility to fund state services even further onto low- and middle-income families by slashing income taxes and replacing them with regressive sales taxes. And some are already hoping for "an overall reduction in taxes" despite the massive, regressive, and short-sighted tax cuts already enacted earlier this year.
  • Results are in from a state study showing Missouri's state workers are some of the lowest-paid in the nation, and that these low wages "have led to high turnover rates, costing taxpayers additional money in overtime and training." And the Missouri Budget Project reports that more revenue shortfalls could be looming. But one silver lining on this cloudy outlook is that slow revenue growth has so far saved the state from a tax-cut "trigger" enacted two years ago, buying legislators time to change course and avoid reducing the revenues used to pay state workers even further.

 What We're Reading... 

  • The Florida Policy Institute's latest report calls for the state to carefully examine the "silent spending" it undertakes in the form of tax expenditures that total nearly $18 billion per year but receive very little scrutiny.
  • CBPP's guide to historical trends in income inequality.
  • The New York Times reviews recent studies on tax and spending levels, including one important study that asks "How Big Should Our Government Be?" and concludes that a significantly higher level of public investment would improve security, opportunity, and middle-class lives without sacrificing economic growth.
  • The Center for American Progress released a report this week, making the case for rainy day funds as a tool to help enact progressive policies.

 

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 Kelly Davis at kelly@itep.org. Click here to sign up to receive the Rundown via email


State Rundown 7/21: Tax and Budget News in Alaska, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Cleveland, Ohio


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This week we bring you tax and budget news in Alaska, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Cleveland, Ohio. Be sure to check out the What We’re Reading section for a grab bag of tax-related op-eds, new research and even a mention of Pokémon Go.  Thanks for reading the Rundown!

-- Meg Wiehe, ITEP State Policy Director, follow me @megwiehe

  • Alaska legislators officially ended the second special session called by Gov. Bill Walker this year with no solution to the state's multi-billion deficit. Three days after the House adjourned, the Senate followed their lead. Any movement on budget reform or revenue options will be put on hold until after the November elections. Gov. Bill Walker's administration released a report last week detailing the consequences Alaskans will face as a result of legislative inaction.
  • North Dakota's legislature will go into special session on August 2 to deal with a projected $310 million revenue shortfall that continues to widen due to the state's high reliance on tax revenues from a struggling energy industry. The focus is expected to be on budget cuts and use of reserve funds rather than revenue solutions, even after 4 percent across-the-board cuts were ordered in February to fill a similar gap in the last budget and 10 percent cuts have already been ordered for the upcoming biennium.
  • Massachusetts lawmakers have ruled out holding a back-to-school sales tax holiday this year due to an ongoing revenue shortfall. It is the first time they have chosen not to hold the holiday since 2009. Our recently updated policy brief explains why sales tax holidays are poorly targeted and ineffective tax policy.
  • Mississippi leaders have announced plans to study further overhauls to state's tax code this summer, with a focus on exploring shifting reliance on income to sales taxes. That's an ominous proposition considering the state entered the 2016 session with a revenue shortfall and a need for transportation funding, and passed massive income tax cuts anyway.
  • Residents of Cleveland, Ohio will be asked to approve an increase in the city's income tax at the ballot in November.  While some of the $80 million raised from the change would be used to enhance city services including police department reforms, the hike is also needed to plug a revenue gap brought about by the hands of state policymakers.  Under the leadership of Governor John Kasich, the Buckeye state has cut billions of dollars in state taxes paid for in part by also cutting state aid to local governments.  And, to make matters worse for local governments, state lawmakers recently eliminated local revenue sources including the estate tax.

 What We're Reading... 

  • New Jersey Policy Perspective's recent op-ed soberly reflects on the fiscal and political realities surrounding the urgent need for transportation funding in the Garden State.
  • Ohio Policy Matter's research director, Zach Schiller, makes the case against the state's continual attempt to gut the income tax in a recent op-ed.
  • The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center's director, Alexandra Sirota, explains the many problems with the state's new rigid budgeting practices in this op-ed.
  • A recent study shows that municipal debt is increasingly owned by wealthy households. This article from Financial Planning looks at potential implications of this shift for tax policy.
  • A new academic paper examines the relationship between sales taxes on groceries and food insecurity.
  • "The Fiscal Ship" is an online computer game that allows users to select from over 100 tax and spending options to achieve their policy goals and manage the federal debt. The Wall Street Journal reports that to date, players overwhelmingly have chosen tax increases over spending and tax cuts.
  • Did you take a break from Pokémon Go to read this? Take a look at the tax aspects of the game here.

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 Kelly Davis at kelly@itep.org. Click here to sign up to receive the Rundown in via email


State Rundown 4/21: Scraping the Bottom of the Revenue Barrel


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown. Here's a sneak peek: Illinois lawmakers push to change state's income tax structure to a graduated one, could ask voters to change state constitution. Kansas lawmakers have had it with Brownback, and refuse to cut services anymore unless tax increases are on the table. Strong majority of Oklahoma voters favor tax increases over further budget cuts to solve revenue crisis. Mississippi lawmakers pile new tax cuts on top of old ones.

-- Carl Davis, ITEP Research Director 

Facing a never-ending revenue crisis, Illinois lawmakers have finally suggested the logical solution of adopting a progressive income tax. House Speaker Mike Madigan and top Democratic representatives have offered a bill, approved by the House Revenue Committee, that would replace the state's current flat income tax with a graduated system. Under the new plan, the income tax rate for married/joint filers with income of $200,000 and lower would fall from the current 3.75 percent rate to 3.5 percent. Joint income between $200,000 and $750,000 would be taxed at 3.75 percent, while an 8.75 percent rate would apply to joint income between $750,000 and $1.5 million. Joint income over $1.5 million would be taxed at 9.75 percent. Proponents of the bill say it would raise $1.9 billion in revenue, which would help significantly with the state's $10 billion in outstanding unpaid bills. Unfortunately, Gov. Bruce Rauner has already rebuffed the measure.

The graduated income tax measure is coupled with a proposed constitutional amendment resolution that would ask voters to decide if the state should move to a graduated income tax (the current flat income tax rate is mandated by the state constitution). Previous legislative efforts to implement a graduated income tax in 2014, or to create a new millionaire's tax, fell short. Voices for Illinois Children has come out strongly in favor of the progressive income tax, saying "This will allow the tools we need to not rely on low- and middle-income families. We truly believe this is one of the best ways to move our state forward."

Kansas officials have lost patience with Gov. Sam Brownback's ruinous tax cuts, and many lawmakers who helped him pass those cuts now refuse to cut spending any further. Tax collections were short of projections in 11 out of 12 months last year, and even conservative lawmakers argue that Brownback should scale back his tax cuts to balance the budget. Following the advice of supply-side Svengali Art Laffer, Brownback promised that economic growth would make up the revenue shortfall caused by his cuts, but the rapid growth never materialized. To make up the deficit this year, the governor has cut higher education by $17 million and shortchanged educators' pensions by $93 million. Additionally, $750 million has been transferred from road projects to other areas of the budget, setting the state up for ballooning maintenance and infrastructure costs down the line. Facing an election year, many lawmakers say they will cut no further and plan to leave Brownback holding the bag.

A new poll of Oklahoma voters shows a large majority favor income tax increases over budget cuts in the face of the state's ongoing revenue crisis. The poll, commissioned by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, found that 56 percent of voters "favor increasing state revenues by raising taxes and reducing tax breaks," while just 15 percent want to cut money for education, health care and public safety. At the same time, 59 percent of voters want to maintain broad-based tax credits for working families, like the state Earned Income Tax Credit and the state Child Tax Credit. Two-thirds of voters would support increasing the top income tax rate on incomes above $150,000 and 62 percent say that the income tax cut that went into effect in January of this year should be delayed.

Mississippi lawmakers passed a $415 million tax cut deal this week despite facing a revenue shortfall caused by previous tax cuts. The package would phase out the corporate franchise tax, which brings in $260 million in revenue each year, and would cut the state's bottom income tax rate from 3 to 0 percent. The income tax cut will cost $145 million annually, and while many lower-income families will not benefit from the cut, upper-income families will receive tax cuts averaging $220 or more per year. Legislators also lowered taxes on income from self-employment by $10.2 million over three years. The cuts will begin phasing-in in 2017 but most of the revenue impact is delayed until later years, not taking full effect until 2028.

At the same time, Mississippi is dealing with a large drop in revenue following tax cuts of roughly $350 million that Gov. Phil Bryant initiated in his first term. Those cuts included $150 million in sales tax rebates to developers of retail centers, another $100 million in limits on the taxing of multi-state corporations, and an additional $100 million in cuts to the business inventory tax. One recent editorial called out legislators who "have chosen to pass legislation pandering to different constituencies while ignoring serious issues like crumbling roads and infrastructure needs."

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.


Tax Cut Madness in Mississippi


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This Tuesday, the front page of Mississippi's capital city newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, featured a three-word plea to state lawmakers: "STOP THE MADNESS." The accompanying editorial re-capped a legislative session in which legislators, largely as a result of having cut taxes by $350 million in recent years, have made painful funding cuts to most state agencies yet are inexplicably debating  another round of tax cuts.

Unfortunately, Mississippi legislators could not be swayed. Rather than heeding the clarion call to "stop the madness," the legislature opted to drag it out over the course of the next 12 years. The slow onset of these tax cuts will begin with phasing in a 50 percent deduction for federal self-employment taxes from 2017 to 2019, then accelerate with cuts to the bottom personal and corporate income tax rates from 2018 to 2022, and then conclude with the phase-out of the corporate franchise tax from 2019 to 2028. The bill delays the worst of these effects until several years down the road (see graph), but ultimately the cuts will reduce revenues by $415 million per year that fund services that legislators have already cut this year. The insanity was exquisitely captured in a political cartoon in which policymakers sit in an already-sinking boat labeled "state budget," while the lieutenant governor suggests they "shoot holes in the bottom so it'll drain faster."

The political dynamics leading to this result were interesting as well. The session started with a legislative race decided by an official straw-drawing ceremony, which was later negated, giving Republicans a supermajority in the Mississippi House that some thought would lead to a tax cut package like the one just enacted. But in the end, some Republicans voted against the bill and several Democrats supported it as a tradeoff for ensuring bipartisan support for $249 million in bond-financing for construction projects throughout the state. That bill and some of the specific projects it funds are  high enough priorities for certain legislators that they agreed to support the tax cuts to ensure the bond bill passed.

In other words, Mississippi legislators kicked two cans down the road at once: they simultaneously borrowed money for needed infrastructure improvements and enacted tax cuts that will undermine the state's ability to repay those debts in the future. Sanity cannot return to the Mississippi Legislature soon enough.


State Rundown 4/8: Show-Me State Rundown


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown! Here's a sneak peek: St. Louis, Missouri residents renew earnings tax by a wide margin. Ferguson, Missouri, voters reject property tax increase to fund police reform but approve sales tax increase. Mississippi House passes scaled-down tax cut package. Ohio Gov. John Kasich promises another tax-cut package next year.

-- Carl Davis, ITEP Research Director

Despite a big-money campaign by a local billionaire to derail the measure, voters in St. Louis, Missouri renewed their local earnings tax by a wide margin. The 1 percent income tax applies to the income of those who live or work in St. Louis. According to unofficial election results, 72 percent of city voters wanted to keep the tax, which they must reapprove every five years. Supporters of the tax said its elimination would have created a big budget shortfall for the city. Opponents in the state legislature have introduced a bill that would repeal the tax.

Meanwhile, voters in Ferguson, Missouri, rejected a property tax increase that city officials say is needed to fund police reform efforts. The tax proposal, which appeared on the ballot as Proposition P, would have increased the property tax levied by 40 cents per $100 of assessed value. It required a two-thirds majority to pass but received just 57 percent of the vote. If approved, Proposition P would have generated $600,000 in new revenue. Voters in Ferguson did approve a sales tax increase, which requires only a simple majority to pass and received 69 percent of the vote. That measure is expected to raise $1.225 million in new revenue annually. The municipality came under scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department after the killing of teenager Michael Brown by city police officers in 2014.

The Mississippi House passed an income tax cut package this week, though the measure is much smaller than that sought by the Senate. The chamber approved $143 million in personal income tax cuts and raised the threshold for state income tax liability to $5,000 of taxable income. The state Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, originally sought a $575 million package of corporate franchise, income and self-employment tax cuts. House Speaker Phil Gunn, who supported the scaled-down cuts, would have preferred to pair the cuts with increased revenue for roads and infrastructure spending. There is still a possibility that legislators will consider revenue increases for that purpose.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich delivered his State of the State speech this week, promising to propose another package of income tax cuts early next year. Since 2011 Ohio has cut taxes by more that $5 billion, including elimination of the estate tax and personal income tax rate reductions of 16 percent. Opponents of the governor's cuts argue that local jurisdictions bear the brunt, seeing $1.7 billion less in aid from the state.

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: Addressing Poverty and Inequality Through Tax Breaks for Working Families


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

As we explain in our annual report on low-income tax credits, the strategic use of Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs), property tax circuit breakers, targeted low-income tax credits and child-related tax credits can have a meaningful impact on addressing poverty, tax fairness and income inequality in the states.  

The use of these tools is so important especially because states have created an uneven playing field for their poorest residents through their existing tax policies. Every state and local tax system requires low- to middle-income families to pay a greater share of their incomes in taxes than the richest taxpayers and, as a result, tax policies in virtually every state make it even more difficult for those families in poverty to make ends meet. Unfortunately, it does not stop there–many recent tax policy proposals include tax increases on the poor under the guise of “tax reform”.   

That reality may seem bleak, but it provides state lawmakers plenty of opportunities to improve their tax codes in order to assist their state’s lowest-income residents. Targeted low-income tax cuts can serve as a vital tool in offsetting upside down tax systems and proposed regressive tax hikes. On top of that, targeted tax breaks and refundable credits do not only benefit a state’s low-income residents–they can also pump money back into the economy, providing both immediate and long-term economic stimulus. With this in mind, a number of lawmakers are heading into the 2016 legislative session with anti-poverty tax reform on the agenda.  

This year we expect states to build on reforms enacted in 2015 with a range of policies to address poverty and income inequality–including, most notably, efforts to enact or improve state EITCs in as many as a dozen states. Unfortunately, lawmakers in a few states are looking to reduce or eliminate their EITCs.  Here’s a look at the opportunities and threats we see for states in 2016:   

Enacting state EITCs:   

Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia currently have a state EITC, a credit with bipartisan support designed to promote work, bolster earnings, and lift Americans low-wage workers out of poverty. 

In 2016, a number of states are looking to join this group by enacting their own state EITCs. For instance, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently called for “blue collar tax dividends” to give people back a portion of their hard-earned tax dollars (he has proposed a nonrefundable state EITC). In South Carolina, a refundable EITC is on the table to help offset a largely regressive transportation revenue raising package. And lawmakers in Idaho have proposed the enactment of an EITC at 8 percent of the federal credit (PDF).  Advocates in GeorgiaHawaiiKentuckyMissouri and West Virginia are calling on their state lawmakers to enact state EITCs as a sensible pro-work tool that would boost incomes, improve tax fairness, and help move families out of poverty. 

Even states without an income tax could offer a state EITC and lift up the state’s most vulnerable. Washington State enacted a Working Families Tax Rebate at 10 percent of the federal EITC in 2008, though it still lacks sufficient funding to take effect.  

Enhancing state EITCs:   

While state EITCs are undoubtedly good policy, there is still room for improving existing credits. Three states (Delaware, Ohio and Virginia) have EITCs but only allow them as nonrefundable credits–a limitation which restricts their reach to those state’s lowest-income families and fails to offset the high share of sales and excise taxes they pay. Lawmakers in Delaware seem to have recognized this shortcoming by recently introducing a bill that would make the state’s EITC refundable, but only after reducing the percentage from 20 to 6 percent of the federal credit and then gradually phasing it back up to 15 percent over the course of a decade.  Advocates in Virginia are calling for a strengthening of the state's EITC as an alternative to untargeted tax cuts proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

In addition to refundability, many states are discussing an increase in the size of their credit. Governors, in particular, are stepping up to the plate: Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo recently announced her plan to raise the state’s EITC to 15 percent, up from 12.5 percent of the federal credit; Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, meanwhile, has called for doubling the state EITC as part of his commitment to reduce poverty; and Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, called to accelerate the state’s planned EITC increase. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown reiterated his support for the state’s new EITC in his 2016-17 budget. In New York, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie proposed increasing the EITC by 5 percentage points over two years. And Oregon lawmakers are calling to bring the EITC up to 18 percent of the federal credit.   

Another “enhancement” trend that is building momentum is expanding the EITC to workers without children. At the federal level, President Obama proposed just that (PDF) in 2014 and again reiterated his support for such a change in his most recent State of the Union address and budget proposal. Just last year, the District of Columbia expanded its EITC for childless workers to 100 percent of the federal credit, up from 40 percent, and increased income eligibility.   

Protecting state EITCs:  

Rather than focusing on proactive anti-poverty strategies, a handful of states will be spending the better part of 2016 protecting their state EITCs from the chopping block. Tax reform debates in Oklahoma have led to calls that the state’s EITC should be re-examined and possibly eliminated, possibly in combination with the elimination of the state's low-income sales tax relief and child care tax credit.  

For more information on the EITC, read our recently released brief that explains how the EITC works at both the federal and state levels and highlights what state policymakers can do to continue to build upon the effectiveness of this anti-poverty tax credit. 

 


2016 State Tax Policy Trends: Shifty Tax Proposals


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

Tax shifts lower or eliminate one tax in exchange for increasing a different tax. While tax shifts can come in different forms, recent tax shift proposals have typically called for the reduction or elimination of personal and corporate income taxes and expanded consumption taxes to make up some or all of the lost revenue. Despite the detrimental effect these tax shifts have on working families and state budgets down the road, they’ve been quite popular among states. Unfortunately, this trend continues in 2016, with several states considering tax shift proposals right out of the gate.

This year we are keeping our eye on an emerging sub-trend in tax shifts—leveraging the need for states to make long-overdue improvements to transportation infrastructure in order to get tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the highest-income households. We saw this in Michigan this past November, where lawmakers approved increases to gas taxes and vehicle registration fees but also offset new revenue with future cuts to the state’s top income tax rate. While an increase in transportation funding has been long-overdue in many states, these tax shift proposals have the effect of doing so at the expense of other critical state investments including higher education, public health, and safe communities. 

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

Arizona. Eliminating the income tax and replacing lost revenues with a higher sales tax is still a priority for Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers like chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Representative Darin Mitchell. Details are still forthcoming, but the governor has stood by his campaign pledge to drive the income tax rate as close to zero as possible. In Arizona, the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers already pay three times as much in taxes as a share of their income as do the top one percent. Further tax shifts from the income tax to the sales tax would be a disastrous move for tax fairness, increasing taxes on low- and middle-income families while providing substantial tax cuts to those with high-incomes.   

Mississippi. There was no shortage of significant tax proposals last year, including the Senate’s proposal to reduce income tax rates and franchise taxes, the governor’s tax cut for working families, and the House’s proposal to eliminate the income tax. However, the session ended last year without a compromise plan that could garner enough votes to win approval.  Given a new supermajority among republican lawmakers thanks to November elections, the state is almost certain to see some sort of major tax shift this year. 

Mississippi’s transportation infrastructure needs may very well provide the ticket lawmakers need to enact their desired cuts. It’s been 27 years since Mississippi last raised its gas taxes, making proposals to reform fuel taxes this year most welcome and long-overdue. Plans to raise at least $300 million for road and bridge maintenance however, are unlikely to move forward without offsetting tax cuts. Even Governor Bryant is calling for “an equal and sufficient tax reduction” to offset any proposed tax increases.  His preferred plan is a “blue collar” tax cut in the form of a nonrefundable EITC (the same plan he advocated for last year), but he is also amenable to a reduction or elimination of the state’s corporate franchise tax. While a tax cut for working families would be an appropriate and targeted policy to pair with a regressive tax increase, House and Senate lawmakers are likely to propose less targeted and more broad-based tax cuts that could result in tilting the state’s already upside down tax system more in favor of the wealthy.

Tax Shifts for Transportation a Bridge to Nowhere

Indiana. To make it more palatable for lawmakers to fund repairs for roads and bridges, House Republicans slipped a phased-in 5 percent income tax cut into a transportation package that passed the House this past Tuesday. Intending to increase funds available for infrastructure improvements, HB 1001 raises the state’s gasoline excise tax by 4 cents per gallon and the tax on diesel fuel by 7 cents. It also increases the cigarette tax by $1 per pack. The revenue potential of this bill, however, is undermined by the reduction of the personal income tax rate down to 3.06 percent over eight years. The proposal also exacerbates the unfairness of Indiana taxes: an ITEP analysis of the proposal found that the average taxpayer among the bottom 80 percent of earners would see a tax hike while the wealthiest 20 percent would benefit from a tax cut.

Georgia. What we’re seeing in Georgia is an attempt to enact a tax shift over two legislative sessions. Last year, the state enacted significant gas tax reform amongst other measures, raising $1 billion in transportation revenue. Part of the transportation package created a Special Joint Committee on Revenue Structure, which was tasked with identifying tax cuts. Due to a failure of the House to appoint their members, the committee did not convene and no tax reform plan was created. As a result of this inaction and in direct response to the prior year’s tax increase, Senator Judson Hill has introduced his own tax-cutting measures. Senate Bill 280’s primary effect is to flatten Georgia’s personal income tax to a single rate of 5.4 percent. Senate Resolution 756 requires a constitutional amendment that would bring down this rate even further. Both measures would deprive the state of needed revenue and require it to inevitably to make up these losses through more regressive sources. 

New Jersey. Facing a drying up Transportation Trust Fund, lawmakers continue to talk this year about increasing the gas tax. However, Governor Christie has said that he won’t consider raising the gas tax unless lawmakers agree to other tax cuts, specifically raising the exemption level of the estate tax or eliminating the tax altogether. In contrast to the governor’s claim that the estate tax is a burden on the middle class, a new report from the New Jersey Policy Perspectives shows that just four percent of estates are subject to the tax and that cutting the tax could seriously threaten resources needed to fund important building blocks of a strong economy such as higher education, health care, and safe communities.

South Carolina. South Carolina is preparing to debate and vote on a road repair plan in the coming weeks. The proposed law would raise an estimated $700 million each year in new revenue once fully phased in through an increase to the gas tax and other transportation related-fees, but this amount would be offset by $400 million from a combination of income tax and business property tax cuts. While there are some targeted income tax breaks that would benefit working families, including the creation of a 3.5% refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, the overall effect of the plan is somewhat regressive. There may be talk of offsetting the gas tax increase with cuts to the sales tax instead of the income tax, which, all things being equal, would be a preferable shift since it would favor cuts for middle-income earners over the wealthiest. But, most importantly, like in every other state considering this brand of tax shift, increasing one set of fees and taxes to support new funding for transportation while cutting taxes that support public education and health care is not a sensible or sustainable policy idea.

Up Next

Not all tax cuts and shifts are bad policy. Building on the momentum from 2015 reforms, many states are headed into their legislative sessions looking to address poverty and inequality through targeted tax measures. Stay tuned for the next blog post in our series for a more in-depth look at what states are addressing poverty and inequality through enacting or strengthening tax credits for working families.

 


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.


State Rundown 12/22: Looking Ahead to 2016


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As the year comes to a close, several tax bills are already being debated in states across the country. ITEP is closely following those proposals because they will likely dominate state headlines in 2016. In the new year we will write more about state tax policy trends for 2016, but in the meantime, here are some of the big state tax policy developments happening now:

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There are bright signs on the horizon in Alaska. Gov. Bill Walker recently proposed a progressive income tax to address the state’s budget implosion, brought on by declining oil and gas revenues. Alaska has not had a personal income tax since 1980, when massive oil deposits were discovered on state land. Walker’s proposal would set the state income tax at six percent of what Alaskans pay in federal income taxes. The governor would also raise the state’s gasoline tax, which has not increased in 45 years. To learn more, check out this post on the Tax Justice Blog.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott will continue to push his $1 billion hodge-podge of tax cuts, though even legislators from his side of the aisle balk at the price. The package includes sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and hurricane preparedness and a tax break for college students’ textbooks. But those measures are mere leaves for the massive corporate tax cuts at the core of the proposal: corporate income tax cuts worth $770 million annually and a sales tax break on commercial rents that will cost $339 million over the biennium. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli says the governor’s plan may not be possible in its entirety. The state will post a one-time surplus of $635 million next year, but much of that money will go to support public education. Furthermore, a one-time cash infusion won’t pay for tax cuts that recur year after year.

Louisiana Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards will push to double the state’s EITC as part of his plan to reduce poverty in the state. As we outlined in a previous blog post, the move by Edwards is one of a number of encouraging signs for tax justice advocates. The governor-elect also appointed a moderate Republican, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, to be the state’s budget chief. Dardenne could have the skills to get a revenue-raising tax reform through the legislature since he was able to do so in the early 2000s. Louisiana faces a $1 billion deficit next fiscal year.

Mississippi lawmakers are set to push for tax cuts again next year after a failed attempt to pare back and even eliminate the personal income and corporate franchise taxes in 2015. While the Mississippi Economic Council for Transportation is calling on lawmakers to raise close to $400 million through the gas tax to pay for a long list of transportation infrastructure projects, Gov. Phil Bryant has said “any tax increase must be offset by corresponding tax cuts."  Given the nature of the tax cuts proposed last year, such a plan would likely result in a significant tax reduction for the state’s wealthiest residents and a hike on low- and moderate-income working families.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal unveiled this month includes corporate and personal income tax cuts.  The governor wants to cut the state’s corporate income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.75 percent. The proposal would cost $64 million in state revenues. McAuliffe claims that these changes are necessary to compete with neighboring North Carolina, which has repeatedly slashed its corporate tax rate in recent years. But an analysis by The Commonwealth Institute says these claims are false. They point out that two-thirds of Virginia corporations pay no income tax despite record profits, and that the governor’s proposed tax break would help a few large companies while providing no benefits for small businesses and families. They also note that recent history does not provide much reason to be optimistic about the Governor’s plan: a 2009 tax break for manufacturers, for example, failed to spur job growth in that sector. The governor also wants to cut the personal income tax through slightly increasing the size of the personal and dependent exemptions.  Such a proposal will only cut taxes by a little more than $20 million a year and ITEP found that more than a quarter of taxpayers, primarily low- and moderate-income working families, will see no benefit from the proposal. 

 


State Rundown 12/3: Who Needs A Budget?


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Pennsylvania leaders have again pledged that a budget deal is in reach, despite the collapse of a recent compromise (and, of course, the compromises before that). The state is also in its sixth month of stalemate. Gov. Tom Wolf says that negotiations are down to “details and language,” with revenue raising measures being a sticking point. Legislative leaders have ruled out a broad-based tax increase so negotiators are working on a way to raise $600 million without a sales tax rate increase. Rather, a wider range of goods and services will be subjected to sales tax, including admission to museums, amusement parks, and golf courses. A proposed property tax reduction is no longer under consideration. Both houses of the legislature plan to work through the weekend on reaching a deal.

Mississippi leaders will push forward with tax cuts next legislative session even though revenue collections are sluggish enough to threaten mid-year budget cuts. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both recently reelected, will try again to push tax cuts after being defeated during the last session. A likely target is the state’s business franchise tax, which is a levy on a business’s property used, invested, or employed. Eliminating the tax, which brings in $245 million annually, is a prime item on both men’s agenda, and bigger Republican majorities in the legislature make it a possibility. House Republicans are just on vote shy of the 3/5 supermajority required to pass a tax cut. Mississippi’s Legislative Black Caucus warned that the state would be unable to afford a deep tax cut like the ones proposed by leaders last session.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has never met a tax cut he doesn’t like, and if he has his way the upcoming legislative session will give him plenty to love. Scott wants the legislature to pass $1 billion in tax cuts aimed at businesses to fulfill a campaign promise. So far, leaders in the Senate have balked at the hefty price tag, arguing that the governor shouldn’t push business tax cuts at the same time he wants to rely on property tax increases for more school funding. Budget officials estimate that Florida will see a surplus of $635 million this fiscal year, but some argue it would be irresponsible to use that one-time money for permanent cuts. In a rare move, Scott appeared before a House panel to argue that his tax cuts would be good for the state’s economy. A recent editorial in the Sun-Sentinel pushed back on the governor’s claims, saying that eliminating corporate income taxes for manufacturers and retailers won’t address Florida’s problems. 

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Do you have a exciting piece of state tax news that should be featured in the State Rundown? Send it to Sebastian at sdpjohnson@itep.org. And don't forget to sign up for the Tax Justice Digest and follow ITEP on Facebook and Twitter!


State Rundown 11/6: Election Day Wrap Up


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Voters went to the polls in a number of state and local elections this week, with lots of implications for tax policy. This rundown covers the burning ballot outcomes and election results that followers of state policy should know about!

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Washington state voters approved Tim Eyeman’s Initiative 1366 with 53 percent of the vote. The measure mandates an automatic decrease in sales tax revenue by $1 billion unless the legislature agrees to refer a ballot measure to voters that would require a supermajority to raise taxes. As we noted in a previous blog post, Initiative 1366 is a disaster for the state. Legal challenges to its legitimacy are sure to follow, but at the moment eyes are on state legislators and what they will do to avoid both the revenue loss and the supermajority requirement.

Voters in Texas approved two proposals that will impact road and school funding. Proposition 1, which increased the property tax homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000, will cost schools in the state at least $1.2 billion over the biennium. Homeowners will keep $126 annually, on average. The measure passed with 86 percent of the vote. Proposition 7 diverts up to $2.5 billion a year in sales tax revenue from the general fund to the State Highway Fund beginning in 2018. It passed with 83 percent of the vote.

Ten out of seventeen counties in Utah passed a ballot initiative for transit funding, though the measure went down in defeat in the state’s most populous counties, Salt Lake and Utah. Proposition 1 implements a local sales tax with revenue split between transit providers, cities and counties.

Voters in Kentucky elected Republican Matt Bevin governor in an upset over challenger Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general. Bevin, a businessman often at odds with his own party’s mainstream, has pledged to end Kentucky’s successful healthcare exchange and is opposed to Medicaid expansion. He has also called for corporate and personal income tax cuts and for the repeal of Kentucky’s inheritance tax. Bevin’s election is likely to move Kentucky tax policy in a less fair and unsustainable direction.

Mississippi voters easily reelected Gov. Phil Bryant, who faced token opposition from Robert Gray, a long haul truck driver. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phil Gunn, both also reelected, were responsible for a flurry of tax bills last session that would have lowered income taxes and eliminated the corporate franchise tax. At one point, lawmakers considered eliminating the income tax entirely. These efforts failed because backers could not gain a supermajority vote for their changes; now, Republicans are just one vote away from a supermajority. Expect more of the same during the state’s next legislative session.

In a bright spot, voters in Seattle, WA and Maine approved ballot questions to limit the influence of money in politics and to increase the power of small donors. Maine voters passed by 55 percent a proposal to update their public elections system. Candidates who opt for public funding will now receive additional funds if super PACs spend big for their opponents, and the transparency rules for independent spending have been tightened. The question also requires the legislature to scale back or repeal some business tax breaks in order to fund public financing. Voters in Seattle passed by 60 percent a new concept called “democracy vouchers.” Each citizen will receive four $25 publicly-funded vouchers to pledge to candidates of their choosing. The Seattle initiative also lowered campaign contribution limits, increased ethics enforcement, and banned contributions from lobbyists and city contractors. Hopefully, these measures will make lawmakers more responsive to the public on matters of tax fairness rather than entrenched interests.

 


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


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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Cuts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


State Rundown 3/31: Tax Cut Throwbacks


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North Carolina lawmakers proposed another round of personal income tax cuts last week that cost more than  $1 billion when fully enacted and would slash millions of dollars in corporate income taxes. The Job Creation and Tax Relief Act of 2015 (a sure misnomer) would reduce the personal income tax rate to 5.5 percent by 2017 and replace the current standard deductions with  a zero percent tax bracket on the first $10,000 in income for single filers by the same year (married couples could apply the zero percent bracket to the first $20,000 in income). The bill would also reduce the corporate income tax rate to 3 percent by 2017 even if the state fails to meet the required revenue targets included in the 2013 tax cut bill along with several other changes. Revenues are $300 million below projections this fiscal year. Opponents of the cuts note that they would do little to stimulate the state’s economy while reducing public investments and providing a windfall for already-profitable corporations.

An elaborate tax proposal from Idaho House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Moyle would cut taxes for the top one percent of Idaho taxpayers by $5,000 according to an analysis by ITEP and the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. Moyle’s plan would increase the state’s excise tax on gasoline by 7 cents, remove the sales tax on groceries and eliminate the food tax credit. Combined, the elements of the bill will increase taxes paid by the bottom 20 percent by $68 and taxes on middle-income earners by $192.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley embarked on a statewide tour to drum up support for his proposed tax increases. The plan, which received a lukewarm reception from many state legislators, would increase the cigarette excise tax by 82 cent a pack, increase the sales tax rate on automobile purchases from 2 to 4 percent, and would end some tax credits for insurance companies, banks and corporations. The combined measures would raise $541 million in new revenue. The governor argues that his plan is necessary to end the dysfunctional nature of state budgeting.

The Nebraska Legislature will consider a bill that would increase the excise tax on gasoline by 6 cents. The increase would be phased in over four years (1.5 cents per year). Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes the increase in the gas tax, arguing that the state should look to other options for road construction that do not entail tax increases.

 

Things We Missed:
The Mississippi House defeated efforts to pass significant tax cuts this legislative session after Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’s proposal to cut income and corporate franchise taxes by $555 million over 15 years died on the floor. Opponents of the cuts noted that they would sap K-12 and higher education budgets while shifting the burden of funding crucial services to the local level.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a package of gas and property tax increases that rank as the Utah’s largest revenue increase in 20 years. Proponents of the tax increases say they are necessary to fund important transportation projects and improvements in public education. The excise tax on gasoline will increase by 5 cents per gallon beginning in July, and will be indexed to inflation. It is expected to bring in $100 million for road and bridge repairs over the next two years. The property tax increase will add about $50 in taxes to the bill for a $250,000 house, and the revenues raised are earmarked for education.

 

States Ending Session This Week:
Kentucky (Monday)
South Dakota (Monday)
Idaho (Friday)

 


State Tax Policy Trends in 2015: Not All That "Trickles Down" Is Rain


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The theory that tax cuts for the affluent will eventually trickle down to everyone else is shopworn, yet supply-side adherents keep promising the public that the rich can have their tax cuts and the rest of us will eat cake too.

Despite 35 years of data showing this to be false, the notion has seduced enough policymakers to keep the lights on at Art Laffer’s house.

At least 10 states have tax cut proposals in motion that, unlike the tax shifts we reviewed previously, will not offset cuts by raising other taxes but by raiding surpluses or reducing spending. The overwhelming majority of these proposals will reduce taxes for the best off while doing nothing or little for everyone else, making a regressive tax landscape worse.  Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s overhaul of his state’s income tax and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s proposal to introduce a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would actually benefit low- and moderate-income families, but most of the other proposals would lead mainly to benefits for the wealthy.

Over time such tax cuts exacerbate income inequality and stymie opportunity for the masses. Taxes and spending are on a balance scale. Top-heavy tax cuts and their purported economic benefits do not trickle down a rolling hill; they tip the scale in favor of the rich while depriving states of necessary revenue to adequately fund basic services, including education, public safety, infrastructure health and other priorities. Below are some pending proposals:

Arkansas: Gov. Asa Hutchinson fulfilled his campaign promise of passing a middle class tax cut. The governor’s plan introduces a new income tax rate structure for middle income Arkansans. To help pay for the measure the capital gains exemption was reduced from 40 to 50 percent. Using data from ITEP, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families explains that the taxpayers who benefit from capital gains exemptions are wealthier families.

Florida: Once again, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is pushing lawmakers to enact an unusual hodgepodge of tax cuts.  Under his proposal, taxes on cable TV and cell phone usage would drop by 3.6 percentage points, manufacturing machinery and textbooks would both be exempted from the sales tax, the corporate income tax exemption would be raised from $50,000 to $75,000, and yet another back-to-school sales tax holiday would be held this summer.  The overall cost of this package would be roughly $700 million, and while it’s too early in the session to gauge the chances of passage, there is apparently some skepticism toward the plan in the state legislature.

Idaho: The big tax shift sought by some Idaho lawmakers is off the table for now, but Gov. Butch Otter made clear all along that he prefers a straight-up cut to the state’s corporate income tax rate, and its top personal income tax rate, from 7.4 to 6.9 percent.  Our analysts recently found that such a tax cut would make Idaho’s decidedly regressive tax system even more unfair.  More than three out of every four dollars in personal income tax cuts would flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of households, and members of the top 1 percent would see an average tax cut of over $3,500 each year.  These cuts would come on top of a very similar package of regressive income tax reductions enacted in 2012.

Mississippi: Lawmakers in the Magnolia State can’t seem to get enough of tax cut proposals. In addition to the tax shift proposal passed by the House recently (and written about here), lawmakers are debating a variety of tax cutting measures, which include decreasing personal and corporate income tax rates, introducing a nonrefundable EITC, and eliminating the corporate franchise tax.

Montana: The Montana legislature has approved a bill that would cut personal income tax rates across the board and reduce state revenues by roughly $42 million per year.  ITEP analyzed similar, earlier versions of the cut and found that high-income households would be the largest beneficiaries and that low-income and middle-income taxpayers, who currently face the highest overall state and local tax rates, would receive little or no benefit.  Governor Steve Bullock is likely to veto the plan because of its impact on the state’s ability to fund vital public services.

Nebraska: With the sheer number and diversity of tax cut bills circulating in Nebraska this winter, it seems certain some cut will be enacted.  Much of the focus so far has been on reducing property taxes, a stated priority of newly elected Gov. Pete Ricketts.  Property tax proposals include creating a new refundable, targeted property tax circuit breaker credit for homeowners and renters, introducing a local income tax to reduce reliance on property taxes for school funding, hiking the sales tax rate to pay for a bump in a statewide property tax credit, and increasing personal and corporate income tax rates to pay for property tax cuts. State business leaders, however, have made it clear that income tax cuts are their main concern, and Governor Ricketts has not ruled out the possibility.  One plan being floated would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates over eight years, giving the biggest benefits by far to the richest Nebraskans.

North Carolina (updated 4/6/2015): Two years after North Carolina enacted a sweeping tax cut package, state lawmakers have returned this year with more tax cutting plans that will bust the budget to benefit wealthy residents and profitable corporations.  Senate Republicans have unveiled another round of personal income tax cuts that cost more than  $1 billion when fully enacted and would slash millions of dollars in corporate income taxes. There has also been talk of reducing taxes on capital gains income, restoring items eliminated in 2013 including a deduction for medical expenses and historic preservation tax credit.  What makes these proposals even more egregious is the state’s anticipated revenue shortfall of almost $300 million this year. Lawmakers were forced to close a $500 million revenue gap last year with deep spending cuts after underestimating the steep cost of the tax cuts passed in 2013.  

North Dakota: Just a few short months ago, North Dakota lawmakers were giddy about the idea of using booming oil and gas tax revenue to pay for an elimination or significant reduction of the state’s personal income tax.  But as gas prices plummeted, reality set in and the House approved a scaled back proposal – a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in personal and corporate income tax rates (Gov. Dalrymple also proposed a 10 percent personal income tax cut).  North Dakota lawmakers enacted similar plans in 2011 and 2013, slowly chipping away at the two taxes.

Tennessee: In what’s becoming an annual tradition, multiple Tennessee lawmakers have proposed (subscription required) repealing the state’s “Hall Tax”—a modest 6 percent income tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains income.  As we showed in our recent Who Pays? report, the Hall Tax is a rare progressive bright spot in a tax system that tilts overwhelmingly in favor of affluent households.  Fortunately, leaders in the state’s House and Senate are reportedly unenthused by the idea since Tennessee’s wealthiest households recently benefited from cuts in estate, inheritance, and gift taxes.  And while it’s discouraging that the governor isn’t making principled tax fairness arguments against these proposals, he is very skeptical that the state can afford to get rid of the Hall Tax right now.

Texas: Lawmakers in the Lone Star State hope to enact a tax cut package that would cost about $4 billion over a two year period.  Governor Greg Abbott’s top priority is cutting the business franchise tax, and he has said that he will veto any budget that does not include such a cut.  So far, the main options for reducing business franchise taxes include cutting the rate from 1 to 0.85 percent or raising the exemption from $1 million to $4 million.  The governor would also like to see school property taxes cut, and the Senate seems happy to go along with that idea.  Options currently under discussion include raising the $15,000 homestead exemption to $33,625, or converting it to equal 25 percent of home value.  As we explain in this policy brief, the percentage-based option is less fair than a flat-dollar exemption.  But it’s also important to keep in mind the context provided by Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities: “There’s better uses of this money … than tax cuts.”


State Rundown 3/9: Revenue Strikes Back


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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled his budget last Wednesday, and while it calls for some distressing cuts to state services it also includes a worthy tax policy shift that would help working families. The governor wants to double the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit over three years. Currently, low-income families with three or more children can receive up to $937 under the credit; Baker’s proposal would increase this figure to $1,873. To pay for the EITC expansion, Gov. Baker would phase out the state’s film tax credit, which state reports have found to be inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money. One Department of Revenue report concluded that in 2012 the majority of credits went to just three movies, at a cost of $60.1 million. Attempts to curb the film credit by Baker’s predecessor Deval Patrick were unsuccessful.

Some Texas municipalities fear that state officials have pushed through too many tax cuts, according to a recent Bloomberg Business article. The disconnect, according to some political observers, arises from the popularity of conservative messages around taxation at the state level and the focus on providing services at the local level. While state spending has fallen – Texas is ranked 48th in per-capita spending according to the Kaiser Family Foundation – local governments have borrowed to pick up the slack. According to figures from the state government, local borrowing has increased by 75 percent since 2005 to fund public works necessary for managing economic and population growth.

A South Carolina lawmaker has a new plan that he says will raise an additional $800 million for roads and highways in the state. State Sen. Ray Cleary’s bill would increase the gas tax by 10 cents and index it to inflation, raise the sales tax cap on car purchases from $300 to $1,400, close some sales tax exemptions, and increase fees for licensing and registration. He estimates the changes will cost South Carolina drivers $65 more each year on average. Cleary’s plan would raise revenue, while a proposal offered by Gov. Nikki Haley would result in a net revenue loss. Haley called for an increase in the gas tax coupled with an income tax cut in her state of the state address earlier this year.

 

Following Up:
Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal met mixed reviews from state editorial boards. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette though his budget was unrealistic and partisan, while The Philadelphia Inquirer called his plan ambitious and a necessary departure from his predecessors.

Mississippi: House Speaker Philip Gunn used a bizarre biblical analogy to assert that his plan to eliminate the state income tax would not lead to lost revenues. Opponents of his plan remain unconvinced.

Florida: House and Senate leaders appear to be on a collision course over balancing the state budget, jeopardizing Gov. Rick Scott’s proposals to cut taxes and increase education spending.

 

Things We Missed:
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker released his budget last Wednesday – read it here.

Governors’ Budgets Released This Week:
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (Thursday)

States That Will End Legislative Session This Week
Arkansas (Thursday)
Utah (Thursday)
West Virginia (Saturday)
Wyoming (Monday)

 

 

 


Mississippi House Passes Bill that Could Tank the Already Poor State's Economy


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mississippicapitol.jpgMississippi lawmakers are playing a game of one-upmanship when it comes to tax proposals, but the biggest losers could be taxpayers if lawmakers enact one of the more ill-advised plans.

Last week, after just two hours of debate, the Mississippi House passed a bill that would phase out the state’s personal income tax. If passed, the bill could gradually eliminate nearly a third of state revenues. Despite the hollow promises of tax-cut advocates, eliminating the income tax would do nothing to improve employment or economic opportunity in the state.

The new bill, championed by House Speaker Philip Gunn, is the latest example of state lawmakers’ zeal to change the state tax code. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have also offered tax cut plans, though their measures are more moderate than the House proposal. Bryant wants to create a non-refundable Earned Income Tax Credit for low- and moderate-income Mississippi families, while Reeves wants to implement a package of income and business tax cuts and eliminate the state’s corporate franchise tax.

Opponents of Gunn’s income tax elimination have derided the plan as “lunacy,” and it is a hard accusation to dispute. Losing its second-largest source of revenue would be a devastating blow for the state, particularly because the effect of any spending cuts would be concentrated on the most vulnerable Mississippians. While the bill does not include any program cuts or new taxes to offset lost revenue, they would surely be necessary.

Supporters of eliminating the income tax are using the widely disproven claim that cutting taxes will boost economic growth, and therefore state revenue. A look at Kansas provides a cautionary tale: lawmakers passed deep income tax cuts using the same rubric only to slash spending later, and now the state’s conservative governor is proposing regressive consumption tax hikes.

Eliminating Mississippi’s state income tax would do little to support working and low-income families since most of the benefits would accrue to the wealthy. ITEP data shows that 65 percent of the tax cut would go to the top fifth of earners, and that the top one percent of earners would get an annual average tax cut of $20,000 if the policy were fully implemented.

Supporters believe they have answered the complaints of critics by including growth triggers in their proposal. Each phase in the income tax elimination could only proceed in years when state revenue grows by at least 3 percent. In reality, the triggers only expose their cynicism. Revenue growth in the state has slowed over the past 15 years, from 7.22 percent annually in 2000 to about 3.5 percent recently. The culprits for declining revenue growth are rising income inequality and a dampened economy, which cut into the sales tax revenues that Mississippi relies upon heavily. In fact, revenue growth from 2010 to 2013 was driven by income and corporate tax collections – the same sources that some state leaders want to cut. Supporters of eliminating the income tax either know this information and are pushing triggers to look “responsible,” or they don’t know this information and are dangerously ignorant of state finances.

Mississippi has been the poorest state in the nation across a variety of measures since at least 1931. Today, the median net worth of a Mississippi household is half the median net worth of the average American household, and the state fares poorly on indicators related to poverty – life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, employment, and obesity, among others. The people of Mississippi sorely need economic growth, but because their leaders rely on tax cuts as an economic development strategy no growth is forthcoming.

The true drivers of growth – workforce quality and new markets for goods and services – have seen systematic under-investment, leaving Mississippi underdeveloped. A strong workforce and economic climate aren’t cheap, and more tax cuts will just move the state further backward. It’s a shame that today’s leaders will repeat past mistakes, but it was Faulkner who wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

 

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Shell games have been with us since ancient times, and the tax shift proposals of today indicate that the basic concept has a long shelf life. A “conjurer” who makes fantastic claims that are later found too good to be true? Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and many other governors fit the bill. A “shill” who enthusiastically vouches for the legitimacy of the game and who stands to make a hidden profit? Any number of supply-siders who claim that tax cuts will promote prosperity or that tax increases will lead to a mass exodus. A “mark” who plays the game in hopes of winning, never realizing that it’s been rigged from the start? Unless you sit in the uppermost tax bracket, the mark is likely you.

Tax shifts lower one tax and increase another in a way that is purportedly revenue neutral. All too often, such proposals reduce taxes for top earners and stick low- and middle-income people with the bill by increasing regressive, consumption taxes. As ITEP’s Who Pays report shows, every state tax system asks more of the poorest residents than they do of the rich. Tax shifts allow elected officials to serve political goals, posing as fiscal stewards acting in the public interest even though their tax policies are detrimental to state budgets and critical programs such as education, infrastructure and public safety.  

There is a right way to do a tax shift. Last year, the District of Columbia broadened its sales tax base to include more services used by businesses and well-off residents. At the same time, it lowered taxes for middle-income earners and strengthened the Earned Income Tax Credit to put more money in the pockets of working people. Unfortunately, states currently considering tax shifts are focused on cutting taxes for the highest-income households.

Below are the top tax shift trends that ITEP is following in legislatures across the country:

1) Hiking Taxes on Low Income Families to Pay for Tax Cuts for Wealthy Families
Ohio: Gov. John Kasich’s budget includes yet another massive tax shift away from well-off taxpayers to the middle-class and working poor. He wants to slash income taxes for the second time since he’s been in office, cutting rates by 23 percent over two years, with an immediate 15 percent cut in 2015. The cuts would cost an estimated $4.6 billion in revenue over the biennium. Kasich also wants to eliminate the income tax for business owners with $2 million or less in annual receipts at a two-year cost of $700 million dollars, and increase the personal exemption allowed for those with $80,000 or less in annual income. He would pay for these massive income tax cuts through regressive tax hikes. The governor wants to increase the sales tax rate from 5.75 to 6.25 percent and broaden the sales tax base to include a number of additional services. He also wants to increase excise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, two measures that hit low-income households the hardest. ITEP ran an analysis of the tax shift plan and found that the top one percent of Ohio taxpayers would receive an average tax break of $12,010, while the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers would actually see their taxes go up by about $50. For more on the ITEP analysis read this report from Policy Matters Ohio.

Maine: Gov. Paul LePage has proposed a sweeping tax shift package that would hike sales taxes to help pay for significant personal and corporate income tax cuts and would also eliminate the estate tax. All together, the governor’s tax changes would cost $260 million when fully phased in. LePage wants to increase the sales tax rate and broaden the tax base to include some services. His plan would also eliminate cost-sharing with local governments, which could force them to hike property taxes. The governor described his plan as a way to move the state from an income-based tax system to a “pay-as-you-go” consumption-based tax system – a dangerous and ill-advised shift in the way Maine funds its crucial public investments.  But, wait; there’s more!  In his State of the State address, LePage announced his intention to fully eliminate Maine’s income tax in three steps (we saw how that worked out for Kansas). Eliminating the state income tax would result in the loss of half of the state’s $3 billion in annual revenue, necessitating deep cuts and major tax shifts to more recessive revenue sources. 

Idaho (updated 4/6/2015): Idaho lawmakers have given serious thought to a number of tax shifting ideas, almost all of which would make the state’s regressive tax system even more unfair.  The House recently decided to move forward with some of these ideas, passing a bill that would have flattened the income tax for many taxpayers, raised the gasoline tax, eliminated the Grocery Credit Refund, and exempted groceries from the sales tax.  ITEP found that the overall impact (PDF) of these changes would be higher taxes for low- and middle-income taxpayers, and dramatically lower taxes for the affluent (the top 1 percent of earners would receive an average benefit of $5,000 per year).  Fortunately, the Senate killed the bill and seems to be interested in refocusing on the original objective that inspired it: raising money for transportation.

Michigan: This May, Michigan voters will be asked to approve a major tax package that would boost funding for transportation and education by some $1.7 billion per year.  The package relies entirely on regressive tax changes to raise revenue, notably through a 1 percent sales tax increase and a gasoline tax restructuring that would raise the tax rate by roughly 12 cents per gallon.  However, the package also includes a valuable progressive offset for low-income families in the form of a significant expansion to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), from 6 to 20 percent of the federal credit.  Unfortunately, lawmakers are now sending signals that if voters approve this package, they may squander some of the revenues on a personal income tax cut that would be no good for the state’s economy and would make the state’s regressive tax system even more unfair.  According to an ITEP analysis provided to the Michigan League for Public Policy, the income tax rate cut under consideration would give low-income taxpayers an average reduction of $12 per year, while handing over $2,600 per year to each of Michigan’s top 1 percent of earners.

2) Using Tax Shifts as Political Cover to Raise Revenue to for Infrastructure
South Carolina: Gov. Nikki Haley has said that she won’t support a gas tax increase without an across the board income tax cut. Raising gas taxes while cutting income tax rates would result in a tax shift from well-off South Carolinians to middle income and working families. Her proposal would phase in income tax rate reductions over 10 years, resulting in a top income tax rate cut from 7 to 5 percent, and increase the gas tax from 16 to 26 cents. This shift away from progressive income taxes coupled with a regressive gas tax hike would be problematic for state coffers over the long term, and low-income folks would undoubtedly feel the brunt of this tax shift.

New Jersey: Lawmakers in New Jersey seem to agree that the state is facing a transportation funding crisis and that an increase in the gas tax is needed.  However, it appears more and more likely that a gas tax increase will not be enacted without a tax cut elsewhere. The taxes lawmakers are considering reducing or even eliminating to get the much needed gas tax boost?  The estate and inheritance taxes, which only impact roughly 4 percent of New Jersey families each year and have zero connection to the need to boost transportation funding in the state.  As our friends at New Jersey Policy Perspectives have argued, the other problem with this proposal is that it does nothing to help low- and moderate- families who will actually be hit hardest by a gas tax increase.  Restoring the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to 25 percent of the federal (cut to 20 percent in 2010) makes much more sense as the tax cut to propose alongside a gas tax hike, rather than eliminating taxes which benefit only the wealthiest families in the state.

3) Other States to Watch
Arizona: Online shoppers In Arizona (and every other state) often fail to pay sales taxes because e-retailers shirk their tax collection responsibilities.  In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would have closed this gap in sales tax enforcement, but the House failed to act on it.  Now, some Arizona lawmakers say that if the federal government ever does act on this important issue that any additional revenue collected through improved enforcement should be immediately sent back out the door in the form of a regressive income tax cut.  Fortunately, legislation aimed at accomplishing this end was recently voted down by a narrow margin in the Arizona House, though the sponsor is still trying to find a way to resurrect the proposal.

Mississippi (updated 4/6/2015): Mississippi lawmakers showed zeal this session for changing the state’s tax code.  Gov. Phil Bryant recommended a nonrefundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Lt. Governor Tate Reeve’s proposal would have cut personal and corporate income tax rates and eliminated the state’s franchise tax.  But, the most extreme plan emerged from the House where members passed a bill that would have phased out the state’s personal income tax over several years with more than two-thirds of the cut flowing to the richest 20 percent of taxpayers in the state at a cost of nearly $2 billion. Thanks in part to ITEP’s number crunching on all of the plans, which advocates in Mississippi shared with the media and lawmakers and put to use in publications, the House and Lt. Governor’s tax cutting proposals failed to muster enough support to move forward this session.

New Mexico: We are closely following a bill in the New Mexico legislature that would eliminate most of the taxes currently levied in the Land of Enchantment and replace the revenues with a 1 percent tax on gross receipts.  Similar tax-shifting legislation was introduced in 2013 and gained little traction.

4) The Cautionary Tale: Kansas
Kansas: The most notorious case of tax shifting continues to unfold in Kansas. In 2012 and 2013 Gov. Brownback pushed through two rounds of very regressive income tax cuts that lowered taxes on wealthy Kansans while hiking taxes on low-income Kansans, and he’s now proposing more regressive tax hikes to help balance the state’s budget. The income tax cuts already passed will cost Kansas $5 billion in lost revenue over the next seven years. Given the state’s budget situation, Brownback has been forced to delay further income tax cuts planned for this year. He also has been forced to raise taxes, though not the ones you would think: his budget proposal would increase the excise tax on cigarettes by nearly 300 percent, from $0.79 to $2.29 per pack, and taxes on liquor would rise from 8 percent to 12 percent. The governor’s regressive tax hikes would fall  on the same Kansans hurt the most by his failed economic stewardship. They also drive home some of the consequences that could arise from other officials’ rosy tax shift plans. Aggressive tax shifts that favor businesses and the wealthy at the expense of low- and middle-income families can result in states having difficulty adequately funding basic public obligations over the short and long-term.

 


State Rundown 2/13: Snow Way Forward


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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is facing a blizzard of criticism in the wake of a series of massive snowstorms that have revealed the inadequacy of public transit in Boston. The MBTA – which runs the city’s fleet of subways, busses, commuter trains and ferries and currently faces $9 billion in debt and a $3 billion backlog in maintenance – was forced to suspend service on Tuesday after riders were stranded on a train for two hours. Yesterday, the MBTA’s embattled general manager resigned, but not before revealing in a press conference that the governor hadn’t spoken to her directly about her agency’s woes. Baker, who ran on an anti-tax platform, recently proposed cutting the state’s transportation budget by $40 million (including $14 million from the MBTA), but insisted that it wouldn’t impact service. Given the depth of the problems exposed over the past week and the ire of disgruntled passengers, Baker may have a hard time selling his proposed cuts.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves introduced the Taxpayer Pay Raise Act, which is mostly a package of tax cuts aimed at business and corporations. His measure would eliminate the 3-percent income tax on the first $5,000 of taxable income, which would benefit working families. However, the proposal would also cut taxes for business owners and eliminate the state’s franchise tax on property and capital owned by corporations. Reeves’s plan would cost Mississippi $400 million in revenue every year, and over half of that money would go back to corporations – the franchise tax brings in $242 million in revenue and accounts for 45 percent of corporate tax revenue in the state. As the Mississippi Economic Policy Center points out, corporate tax cuts are unlikely to make Mississippi more competitive since the state has failed to adequately invest in the quality of its workforce.

The latest revenue forecast out of North Carolina shows that the state will collect $271 million less than estimated due to lower-than-expected income tax receipts. This measure is higher than the $199 million shortfall projected in December. State officials have blamed weak growth in wages for the gap, but the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, using ITEP data, points to the 2013 tax plan as the real culprit. The income tax cuts included in the plan will cost the state almost $1 billion this fiscal year, almost twice what the plan was originally estimated to cost.

The Arizona House considered a bill this week that would force the state to cut income taxes if Congress passes the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to collect sales tax on online purchases. The bill failed by a close margin on Tuesday, but received a reconsideration vote after one was requested by sponsor Rep. J.D. Mesnard. The Arizona Children’s Action Alliance came out against the bill, arguing that it would tie the hands of future legislators and eliminate a possible revenue source. Citing ITEP data, they note that two-thirds of the income tax cuts would go to those with incomes above $94,000. With the combined impact of lower income taxes and higher sales taxes, 80 percent of Arizona taxpayers would see a net increase in their tax bill.

Following Up:
Oklahoma: A tax exemption for manufacturers and wind farms came under fire as being too generous before a House committee this week. 

 


State Rundown 1/29: You Put a Tax Cut In, You Take a Tax Cut Out


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In the latest twist out of Arkansas, a House committee stripped Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed middle-class tax cut of a capital gains tax measure added just last week in the Senate. The governor’s proposal as passed by the Senate would have reduced the exemption on capital gains from the 50 percent exclusion passed in 2013 to the 30 percent exclusion in effect previously. The House bill would restore the 50 percent exclusion for one year, and then allow the exclusion to fall to 40 percent after that. The House version of the governor’s bill will cost $9 million more each year than the Senate bill. The move is likely to further alienate progressive groups in Arkansas, who previously offered tepid support for the governor’s plan while criticizing its omission of the working poor. Progressives were further angered by the governor’s budget proposal, which did not include promised increases in funding for pre-kindergarten. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families notes that “Even before the 2013 capital gains tax cut, Arkansas already had one of the most generous capital gains structures in the nation.”

While many politicians and businesspeople decry inverted companies as unpatriotic for avoiding their US tax liability while taking advantage of all our country has to offer, a legislator in Virginia has other ideas. Sen. Ryan McDougle recently introduced a bill that would create a $5 million corporate income tax exemption for companies that have used an inversion to lower their US tax liability. Qualifying companies would need to make a $5 million capital investment in Virginia to open a facility or other business operation, and would be eligible for the exemption each year for five years. It’s just the latest move in the depressing race to the bottom on corporate taxes.

A Maryland state senator has offered a bill that would repeal a stormwater fee he once supported. Sen. James Brochin wants to get rid of the so-called “rain tax,” a hot issue in the last gubernatorial campaign, because he claims local jurisdictions have applied the fee unevenly and put businesses at a competitive disadvantage (this aspect of the law was a part of the bill at the time the senator voted for it). Brochin also regrets supporting a bill that indexed the state’s gas tax to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), saying, “If you took the CPI idea and you had passed it in 1993, 21 years later the gas tax would be $1.86 [per gallon]." His math is a little fuzzy. Indexing MD’s gas tax to inflation (CPI) since 1993 would mean the base rate would go from 23.5 cents to 38.5 cents.  On top of that, there’s a 5 percent sales tax on gas phasing-in that would add about 12 cents a gallon to the gas tax at today’s prices, for a total gas tax of 50.5 cents, not $1.86.  For the tax rate to hit $1.86, gas prices would have to be $29.50 per gallon – which won’t happen anytime soon.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is expected to push his tax cut package in next week’s state of the state address. Under the governor’s proposed budget, individual and corporate income tax rates would be cut, the estate tax would be eliminated, and the sales tax would be broadened and increased. The governor described his plan as a way to move the state from an income-based tax system to a “pay-as-you-go” consumption-based tax system. In other words, the state would shift the way it funds public investments from relying on a progressive personal income tax to a broad- based sales tax which falls disproportionately on low- and middle-income families.

A bill to enact a property tax circuit breaker credit in Nebraska received a hearing in the state legislature today. The proposal, offered by Sen. Kate Bolz, would offer property tax rebates up to $1,200 to couples who make under $116,000 a year or individuals making under $58,000.  It is designed to target relief to residents whose property taxes or rents are high relative to their incomes. ITEP analyzed the bill and found that two-thirds of the benefits of the property tax circuit breaker credit would go to the bottom 40 percent of Nebraskan taxpayers.

Following Up:

  • North Carolina: NC Policy Watch drew attention to a new Berkeley study that shows the federal capital gains tax cuts under President George W. Bush failed to stimulate the economy. State leaders are pushing to eliminate North Carolina’s capital gains tax to increase investment.
  • Minnesota: A Senate committee voted to consider proposals to phase out the state’s tax on Social Security benefits as part of a larger tax package yesterday. Seniors and the Minnesota AARP voiced support for the measures, while some legislators balked at the price tag.
  • Mississippi: Gov. Phil Bryant’s plan to cut taxes drew more opposition, most recently in a Clarion-Ledger op-ed: “Bryant exuded optimism that the state's economy was in the best financial condition ever. He didn't dare mention that the primary source of income for Mississippians is transfer funds–namely federal funds.”

Things We Missed:

 

 


State Rundown 1/27: All Tax Cuts Are Not Created Equal


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Some North Carolina lawmakers may push to eliminate the state’s capital gains tax under the guise of promoting economic growth, according to a recent report by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. The tax is levied on income from the sale of stocks, artwork, vacation homes, and other fancy items – so this isn’t a middle class tax cut we’re talking about. ITEP crunched the numbers for the report and found that eliminating taxes on capital gains would reduce state revenue by $520 million, and 60 percent of the benefits would accrue to taxpayers making $1 million or more – just one percent of North Carolina’s taxpayer base. The idea is even more appalling when you consider that all income growth in the state between 2009 and 2012 went to these same earners, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Leaders of both parties unveiled tax cut plans last week in Minnesota, but the beneficiaries of these plans would differ greatly. Gov. Mark Dayton wants to introduce a tax credit for child care expenses that would expand an already existing program to cover families making up to $124,000 a year. Under the plan, which would cost $100 million over two years, the maximum credit would be $2,100, and the governor predicts that the typical family would receive a credit of $481. Meanwhile, state Sen. David Senjem has sponsored a bill to phase out Minnesota’s tax on some Social Security benefits over the next decade.   The lion’s share of this tax cut would go to better-off elderly taxpayers, since social security is already fully exempt from Minnesota tax for seniors with income below $25,000 ($32,000 for married couples) and partially exempt for all seniors. His plan would cost $127 million over two years..

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant pledged to consider any tax cut proposal that reaches his desk in last week’s state of the state address, saying “In short, put a tax cut on my desk, and I will sign it.” The governor has proposed a nonrefundable earned income tax credit for working families with income limits that match the federal EITC.. The governor claims the credit would give Mississippians a tax break of $100-400 a year, would cost $79 million, and would only be available in years where revenue growth is sufficient and the state’s rainy day fund is full. An ITEP analysis found that the governor’s nonrefundable EITC proposal would give a tax break to only 9 percent of the poorest Mississippians, but a refundable credit would reach 45 percent of low-income people. Not everyone in the state is enthused by the governor’s plan; one legislator called the cuts “political hogwash” and blasted the governor for not investing more in infrastructure. The Sun Herald criticized the governor for unfounded optimism in his speech, writing “At the risk of reveling in the bad, as Bryant put it, we believe no honest State of the State at this point in its history should sugarcoat this state's miserable rankings in the education of its children, the health of its residents and the income level of its work force.”

 

State of the State Addresses This Week:
Hawaii Gov. David Ige (watch here)
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (Wednesday)
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (Wednesday)

Governors’ Budgets Released This Week
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (Tuesday)
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (Tuesday)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (Tuesday)
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (Wednesday)


New Year, New Gas Tax Rates


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Residents of 10 states will see their gasoline tax rates change on Jan. 1, but the direction of those changes is decidedly mixed.  Five states will raise their gas tax rates when the clock strikes midnight, while the other five will cut theirs, at least for the time being.

Among the states with gas tax increases are Pennsylvania (9.8 cents), Virginia (5.1 cents), and Maryland (2.9 cents).  Each of these increases is taking place as scheduled under major transportation finance laws enacted last year.

North Carolina (1 cent) and Florida (0.3 cents) are also seeing smaller gas tax increases as a result of formulas written into their laws that update their tax rates each year alongside inflation or gas prices.

The states where gas tax rates will fall are Kentucky (4.3 cents), West Virginia (0.9 cents), Vermont (0.83 cents), Nebraska (0.8 cents), and New York (0.6 cents).  Each of these states ties at least part of its gas tax rate to the price of gas, much like a traditional sales tax.  With gas prices having fallen, their gas tax rates are now falling as well.

While some drivers may be excited by the prospect of a lower gas tax, these cuts will result in less funding for bridge repairs, repaving projects, and other infrastructure enhancements that in many cases are long overdue.  Because of this, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently signed an executive order preventing a gas tax cut from taking effect in his state on January 1.  And Kentucky is considering following Maryland and West Virginia’s lead by enacting a law that stabilizes the gas tax during times of dramatic declines in the price of gas.

But while states such as Kentucky may struggle to fund their transportation networks in the immediate wake of these tax cuts, these types of “variable-rate” gas taxes are still more sustainable than fixed-rate taxes that are guaranteed to become increasingly outdated with every passing year.  To that point, here are the states where gas tax rates will be reaching notable milestones of inaction on Jan. 1:

  • Iowa, Mississippi, and South Carolina will see their gas tax rates turn 26 years old this January.  Each of these states last increased their gas taxes on January 1, 1989.  
  • Louisiana will watch as its gas tax rate hits the quarter-century mark.  Its gas tax was last raised on January 1, 1990.  
  • Colorado’s gas tax rate will “celebrate” its 24th birthday on New Years Day, having last been increased on January 1, 1991.
  • Delaware will become the newest addition to the 20+ year club as it “celebrates” two decades since its last gas tax increase on January 1, 1995.

Gas tax rates need to go up if our infrastructure is going to be brought into the 21st century Jan. 1 may be a mixed bag in that regard, but it’s increasingly likely that things could change soon as debates over gas tax increases and reforms get under way in states as varied as Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin.

By Kelly Davis and Meg Wiehe

Mississippi lawmakers have been talking for months about spending some of the Magnolia State’s revenue surplus next year on a tax cut, but that talk has been short on details until this week.  On Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant released his budget plan for next year which includes a $79 million tax break for working families via enacting a 15 percent nonrefundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  The EITC would be available for taxpayers if revenues increase by 3 percent annually and the state’s emergency fund is fully funded.  

More tax cut proposals are likely to surface in the coming weeks as House and Senate members put together their spending plan for next year. While it is likely we will see much more expensive tax cuts directed to the wealthiest taxpayers in the state, let’s hope lawmakers work to improve upon Gov.  Bryant’s plan.  Nonrefundable EITCs only benefit low income workers who owe income taxes, but do nothing to offset the high sales and property taxes that hit these families the hardest. Making the credit refundable would help offset those regressive taxes for the poorest Mississippians. In fact, an ITEP analysis found that the governor’s nonrefundable EITC proposal would give a tax break to only 9 percent of the poorest MS. But a refundable credit would reach 45 percent of low-income people.

Making the credit refundable would also be an excellent way to put even more money in the hands of working Mississippians who are very likely to spend that money. When speaking about who would benefit from his tax cut plan Bryant rightly said, "They don't bury it in the yard," Bryant said. "They spend it."

While it’s worth celebrating that the Mississippi Governor’s tax cut plan is directed to low-income working families most in need of a break, our friends at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center remind us than any tax cut comes at a cost to public education which is grossly underfunded in the state.  The state has cut funding for K-12 schools by 12.3% since 2008.  More than $300 million is needed to bring public education spending up to an adequate level, yet Bryant's proposed budget only increased K-12 spending by $53 million.


State Rundown, 9/5: Gun Holiday in Mississippi, Shortfall in Wisconsin, and a Showdown in Washington


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Elmer-fudd-pictures.jpgAdd Mississippi to the list of states adopting shortsighted and impractical sales tax holidays. This week marks the state’s first tax-free weekend for sportsmen, also touted as the “Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday.” Individual sales of ammunition, firearms, archery equipment and rifle scopes, among other hunting gear, will be exempt from the state sales tax, presumably to help working hunters afford basic necessities. In what is surely no coincidence, Mississippi’s tax-free weekend is the same week as that of neighboring state Louisiana. The two states have long used fiscal policy to compete for jobs and economic development.

In an unsurprising development, Wisconsin’s state tax collections fell short of projections by $281 million last year after Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature enacted irresponsible tax cuts. Walker and Republican legislators enacted a $320 million tax cut in July 2013, another $100 million property tax reduction last October, and yet another $500 million tax cut in March of this year. Also unsurprising is that the majority of the tax cuts went to the state’s wealthiest residents. According to Wisconsin Budget Project, Wisconsin workers making $14,000 or less got an average tax cut of $48, while those making above $1.1 million got an average tax cut of $2,518. 

In Kansas, another state run into the ground with ruinous tax cuts, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over the definition of what a tax increase is. Republicans claim that gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis (D) wants to raise taxes on low-income families because Davis has proposed freezing income tax rates at current levels to increase school funding, rather than letting the rates fall lower under a plan pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback. The accusation by Republicans is bold, particularly since Brownback actually raised taxes on low-income families when he raised the state sales tax rate, cut the standard deduction, and eliminated several low-income credits (the sales tax rebate was reinstated as non-refundable credit in 2013).

Washington state’s Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing the state’s legislature this week in the ongoing saga over the McCleary school funding case. In 2012, the court ruled in McCleary v. State of Washington that state lawmakers are violating the constitutional rights of schoolchildren by failing to provide them a basic education, as required by the state constitution. The court called for the hearing this past April after legislators failed to craft a funding plan by the end of the legislative session. If the court finds the legislature in contempt, lawmakers could face fines, defunding of non-educational programs, or even the sale of state property. According to ITEP’s Who Pays report, Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation, and the need for education funding is severe.


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

If you’re looking for some summer reading, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is in the process of updating its collection of policy briefs.  In the last couple weeks, ITEP has released updated briefs on sales tax holidays, state gasoline taxes, and efforts to collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.

Bad tax ideas have already entered Arkansas’ 2014 race for governor.  After claiming that the personal income tax cuts signed this year by Governor Beebe aren’t “significant enough … to make us competitive with our surrounding states,” Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson announced that he would like to phase-down the personal income tax even further.  But ITEP has shown that the personal income tax is vital to both tax fairness and sustainability, and that the states with the highest top personal income tax rates are experiencing economic conditions at least as good, if not better, than those states without income taxes.

The Commonwealth Institute in Virginia writes that the state’s gubernatorial candidates shouldn’t assume it will be easy to pay for their tax cut promises by simply eliminating “wasteful” tax breaks.  According to the Institute, “When you exclude tax breaks that would disproportionately hit low-income and middle class families or those that are clearly not politically feasible, [eliminating] the rest would raise only about $850 million.”  Compare that with the $1.4 billion per year candidate Ken Cuccinelli proposes in personal and corporate income tax rate cuts alone.

Mississippi’s struggling infrastructure budget is in the news now that a new task force is beginning to study how the state can better fund its transportation system.  The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) says that asphalt costs have tripled in recent years while fuel taxes--which haven’t been raised since the 1980’s--have predictably failed to keep pace.  So far MDOT is responding by forgoing new construction in favor of simply maintaining the current system, but if taxes aren’t raised soon, Mississippi may run the risk of becoming yet another state that opts to siphon money away from education, human services, and other priorities to fill its growing infrastructure funding gap.

 

The Pennsylvania legislature just sent a bill to Governor Corbett that would allow most companies to keep the income tax payments they withhold from their employees as a kind of reward for having hired them. Normally, of course, those tax dollars would go to pay for the public services all Pennsylvanians, including the workers, rely on.  As Sen. Jim Ferlo argues, “All of sudden we're waylaying those employees' wages, almost akin to Jesse James robbing a bank, and we're going to put it back in the pockets of one company, in one locale, in one county, in one jobsite.”  This type of tax break is not uncommon, and it’s explained in Good Jobs First’s “Paying Taxes to the Boss.

The Olympian editorializes against Washington State’s Initiative 1185, the newest attempt by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman to empower a small minority of legislators to block the closing of any tax loophole.  The proposal is known as a “supermajority requirement,” since it would require approval by two-thirds of each legislative chamber to enact any revenue-raising tax change.  But as the editorial explains, “A supermajority gives unprecedented and undemocratic powers to the minority in just one area: tax increases. Lawmakers who oppose a tax proposal get twice the voting power of those who support it.”

Iowa tax revenues appear to be on the rise, but instead of using that money to fill in gaps after years of “starv[ing] state government” or, say, restoring anti-poverty tax credits like the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC),  Governor Terry Branstad is pushing for proposals that will “dramatically” reduce both personal and corporate income tax rates. This is par for the course with Governor Branstad. He has a history of prioritizing the wrong tax cuts while vetoing those for working families, like an expanded state EITC.

Looking for evidence that states shouldn’t heavily depend on cigarette tax (PDF) revenues as a stable source of revenue? Check out this Clarion Ledger article which reports that “per capita consumption of cigarettes — 67.9 packs a person in 2011 — is the lowest it’s ever been in Mississippi.” Thanks to federal and state tax increases, tax revenues have actually increased, but as fewer and fewer Mississippians smoke, those cigarette tax revenues are bound to decline as well.

In a recent survey, conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, Kansans said they would rather see property tax cuts than income tax cuts. This finding isn’t surprising given the unpopularity (PDF) of regressive property taxes. Earlier this year, however, Kansas lawmakers did the opposite and passed sweeping reductions to the income tax.  The Institute’s Director said it was clear that, “the tax structure [Kansans] want seems to be completely the opposite of the tax policies coming from the Legislature.”

  • The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute just unveiled a “Doomsday Clock” on their website.  The countdown shows how many days are left until massive budget cuts take effect on July 1.  The Institute explains that these cuts can be avoided if Governor O’Malley calls a special session and lawmakers pass the progressive income tax package agreed to in conference committee.
  • Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour continues to lobby for taxing internet sales even after leaving the Governor’s mansion. In fact, in his farewell address to Mississippians the Governor said, “It is time for the federal government to allow Mississippi and every other state to choose to enforce our laws and to collect these taxes. They are owed us today, and there is no longer any public policy reason to keep us from collecting. Indeed, good public policy says it is past time that our brick-and-mortar merchants on Main Street and in our shopping centers get a level playing field with Amazon and the Internet. That they get fair treatment for paying our taxes.”
  • Thanks to an obscure tax loophole which offers Iowans the ability to write off all of their federal income taxes paid, Governor Terry Branstad had a 2011 tax bill of just $52. One state senator is pondering whether or not the state needs a “Branstad rule” to ensure that upper income Iowans pay more in state taxes. The Governor’s lack of a tax bill illustrates just how preposterous the loophole is – and why there are only six states that allow it.
  • Now that the rush to make sure our taxes are filed on time is over, here’s a downright beautiful essay from a priest in Kansas reminding us the good that comes from all the frenzy.
  • Here’s a thoughtful editorial from the St. Cloud Times describing Minnesota’s need to fund important transportation projects. Lawmakers there are looking into toll roads because the political will to raise gas taxes doesn’t exist – yet the editors rightly conclude, “It’s not that we oppose building this bridge or expanding roads. It’s just that the fairest revenue stream to do so is the gas tax. Legislators just need the courage to adjust it as needed.” To see how Minnesota’s gas tax has effectively shrunk over time, check out this chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

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.


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.


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.


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.


New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions


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The vast majority of the attention given to the Bush tax cuts has been focused on changes in top marginal rates, the treatment of capital gains income, and the estate tax.  But another, less visible component of those cuts has been gradually making itemized deductions more unfair and expensive over the last five years.  Since the vast majority of states offering itemized deductions base their rules on what is done at the federal level, this change has also resulted in state governments offering an ever-growing, regressive tax cut that they clearly cannot afford. 

In an attempt to encourage states to reverse the effects of this costly and inequitable development, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) this week released a new report, "Writing Off" Tax Giveaways, that examines five options for reforming state itemized deductions in order to reduce their cost and regressivity, with an eye toward helping states balance their budgets.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia currently allow itemized deductions.  The remaining states either lack an income tax entirely, or have simply chosen not to make itemized deductions a part of their income tax — as Rhode Island decided to do just this year.  In 2010, for the first time in two decades, twenty-six states plus DC will not limit these deductions for their wealthiest residents in any way, due to the federal government's repeal of the "Pease" phase-out (so named for its original Congressional sponsor).  This is an unfortunate development as itemized deductions, even with the Pease phase-out, were already most generous to the nation's wealthiest families.

"Writing Off" Tax Giveaways examines five specific reform options for each of the thirty-one states offering itemized deductions (state-specific results are available in the appendix of the report or in these convenient, state-specific fact sheets).

The most comprehensive option considered in the report is the complete repeal of itemized deductions, accompanied by a substantial increase in the standard deduction.  By pairing these two tax changes, only a very small minority of taxpayers in each state would face a tax increase under this option, while a much larger share would actually see their taxes reduced overall.  This option would raise substantial revenue with which to help states balance their budgets.

Another reform option examined by the report would place a cap on the total value of itemized deductions.  Vermont and New York already do this with some of their deductions, while Hawaii legislators attempted to enact a comprehensive cap earlier this year, only to be thwarted by Governor Linda Lingle's veto.  This proposal would increase taxes on only those few wealthy taxpayers currently claiming itemized deductions in excess of $40,000 per year (or $20,000 for single taxpayers).

Converting itemized deductions into a credit, as has been done in Wisconsin and Utah, is also analyzed by the report.  This option would reduce the "upside down" nature of itemized deductions by preventing wealthier taxpayers in states levying a graduated rate income tax from receiving more benefit per dollar of deduction than lower- and middle-income taxpayers.  Like outright repeal, this proposal would raise significant revenue, and would result in far more taxpayers seeing tax cuts than would see tax increases.

Finally, two options for phasing-out deductions for high-income earners are examined.  One option simply reinstates the federal Pease phase-out, while another analyzes the effects of a modified phase-out design.  These options would raise the least revenue of the five options examined, but should be most familiar to lawmakers because of their experience with the federal Pease provision.

Read the full report.


Mississippi Think Tank Calls for Balanced Approach to Revenue Shortfall


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Mississippi's State Tax Commission recently reported that revenue collections for the month of January fell by 12.2% (the worst showing of the current fiscal year). That made January the 17th consecutive month of lower-than-expected revenues. In response to these figures, Governor Haley Barbour said, "I will soon be forced to look at whether additional cuts will be necessary in the current fiscal year beyond the $437 million in cuts already made."

Instead of looking to rely solely on cuts to vital services, Mississippi lawmakers should strike a balance between budget cuts and new revenue. In a recent Clarion Ledger column citing ITEP estimates,  Ed Sivak of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center makes the point that there are many ways that Mississippi could ease its fiscal shortfall by increasing taxes, such as a sales tax base expansion or modernizing the income tax.

At some point, Mississippi lawmakers must acknowledge that it's simply impossible to slash their way out of the state's fiscal crisis. They need to seriously consider the options Sivak discusses.


States Get Serious About Transportation Funding


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Many states across the country have stood idly by while inflation and improving vehicle fuel efficiency have cut into their gas tax revenues, reducing their ability to build and maintain an adequate transportation network.  Fortunately, new developments in at least four states demonstrate an increasing level of interest in addressing the transportation problem head-on.

In Arkansas this week, a state panel created by the legislature endorsed increasing taxes on motor fuels, and taking steps to ensure that such taxes can provide a sustainable source of revenue over time.  Specifically, the panel expressed an interest in linking the tax rate to the annual “Construction Cost Index,” a measure of the inflation in construction commodity prices.  As the committee chairman explained, this method would provide a revenue stream better suited to helping the state maintain a consistent level of purchasing power over time. 

Wisely, the proposal would also ensure that fuel tax rates would not increase by more than 2 cents per gallon in any given year.  Such a limitation should help to prevent the types of political outcries that have surfaced in other states when indexed gas taxes have increased by large amounts in a single year.

In Texas, attention has begun to turn toward a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax which, as its name suggests, would tax drivers based on the number of miles they travel.  Such a tax is similar to a gas tax in that it makes the users of roadways pay for their continued maintenance.  VMT’s, however, are able to avoid some of the most serious long-run revenue problems associated with gas taxes, since their yield is not eroded as individuals switch to more fuel efficient vehicles.  But Texas Senator John Carona hit the nail on the head in his description of the VMT as an idea “far into the future and way ahead of its time.”  While states like Texas should begin studying this option now, they should also follow Carona’s lead in the meantime by embracing an increase in motor fuel tax rates to address the funding problem already at their doorsteps.

Nebraska legislators have also begun discussing the need for additional transportation dollars.  In a report outlining the testimony given at eight hearings conducted last fall by the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, 31 separate options for raising transportation revenues are examined.  Among those options are an increase in the gas tax and indexing the tax either to inflation or directly to the costs associated with the continued maintenance and construction of the state’s transportation network.  As the report explains, “there was nearly unanimous support from all testifiers for some type of tax or fee increase to support the highway system.”  Committee Chairwoman and State Senator Deb Fischer expects to have a major highway-funding bill ready for the 2011 legislative session.

Finally, legislators in Kansas this week also pushed forward with proposals to enhance the sustainability and adequacy of their transportation revenue streams.  A joint House-Senate transportation committee advanced two options for raising motor fuel tax collections: (1) applying the state sales tax to fuel purchases and slightly lowering the ordinary fuel tax rate, and (2) raising the fuel tax rate and indexing it to inflation.  While either proposal would be a great improvement to Kansas' stagnant, flat cents-per-gallon gas tax, the inflation-indexed approach would provide a somewhat more predictable revenue stream since its yield would not be contingent upon the (often volatile) price of gasoline.

In addition to these four states, we have also highlighted stories out of South Dakota and Mississippi during the latter half of 2009 that indicated a similar interest in doing something constructive to enhance current transportation funding streams.  And more beneficial debate has occurred in a number of states where progressives have insisted on offsetting the regressive effects of transportation-related tax hikes by enhancing low-income refundable credits.

Virginia is one of the major exceptions to the trend toward a more rational transportation funding debate.  As the Washington Post explained in an editorial this week, “[Governor-elect Robert McDonnell’s] transportation plan, which ruled out new taxes, relied on made-up numbers and wishful thinking to arrive at its promise of new funding.”  Rather than acknowledging the futility of attempting to fund a 21st century transportation infrastructure with a gasoline tax that hasn’t been altered since 1987, McDonnell worked to repeatedly block attempts to raise the gas tax during his time in the state’s legislature. 

Following the leads of policymakers in Arkansas, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Mississippi and keeping higher taxes on the table is absolutely essential to the construction and maintenance of an adequate transportation system.  As the Washington Post cynically suggests, new revenue is so desperately needed that McDonnell should even be forgiven if he has to rebrand new taxes as “user fees” in order to get around his irresponsible campaign promise not to raise taxes.


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.

Though it seems like most legislative sessions just ended after laborious budget battles, many lawmakers are looking to the future and one word is coming to mind -- grim. In many states, revenue isn't keeping up with projections. As a result, this week alone, lawmakers in Illinois, Mississippi, and Washington State have said revenue-raisers must be on the table.

Spending cuts have their consequences and there is only so much cutting that is possible or reasonable. A recent Peoria Journal Star editorial calls on lawmakers to respond to a report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The report discusses various revenue-raisers, including a sales tax base expansion. The Journal Star says, "This structural deficit is not going away by itself. To declare discussion about alternative revenue options DOA would just be foolish."

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Mississippi are likely to review lists of fee increases put together by state agencies to show how some revenue could be increased. 

In Washington, Governor Chris Gregoire earlier this week said that she would consider tax increases, saying that Washingtonians may have had their fill of cuts, "At some point, the people, I assume, don't want us to take any more spending cuts. I mean, I'm already hearing about, 'Why did you cut education?' Well, there weren't any options. We're without options.''


Mississippi Lawmakers Urged to Take Balanced Approach to Budget Woes


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Policymakers across the country are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the budgets they recently passed depended on revenue that may never materialize. The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) reports that state revenue for the first two months of the fiscal year that started July 1 is already $31.5 million below projections. Governor Barbour, anticipating further reductions in available revenue, announced $171.9 million in cuts -- the vast majority of which are cuts to the state's education budget (this despite Education Week giving the state a D+ in terms of overall education in their Quality Counts report.)

In their latest budget brief, MEPC urges a balanced approach to solving the state's upcoming fiscal shortfall, "To rely solely on cuts would further hurt the economy... Furthermore, cuts – especially to the state’s educational systems - jeopardize the state’s ability to prepare its workforce to compete in today’s economy." We couldn't agree more.

 


Transportation Funding in the News


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Last week brought with it a flurry of news stories discussing the issue of how to pay for transportation infrastructure. This topic is never too far from the agenda in statehouses across the country, in large part because most states fund their infrastructures primarily with a fixed-rate gasoline tax (levied as a specific number of cents per gallon) which inevitably becomes inadequate over time as inflation erodes the value of that tax rate. What's more, with fuel efficiency becoming an increasingly important criterion in Americans' car-buying decisions, drivers are able to travel the same distance while purchasing less gasoline, and paying less in gasoline taxes.

With all this in mind, Mississippi's top transportation official last week publicly stated that the state's lawmakers need to increase their flat 18.5 cent per gallon gas tax rate. As evidence of this need, the official also noted that 25% of the state's bridges are deficient.

In a similar vein, one recent op-ed in Michigan called for increasing the state's gas tax and restructuring it to prevent it from continually losing its value due to inflation. Another op-ed ran in the same paper that day, this one written by the President of the Michigan Petroleum Association, insisting that the state eliminate the gas tax altogether and pay for the lost revenue with increased sales taxes. The most obvious flaw with this plan is that it would shift the responsibility for paying taxes away from long-distance commuters and those owners of heavier (and generally less fuel-efficient) vehicles -- despite the fact that these are precisely the people who benefit most from the government's provision of roads.

More news coverage of the transportation issue came out of South Dakota last week, where a committee of legislators is currently in search of additional revenue to plug the hole created by predictably sluggish gas tax revenues. While some have expressed an interest in raising the gas tax, others have suggested replacing it entirely with hugely increased licensing fees. But licensing fees are not as capable as the gas tax in charging frequent and long-distance drivers for the roads they use.

The best way to ensure that those drivers pay for the roads they use, however, is to simply levy a tax on each mile they drive (known as a "vehicle miles traveled" tax, or VMT). While the idea has yet to be implemented in practice in the U.S., recent coverage of a pilot project involving 1,500 drivers in New Mexico shows that such a tax is a very real possibility in the future. Basically, a small computer is installed in each car which keeps track of the number of miles driven. That information is then reported to the tax collection agency, and the driver is sent a bill.

This method avoids the scenario in which drivers of vehicles of similar weights (which produce similar wear-and-tear on any given road) can end up with vastly different gas tax bills due differences in fuel efficiency. Interestingly, this new study is examining a system that would allow the computer to know which state somebody is driving in, so that the correct amount of tax can be paid to the correct state. Unsurprisingly, despite the public finance appeal of this method, privacy concerns remain a major obstacle to implementation.


Conservative Governors of Two Southern States Approve Increasing Cigarette Tax Rates


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For over two decades, Mississippi and Florida have bucked the national trend of increasing cigarette taxes. But now, staring down massive budget deficits, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently signed a 50 cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist appears ready to do the same with a $1 per pack hike. Given that each is a conservative governor with at least some national aspirations, the result is a bit surprising to say the least.

In the case of Governor Barbour, his approval was especially unexpected in light of his status as a former tobacco industry lobbyist. Governor Crist's support was likewise unanticipated, largely because he has signed pledges to oppose tax increases as both a Governor and as a candidate for federal office. Crist was careful to frame his support as entirely focused on the public health aspects of cigarette tax increases, though it's hard to believe that his desire to avoid forcing a special session to balance the budget had nothing to do with his decision. Thus is the responsibility of governing. Sometimes tax increases cannot be kept off the table.

While reports such as those out of Iowa and Virginia (see "Budget Fixes Worth Embracing", in this week's Digest) highlight some of the best ways for states to dig themselves out of their current budgetary nightmares, in many cases it appears that the cigarette tax is continuing to hold on to its title as the single most popular tax to increase among the states. Policy advocates and even many legislators are often careful to frame their support of cigarette tax hikes in terms of fighting smoking or reducing health care costs, but in times as desperate as these, it's hard not to suspect that revenue needs may be the driving force. The fact is that revenue from the cigarette tax is almost never sustainable over time because the U.S. smoking population is constantly on the decline. It's therefore difficult to get excited about the cigarette tax as a budget-fix for any period of time beyond the very short-term -- and even then, states should never be excited about raising revenue through such a regressive tax. But in states that have held their cigarette taxes constant at low levels for a number of years, it's also hard to get too upset over such proposals. Five states in particular made news this week in their debates over the cigarette tax: Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.

The three states with the most intense cigarette tax debates at the moment are Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon. Florida and Mississippi haven't increased their cigarette tax rates in 18 and 23 years, respectively, and therefore have some of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation. Hikes in the range of 50 cents to $1 per pack are being proposed in Florida, while Mississippi's debate appears to be over a range of 24 cents to $1 per pack. In Oregon, the governor recently proposed a 60 cent hike as part of his budget. The intent of that hike is use the new revenue as part of a package to expand health care in the state -- such an arrangement is likely to result in tensions down the road as cigarette revenues fall and health costs continue to rise.

South Carolina provides another example of a state with a cigarette tax debate worth following. In this past year's session, the legislature approved a cigarette tax hike, only to eventually be vetoed by the governor, ostensibly out of concern over linking such an unsustainable revenue source to a permanent expansion of Medicaid. As the appearance of a recent op-ed praising the benefits of hiking SC's lowest-in-the-nation rate suggests, this debate is not yet over.

Utah provides another example of a potential budding cigarette tax debate. With the American Cancer society enthusiastically seeking to capitalize on what appears to be a favorable climate for a cigarette tax hike, one has to expect the idea to pick up steam during discussions over how to close the state's looming budget gap.


Encouraging News on the Mississippi Tax Commission Report


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The Mississippi Tax Commission, appointed by Governor Haley Barbour, recently produced a promising draft report of recommendations for Mississippi's tax code. Even more importantly, all indications are that the final version will be even better.

Among the major recommendations: Increase the standard deduction, as well as the personal and dependent exemptions. Eliminate numerous sales tax exemptions, and expand the tax to include more services. Hike the state's third-lowest in the nation cigarette tax rate, but don't dedicate those likely unsustainable revenues to any specific program. Participate in the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement. Consider combined reporting. And finally, undertake steps to make the state's gas tax a more sustainable source of transportation revenues.

The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) worked closely with the Commission throughout the process of drafting its recommendations, and has offered some additional recommendations (both in this formal statement, and in this policy brief) to which the Commission has been receptive. Among the ideas floated by MEPC and not already included in the draft report: Implement a state EITC. Cut the state's grocery tax rate (Mississippi is one of only two states that provides no relief from the sales tax on groceries). Index the standard exemptions and deductions to inflation. Broaden the state's low and narrow income tax brackets. Develop a capacity for tax incidence analysis. And improve data collection on the effectiveness of state tax credits.

It will certainly be exciting to see the final version of this report, and how it influences state tax policy in Mississippi.


Sales Tax Holidays: Free Swirlies for Everyone


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As we mentioned last week, this is the season for fiscally irresponsible sales tax holidays to purportedly give relief to working people on their back-to-school shopping. Sales tax holidays are a bad idea for the states' budgets and tax-payers alike. Low-income families probably cannot time their purchases to take advantage of a sales tax holiday, and it can be an administrative headache for retailers and government. Sales tax holidays are also poorly targeted to low-income individuals compared to other policy solutions such as low-income tax credits.

Now another group of states is ready to forgo needed tax revenue in exchange for a few dollars off the purchase price of various goods. These states include Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia among others with holidays scheduled Friday through Sunday.

Meanwhile, a Birmingham News editorial points out that the sales tax holiday is a "gimmick" that has allowed state lawmakers to divert attention from their outrageously regressive tax code. Alabama is one of only two states that doesn't exempt or provide a low-income credit for its sales tax on groceries. If that were done, Alabama consumers would save far more money than they do on a three-day sales tax holiday (an average family of four would save about seven times as much). But instead of exempting groceries from sales taxes or raising the state's second-lowest in the nation income tax threshold, lawmakers pretend to help low-income Alabamians with a few tax-free shopping days a year.

Georgia's sales tax holiday began on Thursday and exempts articles of clothing costing less than $100, personal computers cheaper than $1500, and school supplies under $20. This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mentioned some of the more amusing exemptions covered by that state's sales tax holiday. These exemptions include corsets, bow ties and bowling shoes. As the author noted, guys headed to their first day back in school "might combine the bow ties and bowling shoes, then just head straight for the restroom to collect their free swirlie." The article also mentions ski suits, highly unlikely to be big sellers in Georgia, and adult diapers, seemingly unrelated to the average family's back-to-school needs. Georgia lawmakers may want to revise their list of exemptions to concentrate on discounting necessities, or better yet, end this farce once and for all.


Good Idea in Mississippi


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As we reported in a recent digest Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has appointed members to a commission to consider tax reform. The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) this week published an op-ed that hopefully legislators and members of the Commission will take very seriously. Ed Sivak, Director of MEPC, says the Magnolia State has "been given the opportunity to strengthen the tax code by making it less regressive." The state has a tax structure that ensures that low and middle income families pay a far higher share of their income in state and local taxes than do the wealthiest Mississippi families.

Policymakers would do well to follow Sivak's advice and follow in the footsteps of 22 other states (plus DC) by enacting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC helps lift working families out of poverty and would go long way to ensure that Mississippi's tax structure is fairer. For more on the EITC read here.


Studying Mississippi's Tax Structure


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This week Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour named 37 members of the state's newly formed Tax Study Commission. The business community is heavily represented on the Commission, which is hardly surprising given the Governor's experience as a K Street lobbyist in Washington. Barbour tries to be reassuring by pointing out that the members of the new group "share a common bond in that they are all Mississippi taxpayers." The group's recommendations are due August 31. This comes shortly after Barbour announced in his State of the State address that he would like to complete an overhaul of the state's tax system by the end of his term in office. Let's hope this close look into Mississippi's tax structure takes into account the state's outdated income tax and overall regressive tax structure.


Report on Mississippi Tax System Finds the Poor Pay More


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A new report from the Mississippi Economic Policy Center provides a great primer on that state's budget process, with a concise summary of how the state raises and spends revenue. "Putting the Pieces Together: A Taxpayer's Guide to the Mississippi Budget" highlights the chronic unfairness of the current Mississippi tax system, and discusses the shortcomings of the state's revenue structure in a highly readable way. Governor Haley Barbour says that Mississippi needs a tax structure in which "everybody pays a fair share." Let's hope that Governor Barbour reads this report and gains a better understanding of who really pays taxes in Mississippi.


Cigarette Tax Update


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Wednesday, Iowa Governor Chet Culver signed into law a bill that raises cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and also increases taxes on various other tobacco products. The Governor predicts that the new $1.36 tax will cause 20,000 Iowans to quit smoking and prevent twice as many from ever picking up the habit. The tax increase goes into effect immediately and revenues generated are expected to be used for healthcare. Unfortunately, evidence from other states shows that revenues generated from this regressive tax will decline over time.

In Mississippi, a proposal to swap a cigarette tax hike for a sales tax cut appears to be dead for the second time. While promising to propose a "serious tax cut" in the future, Governor Haley Barbour refused to support a bill that would increase the state's cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 and cut the tax on groceries by half. The problems with Mississippi's tax code go beyond sales and excise taxes, so perhaps now is the time for discussing a complete overhaul of Mississippi's tax structure.


Reducing Grocery Taxes: "Yes, but how?"


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Four states - Mississipi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Idaho - are currently debating ways to reduce the sales taxes paid on food. But how (or whether) to pay for the cuts and who should benefit remain key sticking points.

On Thursday, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed (91-27) a "tax swap" bill that would cut the state's sales tax on groceries in half and raise the tax on cigarettes to $1 per pack. The bill still faces significant challenges before becoming law, however, since key members of the Senate oppose it and Governor Haley Barbour vetoed a similar bill last year. Although the plan's reliance on revenue from cigarette taxes is not a long-term solution, it does offer a temporary mechanism to make up the revenue that would be lost from a cut on the sales tax on food.

In Tennessee, a similar "tax swap" is under consideration. However Gov. Phil Bresden has expressed reluctance to link a cigarrette tax increase with a grocery tax reduction, and has instead proposed using revenue from a cigarette tax increase for education funding.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe signed a grocery tax reduction into law on Thursday that will reduce the state's sales tax on groceries from 6% to 3% effective July 1st. However, no funding mechanism was enacted to make up for the decreased revenue, as lawmakers instead decided to rely on a projected surplus to pay for the proposal.

In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter continues to struggle with the state legislature over how best to enact a grocery tax credit. Otter's proposal would target low-income Idahoans with a credit of up to $90, while the House's newly passed version would give a smaller grocery tax credit (up to $50) to a broader range of residents.


Property Taxes: What to Do About Rising Home Values?


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A New York Times article reports that for many homeowners, property taxes are growing much faster than income. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine blames this trend on the property tax being "imposed without any regard to income or ability to pay." This isn't quite true, of course: a well-administered property tax will be based on a homeowner's actual home value, which is a decent, if imperfect, measure of ability to pay for most people. And for lower-income families, an income-sensitive circuit-breaker credit can make the property tax even more responsive to ability to pay considerations. Unfortunately, state lawmakers typically respond to rising property values by freezing or capping assessed values, which further warps the relationship between property taxes and ability to pay. A gubernatorial candidate in Alabama wants to put an end to a recently adopted reform requiring annual reassessment of properties, and at least one county in South Carolina has taken the step of throwing out the results of its most recent reassessment. The likely outcome of this misguided tax deform is a tax shift away from homes that are appreciating rapidly and toward homes whose values are stagnant or declining. Facing a localized home-value boom of its own, Mississippi policymakers are discussing imposing another, equally misguided approach: capping the allowable annual growth in homeowner property taxes. Find out more about why tax caps are counterproductive here.

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