North Carolina News


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 7/6: Most Legislative Sessions Come to a Close: Budget Problems Remain


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This week we bring you tax and budget news in Alaska, California, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Check out the What We’re Reading section below for a good piece on Kevin Durant and the minor role tax rates played in his decision to take his talents to Golden State. Thanks for reading the State Rundown!

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

  • In advance of bringing the Legislature back for yet another special session next week, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker capped the state's Permanent Fund dividend (a flat payment made to all Alaskans) at $1,000 next year, down from the 2015 payout of $2,072, and vetoed $1.29 billion in state spending. The dividend cap and service cuts will hit low-income Alaskans the hardest. However, an income tax, proposed in the governor's New Sustainable Alaska Plan could provide some balance.
  • Lawmakers in Pennsylvania agreed on a $31.5 billion spending plan in advance of the midnight June 30 deadline. SB 1073 increases funding to public schools and funds efforts to combat the state's opioid crisis. However, there is little agreement over how to find the $1 billion plus in new revenue needed to fund it. Gov. Tom Wolf said he will sign the bill "as soon as there is a sustainable revenue package to pay for it...", but lawmakers only have until Monday, July 11 to reach a compromise before the governor must start using his veto pen.
  • On the last day of the 2016 fiscal year, Illinois lawmakers approved stop-gap measures providing long-overdue funding to higher education and human services for FY '16, six months of FY '17 funding for the above mentioned and state agency operations, and a full year of FY '17 funding for K-12 education. While providing some relief for services that have been operating sans funding for the past year, these measures prolong uncertainty and instability by pushing the state's day of revenue reckoning past the November elections.

  • North Carolina lawmakers closed the state's short session on July 1 without giving final approval to a proposal to enshrine a cap on the state's income tax rate in the constitution via voter referendum.  However, the agreed upon budget for the new fiscal year includes a new, small income tax cut by increasing the standard deduction from $15,500 to $17,500 (married couples) continuing the state's march away from reliance on the progressive tax.   
  • In New Jersey, after rejecting a weird plan to pair a needed gas tax increase with a mish-mash of tax cuts that would have primarily benefited wealthy New Jerseyans, and then rejecting an even more destructive plan that would have slashed the state sales tax and blown a hole in the state general fund even bigger than the one they need to fill in the Transportation Trust Fund, lawmakers ultimately chose no plan at all and went on vacation. The state has been forced to declare a state of emergency and shut down most roads maintenance and construction. The bizarre saga will continue when the next scheduled Senate session begins on July 11.

 What We're Reading...

  •  The Washington Post's Wonkblog has a piece explaining that state tax rates were just one very small part of the calculation in Kevin Durant's decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors over the Miami Heat or Oklahoma Thunder.
  • Emmanuel Saez at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth has a new analysis on disproportionate income growth among the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 based on 2015 SOI data. Read the full analysis here.

State Rundown 6/29: State Budgets Come Down to the Wire


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We've got a jam-packed Rundown for you with legislative action coming down to the fiscal year wire. Read about tax happenings in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, and Wisconsin. Thanks for reading the State Rundown!

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

  •  New Jersey lawmakers are coming up against a hard deadline at the end of the month to raise the state’s gas tax and shore up its Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), but continue to insist on pairing it with cuts in other taxes. They appear to have abandoned the weird mix of tax policies they were considering last week, but the new plan backed by Gov. Christie and Assembly leadership is even more destructive. The plan would slash the state sales tax rate from 7 percent to 6 percent and quintuple an existing tax break for retirement income, and is a net revenue loss for the state as a whole, draining the General Fund of more than $17 billion over 10 years.

  • The North Carolina Senate gave final approval on Tuesday to its radical measure to enshrine in the state constitution a 5.5 percent cap on the personal income tax rate.  If the House signs off, the fate of the state's ability to fairly and adequately fund vital public services will be in the hands of voters in November.   As our guest blogger Cedric Johnson wrote earlier in the month, the cap would forever lock in recent tax decisions that have primarily benefitted wealthy North Carolinians, force higher sales and property taxes, tie the hands of future lawmakers, and cut off a vital source of revenue needed to invest in education and healthy communities. 
  • Up against tomorrow's budget deadline, Pennsylvania lawmakers are charging ahead with a budget bill. The bill passed the House Tuesday evening and now moves to the Senate where it will likely face scrutiny over whether it is truly balanced. The $31.6 billion budget includes a dollar per pack increase to the cigarette tax, revenue gains from changes to liquor laws, expanded casino gambling, and a one-time tax amnesty program.
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the FY17 budget bill on Monday, which includes added investments in higher education and child care, an additional $3 billion for the state's rainy day fund, and a $1.75 billion cushion to account for lower-than-expected revenues or higher-than-expected costs. While in good standing this year, the state faces a $4 billion deficit if higher income tax rates for the wealthy aren't extended in November.

  • Deficits, delays, and more short-term borrowing appear to be Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's continued approach to the state's transportation funding crisis. The governor recently reiterated his opposition to raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees without an equal cut elsewhere when advising agencies on their 2017-2019 budget requests, signaling that the long-term transportation funding solution lawmakers have been working for over the past several years is likely still a ways off. 

What We're Reading...

  • The Washington Post on a growing trend among states to explore mileage taxes to address inadequate gas tax revenues.
  • With growing income inequality, the Institute for Policy Studies identifies significant tax reform campaigns to watch.
  • Mayors grapple with new economy player Airbnb and how to respond to disruption of hospitality industry tax collections.
  • The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book identifies the EITC as one of the best policies to encourage work while improving the lives of children in low- to middle-income families.
  • Check out ITEP’s updated policy brief on state corporate tax disclosure. 

State Rundown 6/16: Budgets, Tax Debates, and Legislative Progress


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown!

Here's a look at what we're thinking about this week: the latest on Louisiana’s second special session, North Carolina’s Senate took steps to constitutionally cap the state’s income tax rate, West Virginia lawmakers passed a budget, “dark store” drama in Michigan, some in Missouri want to freeze sales the state’s tax base, and tax debates rage in New Jersey.

We are also debuting a new feature, News We’re Watching. After the Rundown you’ll see links to what our staff is reading this week. I’d love to hear from you especially about this new feature. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @megwiehe.

Lastly, this week Carl Davis, our Research Director, joined Twitter. Follow him @carlpdavis

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

In the second special session this year to address budgetary gaps, the Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee narrowly approved a complicated measure yesterday that would turn a costly tax deduction claimed mostly by households making over $100,000 into a short-term lending mechanism to the state. As originally proposed, HB 38 would permanently limit the itemized deductions in excess of the standard deduction taxpayers could claim to 57.5 percent. The amended bill exempts charitable and mortgage interest deductions from the 57.5 percent limitation and temporarily suspends the availability of the deduction until 2018, at which point taxpayers can claim the lost value of the deduction from the previous two years. The amended bill is estimated to raise $115 million of the $600 budget gap, but would create a liability of over $250 million in 2018—the same year the state is scheduled to lose $1 billion in revenue from temporary tax increases enacted in March, most notably the 1-penny sales tax increase. HB 38 goes to the full House today.

Also, the Louisiana House  voted down contingent bills HB 7 and HB 17, which would have eliminated the deduction for federal personal income taxes while creating a flat tax with a problematic capped rate—measures that would not address the state's immediate revenue needs and severely limit the ability of lawmakers to raise revenue in the future through the progressive income tax. The Louisiana Senate will consider a bill today that would require oil, gas, and chemical companies to choose between two tax breaks, which if passed, would raise $146 million in revenue for the next budget cycle.

North Carolina Senators approved a bill this week that would change the state’s constitution to prevent the state's income tax rate from ever going above 5.5 percent (the 2017 rate is 5.499%) via a voter referendum.  As our guest blogger Cedric Johnson wrote earlier in the week, the cap would forever lock in recent tax decisions that have primarily benefitted wealthy North Carolinians, force higher sales and property taxes, tie the hands of future lawmakers, and cut off a vital source of revenue needed to invest in education and healthy communities.  The bill was scheduled to go to the Senate floor on Wednesday, but at the last minute was pulled and moved to Saturday, June 25th a sign, according to the NC Budget and Tax Center, that the tax cap will be linked to budget negotiations in order to get the House to play along.

The West Virginia Legislature passed a compromise budget (SB 1013) earlier this week to close the state's $270 million budget shortfall, bringing their 17 day special session to an end as they await Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's signature. After vetoing an earlier budget proposal that did not include any tax increases, Gov. Tomblin is expected to sign off on this version of the budget which includes a $98 million tax increase on cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products, a $70 million withdrawal from the state's Rainy Day Fund, and a range of budget cuts. $15 million in funding for the Public Employee Insurance Agency to offset premium increases for retirees and reduce premium increases and benefit cuts for current employees helped seal the deal. Other approved measures include the restoration of funding to the Volunteer Fire Department Workers' Compensation Premium Subsidy Fund and providing current year financial support to Boone County Schools.

With big-box retailers increasingly using a tactic known as the “dark store” method to avoid property taxes on brand-new multi-million-dollar stores, Michigan legislators are fighting back. The “dark store” method involves challenging property appraisals by arguing that they should be based on the value of nearby vacant and obsolete retail stores, while also building restrictions into the deeds of such stores that make them virtually worthless to any would-be buyers. The retailers point to those “dark stores” and deed restrictions (such as prohibiting a hardware store building from being used as a hardware store again if sold) to challenge their appraisals and drastically reduce their property taxes in the process.  Local governments in Michigan have already lost more than $200 million due to this dubious practice. Legislation that would clarify the rules and steps for property appraisals to ensure this tactic cannot be used in the future passed through the Michigan House late last week and now moves to the Senate.

Most state sales taxes were created in a time when buying tangible goods (scissors and combs, for example) was far more prevalent than buying services (like haircuts). Over the last few decades, as the U.S. economy becomes more and more service-based, many states have attempted to update their sales tax laws to include more services. Regrettably, some voters in Missouri are working to freeze that state’s tax code in the past, as signatures have been gathered to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to restrict the sales tax from ever applying to any “service or activity” not already subject to tax.

 Tax debates continue to rage on in New Jersey, where the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is only funded until June 30. Legislators in both the House and Senate are working on plans to raise the state gas tax -- which is one of the lowest in the nation and has not been updated since 1988 -- to ensure funding for the state’s roads and bridges continues. But Gov. Chris Christie insists he won’t sign such a measure unless it also includes major tax cuts. The plans proposed thus far include a number of tax cuts for various groups in hopes of either winning over Gov. Christie or securing enough votes to override his veto. Some of the recent proposals have included a repeal of the state’s estate tax, an expansion of the existing pension and retirement income exclusion, an expansion  play along.the state Earned Income Tax Credit, and a new deduction for charitable contributions. With so much at stake and so many components to multiple tax packages, it will be a bumpy ride to close out the month in the New Jersey legislature.

News We're Watching:

Here’s a few other state tax-related stories that caught our eyes this week:

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.


Guest Blog Post: Senate tax measure would increase costs, hurt N.C. communities


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Thanks to Cedric Johnson from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center for guest posting for us about the budget debate in North Carolina. For more information we urge you to visit the North Carolina Tax and Budget Center's website

By: Cedric Johnson, Policy Analyst North Carolina Budget and Tax Center

North Carolina Senators are pushing to make changes to the state constitution, and, in doing so, would sacrifice things we need to help ensure that communities across the state thrive. The proposal, Senate Bill 817, would change the state’s constitution to prevent the rate of the state income tax from ever going up. This would lock in and forever guarantee the large income tax cuts pushed through by state leaders since 2013 that have largely benefited the wealthy and powerful corporations.

The bill permanently caps the state’s personal income tax rate at 5.5 percent. With the personal income tax rate already set to fall to 5.499 percent on Jan. 1, 2017, the cap would cut off a vital source of revenue. This is just the next phase of state leaders’ efforts to drastically alter the state’s tax system – which means that North Carolina cannot make sure that communities from the mountains to the coast can thrive. It also means that middle- and low-income communities are pushed into further economic straits because they have to carry a heavier tax load than the powerful.
Here are reasons why this proposal is bad for North Carolina.
Would lead to increased sales and property taxes. Proposal will force lawmakers to rely on other revenue sources—like the sales tax and property tax—and raise those rates to offset the loss of the income tax as a revenue source. Or it will just further drive an increased reliance on fees or other ways of financing public services like privatization or borrowing.
Would risk our state’s respected AAA bond rating. States that have set in place these kinds of tax and budget restrictions often face higher borrowing costs as their bond ratings are downgraded. This is a bad business decision for our state. It would mean higher costs to borrowing for everything from ConnectNC projects to local governments’ school construction.
Would make North Carolina unable to ensure communities thrive. We are already losing more than $1.5 billion per year due to deep income tax cuts, which primarily benefit the wealthy. The cuts are reducing opportunity—as illustrated by long waiting lists for early childhood education programs and in-home services for older adults, too few textbooks and teacher assistants, overburdened courts, and the gutting of environmental protections. The revenue loss is preventing us from catching up after the recession, let alone keeping up with growing needs.
Wouldn’t give lawmakers power to do anything they can’t already do through the legislative process. Policymakers have already cut income taxes and held the current budget proposals to the formula of population plus inflation growth. Changing the state constitution in this way would limit the tools available for future lawmakers to make fiscally responsible and timely choices. It would make lawmakers less accountable to North Carolinians. If this proposal goes into effect, it’s not going away, no matter how future voters feel.
It would lock in the tax decisions that have primarily benefited the wealthy. Low, flat income tax rates deliver the greatest benefit to the wealthiest North Carolinians, and this proposal to make the income tax rate structure permanent locks in the tax decisions made in recent years that have benefited the powerful.
We elect our legislators to use their judgment to make North Carolina a stronger, more prosperous state – not to take away from future lawmakers the ability to use their judgment to meet needs as they arise. This proposal threatens our future.
Here’s a link to BTC’s fact sheet on Senate Bill 817.
Learn more about how Senate Bill 817 would put N.C.’s AAA-bond rating at risk.
Learn more about how Senate Bill 817 would lock in tax giveaways for the powerful. 
Find out more about how we need to #GetNCBackonTrack.
- See more at: http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2016/06/14/senate_tax_measure_would_increase_costs/#sthash.IZmbfFhv.YQhqcOKc.dpuf

North Carolina Senators are pushing to make changes to the state constitution, and, in doing so, would sacrifice things we need to help ensure that communities across the state thrive. The proposal, Senate Bill 817, would change the state’s constitution to prevent the rate of the state income tax from ever going up. This would lock in and forever guarantee the large income tax cuts pushed through by state leaders since 2013 that have largely benefited the wealthy and powerful corporations.

The bill permanently caps the state’s personal income tax rate at 5.5 percent. With the personal income tax rate already set to fall to 5.499 percent on Jan. 1, 2017, the cap would cut off a vital source of revenue. This is just the next phase of state leaders’ efforts to drastically alter the state’s tax system – which means that North Carolina cannot make sure that communities from the mountains to the coast can thrive. It also means that middle- and low-income communities are pushed into further economic straits because they have to carry a heavier tax load than the powerful.

Here are reasons why this proposal is bad for North Carolina.

  • Would lead to increased sales and property taxes. Proposal will force lawmakers to rely on other revenue sources—like the sales tax and property tax—and raise those rates to offset the loss of the income tax as a revenue source. Or it will just further drive an increased reliance on fees or other ways of financing public services like privatization or borrowing.
  • Would make North Carolina unable to ensure communities thrive. We are already losing more than $1.5 billion per year due to deep income tax cuts, which primarily benefit the wealthy. The cuts are reducing opportunity—as illustrated by long waiting lists for early childhood education programs and in-home services for older adults, too few textbooks and teacher assistants, overburdened courts, and the gutting of environmental protections. The revenue loss is preventing us from catching up after the recession, let alone keeping up with growing needs.
  • Wouldn’t give lawmakers power to do anything they can’t already do through the legislative process. Policymakers have already cut income taxes and held the current budget proposals to the formula of population plus inflation growth. Changing the state constitution in this way would limit the tools available for future lawmakers to make fiscally responsible and timely choices. It would make lawmakers less accountable to North Carolinians. If this proposal goes into effect, it’s not going away, no matter how future voters feel.
  • It would lock in the tax decisions that have primarily benefited the wealthy. Low, flat income tax rates deliver the greatest benefit to the wealthiest North Carolinians, and this proposal to make the income tax rate structure permanent locks in the tax decisions made in recent years that have benefited the powerful.

We elect our legislators to use their judgment to make North Carolina a stronger, more prosperous state – not to take away from future lawmakers the ability to use their judgment to meet needs as they arise. This proposal threatens our future.

Here’s a link to BTC’s fact sheet on Senate Bill 817.

Learn more about how Senate Bill 817 would put N.C.’s AAA-bond rating at risk.

Learn more about how Senate Bill 817 would lock in tax giveaways for the powerful

Find out more about how we need to #GetNCBackonTrack.

 


State Rundown 2/17: Cuts and Crises


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Thanks for reading the Rundown. Here’s a sneak peek: Despite a revenue shortfall, lawmakers in West Virginia are moving forward with their corporate tax cuts. North Carolina lawmakers are once again talking tax cuts, Pennsylvania lawmakers are barely talking – after legislative leaders declared Gov. Wolf’s budget bill DOA. Louisiana Gov. Edwards is threatening that if his state doesn’t balance its budget the end of college football is near.  Thanks for reading.

-- Meg Wiehe, ITEP's State Tax Policy Director

 


 

North Carolina lawmakers are looking at cutting income taxes – again. This time, a House committee considered a proposal to increase the standard deduction for the second time since last year. Joint filers would see an increase of $2,000, while individuals would get an increase of $1,000. If enacted, the change would mean an additional 70,000 to 75,000 filers would owe no income tax since their income would be below the standard deduction. State revenues would decline by $195 million to $205 million annually. An editorial in The News & Observer makes the case that lawmakers should restore the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) rather than raise the standard deduction. The EITC is better targeted to those families hit hardest by regressive sales, excise, and property taxes, and it would be less costly than increasing the standard deduction, as has been pointed out by our friends at the North Carolina Justice Center.  An ITEP analysis found that the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers in the Tarheel state would receive just 28 percent of the tax cut from a change to the standard deduction, but would see more than 87 percent of the cut from reenacting a state refundable EITC.

Pennsylvania legislative leaders declared Gov. Tom Wolf's budget dead on arrival last week after the governor unveiled his plan in a speech to the legislature. Pennsylvania has not had a budget since July 2015; negotiations between legislators and the governor have broken down multiple times over the past few months. Wolf's budget address was a fiery rebuke to lawmakers with dire predictions of chaos for state workers and services if a deal is not reached soon. Wolf's proposed $33.3 billion budget includes $2.7 billion in new revenue. Under his plan, the state's flat income tax rate would increase from 3.07 to 3.4 percent, and the sales tax base would be expanded to include basic cable television, movie tickets and digital downloads. The governor would also levy a new 6.5 percent severance tax on natural gas extraction, increase the cigarette excise tax by $1 per pack, and raise taxes on other tobacco products.

Despite a major budget shortfall, West Virginia lawmakers are moving forward with a corporate tax giveaway to coal and natural gas companies. Senate Bill 419 would repeal two severance tax increases first implemented in 2005 to pay off the state's workers compensation debts. One tax is a 56-cents-per-ton levy on coal producers while the other is a 4.7-cents-per-thousand cubic feet tax on gas producers. Together, the two taxes brought in $122 million in revenue during fiscal year 2015. If repealed, the state will lose $110 million next fiscal year. The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved the tax cuts by voice vote, "in a committee room largely empty save for members of the governor’s staff and coal and gas lobbyists." The state will finish the current fiscal year $353 million in debt.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned legislators that the continuing revenue shortfall could spell disaster for college athletics. In his state of the state address, Edwards told Louisianans that they could "say farewell to college football" since Louisiana State University is set to run out of money by April 30. Louisiana faces a $2 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year and needs to come up with $850 million to make it through the current fiscal year. Lawmakers have railed against the governor's proposal to increase sales and alcohol and cigarette excise taxes, but the dire situation leaves them with few options.

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.orgClick here to sign up to receive the Rundown in via email 


State Rundown 1/28: Taxes Up For Debate


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New Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin delivered his first State of the Commonwealth address on Tuesday, forgoing tax cuts he promised during the campaign because in his words, the state "can't afford them right now." Instead, he called for deep reductions in state spending that would impair crucial services. Bevin would cut spending by $650 million across the board -- a 4.5 percent reduction for all agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year and a 9 percent reduction over the next biennium. The governor's plan would protect per-pupil K-12 funding, Medicaid, and social workers, and would increase some public safety spending. Bevin would also move $1.1 billion to the state's troubled pension funds for teachers and state employees. However, universities, regulatory agencies, parks, public television, workplace safety, public health, environmental quality and economic development would be affected by the cuts.  


The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center came to the aid of partners in West Virginia this week, pleading with legislators to take proposed tax cuts off the table. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's budget proposal would cut the state's severance tax on coal to help prop up the ailing industry, while raising taxes on tobacco products and telecommunications. Ted Boettner of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy warned lawmakers that more tax cuts wouldn't help the economy, and could make matters worse, pointing out that recent sales and corporate tax cuts had reduced state revenue that could have prevented the current deficit. Alexandra Sirota of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center backed him up, noting that tax cuts in her state merely shifted taxes down the income scale and failed to produce new jobs.  


Georgia Senate Finance Chairman Judson Hill proposed two tax-cutting measures last week. The first would institute a flat income tax rate of 5.4 percenteliminate most itemized deductions (though would allow taxpayers to deduct all charitable contributions), and increase the personal and dependent exemptions by $2,000. Hill's second measure would amend the state's constitution to mandate a decrease in the flat rate (assuming the first proposal is enacted) to 5 percent if state revenues and reserves exceed certain levels. The finance chairman's proposals come against the backdrop of Gov. Nathan Deal's call for additional funding to make up for reduced spending in the wake of the Great Recession.  Look for an ITEP analysis of these proposals soon on the Tax Justice Blog.

  

Lawmakers in South Carolina continue to debate how to increase road funding while also cutting taxes in order to satisfy a demand by Gov. Nikki Haley to offset any gas tax increase with income tax cuts. The latest compromise would increase the state's gasoline excise tax by 12 cents per gallon over three years, along with a number of other vehicle related fees and taxes. The increases, expected to increase road funding by $665 million, would be paired with $400 million in  income tax cuts. One point of contention is a desire by some  lawmakers to include a refundable EITC for low-income South Carolinians in the package. The proposed EITC would cost $44 million and benefit 514,000 residents who would face higher costs at the pump. Some influential lawmakers were amenable to idea. Senate President Hugh Leatherman, who supports proposed tax breaks for manufacturers included in the plan, said "When we are giving everybody else something, why wouldn't we look to help them to pay the additional increase in the gas tax?" An ITEP analysis of this proposal will be coming soon to the Tax Justice Blog. 


The debate over the budget deficit in Alaska continues, with lawmakers mulling a gas tax increase and proposals to bring an income tax back to the state. The Senate and House transportation committees considered Gov. Bill Walker's plan to double the state's gasoline excise tax from 8 to 16 cents per gallon. The measure would raise $49 million annually, a far cry from the $4 billion needed to plug the state's budget hole. The governor has also suggested levying a state income tax equal to 6 percent of the federal income tax Alaskans owe, while State Rep. Paul Seaton has put forth a plan asking Alaskans to pay the state 15 percent of what they pay in federal taxes. Walker's income tax plan would raise $200 million, while Seaton's more ambitious plan would raise $655 million and includes a long-term capital gains tax of 10 percent. A recent poll of Alaskans shows that residents favor a mix of cuts and new revenue to address the crisis by almost a 2-1 margin. 


Got a juicy news story or new development in state tax policy that's too good to miss? Send your ideas and any comments to Sebastian at sdpjohnson@itep.org and we'll add it to the next State Rundown!  


January 1 Brings Gas Tax Changes: 5 Cuts and 4 Hikes


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Since 2013, eighteen states have enacted laws either increasing or reforming their gas taxes to boost funding for transportation infrastructure.  A snapshot of gas tax rate changes scheduled to occur this upcoming January 1st, however, reveals that five states will actually move in the opposite direction as 2016 gets underway.

Gas tax rates will decline in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia—in most cases because of gas tax rate structures that link the rate to the average price of gas (an approach similar to a traditional sales tax applied to an item’s purchase price).  But cutting gas tax rates is problematic because doing so reduces funding for economically vital transportation infrastructure investments.  And with drivers already benefiting from gas prices that have just reached a six-year low, the timing of these rate cuts is difficult to justify.

Given these realities, many states have recently taken steps to limit gas tax volatility by imposing “floors” on the minimum tax rate, limitations on how much the rate can change from one year to the next, and in some cases even moving toward entirely different formulas based on more stable (and arguably more relevant) measures of inflation. 

While five states will be forced to grapple with the consequences of reduced transportation revenue, there are four states where gas tax rates will actually rise on January 1: Florida, Maryland, Nebraska and Utah.  In addition to those increases, Washington State has a gas tax increase scheduled for July 1st and governors in states such as Alabama and Missouri have said they intend to pursue gas tax increases during their upcoming legislative sessions.  With lower gas prices having become the norm for now, lawmakers in those states that have gone years, or even decades, without raising their gas taxes should give real consideration to enacting long-overdue updates to their gas tax rates

The five states that will see their gas tax rates decline on January 1st include:

  • West Virginia (1.4 cent cut), New York (0.8 cent cut), and Vermont (0.27 cent cut) will see their gas tax rates fall because their rates are tied to the price of gas, which has been declining in recent months.
  • North Carolina (1.0 cent cut) was scheduled to see an even larger decline in its gas tax rate due to falling gas prices, but lawmakers intervened in 2015 to limit the size of the cut and its impact on the state’s ability to invest in infrastructure.  Moving forward, North Carolina will also have a somewhat more stable gas tax because of a reform that removed a linkage to gas prices and instead tied the rate to population growth and energy prices more broadly.
  • Pennsylvania (0.2 cent cut) is the only state in this group whose decline is not directly linked to falling gas prices.  A reform approved by lawmakers in 2013 included a modest tax rate cut in 2016, though notably, this cut is bookended by significantly larger increases in 2014, 2015, and 2017.

And in the four states where gas tax rates will rise:

  • Florida (0.1 cent increase) is seeing its tax rate rise due to a forward-thinking law, in place for more than two decades, that links the state’s gas tax rate to growth in a broad measure of inflation in the economy (the Consumer Price Index).
  • Maryland (0.5 cent increase) is implementing a rate increase as a result of the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass legislation empowering states to collect the sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.  In 2013, Maryland lawmakers enacted a transportation funding bill that they had hoped would be partially funded by requiring e-retailers to collect sales tax.  Rather than trusting Congress to act, however, state lawmakers also built in a backup funding source: an increase in the state’s gas tax rate from 3 percent to 4 percent of gas prices this January 1st, plus a further increase to 5 percent on July 1 if Congress continues to delay action.
  • Nebraska (0.7 cent increase) and Utah (4.9 cent increase) are seeing their gas tax rates rise because of legislation enacted by each state’s lawmakers in 2015.  The Nebraska law (enacted over the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts) scheduled 1.5 cent rate increases for each of the next four Januarys, though more than half of this year’s scheduled increase was negated by a separate provision linking the state’s gas tax rate to (currently falling) gas prices.  In Utah, the 4.9 cent increase is the first stage of a new law that could eventually raise the state’s gas tax rate by as much as 15.5 cents, depending on future inflation rates and gas prices.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina realized that allowing gas tax rates to fall would harm their ability to invest in their states’ infrastructure.  As a result, each of those states acted to limit scheduled rate cuts and curtail the volatility of their gas tax rates moving forward.  Without question, linking gas tax rates to some measure of growth (be it gas prices, inflation, or fuel-efficiency) is a valuable reform that can improve the long-run sustainability of this important revenue source.  But as the gas tax cuts taking effect next month demonstrate, that linkage should be done in a way that manages potential volatility in the tax rate.

View chart of gas tax changes taking effect January 1, 2016 

 


Tax Ballot Measures Ask Voters to Decide


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The fall harvest season has brought a bumper crop of tax ballot measures in states across the nation(though sadly, no tax-themed seasonal lattes.) We’ve already covered a ballot proposal in Washington, a potential ballot proposal in North Carolina, and a 2016 proposal in Maine – check out the links to get the scoop. Today, we’re looking at measures in Texas and Utah, and providing an update on Washington.

Texas: Texas voters will consider two proposals with significant ramifications for roads and schools. Proposition 1 would increase the homestead exemption for public school property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000. The average savings for Texan households would be about $126, but schools systems across the state would lost $1.2 billion per biennium – money that the state would have to replace from the general fund. A state judge has already ruled that the state’s low level of school funding is unconstitutional, and Proposition 1 will make it harder to even maintain the status quo – all at a time when the needs of Texas’s schoolchildren are growing. Compounding the budgetary pressure is Proposition 7, which would divert sales tax revenue from the general fund to the Texas Department of Transportation for highway maintenance and construction, but would not raise any new revenue. This could have the unintended effect of weakening spending in other important areas that are paid for out of the general fund (including schools), particularly since low oil and gas prices are hurting the state’s bottom line. A better approach would be raising the state’s gasoline tax, which has remained unchanged for 24 years and has failed to keep pace with inflation.

Utah: Utah voters in 17 counties will decide whether or not to raise their sales taxes by 0.25 percentage points in order to fund the Utah Transit Authority. Legislative analysts say the plan will cost affected Utahans $50 a year on average. The legislature voted to allow counties to decide if they wanted to include the measure, Proposition 1, on the ballot and 17 of Utah’s 29 counties followed through. If passed by a county’s residents, the sales tax increase will only apply to that county. If approved, 40 percent of the revenue raised will support the transit authority. Another 40 percent would go to cities for local roads and other transportation projects. The final 20 percent will go regional transportation projects.

Washington: Tim Eyman, the author of Initiative 1366 and previous supermajority requirements, is a lightning rod in Washington state politics. I-1366 would force the legislature to amend the state constitution to require a supermajority vote for tax increases. If legislators refuse to amend the constitution, the ballot initiative would automatically cut the sales tax rate by a penny, leaving the state $8 billion poorer at a time when the Washington Supreme Court says the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to K-12 students. Already, a mix of uncertainty over funding and questions swirling around Eyeman have caused many supporters of previous anti-tax measures to withhold their support from I-366. The Association of Washington Business and the state’s grocery store association are both keeping out of the debate over the proposal over concerns about how their donations were used in past efforts. If the initiative passes anyway, opponents hope that the courts will eventually rule I-1366 an unconstitutional abrogation of legislative authority. 


Lessons Learned: Lawmakers in Alabama and North Carolina Limp Across their State's Budget Finish Line


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After months of budget negotiations, legislators in Alabama and North Carolina limped to the budget finish line last week. Legislators left Montgomery and Raleigh with budget agreements that represent missed opportunities, a disregard for the near-future revenue needs, and lessons about punting difficult governing decisions down the road.

Alabama: Throughout the legislative session (and two special sessions) Alabama’s Gov. Bentley proposed revenue raising packages to close a significant general fund gap. His proposals were designed to help set the state on a path toward fiscal sustainability and plug the state’s $200 million short fall while ensuring vital services that improve the quality of life for all Alabamians were protected. Yet conservative lawmakers refused to compromise or put forward a plan free of damaging spending cuts.  Ultimately, the legislature passed a cigarette excise tax of 25 cents per pack and approved a permanent shift of some use tax revenue from the Education Trust Fund to the General Fund. All told the tax hikes raised about $164 million so the state still resorted to some cuts to balance its books.

Kimble Forrester with Alabama Arise offers a thoughtful summary of learned lessons from this year’s lengthy budget debate. He appreciates that a budget deal was reached before the start of the state’s fiscal year on October 1, but cautions that lawmakers missed an opportunity.  From his editorial in The Huntsville Times:

“Avoiding disastrous cuts to Medicaid and corrections is commendable, but why stop short of level funding for other services that have endured years of cuts?“

 Clearly lawmakers didn’t go far enough to sure up the state’s coffers in anticipation of future needs, but some good may have come out of the budget debate. Forrester says that at least two lessons were learned:

1.) "There's growing support for cutting taxes at lower incomes and raising taxes at higher incomes." 2.) “Momentum is growing to modernize Alabama's upside-down tax system." Let’s hope lawmakers take these lessons to heart and come back next session read to continue on a path toward tax fairness and sustainability.

North Carolina: Lawmakers in North Carolina also finally crossed the budget finish line.  While the drawn out budget negotiations resulted in a deal that mostly walked back any significant spending cut threats for the time being (teachers’ assistants and drivers education were spared), the next time lawmakers put together a 2 year spending deal they will have $1 billion less revenue available thanks to delayed tax cuts included in the final package. Most significantly, the budget reduces the state’s personal income tax rate from 5.75 to 5.499% starting in 2017 and loosens the revenue target needed to reduce the rate for profitable corporations to 3%. Regrettably current lawmakers are able to tout that they balanced the state’s budget while also cutting taxes, but these tax cuts aren’t actually being paid for in the current budget.  

In her letter urging Governor McCrory to veto the budget last week (he regrettably signed it into law on Friday), Alexandra Sirota of the NC Budget and Tax Center argues:

 “A compromise budget shouldn’t compromise North Carolina’s future. This budget does not reflect the need for the state to serve as a partner in economic development and economic opportunity for all North Carolinians.”

It’s worth noting that these tax cuts cumulatively cost $1 billion, on top of the $1billion in tax cuts the legislature passed in 2013. Sadly, the only lesson North Carolina lawmakers seem to be learning is how to dig their budget hole deeper. 


Progressive Era Reform Can Be Anything But Progressive


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Way back in 1902, when the Oregon legislature passed the first law allowing ballot initiatives, the measure was seen as a progressive reform that would put power back into the hands of the many, rather than the few. Today, 24 states allow ballot initiatives, where proposals that gain a certain number of signatures on a public petition can be put before the voters. But while the process was initially promoted to make government more democratic and responsive to the will of the people, today the ballot initiative is often used the tie the hands of lawmakers and thwart the prerogatives of future generations with onerous requirements. These ballot proposals can be anything but progressive, serving the economic interests of the wealthiest citizens and businesses rather than addressing the needs of citizens as a whole.

Supermajority requirements and tax and spending limits, two frequently proposed ballot measures, are not designed to promote the well-being of states. They do the exact opposite by making it nearly impossible for lawmakers to properly fund public investments that benefit a state and its people. Supermajority initiatives increase the threshold needed for tax legislation to pass. Tax and spending limits, like Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), couple state spending to arbitrary factors instead of allowing lawmakers to actually debate and decide what the state needs. These measures tie the hands of lawmakers by limiting their ability to govern and undercut democracy.

Two ballot measures, one currently before voters in Washington and the other still in the planning stage in North Carolina, highlight the danger of adopting anti- tax measures at the ballot box.

The Supermajority Requirement and Washington

A Washington ballot initiative masterminded by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman would essentially force lawmakers to add a supermajority requirement for tax legislation to the state constitution. If the initiative is approved by voters, lawmakers have the choice of voting to amend the constitution to adopt the requirement or losing over $1 billion in needed state revenue.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled supermajority initiatives (led by Eyman) unconstitutional in 2010 and 2013, arguing that such a measure “unconstitutionally amends the constitution by imposing a two-thirds vote requirement for tax legislation. More importantly, the Supermajority Requirement substantially alters our system of government, thus enabling a tyranny of the minority.”

Mr. Eyman, undeterred, crafted his latest initiative with an eye toward getting around the court’s ruling. Since only lawmakers can approve an amendment to the constitution, the initiative (I-1366) is designed to force lawmakers to approve the amendment or otherwise lose more than $1.4 billion in revenue annually via an automatic one-cent decrease in the state sales tax.  If voters approve this initiative in November, lawmakers’ ability to govern would be restricted either via the requirement or through a major revenue loss.

The result would be disastrous to state investments that help build a strong economy. Many vital public services could face cuts or be eliminated due to the revenue hole of $1.4 billion per year that would come as a result of a sales tax reduction. Those potentially lost revenues support public safety, schools and other investments that secure a strong economy and protect working families. In essence, this is a ‘lose-lose’ situation for lawmakers. They are either stuck with a damaging supermajority requirement or a massive loss in revenue.

Such restrictions can also force lawmakers to raise tuition and fees or utilize other devices to make up for lost revenue, placing an undue burden on everyone. Further, if lawmakers are looking to improve their tax structure (like adding a tax on capital gains to a tax code that currently does not tax personal income), they can forget about it. Any kind of real tax reform that might close wasteful loopholes for profitable corporations becomes nearly impossible with supermajority requirements.

Lastly, for anyone who believes our country has become too beholden to special interests, supermajority requirements worsen the situation. With a supermajority law in place, there are fewer legislators required to derail tax bills. Therefore, lobbyists and other special interests can essentially hold important legislation ‘hostage’.

The So-Called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” and North Carolina

The North Carolina Senate approved a version of the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR) constitutional amendment for the ballot in November 2016 that would make things worse in the Tarheel State, where lawmakers have been on a spree of tax and spending cuts.  The House has yet to give their stamp of approval, but there is still time for the House to discuss the measure and hopefully reject it over the coming months.

If approved by voters, the initiative would change the state constitution in three detrimental ways. First, spending on public services would be limited and a two-thirds majority vote would be required to raise additional revenue. Second, TABOR would cap the income tax at 5% (currently the flat rate is 5.75%), resulting in more than $2 billion less each year in funding for education and other priorities that benefit North Carolina.  Finally, it would impose a limitation on the amount of revenue the state can collect and retain each year, requiring a deposit into the Rainy Day Fund but also a two-thirds vote to access that fund.

TABOR has some similarities to the supermajority requirement currently under consideration in Washington State, but its primary parallel is that it too limits lawmakers’ ability to adequately fund investments. The measure would be damaging to the quality of life for all North Carolinians.

A majority of families in the state rely heavily on the investments TABOR’s limits would undercut. Living proof of this struggle can be found in Colorado, where TABOR resulted in cuts to health care and education. It also allowed the economy, business environment, and overall quality of life to stagnate, if not worsen. That’s why Colorado voters ultimately decided to suspend the measure for five years, starting in 2005, in response to a sharp decline in public services.

Furthermore, the initiative’s revenue-limiting income tax cap would make it exceedingly difficult to create new economic growth. The decreased revenue would result in less investment in innovation, new industries, and building a strong workforce. Ensuring that a state’s tax structure is fair is also vital to a strong economy. The income tax is one of the best tools to ensure low-income people are protected from paying more in taxes than the wealthy. A cap on the income tax would only worsen the already upside-down North Carolina tax structure, as lawmakers will be forced to rely on other sources for revenue like regressive sales and property taxes.

Since TABOR limits the amount of revenue states can retain, it can fail to take unanticipated spending needs into consideration. The formula used to limit any unused revenue does not account for the growing costs of goods and services over time. TABOR would prevent the state from meeting the changing needs of its growing population while making it impossible to keep up with even basic growth in the costs of delivering public services. Requiring a two-thirds majority vote just to access the Rainy Day Fund in the event of an emergency could result in disaster.

Restrictive fiscal policies like North Carolina’s proposed TABOR initiative and Washington’s supermajority requirement do not help lawmakers govern, nor do they make governments more responsive to the will and needs of the people. Budgeting becomes nearly impossible when legislators are forced to comply with flawed limitations instead of serving the people in their states. What the people want becomes, in many ways, irrelevant and, ultimately, our democracy suffers. These supposedly progressive ballot initiatives are anything but. 

 


Guest Post: Five Findings: Tax-cut plan will harm North Carolina's Competitive Position


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Thanks to Alexandra Sirota from the North Carolina Tax and Budget Center for guest posting for us about the budget debate in North Carolina. For more information we urge you to visit the North Carolina Tax and Budget Center's website

The Budget & Tax Center will release a more detailed analysis of the tax plan in the next day, so stay tuned.
The bottom line: yet again policymakers chose to cut taxes — a strategy that doesn’t address North Carolina’s real economic challenges. By doing so they undercut the foundations of what has proven to be economy-boosting public investments. Rather than debate what is needed so every child in North Carolina receives a high quality education, for example, policymakers narrowed their choices by cutting taxes to say it’s either teachers or textbooks; smart technology in the classroom or a teacher assistant; a one-time bonus or bringing teachers closer to the national average in pay.
North Carolina can’t afford to debate what a successful state looks like at the margins. The bar should be higher. We need to build on the investments that have made our state great and follow the time-tested better pathway to a strong economy that works for everyone.
Here is why the tax plan fails to meet North Carolina’s high standards of fiscal responsibility and will fail to put the state in a competitive position against our neighbors and the nation:
It’s a big revenue loser. No surprise here — but the impacts of that revenue loss aren’t fully accounted for in this two-year budget. That is because policymakers designed the tax changes to kick in down the road when future policymakers will need to contend with an even greater gap between resources and public needs, like a growing number of students and the inability to move teachers to the national average in pay.

By: Alexandra Sirota, Director North Carolina Tax and Budget Center

Due to the speed at which passage of the budget bill is moving, we’re highlighting here five important findings from our analysis of the proposed tax-cut plan.

The Budget & Tax Center will release a more detailed analysis of the tax plan in the next day, so stay tuned. 

The bottom line: yet again policymakers chose to cut taxes — a strategy that doesn’t address North Carolina’s real economic challenges. By doing so they undercut the foundations of what has proven to be economy-boosting public investments. Rather than debate what is needed so every child in North Carolina receives a high quality education, for example, policymakers narrowed their choices by cutting taxes to say it’s either teachers or textbooks; smart technology in the classroom or a teacher assistant; a one-time bonus or bringing teachers closer to the national average in pay.

North Carolina can’t afford to debate what a successful state looks like at the margins. The bar should be higher. We need to build on the investments that have made our state great and follow the time-tested better pathway to a strong economy that works for everyone.

Here is why the tax plan fails to meet North Carolina’s high standards of fiscal responsibility and will fail to put the state in a competitive position against our neighbors and the nation:

  • It’s a big revenue loser. No surprise here — but the impacts of that revenue loss aren’t fully accounted for in this two-year budget. That is because policymakers designed the tax changes to kick in down the road when future policymakers will need to contend with an even greater gap between resources and public needs, like a growing number of students and the inability to move teachers to the national average in pay.

                            

  • The wealthiest keep getting the biggest breaks. The move to cut the top state income tax rate to 5.499 percent from 5.7 percent appears to only serve the ideological commitment to income tax cuts. By design, it doesn’t address the fact that low- and middle-income taxpayers already pay more as a share of their income in state and local taxes than the wealthiest taxpayers do. That gap will even widen a bit under this plan. Just slightly more than one-third of taxpayers with income below $20,000 get a tax cut at the same time that 99 percent of those with income greater than $423,000 do.

 

  • The sales tax base expansion should not be used to pay for income tax and should include a state Earned Income Tax Credit. Increasing the goods and services subject to sales tax is important to keep up with today’s economy and provide much-needed revenue.  But relying more on the sales tax while reducing the income tax is a step in the wrong direction. It threatens the balance provided by two taxes that perform differently in different economic circumstances. In the long term North Carolina’s revenue system will be more subject to erosion in economic downturns – just when public needs tend to be the greatest. Equally important is that using an expanded sales tax to pay for costly income tax cuts fails to account for the reality that the lower one’s income the higher percentage of it they pay in sales taxes. A $500 increase in the standard deduction is insufficient to address the greater tax load that low- and middle-income taxpayers will pay. Again, the wealthiest get the biggest benefit.
  • The corporate income tax rate will definitely drop to 3 percent at some point next year. Changes to the language driving the reduction mean that revenue collections don’t have to meet the low revenue threshold set, a bar that they will likely surpass given the national economic recovery, by the end of Fiscal Year 2016. Whenever they reach that threshold, the rate will be reduced resulting in an additional $350 million in lost revenue for public schools and targeted economic development efforts beginning in the second year.  Moreover, changes to the way in which corporations profits are subject to tax will also change such that multistate corporations will only pay tax based on the share of their national profits generated from sales to North Carolina consumers and no longer need to account for their property or payroll.
  • Allocating sales tax revenue to local communities under the proposed complex formula won’t make them whole. Many questions remain about how the complicated formula for sending sales tax revenue to localities will be implemented — and how much money will be involved. Is it just the revenue anticipated from expanding the sales tax? Or could revenue generated from sales tax also be in the mix if anticipated revenue collections from broadening the sales tax fall short?  Importantly too, the roughly $84.8 million identified is unlikely to sufficiently change the dynamics in rural communities where water & sewer infrastructure needs persist, main street revitalization and support to existing businesses to expand are needed and job training and pathways require regional connections. A vision and policy agenda for rural economic development cannot be achieved with a state tax code that falls short.

The proposed tax plan proposed is not reform. It won’t help the state’s economic position. It has been proven over time that tax cuts don’t drive significant job creation or improve wages. They can’t ensure that economic activity happens in communities that are being left behind by current economic growth.

What tax cuts do is reduce the ability of the state to build a foundation for a strong economy. That is crystal clear. The harm to public schools, health, the justice system and economic development from adoption of a strategy that doesn’t work will be felt by us all.

 


State Rundown 8/20: Summertime Sadness


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Budget gridlock continues in a few states across the country, including North Carolina where lawmakers are dragging through one of the longest sessions in 40 years, and taxpayers have already spent an extra $1 million to keep the legislature in session. House and Senate leaders agreed on a $21.74 billion budget, or roughly the mid-point between the two chambers' spending packages passed earlier this summer.  However, lawmakers now need to agree on how to spend the money.  As a News and Observer editorial notes, such a restrictive level of spending keeps the state's budget "suspended in the recession’s gloomy economic period." A proposed change to local sales tax revenue also caused deadlock. Rural legislators would like to redistribute local sales tax revenue from urban areas and tourist destinations to their jurisdictions, while legislators from those places say the change would require a tax hike on their constituents. Last week legislators passed a stopgap funding measure through Aug. 31.

The Michigan House this week again debated road funding but adjourned Wednesday without a deal, the latest move in a long debate that has already defeated a ballot measure and threatened the state’s EITC. After voters torpedoed a sales tax increase at the polls that would have paid for transportation improvements, both chambers of the legislature passed alternative funding plans. The compromise package called for $600 million in new fuel tax and vehicle registration tax increases as well as a transfer of $600 million in income tax revenue from the general fund. Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic legislators balked at the general fund transfer, while Republicans in the House were slow to rally around the new taxes. Both houses of the legislature will return after Labor Day.

A controversial education tax credit in Kansas is drawing fire from critics who say it directs public money to religious schools. Created in 2014, the Kansas Low-Income Students Scholarship Program allows non-profit organizations to collect donations from businesses to pay private school tuition for low-income students who attend public schools with low test scores. In return, businesses are allowed a state income tax credit equal to 70 percent of their donation. More than 50 private schools, many of which offer religious education, have signed up for the program. Opponents of the scholarships say the program is unconstitutional, as Article 6 of the State Constitution states “No religious sect or sects shall control any part of the public educational funds.”

New Jersey lawmakers are trading proposals to cut taxes on yacht owners with Gov. Chris Christie. Lawmakers sent a budget to the governor that capped the 7 percent sales tax on yachts at $20,000, a windfall for boats costing more than $286,000. Christie vetoed that measure and responded with a plan that would halve the yacht sales tax from 7 percent to 3.5 percent. Marinas and boat retailers favor the governor’s plan. The vetoed plan would have cost between $3 million and $4 million; estimates on the governor’s alternative are not available but are expected to be higher. Legislators will consider Christie’s proposal when the legislature reconvenes, perhaps as soon as September.

As West Virginia legislators continue to consider changes to the state’s income tax structure to draw more businesses, state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette questioned whether such an effort was necessary. Burdette pointed out that location was the number one reason that companies chose not to expand in the Mountain State:  “We don’t lose prospects over taxes; I’m not sure we lose them over regulations any more. We lose them over site.” Burdette also pointed out that the state’s lack of an educated workforce hurts business recruitment efforts. “Simply making us the lowest cost state without acknowledging and focusing attention and resources on other factors which make an attractive business climate would be a mistake,” Burdette acknowledged. 


Fiscal Year Finish Line Part III: Transportation Funding


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This is the final installment of our three part series on 2015 state tax trends.  The first article focused on tax shifts and tax cuts.  The second article discussed tax credits for working families and revenue raising initiatives.

Thumbnail image for 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). 

Perhaps the most active area of state tax policy this year was the debate over how to fund the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.  As Congress continues to drag its feet on a solution to our current revenue shortfall, lawmakers in many states took action by enacting gas tax changes that will fund meaningful improvements to their transportation networks. A total of 17 states have enacted gas tax increases since 2013—including 9 this year alone.

Check out the detailed list after the jump to see which states increased their gas tax to support transportation funding.

 

Transportation Funding

Georgia: A 6.7 cent gas tax increase took effect July 1, 2015 as a result of a law signed earlier this year.  That law also positions Georgia for the long-term by allowing future increases to occur alongside growth in inflation and vehicle fuel-efficiency.

Idaho: A 7 cent gas tax increase took effect July 1, 2015—the state’s first gas tax increase in over 19 years.

Iowa: A 10 cent increase finally took effect on March 1, 2015 after years of debate.

Kentucky: Falling gas prices nearly resulted in a 5.1 cent gas tax cut this year, but lawmakers scaled that cut down to just 1.6 cents.  The net result was a 3.5 cent increase relative to previous law.

Nebraska: A 6 cent increase was enacted over Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto.  The gas tax rate will rise in 1.5 cent increments over four years, starting on January 1, 2016.

North Carolina: Falling gas prices were scheduled to result in a 7.9 cent gas tax cut in the years ahead, but lawmakers scaled that cut down to just 3.5 cents.  The eventual net result will be a 4.4 cent increase relative to previous law (though now there is talk of allowing further cuts to take place and hiking drivers’ license fees to make up some of the lost gas tax revenue).  Additionally, a reformed gas tax formula that takes population and energy prices into account will result in further gas tax increases in the years ahead.

South Dakota: A 6 cent increase took effect April 1, 2015.

Utah: A 4.9 cent increase will take effect January 1, 2016, and future increases will occur as a result of a new formula that considers both fuel prices and inflation.  This reform makes Utah the nineteenth state to adopt a variable-rate gas tax.

Washington: Gov. Inslee signed a recent compromise package approved by the legislature. Washington State’s gas tax will rise by 11.9 cents in two increments: 7 cents on August 1 and an additional 4.9 cents on July 1, 2016. 

 


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.

 


No, Stephen Moore, North Carolina is Not a Booming Supply-Side Paradise


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ncstatehouse.jpgStephen Moore, a member of the supply-side triumvirate along with Art Laffer and Travis Brown, recently wrote a deeply misleading op-ed for The Wall Street Journal hailing North Carolina’s revenue surplus as vindication for supply-side economics and the state’s regressive tax policy. Don’t buy it.

Moore paints a rosy picture of the economic health of the Tarheel State, where lawmakers passed massive tax cuts for the wealthy in 2013 and are gearing up for another round this legislative session. The 2013 cuts prompted public outcry from citizens concerned about the drastic spending decreases needed to make the tax cuts possible, as well as the focus on slashing taxes – the estate, personal income and corporate income taxes –overwhelmingly paid by the well-off.

Worse, the 2013 cuts came on the heels of years of declining investment due to the national recession, a decline lawmakers have been slow to reverse. A 2014 Budget and Tax Center report found that spending in that year was still 6.6 percent below pre-recession levels, far from the norm in other states and for North Carolina in previous recessions.

Moore’s op-ed pretends that states can have massive, top-heavy tax cuts and still adequately meet their public obligations. But that’s only true if they’re in a race to the bottom. The state of public education funding in North Carolina is abysmal. The percentage of state dollars dedicated to K-12 education has gone down for the past 30 years; one study suggests that if public education had the same funding support now as in 1985, “schools would have an extra $1 billion a year in state money, which could [raise] teacher salaries [and presumably attract more talent] above the national average and could boost spending on items such as textbooks.” According to one NEA study, North Carolina ranked last nationally in teacher salary increases over the last decade. Dozens of school districts were forced to cut teaching positions or increase class sizes in 2013, a slow-burning economic blow that the state will contend with for years to come.

Moore also employs smoke and mirrors to tout North Carolina’s job and employment growth as a rebuttal to those who thought tax and spending cuts were the wrong policy. “The job market is vastly improved and people didn’t go hungry in the streets,” he reasons (it’s unclear how he knows this, but it’s worth pointing out that one in four North Carolina children are food-insecure). The truth is the number of employed North Carolinians is still below pre-recession levels and lags national averages. Despite an 18.5 percent increase in state domestic product since 2007, wages have actually fallen. And the economic recovery has been massively uneven along geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Instead of acknowledging the challenges North Carolina faces, Moore crows about a one-time budget surplus. “Even with lower rates, tax revenues are up about 6% this year according to the state budget office,” he writes. “Gov. McCrory announced that the state has a budget surplus of $400 million while many other states are scrambling to fill gaps.”

Sounds great, right? Except that correlation does not imply causation, as every economist (including, presumably, Stephen Moore) knows. The $400 million is an unexpected windfall from business and capital gains growth – similar to revenue surpluses in at least ten other states, some of which did not cut taxes and at least one (California) which raised taxes. Even Art Pope, North Carolina’s former budget director and the architect of the 2013 cuts, doesn’t think the surplus stems from his tax policy changes.

Furthermore, plenty of other states that have embraced supply-side tax cuts ended up with massive deficits, Kansas and Louisiana being the prime examples. A recent CBPP report found that “Four of the five states that enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last few years have had slower job growth since enacting their cuts than the nation as a whole.”

Moore concedes the point on Kansas, most likely because he couldn’t get away with ignoring the biggest repudiation to his economic philosophy in years. But he obfuscates on the issue, noting that “Art Pope says one difference between the two states is that ‘we cut spending too. Kansas didn’t.’” And yet isn’t that the snake oil that Moore and his associates sell? That tax cuts will pay for themselves without spending cuts?

In Kansas, where lawmakers are still scrambling to close a $400 million shortfall, every supply-sider has counseled patience. The architect of the Kansas experiment, Art Laffer, said that the tax cuts there could take a decade to work. But not so in North Carolina, where two years and a one-time revenue boost are enough to declare “Mission Accomplished.”

The assertions of Moore and his compatriots in corporate welfare would be laughable were they not exceedingly dangerous. Even now, North Carolina lawmakers are preparing to waste the unexpected $400 million on additional tax cuts – on top of revenue triggers that will automatically drop the corporate rate from 6.9 to 4 percent by 2016. Senate Republicans have suggested further cutting personal income tax rates, calculating corporate income taxes on the basis of a single sales factor, and slashing the franchise tax by a third. These lawmakers claim their goal is to provide “balanced tax relief,” but don’t hold your breath. In 2013, the top five percent of taxpayers got 90 percent of the net tax cut, while the bottom 80 percent ended up paying more. Even after accounting for a sales tax base expansion, this new plan will lose $1 billion in state revenues. In other words, lawmakers are using a one-time surplus of $400 million to justify a billion dollar tax break for the wealthy. This is the state of fiscal conservatism.

So North Carolina, just as one should beware Greeks bearing gifts, you should be extra careful around Wall Street Journal editorial board members selling voodoo economics. Chances are they’re looking for a doll. 


Some States Support Earned Income Tax Credits for Working Families, Others Fall Short


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familyeitc.JPGEarned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) are one of the most popular and effective tools available for fighting poverty through the tax code. In 2013 alone, the federal EITC helped lift 6.2 million working families, including 3.2 million children, out of poverty. Numerous studies show that federal EITC expansions in the 1990s helped boost work effort among single mothers and female heads of households, and that the women who participated in the program saw higher wage growth over time. The EITC has also been associated with better health and educational outcomes for the families that it benefits. It’s no wonder that EITCs have gained bipartisan support at both the federal and state level.

Maryland offered the first state EITC to its residents in 1987, and 25 states and the District of Columbia now provide their own version modeled on the federal credit. During this legislative session, two more states – California and Massachusetts – are considering EITC proposals that would provide a hand up to working families.

California lawmakers are considering implementing a state EITC for the first time, with competing proposals from the Assembly, Senate and governor. Gov. Jerry Brown   included an EITC proposal in his revised budget plan last week which would provide qualifying working families in California an average credit of $460 a year; the maximum credit for a family with three or more kids would be $2,653. Qualifying families can earn a maximum of $13,870 under the governor’s proposal, about the average income of California’s bottom fifth of taxpayers but relatively low considering California’s median household income of $60,194. Brown’s plan is much less generous than two bills under consideration in the legislature, but the fact that the governor’s budget contains an EITC proposal and both houses of the legislature are considering their own plans is a good sign that California will adopt an EITC in the near future. Senate Bill 38 and Assembly Bill 43 propose EITCs with no income cutoff for eligibility. According to an ITEP analysis, SB 38 would provide an average credit of $781 to the bottom fifth of taxpayers, as well as generous credits to middle-income taxpayers. AB 43 would provide an average credit of $602 to the bottom fifth.

In Massachusetts, leaders in the Senate want to fund an expansion of the state’s existing EITC by freezing the state’s personal income tax rate at 5.15 percent. Otherwise, the rate will fall to 5.1 percent in January. The Senate plan also includes a modest increase in the personal exemption. An ITEP analysis of the Senate plan found that the average taxpayer in the bottom 60 percent of Massachusetts’s income distribution would get a tax cut. According to senators who support the plan, this is all about fairness: “It’s about rewarding work and not just rewarding wealth,” argues state Sen. Ben Downing. Gov. Charlie Baker wants to double the state EITC by eliminating the state’s film tax credit and leaving the planned income tax cut in place, a good sign that the state EITC will be strengthened if the governor and legislature can agree on how to pay for it.

Sadly, some states are moving backwards on state EITCS. In North Carolina, where legislators have an unexpected revenue windfall, progressive groups have called on lawmakers to restore the state EITC that was allowed to expire last year, costing nearly one million families an important lifeline. A House Committee rejected an amendment that would do that, electing moments later to instead renew a tax break for buyers of airplanes and yachts.

After the defeat of a ballot measure to raise additional road funding through a sales and gas tax expansion, conservative lawmakers in Michigan unveiled a proposal that would fund road repairs in part by eliminating the state EITC. About 780,000 Michiganders received the EITC in 2013, with most of the benefits going to those earning between $15,000 and $20,000. Many legislators want to avoid raising sales or gas taxes in order to fund roads, but eliminating this crucial program for working families is not the answer.

To learn more about the role that state EITCs can play in supporting working families and creating more prosperity for everyone, check out this ITEP report.

 


State Rundown 5/18: Late-Breaking Developments


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State leaders in North Carolina are crowing about an unexpected budget surplus of $400 million, but the surge in new money will likely be a one-time occurrence. Meanwhile, the state’s corporate income tax rate will continue to fall in accordance with revenue triggers included in the tax cuts passed in 2013. This fiscal year, the corporate rate will drop from 5 to 4 percent, at a cost of about $109 million. As ITEP’s Meg Wiehe noted in a recent editorial, “the truth is that, as a share of income, no matter how you slice the data, the wealthiest households got the biggest tax cut and the vast majority of the net tax cut goes to those families.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that one feature of Maryland’s local income tax law is unconstitutional. The case centered on the state’s collection of a “piggy-back” income tax of up to 3.2 percent on behalf of Maryland counties and Baltimore City in addition to the 5.75 percent personal income tax at the state level. Maryland offers a credit on the state personal income tax for income taxes paid to other states, but the credit does not apply to the piggy-back tax. One Maryland couple sued, saying that applying the piggy-back tax without applying a credit for income taxes paid in other states amounted to double taxation. The US Supreme Court agreed, saying the practice was a violation of the Commerce Clause as it could discourage business across state lines. The ruling will likely cost Maryland counties and localities millions in revenue.

Vermont’s legislative session ended last week with a deal to cover a $113 million shortfall that included $30 million in new revenue. Under the plan, the state sales tax of 6 percent will now apply to soft drinks and the 9 percent meals tax will apply to vending machines. The deal also caps the  most itemized deductions Vermonters can claim against their personal income tax to 2.5 times the standard deduction.

Conservative legislators in Maine shared the details of their tax plan last week. The proposal would cut the top income tax rate from 7.95 to 6.5 percent over two years and would leave the sales tax unchanged. The plan differs greatly from Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal, which would implement much bigger income tax cuts and increase the sales tax. The plan also increases state revenue sharing with localities, rather than eliminating it as the governor’s plan would. Critics of this newest plan, citing ITEP data, note that Mainers who make less than $57,000 would see their taxes increase on average, and that the income tax cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and corporations. 

 


North Carolina Lawmakers Push Unreasonable Income Tax Cuts, Prompt Outcry


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NCSenate.jpgNorth Carolina legislators are moving ahead with plans to double down on fiscally-ruinous income tax cuts less than two years after enacting a significant tax cut package that was heavily tilted to the Tarheel state's richest residents. Senate Bill 526 would reduce the personal income tax rate from 5.75 to 5.5 percent, replace the standard deduction with a zero percent tax bracket for the first $20,000 of income, and reduce the corporate income tax from 5 to 4 percent. Worse, the bill would eliminate revenue benchmarks passed in 2013 that would have prevented corporate income tax cuts if revenue collections didn’t reach a certain level. All told, the tax cuts would cost at least $1.4 billion in revenue over the biennium. Currently, North Carolina faces a $271 million shortfall.

Luckily, opponents of the tax cut plan continue to sound the alarm. Alexandra Sirota of the Budget and Tax Center (BTC) blasted the proposed income tax cuts, saying previously-enacted cuts “have undermined the state’s ability to invest in infrastructure, in research and development at public universities and in many other public services that underpin a strong economy.” Sirota pointed out that some lawmakers who back further income tax cuts have sought to hedge their bets by securing more sales tax revenue for their districts – an implicit admission that revenue growth is unlikely to occur.

A recent BTC report found that the evidence gleaned from tax cuts passed in North Carolina in 2013 disprove the arguments that tax cuts create growth and attract businesses. While the state’s job growth since December 2013 has been slightly stronger than the national average, personal income and hourly wage growth in North Carolina have both trailed the nation. The report also cites an ITEP analysis which found that the 2013 tax cuts overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and profitable corporations, and that the 2015 plan would send another $2,000 back to the top one percent of earners. 

Advocates aren’t the only ones condemning the plan. An editorial in The Charlotte Observer chides state lawmakers for their attempts “to fund the fiction that giving ‘job creators’ more money is good for North Carolina. Doing so ignores history, which shows there’s no link between lowering state taxes and economic growth. That’s because businesses spend money when they can make money, not simply because the government gave them more of it.”

 


State Rundown 4/7: Bad Ideas Die Hard


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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback doubled down on defending his disastrous tax cuts, insisting that the state would benefit from a shift away from income taxes to consumption taxes. The governor claimed that such taxes, which fall more heavily on middle and working-class citizens, are more “growth oriented” than the income tax, despite the problems with this claim. Brownback has proposed increases in taxes on cigarette and alcohol consumption this session to make up for freefalling revenues, and has indicated willingness to increase the sales tax. Meanwhile, the deep budget cuts enacted in the wake of Brownback’s tax cuts means Kansas schools will close early this year. 

It seems as if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s lottery privatization plan is a bust. The Associated Press reports that the New Jersey lottery, once among the most profitable in the nation, has failed to meet state revenue targets for the second year in a row. Legislators have already lowered income expectations for the struggling lottery, but Gtech, the private firm in charge of operations is trailing even the revised number by $64 million. Gtech is the same company responsible for the abysmal performance of the Illinois State Lottery after it was privatized in 2011. Former Gov. Pat Quinn fired the firm last summer.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval hit back at critics of his proposed increase in business license fees, singling out a report by the Tax Foundation as irresponsible and “intellectually dishonest.” Sandoval wants to replace Nevada’s flat fee of $200 for a business license with a tiered system that takes into account gross receipts and the type of business. The new fees would range from $400 to $4 million a year and would raise $430 million. The governor would use the new revenue to help increase education funding by nearly $782 million. He has gained the support of business and interfaith groups, as well as the majority of Nevada voters.

 

Following Up:
North Carolina: An editorial in The News and Observer blasted the income tax cut proposal offered by state Senate leaders, noting that “while they’ve been cutting taxes for the wealthy and businesses, which have gotten most of the breaks, they’ve bashed the public schools, cut the university system and put the state in such a tight revenue margin that further tax cuts could be catastrophic.”

Idaho: The state Senate killed the tax plan offered by House leaders that would have removed the sales tax on groceries, increased the gas excise tax and lowered income taxes for the wealthy. 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).  While an alternative plan has yet to be formulated, the Senate appears to be interested in refocusing efforts on the original objective of this legislation: raising money for transportation.

Nebraska: The proposed gas tax increase continued its progress through the state’s unicameral legislature, when senators voted 26-10 to advance the measure. Two more votes are required before the bill reaches Gov. Pete Ricketts, who does not support increasing the gas tax.

 

Things We Missed:
The Georgia legislature approved a sweeping transportation deal last Tuesday that will raise $1 billion for infrastructure maintenance and improvements through a mix of new revenue sources. The final version of House Bill 170 raises the existing state gas tax by 6.7 cents and reforms the tax so that it will grow alongside fuel-efficiency gains and general inflation, rather than being tied to gas prices. The bill also introduced a new $5-per-night hotel and motel tax and a new fee of $50 to $100 on heavy commercial trucks. The measure eliminated tax breaks for commercial airlines and electric cars to raise revenue as well. Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated that he will sign the measure into law.

 

States Ending Session This Week:
Mississippi (Sunday) (note: the end of the session means no new tax cut proposals can be considered in Mississippi this year)



Six States Have Raised or Reformed Their Gas Taxes This Year


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As we’ve noted previously, eight states enacted gas tax increases or reforms in 2013 and 2014 to better fund their transportation infrastructure.  So far this year, six more states have joined this list, meaning that a total of 14 states have taken action on the gas tax in just over two years’ time (Wyoming kicked off this trend in February 2013).  Here’s a quick rundown of what has been enacted this year: 

1. After years of debate, Iowa’s gasoline and diesel taxes finally rose by 10 cents per gallon on March 1 as a result of legislation enacted in February.  The increase was Iowa’s first in more than a quarter century.

2. Next door in South Dakota, lawmakers quickly followed Iowa’s lead with a law that raised gasoline and diesel taxes by 6 cents starting April 1.

3. Utah took a more long-term approach to its gas tax with a law that will hugely improve the tax’s sustainability.  In addition to raising the rate by 5 cents on January 1, 2016, the state also converted its fixed-rate gas tax into a smarter variable-rate gas tax that will initially grow alongside gas prices, and then eventually alongside the greater of gas prices or inflation.  Utah is now the 19th state to adopt a variable-rate gas tax.

4. Georgia Gov. Deal has promised to sign a transportation funding bill recently approved by the state legislature.  Under the bill, the state portion of the gas tax will rise by 6.7 cents on July 1.  Until 2018, the rate will rise each subsequent July based on growth in both vehicle fuel-efficiency and inflation, after which point the inflation factor will be dropped and the rate will be determined based on fuel-efficiency changes alone.  Georgia is the first state in the nation to tie its gas tax rate to fuel-efficiency gains: a recommendation we have made in the past.

5. Kentucky drivers received a 1.6 cent gas tax cut on April 1, far less than the 5.1 cent cut that would have taken effect if lawmakers had not acted.  This was accomplished by raising the state’s minimum gas tax level from 22.5 to 26.0 cents per gallon.  In addition to this boost in the state’s gas tax “floor,” lawmakers also reformed (PDF) the tax with an eye toward predictability by mandating that gas tax cuts brought on by falling gas prices cannot exceed 10 percent per year.

6. North Carolina drivers are also seeing their gas taxes fall, but only temporarily and not by as much as would have otherwise been the case.  Under a bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, gas tax rates fell by 1.5 cents on April 1 and will drop by an additional penny on both January 1 and July 1 of next year.  This gradual 3.5 cent cut is less than half the full 7.9 cent cut that otherwise would have taken effect this summer.  Additionally, lawmakers also agreed to swap out their price-based gas tax formula in favor of allowing the tax rate to grow alongside population and the general inflation rate—a change they think will generate a more substantial, predictable stream of revenue in the years ahead.

It is likely that more states will follow the lead of these half dozen states before 2015 legislative sessions come to a close.  Our earlier surveys identified eight states in particular that are also giving the idea careful consideration: Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington State.


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 3/4: Other, Less Controversial Speeches before Legislatures


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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled his budget proposal this week, delivering his state of the state address before a joint session of the state legislature. Wolf’s proposal would largely shift the responsibility for funding  public education from local property taxes to the state sales and income tax. The flat personal income tax rate would increase from 3.07 to 3.7 percent, and the sales tax rate would rise from 6 to 6.6 percent and would apply to additional goods and services. These changes would bring in an additional $3.9 billion in general fund revenue, most of which would be dedicated to reducing property tax bills by an average of $1,000 per household. About $540 million in new revenues would go to public schools and universities. Wolf also proposed a new severance tax on oil and gas extraction that would replace the state’s one-time impact fee on drilling new wells, with new revenues also earmarked to public education. In a bid to gain bipartisan support, Wolf also proposed significant corporate income tax cuts paid for by closing loopholes and continuing former Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to phase out the state’s capital stock and franchise tax. (Stay tuned to the Tax Justice Blog for our take on the plan.)

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley presented his budget proposal to the state legislature this week under the cloud of a $700 million deficit. The governor proposed $541 million in tax increases across eight areas, including the corporate and individual income taxes, excise taxes on tobacco products, and sales and rental taxes for cars. The cigarette tax would increase by 82.5 cents per pack, with commensurate increases for other tobacco products, bringing in $205 million in additional revenue. Increasing the tax rate on automobile sales and rentals from 2 to 4 percent would increase revenues by $231 million. The governor’s finance director assured legislators that the proposed changes would still leave Alabama near the bottom in rankings of tax revenues per capita, but Bentley’s plan will do little to address the regressive nature of the state’s tax system.  (Stay tuned to the Tax Justice Blog for our take on the plan.)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott was the third governor to give a state of the state address today, pitching a combination of tax cuts and spending increases to leery legislators. Scott touted his “Keep Florida Working” budget proposal, which includes $673 million in tax cuts from a variety of sources, including the tax on communication services, sales taxes on college textbooks, and taxes on businesses and manufacturers. The bulk of the cuts -- $470.9 million in lost revenue – come from decreasing the tax rate on communication services (cell phones, cable, and satellite television) by 3.6 percent. Scott also pushed for more education funding and a tuition freeze on postgraduate education at state universities.

A new report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center reveals that tax cuts pushed by Gov. Pat McCrory (who is expected to release his budget plan this week) and the state legislature have hurt economic growth by starving the state of needed revenues. According to the report, if tax levels in the state were at pre-recession levels, North Carolina would have $3.2 billion additional dollars to invest in early childhood education, access to higher education, anti-poverty measures for senior citizens, affordable health care, wage subsidy programs and court access. The Budget and Tax Center also points out that even though middle- and low-income families saw their overall tax responsibility increase, the massive cuts for wealthy individuals left the state with an annual $1 billion budget gap.

 

States Starting Session This Week:
Alabama (Tuesday)
Florida (Tuesday)

State of the State Addresses This Week:
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (watch here)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (watch here)
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (watch here)

Governors’ Budgets Released This Week:
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (read here)
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (read here)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (Thursday)

 


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 2/5: State of the States


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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan fleshed out his plans to cut taxes in his state of the state address this Wednesday, vowing to seek reductions for small businesses, some retirees, motorists and the repeal of the so-called “rain tax,” a contentious stormwater management fee. Faced with a significant budget deficit, Hogan was forced to pursue more piecemeal tax cuts than he suggested during the campaign, though the measures face stiff opposition from the Democratic-controlled legislature. Two of the measures particularly rankle environmentalists; Hogan wants to repeal a law indexing the state’s gas tax to inflation, and his attack on the stormwater fee will shortchange efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Democrats say the governor’s plans will cost $30 million a year in lost revenue, while the governor’s staff says the cost will be closer to $27 million. Additionally, Hogan proposed legislation to make it easier to open charter schools in Maryland, as well as a tax break for people who donate to private and religious schools. ITEP has argued that such tax breaks, also known as “neovouchers,” unfairly divert public money to private education. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed a similar tax credit in his budget.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory used his state of the state speech to tout his “North Carolina plan,” which would expand Medicaid in North Carolina but seek a waiver for some of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions. The governor made sparing references to taxes in his speech, despite the fact that revenues in the Tarheel state have fallen under projection thanks to tax cuts he signed in 2013. Also left unmentioned was the push by some lawmakers to repeal the state’s capital gains tax, a measure that McCrory has partially supported as a way to lure “innovation-related companies” to the state. Some advocates criticized the governor for failing to push for reenactment of the state’s EITC, which expired in 2013.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker further cemented his conservative-warrior persona in his state of the state speech, slashing higher education budgets by $300 million to help solve a $650 million budget deficit over the biennium (which will inevitably mean higher tuition bills). Walker’s budget also includes a property tax cut of $5 per year for the average taxpayer (according the governors’ office) to the tune of $280 million for the state, to be enacted by sending more state aid to local districts but earmarking that aid for tax cuts. K-12 spending, meanwhile, would remain flat. Walker’s budget has earned the governor steep opposition; faculty and students at the University of Wisconsin decried the governor for proposing the deepest higher education cuts in state history while also giving $220 million in state money to the NBA for a new stadium. Some lawmakers point out that many of the cuts would be unnecessary if Walker and his legislative allies had not squandered last year’s $1 billion surplus on property and income tax cuts. Even some conservative lawmakers are worried that Walker’s cuts to higher education will lead to huge tuition spikes, despite the two-year tuition freeze included in the governor’s budget proposal.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner pushed for a property-tax freeze in his state of the state address, arguing that local governments need to cut expenses and waste or consolidate services in order to make it happen. The governor previously called for expanding the sales tax base to include services in order to bring in more revenue and make the state more competitive. Given that the state faces a projected $11 billion shortfall over the next two years, it has left us head scratching as to why the governor avoided talking directly about how to resolve the state’s revenue crisis.

 

Following Up:

  • Maine: As expected, Gov. Paul LePage used his state of the state address to make a case for his tax reform proposal, arguing that the state should adopt a constitution amendment that commits future revenue growth to income tax cuts. LePage appears to be following a broader national strategy for Republican governors to cut income taxes and raise sales and other taxes on a promised “path to prosperity.”  
  • Ohio: Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal received pushback from school districts concerned that his new funding plan will unfairly redistribute state resources. The governor and his staff claim the plan will send more money to poorer districts, but school officials have criticized the opacity of his funding formula. Look to the Tax Justice Digest next week for full coverage of the plan, including an analysis of who wins and who loses.
  • Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to veto any budget that does not include tax cuts for businesses, arguing that cutting or eliminating the state’s franchise tax would stimulate job growth.
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    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)


    State Rundown 1/16: Kumbaya Caucus


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    Newly-elected Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson continued a well-established tradition in the Natural State by beginning the legislative session with a proposed tax cut. Hutchinson’s plan would cut personal income tax rates by one percent for those making $21,000 to $75,000 a year, and would cost $137.8 million once fully implemented (according to Hutchinson's office). The governor has yet to outline how he will pay for his tax cut. His plan will offer virtually no relief to the 40 percent of Arkansans who make less than $22,600 and currently pay a percentage of their income in state in local taxes that is twice as high as that paid by the wealthiest Arkansans, according to the most recent edition of ITEP’s Who Pays report. Legislators predicted that the cuts would receive broad bipartisan support.

    North Carolina lawmakers began their legislative session yesterday with the usual pledges of bipartisanship meant to muffle the sharpening of knives. The state’s Republican legislature could face a showdown with Gov. Pat McCrory over Medicaid expansion, a policy that the governor now says he is open to considering. At their traditional press conference, the leaders of the House and Senate reiterated their opposition to expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 additional North Carolinians, but were non-committal on other issues likely to dominate the session – business incentives, teacher pay and local taxes, among others. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger defended previously enacted corporate and personal income tax cuts, saying they are contributing to an improving economic environment despite revenue collections falling $190 million below state projections. This is after state projections were already adjusted downward by close to the same amount last year, so the state is actually bringing in $400 million less than originally anticipated.

    Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal urged lawmakers to find money to invest in the state’s transportation system, saying $1 billion was needed to simply maintain the current system. While the governor did not specify where the funding should from, he highlighted the inadequacy of the state’s gasoline excise tax, signaling his openness to a tax increase. Georgia’s excise tax has not increased since 1971, while fuel efficiency has almost doubled. The prospect of a transportation plan passing the legislature is dicey; Republicans are likely to oppose increasing taxes or fees, while Democrats could balk at a plan that doesn’t include funding for mass transit. Democrats enjoy leverage on the issue since their votes could be necessary to overcome Republican opposition.

     

    Following Up:

    Arizona – A judge ordered lawyers for the Legislature, governor and Arizona public schools to enter into settlement talks over a lawsuit brought by the schools against the state. Gov. Ducey previously called for a resolution in his State of the State address.

    New Jersey – Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address received mixed reviews for being light on details (the governor did not mention his state’s transportation crisis and punted on unfunded pension liabilities) and targeted toward a national audience. Christie did, however offer dissonant platitudes about the need to make investments and also cut taxes. Perhaps next he will boldly declare his intention to rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time.

    Nebraska – The Nebraska Cattlemen Association is monitoring the property tax cut proposals emerging in the legislature after Gov. Pete Rickett’s pledge to offer Nebraskans property tax relief in his State of the State address. They have shown particular interest in Sen. Al Davis’ plan to pay for property tax relief through new local income taxes.

    Tennessee – As predicted, plenty of legislators hate Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to expand Medicaid coverage to 200,000 Tennesseans. House Republican leader Gerald McCormick is particularly unenthused, saying he would sponsor the governor’s bill but only because it’s his job (cue heavy sighing and eye-rolling).

     

    Things We Missed: 

    New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee and Gov. Susana Martinez both released their budget proposals this week. State revenues are expected to continue sliding due to falling oil prices, and less generous spending is expected. (Thanks to Ellen Pinnes for the tip!) 


    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.


    State Rundown 12/10: The Best Laid Plans (and Reports)


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    houseofcards.jpgKansas Gov. Sam Brownback bowed to reality yesterday and unveiled his plan to close the state’s self-inflicted budget gap. In true Sam Brownback fashion, his solution is to stiff highway projects and pensioners rather than reverse his disastrous tax cuts. The plan has been criticized by state leaders on both sides, since keeping your state’s roads in poor condition and your senior citizens poor is bad for economic development. Brownback’s proposal also includes smaller, though significant cuts for early childhood education programs, further showing the governor’s willingness to rob Kansas’s future to pay for unnecessary tax cuts today.


    A new report commissioned for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by his lieutenant governor claims that the state’s high taxes and complex tax code are a drag on economic growth. While no recommendations are made within it’s pages, the report’s conclusion represents a consensus among state business and political leaders who were included in the meetings. Not surprisingly, this consensus leaves out the thoughts of advocates for public services, educators and other Wisconsinites who must have missed the invitation to the 23 meetings held across the state. Walker seems to be taking a page from Indiana Gov. John Pence’s playbook, after Pence held a tax reform conference this past summer open to Art Laffer and Grover Norquist, but not the public.


    Meanwhile, Maryland legislators held a hearing recently to discuss the fate of its tax incentive program for film production, after a damning report showed the program brings in only 10 cents for every dollar spent. The bulk of the $62.5 million in credits went to just two shows, “Veep” and “House of Cards.” The credits first generated controversy early this year, when House of Cards threatened to stop production in the state unless lawmakers put up more money. This crisis was averted after Kevin Spacey agreed to schmooze with lawmakers and pose for photos at an Annapolis wine bar. Frank Underwood would be proud.


    A new report from the North Carolina legislature’s top economist reveals that state revenues are $190 million short of what was previously projected (this is on top of a previous downgrade in revenue availability for the year by $200 million). Fiscal experts in the state say the gap was caused by weak individual income tax collections and falling paycheck withholdings in the wake of last year’s tax overhaul. ITEP and our allies at the North Carolina Justice Center have been sounding the alarm for months over the huge tax cuts passed for the wealthy, arguing that their cost was wildly underestimated. Let’s hope state lawmakers don’t make up for missing revenue by cutting crucial services and making things worse.


    A report commissioned by a pro-business group claims that “tax reform” would boost business in Iowa. The state tax code, according to its authors, is too cumbersome and complex, leaving investors too confused to set up shop in the state. The Chamber Alliance, which commissioned the report, will lobby the state to simplify (read: fewer brackets) and reduce (lower rates) corporate and personal income taxes. Apparently the $4.4 billion in property tax cuts and $90 million in annual income tax relief passed by state legislators last year hasn’t been enough to make the state competitive.


     


    State Rundown 10/30: Ballot Measures and Bad Policy


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    IMG_012214capitol_br59.J_7_1_AQ2T51MO_L72370298.JPGNPR has the latest on Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s implosion, noting that since his tax cuts were enacted neighboring states have seen more robust job growth, and that revenue shortfalls have been double what state officials originally projected. Politico’s Morning Tax reports that, because the state must balance its budget each year, legislators have been forced to raid highway and reserve funds, as well as close the only school in the town of Marquette. Art Laffer, architect of the Brownback cuts and supply-side partisan, told NPR that it would be nonsense to expect people to quickly adjust to Kansas’ new tax codes, and that it could take a decade to see the promised results -- so great news for Kansas schoolchildren! His take is a departure from state revenue secretary Nick Jordan, who predicted two years ago that the state would see noticeable growth in three years. Maybe 2015 will be the charm?

    Speaking of disastrous tax cuts, Chris Fitzsimon of North Carolina Policy Watch wrote an op/ed in The Courier Tribune on the insanity that is North Carolina fiscal policy. He assails lawmakers for their 2013 tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, noting, “Just three months into the new fiscal year, North Carolina has a revenue shortfall of just over $60 million and it may balloon to ten times that much before next June.” Quoting ITEP data, Fitzsimon warns that “the cost of the Robin Hood in reverse tax cut could reach $1.1 billion this year.” The cuts, initially projected to cost $513 million this year, will actually cost $704 million -- a difference of $191 million, more than enough to pay for the $109 million in education funding that the legislature cut this summer. Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of North Carolinians received, on average, a $10,000 tax break. I guess we found out where the money for teacher’s raises went.

    Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio has an op/ed in The Cleveland Plain Dealer opposing Gov. John Kasich’s proposed elimination of the state income tax. His case is convincing (and not just because it features ITEP data): over the past decade, Ohio has cut its income tax rates by almost 30 percent, just to see job losses of 2 percent while national employment increased by 4 percent. Moreover, shifting the tax burden from income to sales would give the wealthiest Ohioans tens of thousands of dollars in tax cuts while increasing taxes for the bottom fifth. Schiller gets it: “Proponents of income-tax repeal need to explain: Why should we add to growing income inequality and further slant the state and local tax system against low- and middle-income Ohioans so that the affluent can pay less?”

    A new poll shows that the number of Massachusetts voters who support ballot Question 1 -- a repeal of a law indexing the gas tax to inflation -- is rising. A month ago, support for repeal stood at 36 percent, while 50 percent said they would vote no on Question 1. Today, support of and opposition to the ballot measure are equal, at 42 percent. Opponents of Question 1 argue that letting the value of gas tax revenue to erode over decades, as has been the case in numerous states, leads to higher costs in the long run since necessary maintenance is deferred. They also argue that taxes set as a rate already increase with inflation, so the approach outlined in the law is not a novel one. Supporters of Question believe that taxes should not increase without legislators publicly voting to do so.


    Quick Hits, Redux: Bloody Kansas, Bleeding North Carolina


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    More bad news for Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. In a stunning development, over 100 current and former Republicans endorsed Brownback’s Democratic challenger, Congressman Paul Davis. The group “Republicans for Kansas Values” includes state legislators, mayors and RNC delegates, among others. Dick Bond, former president of the Kansas state Senate, said “The decision to endorse a Democratic candidate for governor is a big step for all of us and a major departure from our Republican roots. We do not make this decision lightly. But this election should not be about electing a Republican or a Democrat as Governor. It must be about electing a moderate, commonsense Kansan as governor." The group opposes Brownback’s reelection for a number of reasons, including the deep tax cuts he spearheaded.

    On Wednesday, the North Carolina Senate Finance Committee voted to cap county sales tax rates at 2.5 percent. If enacted, the proposal will prohibit Mecklenburg County (home of Charlotte) from moving forward with a planned November referendum to raise the county sales tax by 0.25 percent (the county already levies a 2.5% local sales tax). The additional revenue would help the county pay for teacher raises. The move comes at a time when the state is struggling to address a budget deficit and pay for teacher raises due to deep tax cuts passed last year. 

    The Wall Street Journal reports that states have become more reliant on federal funds for infrastructure spending because they divert gas tax revenue away from roads and toward other uses. Some states, like Texas and Kansas, use gas tax revenue to fund education and healthcare programs. Others, like New Jersey and Washington, use revenues to service debt incurred by existing infrastructure projects. Congress recently approved a stop-gap measure to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money until May 2015.

    Finally, a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives banning states from taxing internet access could cost New Mexico $44 million in tax revenue, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under current state law, New Mexico’s gross receipts tax affects both goods and services – including internet service. New Mexico is one of seven states that currently taxes internet access.


    State News Quick Hits: Undocumented Immigrants, Tax Deform and More


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    This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but undocumented immigrants do pay taxes. This week the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) released a report detailing their contributions to Iowa revenues using ITEP data. IPP found that undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $64 million in state and local taxes. Read IPP’s full findings here.

    A News & Observer editorial last week lamented the revenue boom North Carolina might have enjoyed this year but for the package of steep income and corporate tax cuts passed in 2013. While numerous other states, including California, are beginning the fiscal year with healthy reserves, the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, using ITEP data, estimates that the cost of their state’s tax cuts could balloon to over $1 billion this year (almost double the reported amount of the tax cuts).

    Rhode Island lawmakers recently enacted a budget for the new fiscal year which received a lot of attention for changes made to the corporate income tax (rate cut and adopting combined reporting) and cutting the state’s estate tax for a few wealthy households.  But, as Kate Brewster of the Economic Progress Institute helps to explain in this op-ed, the budget deal also quietly hiked taxes on many low- and moderate-income families by eliminating a refundable credit used to offset regressive property taxes for non-elderly homeowners and renters.  Brewster opines: “Given the struggles facing middle class Rhode Islanders — enduring unemployment, stagnant wages and a lack of affordable housing — it is hard to believe the state’s new budget includes huge giveaways for a handful of heirs while quietly taking money directly out of the pockets of low- and middle-income Rhode Islanders.

    Next month Missouri voters will be asked to decide whether the state’s sales tax rate should be increased to pay for transportation improvements. The debate is raging, though no one seems to dispute Missouri has huge transportation needs. Tax justice groups like the Missouri Association for Social Welfare and even Governor Jay Nixon have argued that hiking the sales tax in the wake of income tax reductions would make the state’s tax system even more unfair. In a statement Nixon said, “This tax hike is neither a fair nor fiscally responsible solution to our transportation infrastructure needs.” It’s worth noting that the state has gone 18 years without an increase in their gas tax.


    State News Quick Hits: Red Ink Mounting in Tax Cutting States


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    News we cannot make up from our friends at the NC Budget and Tax Center: The North Carolina Senate wants to take a sacred public trust, the education of our children, and subject it to the whims of a voluntary funding system. After frittering away precious resources for schools by giving millionaires – among the only people who have prospered much in recent years – an income tax cut they didn’t need, the Senate now wants North Carolinians to voluntarily give back part or all of their income tax refunds so teachers can get a pay raise. A better, saner solution would be for the Senate to acknowledge reality: the tax plan that it and the House passed last year and the governor signed into law is failing the people of North Carolina – and their kids. Read more about this ridiculous plan here.

    Kansas lawmakers should be prepared to see lots of red ink within the next year. Former state budget director Duane Goossen has said the state simply won’t have enough money to pay its bills. One reason Kansas is going down this path is because the state no longer taxes pass-through business income, and the price tag of the deduction is largely unknown.  Perhaps this is the evidence Kansans need to prove that Governor Brownback’s experiment has failed.

    Tax Fairness advocates take heart! Kudos to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon for coming out against a sales tax hike for transportation. The governor said, “The burden of this ... sales tax increase would fall disproportionately on Missouri's working families and seniors.” The need for increased transportation funding is real, but it makes little sense to hike the sales tax almost immediately after cutting income taxes.

    Perhaps South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley hasn’t closely watched the income tax elimination debate that has sputtered to a halt in other states. If she were paying attention she would see that each of these proposals has gone  nowhere, yet she is proposing that very same thing in the Palmetto State.

    Continuing a welcome trend, lawmakers in a number of states are showing interest in dealing with chronic transportation shortfalls. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a 4-cent gas tax increase into law, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard announced that he is now open to a gas tax increase, and a Michigan Senate committee passed a bill that would increase and reform their state’s gas tax.

    Gov. Christie’s administration recently announced two plans for addressing New Jersey’s $875-million budget gap in the current fiscal year as well as next year’s projected shortfall. Rather than increasing income taxes on millionaires, as some Democrats proposed, Christie said he will reduce the amount of two state pension payments scheduled for June of the current year and 2015. The administration will also push back $400 million of property tax relief due this August until May of 2015. The legally questionable pension payment plan faces a potential lawsuit from state labor unions.

    The New York Times recently reported that Madison Square Garden (MSG) has enjoyed an indefinite property tax exemption for the past 32 years, a generous arrangement no other property in the city is afforded. The deal with New York City made in 1982,  which then-Mayor Edward Koch thought would last only 10 years, is set to save the MSG’s owners about $54 million in the next fiscal year.

    On Wednesday, the North Carolina state Senate voted to give preliminary approval to a bill that prohibits municipalities from collecting privilege taxes from businesses. Signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday, the legislation is set to cost local governments $62 million in fiscal year 2016 if leaders don’t find a revenue replacement. Large cities like Raleigh, which may lose $8 million as a result of the bill, would be particularly hard-hit and may have to resort to raising property taxes.


     


    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


    State News Quick Hits: State Lawmakers Not Getting the Message


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    Less than a year after enacting a significant (and progressive) revenue raising tax package, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed off last week on more than $400 million of tax cuts. The new legislation repeals several changes put into place last year including removing warehouse storage and 2 other primarily business services from the sales tax base and eliminating a new gift tax. The tax cuts also include reductions in the personal income tax via aligning the state’s tax code more closely to federal rules. Low- and moderate-income working families will also see a small benefit from two changes made to the state’s Working Families Credit (Minnesota’s version of a state Earned Income Tax credit (EITC).

    A mother of two in Kentucky has made an impassioned plea to her state legislators to support the creation of a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). More than half of all states have enacted such a credit, which is proven to increase workforce participation and improve health outcomes for children. As Jeanie Smith writes in her op-ed, “I know that we could have put that tax credit to good use. We could have used it toward the textbooks for my husband, or to take the stress out of a month's bills.” There are lots of strong arguments for adding a state EITC to Kentucky’s quite regressive tax code (PDF), and the Governor has proposed establishing a state EITC as part of his tax reform plan. Hopefully, Jeanie’s articulation of what a state EITC would mean for her and other families like hers will persuade those not yet on board.

    The Montgomery Advertiser recently ran a very powerful editorial about the problems with low taxes. Lawmakers should give careful thought to one of the questions the editors pose in the piece: “We don’t pay a lot in taxes in Alabama and historically have taken a perverse pride in that. But is this really a bargain, or is it a fine example of false economy, of short-changing public investment to the detriment of our people?”

    Our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) have long been critical of gimmicky sales tax holidays that provide little help to the poor or the economy. But Florida lawmakers don’t appear to have gotten the message, as the state House’s tax-writing committee recently advanced four “super-sized” sales tax holidays for purchases as varied as school supplies and gym memberships. Altogether, the package would drain $141 million from the state’s budget that could otherwise be been spent on education, infrastructure, and other public investments.

    Newspapers in Oregon and North Carolina published editorials using data from ITEP and CTJ’s latest report on state corporate income taxes to highlight the need for corporate tax reform in their states. Check out The Oregonian’s editorial, “Extremes of Corporate Tax System Show Need for Reform” and one from the Greensboro News & Record, “Next to Nothing.”


    Film Tax Credit Arms Race Continues


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    Tax credits for the film industry are receiving serious attention in at least nine states right now. Alaska’s House Finance Committee cleared a bill this week that would repeal the state’s film tax credit, and Louisiana lawmakers are coming to grips with the significant amount of fraud that’s occurred as a result of their tax credit program. Unfortunately for taxpayers, however, the main trend at the moment is toward expanding film tax credits. North Carolina and Oklahoma are looking at whether to extend their film tax credits, both of which are scheduled to expire this year. And California, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia lawmakers are all discussing whether they should increase the number of tax credit dollars being given to filmmakers.

    The best available evidence shows that film tax credits just aren’t producing enough economic benefits to justify their high cost. While some temporary, relatively low-wage jobs may be created as a result of these credits, the more highly compensated (and permanent) positions in the film industry are typically filled by out-of-state residents that work on productions all over the country, and the world. And with film tax credits having proliferated in recent years, lawmakers who want to lure filmmakers to their states with tax credits are having to offer increasingly generous incentives just to keep up.

    Saying “no” to Hollywood can be a difficult thing for states, but here are a few examples of lawmakers and other stakeholders questioning the dubious merits of these credits within the last few weeks:

    North Carolina State Rep. Mike Hager (R): “I think we can do a better job with that money somewhere else. We can do a better job putting in our infrastructure … We can do a better of job of giving it to our teachers or our Highway Patrol.”

    Richmond Times Dispatch editorial board: [The alleged economic benefits of film tax credits] “did not hold up under scrutiny. Subsidy proponents inflated the gains from movie productions – for instance, by assuming every job at a catering company was created by the film, even if the caterer had been in business for years. The money from the subsidies often leaves the state in the pockets of out-of-state actors, crew, and investors. And they often subsidize productions that would have been filmed anyway.”

    Oklahoma State Rep. James Lockhart (D): According to the Associated Press, Lockhart “said lawmakers were being asked to extend the rebate program when the state struggles to provide such basic services as park rangers for state parks.” “How else would you define pork-barrel spending?”

    Alaska State Rep. Bill Stoltze (R): “Some good things have happened from this subsidy but the amount spent to create the ability for someone to be up here isn't justified. And it's a lot of money … Would they be here if the state wasn't propping them up?”

    Sara Okos, Policy Director at the Commonwealth Institute: “How you spend your money reveals what your priorities are. By that measure, Virginia lawmakers would rather help Hollywood movie moguls make a profit than help low-wage working families make ends meet.”

    Maryland Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D): Upon learning that Netflix’s “House of Cards” will cease filming in Maryland if lawmakers do not increase the state’s film tax credit: “This just keeps getting bigger and bigger … And my question is: When does it stop?”

    Picture from Flickr Creative Commons


    Beware of the Tax Shift (Again)


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    Note to Readers: This is the second of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014. Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This post focuses on tax shift proposals.

    The most radical and potentially devastating tax reform proposals under consideration in a number of states are those that would reduce or eliminate state income taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing consumption taxes. These “tax swap” proposals appeared to gain momentum in a number of states last year, but ultimately proposals by the governors of Louisiana and Nebraska fell flat in 2013. Despite this, legislators in several states have reiterated their commitment to this flawed idea and may attempt to inflict it on taxpayers in 2014. Here’s a round-up of where we see tax shifts gaining momentum:

    Arkansas - The Republican Party in Arkansas is so committed to a tax shift that they have included language in their platform vowing to “[r]eplace the state income tax with a more equitable method of taxation.” While the rules of Arkansas’ legislative process will prevent any movement on a tax shift this year, leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson has made income tax elimination a major theme of his campaign.  

    Georgia - The threat of a radical tax shift proposal was so great in the Peach State that late last year the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published this report (using ITEP data) showing that as many as four in five taxpayers would pay more in taxes if the state eliminated their income tax and replaced the revenue with sales taxes. This report seems to have slowed the momentum for the tax shift, but many lawmakers remain enthusiastic about this idea.

    Kansas – In each of the last two years, Governor Sam Brownback has proposed and signed into law tax-cutting legislation designed to put the state on a “glide path” toward income tax elimination.  Whether or not the Governor will be able to continue to steer the state down this path in 2014 may largely depend on the state Supreme Court’s upcoming decision about increasing education funding.

    New Mexico - During the 2013 legislative session a tax shift bill was introduced in Santa Fe that would have eliminated the state’s income tax, and reduced the state’s gross receipts tax rate to 2 percent (from 5.125 percent) while broadening the tax base to include salaries and wages. New Mexico Voices for Children released an analysis (PDF) of the legislation (citing ITEP figures on the already-regressive New Mexico tax structure) that rightly concludes, “[o]n the whole, HB-369/SB-368 would be a step in the direction of a more unfair tax system and should not be passed by the Legislature.” We expect the tax shift debate has only just started there.

    North Carolina - North Carolina lawmakers spent a good part of their 2013 legislative session debating numerous tax “reform” packages including a tax shift that would have eliminated the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and replaced some of the revenue with a higher sales tax. Ultimately, they enacted a smaller-scale yet still disastrous package which cut taxes for the rich,hiked them for most everyone else, and drained state resources by more than $700 million a year. There is reason to believe that some North Carolina lawmakers will use any surplus revenue this year to push for more income tax cuts.  And, one of the chief architects of the income tax elimination plan from last year has made it known that he would like to use the 2015 session to continue pursuing this goal.

    Ohio - Governor John Kasich has made no secret of his desire to eliminate the state’s income tax. When he ran for office in 2010 he promised to “[p]hase out the income tax. It's punishing on individuals. It's punishing on small business. To phase that out, it cannot be done in a day, but it's absolutely essential that we improve the tax environment in this state so that we no longer are an obstacle for people to locate here and that we can create a reason for people to stay here." He hasn't changed his tune: during a recent talk to chamber of commerce groups he urged them “to always be for tax cuts.”  

    Wisconsin - Governor Scott Walker says he wants 2014 to be a year of discussion about the pros and cons of eliminating Wisconsin’s most progressive revenue sources—the corporate and personal income taxes. But the discussion is likely to be a short one when the public learns (as an ITEP analysis found) that a 13.5 percent sales tax rate would be necessary for the state to make up for the revenue lost from income tax elimination. 


    What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy


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    Note to Readers: This is the first of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This post provides an overview of key trends and top states to watch in the coming year.  Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals and take a deeper look at the four key policy trends likely to dominate 2014 legislative sessions and feature prominently on the campaign trail. Part two discusses the trend of tax shift proposals. Part three discusses the trend of tax cut proposals. Part four discusses the trend of gas tax increase proposals. Part five discusses the trend of real tax reform proposals.

    2013 was a year like none we have seen before when it comes to the scope and sheer number of tax policy plans proposed and enacted in the states.  And given what we’ve seen so far, 2014 has the potential to be just as busy.

    In a number of statehouses across the country last year, lawmakers proposed misguided schemes (often inspired by supply-side ideology) designed to sharply reduce the role of progressive personal and corporate income taxes, and in some cases replace them entirely with higher sales taxes.  There were also a few good faith efforts at addressing long-standing structural flaws in state tax codes through base broadening, providing tax breaks to working families, or increasing taxes paid by the wealthiest households.

    The good news is that the most extreme and destructive proposals were halted.  However, several states still enacted costly and regressive tax cuts, and we expect lawmakers in many of those states to continue their quest to eliminate income taxes in the coming years.  

    The historic elections of 2012, which left most states under solid one-party control (many of those states with super majorities), are a big reason why so many aggressive tax proposals got off the ground in 2013.  We expect elections to be a driving force shaping tax policy proposals again in 2014 as voters in 36 states will be electing governors this November, and most state lawmakers are up for re-election as well.

    We also expect to see a continuation of the four big tax policy trends that dominated 2013:

    • Tax shifts or tax swaps:  These proposals seek to scale back or repeal personal and corporate income taxes, and generally seek to offset some, or all, of the revenue loss with a higher sales tax.

      At the end of last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made it known that he wants to give serious consideration to eliminating his state’s income tax and to hiking the sales tax to make up the lost revenue.  Even if elimination is out of reach this year, Walker and other Wisconsin lawmakers are still expected to push for income tax cuts.  Look for lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina to debate similar proposals.  And, count on North Carolina and Ohio lawmakers to attempt to build on tax shift plans partially enacted in 2013.  
    • Tax cuts:  These proposals range from cutting personal income taxes to reducing property taxes to expanding tax breaks for businesses.  Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering using the revenue rebounds we’ve seen in the wake of the Great Recession as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts.  

      Missouri
      lawmakers, for example, wasted no time in filing a new slate of tax-cutting bills at the start of the year with the hope of making good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year.  Despite the recommendations from a Nebraska tax committee to continue studying the state’s tax system for the next year, rather than rushing to enact large scale cuts, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Dave Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.  And, lawmakers in Michigan are debating various ways of piling new personal income tax cuts on top of the large business tax cuts (PDF) enacted these last few years.  We also expect to see major tax cut initiatives this year in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

      Conservative lawmakers are not alone in pushing a tax-cutting agenda.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates are making tax cuts a part of their campaign strategies.  
    • Real Reform:  Most tax shift and tax cut proposals will be sold under the guise of tax reform, but only those plans that truly address state tax codes’ structural flaws, rather than simply eliminating taxes, truly deserve the banner of “reform”.

      Illinois and Kentucky are the states with the best chances of enacting long-overdue reforms this year.  Voters in Illinois will likely be given the chance to convert their state's flat income tax rate to a more progressive, graduated system.  Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has renewed his commitment to enacting sweeping tax reform that will address inequities and inadequacies in his state’s tax system while raising additional revenue for education.  Look for lawmakers in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Utah to consider enacting or enhancing tax policies that reduce the tax load currently shouldered by low- and middle-income households.
    • Gas Taxes and Transportation Funding:  Roughly half the states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, so there’s little doubt that the lack of growth in state transportation revenues will remain a big issue in the year ahead. While we’re unlikely to see the same level of activity as last year (when half a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, enacted major changes to their gasoline taxes), there are a number of states where transportation funding issues are being debated. We’ll be keeping close tabs on developments in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, and Washington State, among other places.

    Check back over the next month for more detailed posts about these four trends and proposals unfolding in a number of states.  


    State News Quick Hits: 2014 Off to Rocky Start


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    2014 is just a few days old, and already it’s not off to such a happy start in terms of tax fairness:

    This editorial in the Kansas City Star predicts that in Missouri, “[m]any state lawmakers, and their constituents, found 2013 to be a taxing legislative session. But it may pale in comparison to what’s ahead in 2014.” Republican legislators aren’t going to give up on “tax reform” after their failure to override Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of an extreme tax plan last year. Instead, those lawmakers are pledging to propose another round of income tax cuts and potentially a ballot initiative if the tax cuts can’t be passed through the legislative process.

    The proliferation of state film tax incentives among states seeking to siphon off Hollywood production spending has been widely criticized. But the fact that some in California are now contemplating enacting film tax breaks to prevent a home-grown industry from leaving the state is a stark reminder that the “race to the bottom” in state corporate income taxes will leave every state poorer.

    January 1st marked the beginning of a new, highly regressive era in North Carolina tax policy.  An array of tax changes went into effect which will further shift the responsibility for paying for North Carolina’s public investments away from wealthy households and profitable corporations onto the backs of middle- and low-income families.  Most notable among the changes includes the collapse of the state’s graduated personal income tax structure which was replaced with a flat rate of just 5.8% and allowing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to expire. Lawmakers who championed the tax package have falsely claimed for months that every North Carolina taxpayer will benefit from the changes.  As  ITEP and the NC Budget and Tax Center have repeatedly pointed out (and NC fact-checking reporters and the NC Fiscal Research division have substantiated), many families will pay more.  

    This week, the Small Business Development Committee in the Wisconsin Assembly heard a bill about two proposed sales tax holidays. The first two-day holiday would be held in early August and would suspend the state’s 5 percent sales tax on computers and back-to-school items. The other two-day holiday would take place in November and be available for Energy Star products. Thankfully the proposal seems to be getting mixed reviews. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald views the proposal as a gimmick and he couldn’t be more right. For more information read ITEP’s Policy Brief.

    Governor Scott Walker says that one of his goals is to lower taxes for all Wisconsinites. He’s asked Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Revenue Department Secretary Rick Chandler to host a series of roundtable discussions about the state’s tax structure. Regrettably, transparency clearly isn’t another one of the Governor’s goals as the first roundtable discussion was closed to the public (and press) and only business leaders were invited.

    In “race to the bottom” news, Missouri lawmakers approved a 23-year, $1.7 billion package of tax cuts for Boeing in an attempt to lure the manufacturer to the state. Missouri is one of twelve states vying for the opportunity to make the new 777X passenger jets. As we have explained, Missouri seems eager to repeat the mistakes of of Washington State, which recently provided Boeing with the largest state tax cut in history, at $8.7 billion.

    It turns out that Kansas’ recent tax cuts aren’t just 
    bad policy.  They’re also unpopular.  The income tax cuts, sales tax hikes, education cuts, and social service cuts that resulted from Governor Brownback’s tax plan are all opposed by a majority of Kansans, according to polling highlighted in The Wichita Eagle.

    Due to the extensive changes to North Carolina’s personal income tax starting in 2014, the state’s Department of Revenue has 
    asked all employers to distribute new state income tax withholding forms to their employees.  The need for a new form has unfortunately led to a lot of confusion and some really inaccurate press coverage on the regressive and costly tax “reform” package enacted this year.  Some articles mistakenly reported that everyone will get an income tax cut (and thus a little more money in their paychecks next year), but we know this is not the case.  The loss of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, personal exemptions (despite a higher standard deduction), and numerous other deductions and credits will negatively impact many working North Carolina families and seniors living on fixed incomes.  And, these stories all failed to point out that while income taxes may be going down for some, sales tax on items including movie tickets, service contracts and electricity will be going up in 2014.

    Despite holding a supermajority in Missouri’s House and Senate, Republican lawmakers failed this week to muster enough votes to overturn Governor Nixon’s veto of their $700 million tax cut (which passed overwhelmingly in both chambers just a couple of months ago).  A misguided effort supporters touted as a way to keep up with neighboring Kansas, opponents of the measure accurately described it as little more than a big give away to the state’s wealthiest residents at the expense of vital public services, primarily K-12 education. Tally this one as a victory for state tax fairness and adequacy. And watch Governor Nixon, who’s getting national kudos for holding the line on this.

    Florida Governor Rick Scott isn’t sure what policy agenda he wants to pursue in 2014, but he knows it has to involve more tax cuts of some kind. How’s that for original thinking?  In related news, Politifact recently chided the Governor for exaggerating the health of the state’s revenue collections, and for claiming that his policies had anything to do with the modest revenue growth Florida has seen.

    The ink is barely dry on North Carolina’s regressive tax overhaul and yet lawmakers are already discussing fully eliminating the state’s personal income tax and replacing it with an even more regressive broader consumption tax in 2015. Senator Bob Rucho told a Washington Post reporter that he thinks the state will  “go to zero” with the income tax in a matter of time.  Speaker of the House and US Senate Candidate Thom Tillis agreed, “I think moving to a consumption-based model is something we all agree on.”

    Wyoming lawmakers are considering raising the state’s tax on beer in order to pay for alcohol abuse programs. The 2 cent per gallon tax hasn’t been raised since 1935 and is currently the lowest in the nation.  After almost eighty years of neglect, it’s safe to say that the tax is probably in need of another look.


    North Carolina Facing Disastrous New Tax Laws


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    After months and months of speculation and deliberation on numerous versions of “tax reform,” political leaders in the Tar Heel state reached an agreement this week on a tax package that will leave the state short of more than $700 million a year to spend on public education, health care, and other vital investments.  And, in the end, the wealthiest North Carolinians and profitable, multi-national corporations are the biggest winners under the agreement.  The new plan moved fast, easily passing out of the House and Senate with little opportunity for debate and Governor McCrory will likely sign the legislation this week. (Find its detailed provisions at the end of this post.)

    An analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows:

    • The final “tax reform” plan is a big giveaway to the richest taxpayers in North Carolina.  Those with average incomes of nearly $1 million will see their share of their income paid in state and local taxes drop by 1.2% for an average cut of more than $10,000.
    • Furthermore, the top 5% of taxpayers are the beneficiaries of almost 90% of the net tax cut from the combined changes to the personal and corporate income taxes, sales taxes, and the change in tax treatment of electricity, natural gas, and entertainment.
    • Contrary to lawmakers’ claims that everyone in the state wins under this plan, there are many losers, as the state’s own bean counters revealed just today. Losers include some low and middle income families who currently benefit from the $50,000 business income pass-through deduction, families with significant deductible medical expenses and other itemized deductions and some elderly families who lose retirement benefits, among others.
    • And, when considering that many low-and moderate-income working families will lose the benefit of a refundable state EITC (set to expire after this year and not extended under this plan), the plan actually hikes taxes on the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers on average.
    • North Carolina’s tax system will become even more upside down, with the bottom 20% of taxpayers paying on average 9.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes while the top 1% will be paying only 5.7%.  Under the current system (with a state EITC in place), the bottom 20% pay 8.9 percent and the top 1% pay 6.5%.

    The final negotiated package is being hailed as “historic” and a “jobs plan” for North Carolina by proponents of the plan.  But, as the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center explains, it’s nothing of the sort and instead is going to be a bad deal for North Carolinians into the future:

    “[The tax reform agreement] puts at risk the ability to educate our children, care for our elders, keep our communities safe and support businesses, while failing to fix the problems with the state’s tax code. And, it gets rid of policies that work such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

    This is not a historic day for North Carolina; tax reform hasn’t been achieved.  Instead, we’ve been handed a plan that will tarnish our state’s reputation as a leader in the South, a place where people want to live and businesses want to grow.

    It is very likely that as a result of this failure to pursue real, comprehensive tax reform, state sales taxes and local property taxes will go up in the future.   That’s what happened in every other Southern state that has personal and corporate income taxes that can’t keep up with growing public needs.

    Our state cannot be competitive nationally or internationally with this reckless approach. It undermines the education of our workforce and support for research and innovation.  The prospects of an ongoing race to the bottom for North Carolina now are all too real.”

    Key components of the negotiated deal:

    Personal Income Tax

    • Flat 5.75% rate (fully phased-in)
    • Eliminates the personal exemption, retirement benefit, business pass-through income deduction, and all credits other than the Child Tax Credit.  Notably, the plan does not restore the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) set to expire after 2013.
    • Increases the standard deduction to $15,000 (MFJ),$12,000 (HOH), and $7,500 (Single/MFS)
    • Limits itemized deductions to mortgage interest plus property taxes capped at $20,000 (MFJ), $16,000 (HOH), and $10,000 (single) plus unlimited charitable contributions.  Taxpayers take the higher of the standard deduction or itemized deductions.
    • Retains the child tax credit of $100 and increases it to $125 for taxpayers with AGI under $40,000 (MFJ) or $32,000 (HOH)

    Corporate Income Tax (CIT)

    • Reduces the rate from 6.9 to 6% in 2014, to 5% in 2015 and if revenue expectations are met, could be lowered to as low as 3% by 2017.

    Estate Tax

    • The state estate tax is eliminated

    Sales/Privilege/Franchise Taxes

    • Expands the sales tax base by eliminating a number of exemptions including newspapers, baked goods, some farm exemptions and food sold in dining halls and adds service contracts.
    • Adjusts the tax rates on modular and manufactured homes.
    • Eliminates the gross receipts franchise taxes on electricity and natural gas and in place includes these items in the sales tax base.
    • Eliminates state and local privilege taxes on amusement/entertainment and in place includes these items in the sales tax base.
    • Eliminates the state’s sales tax holiday and energy star appliance tax holiday.

    Gas Tax

    • Caps the gas tax at 37.5 cents/gallon for 2 years.

     


    State News Quick Hits: EITCs Go Local, and More


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    Some lawmakers and advocates like to complain when gasoline tax revenues are used to fund public transit, but new research by Berkeley economist Michael L. Anderson shows that drivers benefit hugely from the existence of transit. Anderson’s paper shows that “average highway delay increases 47 percent when transit service ceases” because would-be transit riders are forced to take to the roads.  He concludes that “the net benefits of transit systems appear to be much larger than previously believed.”

    Arizona Governor Jan Brewer got one out of two right with a pair of vetoes she recently handed down.  The Governor had good reason to be skeptical of the state's research tax credit since the federal version doesn't have a particularly glowing record of actually encouraging worthwhile research.  But her refusal to allow Arizona’s tax brackets to rise alongside inflation will eventually hit the state’s lower- and middle-income families hardest, as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains (PDF).

    ITEP has written in detail (PDF) on how both the Federal and State Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) alleviate poverty while helping low-wage workers meet their basic needs – but did you know that two localities (New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland) administer their own EITC to supplement the state and federal credits? This week, Montgomery County held public hearings on Bill 8-13 (PDF), a proposal to increase the County’s existing EITC (known as the Working Family Income Supplement) to 80 percent of the Maryland credit beginning in FY 2014, 90 percent in FY 2015, and 100 percent in FY 2016 and beyond.

    For most states, July 1st marked the start of a new fiscal year and thus lawmakers across the country agreed to spending plans for their states in advance of that date.  But, not so in North Carolina, where differences in opinion about how best to overhaul the state’s tax structure have held up the budget and kept observers guessing about the outcome of months of tax cutting talk.  On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory urged House and Senate members to reach a deal as soon as possible or abandon tax reform this year.  The truth is, walking away from the plans passed in the House and Senate would be a win for the state, retaining hundreds of millions of dollars for vital public investments and stopping a massive tax cut for wealthy households and corporations and at the expense of low- and middle-income families.  

    The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a poll showing that most Pennsylvanians care more about the quality of their schools than about keeping their tax bills low: “The poll found that in order to restore $1 billion in state aid [that was] cut two years ago, more than half the respondents - 55 percent - would be willing to support increasing the state sales tax from 6 percent to 6.25 percent and postponing corporate tax breaks as long as the money went into a dedicated trust for schools... Fifty-four percent said they would favor boosting the state income tax rate from 3.07 percent to 3.30 percent to help the schools.”

    In other Pennsylvania news, a proposal by state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi to uncap that state’s film tax credit failed to garner support during this legislative session. Yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett signed the 2013-14 Executive Budget, maintaining the credit’s $60 million annual cap. Lawmakers must have read our discussion of why film tax credits are a poor economic development tool – hopefully next year the proposal will be to eliminate them entirely.

    The Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) uses new data to make the case for reversing the 70 percent cut in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that lawmakers enacted in 2011 to pay for a big cut in businesses’ tax bills.  As the MLPP points out, “One in every four children (25%) in Michigan lived in poverty in 2011, up from one in five (19%) in 2005. Only nine states had bigger jumps in the child poverty rates … The state and federal credits literally lift children in low-income families out of poverty. Studies show a strong correlation between income boosts and good outcomes for kids.”

    Goodbye and Congratulations! The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) often works with the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) on tax and budget issues in the Hawkeye State. The organization’s founding director David Osterberg  announced that he will be stepping away from his director duties to focus on environment and energy policy. Taking over as director will be Mike Owen, IPP’s current assistant director. We wish David all the best and congratulate Mike in his new role.

    Our friends at ITEP are busy crunching the numbers for yet another version of tax “reform” in North Carolina. The Senate is expected to approve a revamped bill this week which is more in line with the concepts the House and Governor support.  But, with a more than $1 billion annual price tag and most of the benefits going to wealthy North Carolinians and profitable corporations, the effort still falls far short of being real reform.  Be sure to check out www.ncjustice.org this week for the latest information about the ongoing debate and to see ITEP’s numbers in action.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Tax Overhaul Drama in Raleigh Takes Another Turn


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    The tax reform/tax cut debate in the North Carolina capital continues into another dramatic week. Yesterday, Senate President Phil Berger pulled his chamber’s version of reform from the floor calendar, before Senators held their final vote on the plan, amidst speculation that Senate and House leaders were meeting behind closed doors with Governor Pat McCrory to hammer out a compromise before the final vote. 

    But today we learned that the plan is going back to the Finance Committee for a complete rewrite. Savvy lawmakers don’t like bringing legislation to a vote that they know won’t pass, and odds are that’s what Senator Berger realized, so all the puzzle pieces are back on the table.

    Despite rumors that this sudden change of plans could mean tax reform is in jeopardy, we aren’t holding our breath for a Louisiana or Oklahoma style implosion and collapse in North Carolina.  As all three parties bring their reform priorities to the table, an all-too likely outcome is that we could see the cost of tax reform grow even higher than the annual $1.3 billion loss in the Senate plan.

    Why? Each legislative chamber has one or more constituencies lobbying for protection of their special tax code carve outs. The House bill, for example, already preserves the costly mortgage interest deduction because the realtors demanded it.  The Senate version may have to leave Social Security payments alone after hearing from the local AARP chapter, even though taxing them would reduce the bill’s cost (by broadening the base of taxable income thus producing more revenues). Meanwhile, the Governor doesn’t seem to be wielding much clout over the bill’s final form, but having campaigned on revenue neutral tax reform (reform that doesn’t break the bank), his blessing for the final bill will be helpful.

    It’s now a wait-and-see moment in the Tarheel State, so it’s a good time to check out more great resources coming from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center with assistance from ITEP staff which highlight what’s at stake in this ongoing and intriguing debate: Cataloguing the Impact of the Senate Tax Plan and Doubling the Standard Deduction is insufficient to protect low- and moderate income families.

     


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Tax Drama in the Tarheel State Probably Won't End Well


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    The tax reform debate is heating up in North Carolina. Three competing plans have emerged from the House and Senate, and Governor McCrory has publicly endorsed what he considers to be the more “moderate” of the plans.  While there are certainly differences between the three plans, they all share in common the goal of moving away from reliance on the progressive personal income tax onto expanded, regressive consumption taxes.  This tax swap approach to tax reform has the inevitable and destructive impact of shifting tax responsibility away from the wealthiest households and onto low- and middle-income families.  ITEP analyses of the three plans has found that, on average, the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers will pay more as a share of income in taxes under all three approaches while the richest 5 percent will pay significantly less.  All three plans would also move the personal income tax away from a graduated rate structure to a flat rate, further eroding the progressivity of the state’s best tool for tax fairness.

    Alexandra Sirota, the Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center, described the three plans this way when asked by the Raleigh News and Observer’s editors: “They all take different roads, but they get to the same place. We still have proposals that are more a tax shift than tax reform.”

    Things are moving fast. This week, the House Finance Committee approved an amendment to the House tax plan (PDF) that would have added $500 million to the proposal’s cost as it provides a larger tax cut for wealthy households.  However, other House members refused to take up the proposal with the costly amendment and reached agreement to return to the original plan. On Thursday, the proposal was amended yet again (reinstating the cap on the mortgage interest deduction but now allowing taxpayers to claim unlimited amounts of charitable contributions) and sent to the House floor where it could be approved as early as tomorrow, setting up a showdown with the two Senate approaches.

    The North Carolina Senate budget plan approved two weeks ago included significant revenue reductions (and corresponding spending cuts) to make room for tax reform which they agreed to take up through a separate process.  Senate President Phil Berger and Finance Chair Bob Rucho are championing the most extreme Senate plan, which would flatten the state’s income tax to 4.5 percent and make up part of the revenue loss with a comprehensive expansion of the sales tax, including adding food to the state sales tax base and taxing prescriptions drugs for the first time.  The other plan from the Senate is a so-called bipartisan effort to enact “revenue–neutral” tax reform, but as with the other two plans, the biggest winners under the bipartisan plan are profitable corporations and wealthy households. 

    North Carolina is a state worth watching on the tax reform front.  Advocacy groups on the left and right (including Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform) and special interest groups, like the real estate lobby, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to either promote, prevent or amend the three proposals.  And, for five straight weeks, a growing and diverse crowd of demonstrators have gathered at the General Assembly on “Moral Mondays” with calls to stop these tax giveaways to the rich as a major part of their message to lawmakers.

    More from the News and Observer editorial:: Republicans talk about making the tax code fairer – the Republican Senate bill is called the N.C. Fair Tax Act – but they can’t let go of the idea that if the rich were just taxed less everyone would prosper. That hasn’t worked and it won’t work. What’s needed isn’t an unburdening of the rich and the well-off. What’s needed is a cleaned-up tax code that distributes the tax burden fairly and progressively without special exemptions and loopholes. That’s simple, fair and right. What’s soon to come out of the tax mash up at the General Assembly is unlikely to be any of the three.”


    Razzle Dazzle Can't Conceal Expensive, Regressive Tax Plan in North Carolina


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    While major tax swap proposals have collapsed this year in Louisiana, Nebraska and Ohio, plans to pay for personal and corporate income tax cuts with a greater reliance on a regressive sales tax are still very much alive in North Carolina. This week, North Carolina’s Senate President and Senate Finance chairs released the latest version of a tax swap for the Tarheel State which they named the Tax Fairness Act. They are billing it as the largest tax cut in the state’s history.

    Details of the plan are lacking despite the unveiling of a flashy website showcasing a tax calculator and video of the Senate President pontificating about the “plan.”  Vaguely, we know the proponents intend to flatten the income tax, reduce taxes on businesses, eliminate the estate tax, and expand the sales tax base to most consumer services, food and prescription drugs.

    It is clear that the result of the plan will be threefold: a significant tax hike on low- and middle-income families; a large tax cut for the state’s wealthiest households and profitable corporations; and a loss of more than $1 billion in revenue annually for vital public investments.

    An editorial in Wednesday’s Raleigh News and Observer suggested the proposal should be renamed the “Let Working Families Pay More And The Rich Pay Less Act”.  Indeed. Here is more from the editorial, which does an excellent job explaining the problems with the State Senate tax swap proposal:

    “What’s being sold is North Carolina’s future. Berger, Rucho and Rabon promise it will be a future in which tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations will bring a flowering of new jobs. That promise, so often tested and always found wanting, will fail again. Tax cuts don’t create jobs, and they aren’t a primary reason why businesses come to this or any state. What fuels an economy and fosters business growth are a strong infrastructure, a clean environment and good schools. Those things would be undermined by tax cuts that would reduce public spending in a growing state with growing needs.

    "To Berger, the new arrangement would be fair because the sales tax would be applied more broadly, services would be taxed equally and everyone would pay according to what they consume. “The more you spend, the more you pay,” he said. “The less you spend, the less you pay.” Berger tries to sweeten the bitter realities of the plan by touting the reduction in tax revenue as “the largest tax cut in state history.” But that claim doesn’t define the effect by income. Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt did. “This plan actually amounts to the largest tax increase in North Carolina history on the middle class and working families,” he said....

    Lowering income taxes on the rich and expanding the sales tax paid by all doesn’t make taxation fairer, no matter what you call it.”


    State News Quick Hits: Kansas Named Worst in the Nation for Taxes, and More


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    This week Missouri is offering a sales tax holiday on energy efficient appliances. Not only are these holidays costly for state budgets, they are poorly targeted. That is, it’s generally wealthier folks who have the cash flow flexibility to time their purchases to take advantage of these holidays, when it’s poorer residents who feel the brunt of sales taxes in the first place. To learn more about why these holidays aren’t worth celebrating, check out The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) policy brief here (PDF).

    Here’s a great investigative piece from the Columbus Post Dispatch about the nearly $8 billion in tax code entitlements (aka tax expenditures) Ohio currently offers. The state needs to closely study these tax expenditures and determine if they are actually producing the economic benefits promised. Before debating extreme income tax rate reductions, Ohio lawmakers should also take a look at this ITEP primer on what a thoughtful, productive discussion of state tax expenditures looks like.

    In this Kansas City Star article, ITEP’s Executive Director, Matt Gardner, talks about the fate of many radical tax plans this year in the states. “The speed with which these plans have fallen apart is as remarkable a trend as the speed with which they emerged,” he says. Kansas and its budget crisis have become a cautionary tale for other states considering tax cuts, but even the latest plans passed by the Kansas House and Senate are radical and could eventually lead to the complete elimination of the personal income tax.

    Criticism of the tax cuts enacted in Kansas last year continues to mount.  We already wrote about Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma’s caution that his state might become another Kansas, but now a number of media outlets have picked up on the fact that both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Tax Foundation called that Kansas tax cuts the “worst” (ouch!) state tax changes enacted in 2012.

    Watch out, North Carolinians! It appears that Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is coming to town to the tune of $500,000 to pay for town hall meetings, “grassroots” advocacy and advertising all to support the dismantling of the state’s tax structure. Let’s hope the facts can defeat AFP’s cash.


    State News Quick Hits: Promoting Tax Justice in the States on April 15


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    On April 15, the majority of Americans file their income taxes, federal and state. As CTJ and ITEP demonstrate in their annual Who Pays Taxes in America, state tax systems are overwhelmingly regressive and the federal system just barely makes up for that. Today we highlight some great, creative efforts in a few states promoting the importance of state tax fairness.

    Michigan: The Michigan League for Public Policy organized a social media campaign and video called “Pay it Forward Michigan.” The League explains that “its aim is to remind us about the good things our tax dollars create or protect — clean water, parks, good schools, safe streets, good roads, protection for children, great universities, the arts, bike paths, pristine beaches and more.”

    North Carolina: Russell the Public Investment Hound was back and starring in a new film, The Great Tax Shift.  Also, check out this tax day Fair Fight Luchadora (Mexican wrestling) showdown that was staged across the street from the North Carolina General Assembly building. From the press advisory: “Tax Day is a reminder that wealthy and powerful special interests aren’t made to pay their fair share because too few lawmakers in Raleigh and in D.C. care about being champions of the People who elected them. This year, working people will get to settle the score!” Spoiler alert: the people’s champ won!

    Ohio: Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters Ohio writes in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer about why income tax cuts won’t help the state’s economy, and highlights research from ITEP to make her case.  She also shares a personal experience with a fire in the basement of her home just days before Tax Day in 2001. “The firefighters arrived in minutes and put out the still-tiny fire ... and I suddenly had a more vivid picture of what my un-mailed taxes would pay for. Twelve years later, I can thank countless teachers, crossing guards, snowplow drivers, police officers, water inspectors and others for helping keep my kids educated, protected, safe and happy in our community.”

    Wisconsin: Ever wonder what Wisconsin income taxes help fund? Read all about it here and check out the gorgeous infographic showing how tax revenues are an economic investment.

    Photo courtesy of FairFight North Carolina.


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


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

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

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

    Positive Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Negative Developments

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

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

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

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

    A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) outlines the anti-tax agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and ALEC scholar and economist, Arthur Laffer.  It explains the multitude of problems with their policy recommendations and the so-called research they produce to make the case for those recommendations.  The CBPP report builds on the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) work debunking Arthur Laffer as it examines the “weak foundation of questionable economic and fiscal assumptions and faulty analysis promoted by ALEC and its allies.”

    The DC Fiscal Policy Institute explains how closing corporate tax shelters has significantly improved the District of Columbia’s finances.  The city saw its strongest growth in corporate income tax collections in almost two decades, due in part to a reform called “combined reporting” (PDF) that makes it more difficult for companies to disguise their profits as being earned in other states, particularly those with low or no corporate income tax.

    This Columbus Dispatch article cites academic research, policy experts and the Congressional Budget Office to examine Ohio Governor Kasich’s repeated assertion that tax cuts lead to jobs, including critiques that “when one dives deeper into the numbers, the correlation between income-tax cuts for small-business owners and more jobs is strained at best.”  The story also covers that larger supply-side economics debate, which the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has engaged with here and elsewhere.

    Tax hikes on low- and moderate-income working families are under debate in both Vermont and North Carolina where lawmakers have proposed reducing the benefit of their states’ Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) (see this PDF on state EITC policy). Vermont’s Governor Shumlin wants to cut the EITC and redirect the revenue to child care subsidy programs. In North Carolina, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would cut the EITC from 5 to 4.5 percent of the federal credit and potentially let it expire altogether – a rejection of Washington’s recent five-year extension of a more robust federal EITC. A recent op-ed by Jack Hoffman at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute as well as a new brief from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center both cite ITEP’s Who Pays data to make a case for why each state should maintain its EITC.

    North Carolina’s newly-elected Governor, Pat McCrory, is keeping everyone guessing about his plans for tax reform in the Tarheel State.  During his state of the state address this week, McCrory said tax reform would be a priority of his administration but was short on specifics, saying only that he wants to lower rates, close loopholes and make North Carolina’s tax code more business friendly. The state’s Senate leadership has been touting a plan to eliminate the personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with a higher sales tax and new business license fee.  It remains to be seen whether the Governor will follow the Senate’s lead or puts forth his own version of reform.


    Arthur Laffer Promises Trickle-Down Prosperity, Again


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    Lawmakers in North Carolina are looking seriously at repealing the state’s personal and corporate income taxes, and replacing them primarily with a larger sales tax.  As is often the case with plans to gut the income tax, the proposal is being sold as a way to “kick-start” the state’s economy.  In an attempt to bolster that argument, a conservative group in North Carolina called Civitas recently hired supply-side economist Arthur Laffer to write a report claiming that 378,000 new jobs and $25 billion in new income could be created through income tax repeal.  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic (ITEP) took a close look at the study and found that, as with Laffer’s previous work, the study is severely flawed to the point of making it entirely useless.  Among the study’s many flaws:

    - Fails to control for a large range of important non-tax factors that affect state economic growth.
    - Confuses cause and effect by assuming that recent declines in personal income were due to taxes rather than the Great Recession.
    - Does not explain, or completely ignores, the economic impact of various tax changes it proposes to pay for income tax repeal.
    - Cherry-picks blunt, aggregate economic measures in comparing state economies, and simply asserts that tax policy is the driving force behind these measures.
    - Ignores the important role that public investments have to play in any successful state economy.

    ITEP concludes that “In proposing a policy course that no state has ever taken—repealing the personal and corporate income taxes without a wealth of oil reserves to fall back on—ALME and the Civitas Institute have laid out an untested plan without any evidence that it will benefit the state’s economy.”

    Read the full ITEP report

     


    Beware The Tax Swap


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    Note to Readers: This is the second of a six part series on tax reform in the states.  Over the coming weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends  that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This post focuses on “tax swap” proposals.

    The most extreme and potentially devastating tax reform proposals under consideration in a number of states are those that would reduce or eliminate one or more taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing another tax.  We call such proposals “tax swaps.”  Lawmakers in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Carolina have already put forth such proposals and it is likely that Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia will join the list.

    Most commonly, tax swaps shift a state’s reliance away from a progressive personal income tax to a regressive sales tax. The proposals in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Carolina, for example, would entirely eliminate the personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with a higher sales tax rate and an expanded sales tax base that would include services and other previously exempted items such as food.   

    In the end, tax swap proposals hike taxes on the majority of taxpayers, especially low- and moderate-income families and give significant tax cuts to wealthy families and profitable corporations. For instance, according to an ITEP analysis of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s tax swap plan (eliminating the personal income tax and replacing the lost revenue through increased sales taxes) found that the bottom 80 percent of Louisianans would see their taxes increase. In fact, the poorest 20 percent of Louisianans, those with an average annual income of just $12,000, would see an average tax increase of $395, or 3.4 percent of their income. At the same time, the elimination of the income tax would mean a tax cut for Louisiana’s wealthiest, especially in the top 5 percent.  ITEP concluded that any low income tax credit designed to offset the hit Louisiana’s low income families would take would be so expensive that the whole plan could not come out “revenue neutral.” The income tax is that important a revenue source.


    These proposals also threaten a state’s ability to provide essential services, now and over time. They start out with a goal of being revenue neutral, meaning that the state would raise close to the same amount under the new tax structure as it did from the old.  But, even if the intent is to make up lost revenue from cutting or eliminating one tax, these plans are at risk of losing substantial amounts of revenue due in large part to the political difficulty of raising any other taxes to pay for the cuts. Frankly, it’s taxpayers with the weakest voice in state capitals who end up shouldering the brunt of these tax hikes: low and middle income families.

    Proponents of tax swap proposals claim that replacing income taxes with a broader and higher sales tax will make their state tax codes fairer, simpler and better positioned for economic growth, but the evidence is simply not on their side. ITEP has done a series of reports debunking these economic growth, supply-side myths. In fact, ITEP found (PDF) that residents of so-called “high tax” states are actually experiencing economic conditions as good and better than those living in states lacking a personal income tax. There is no reason for states to expect that reducing or repealing their income taxes will improve the performance of their economies; there is every reason to expect it will ultimately hobble consumer spending and economic activity.

    Here’s a brief review of some of the tax swap proposals under consideration:

    Last week Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman revealed two plans to eliminate or greatly reduce the state’s income taxes and replace the lost revenue by ending a wide variety of sales tax exemptions. ITEP will conduct a full analysis of both of his plans, though it’s likely that increasing dependence on regressive sales taxes while reducing or eliminating progressive income taxes will result in a tax structure that is more unfair overall.

    If Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has his way he’ll pay for cutting personal income tax rates by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction and raising sales taxes. An ITEP analysis will be released soon showing the impact of these changes – made even more destructive because of the radical tax reductions Governor Brownback signed into law last year.

    Details recently emerged about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s plan to eliminate nearly $3 billion in personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with higher sales taxes. ITEP ran an analysis to determine just how that tax change would affect all Louisianans. ITEP found that the bottom 80 percent of Louisianans in the income distribution would see a tax increase. The middle 20 percent, those with an average income of $43,000, would see an average tax increase of $534, or 1.2 percent of their income. The largest beneficiaries of the tax proposal would be the top one percent, with an average income of well over $1 million, who'd see an average tax cut of $25,423. You can read the two-page analysis here.

    North Carolina lawmakers are considering a proposal that would eliminate the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and replace the lost revenues with a broader and higher sales tax, a new business license fee, and a real estate transfer tax. The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center just released this report (using ITEP data) showing that the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers would experience a tax hike under the proposal. In fact, “[a] family earning $24,000 a year would see its taxes rise by $500, while one earning $1 million would get a $41,000 break.” The News and Observer gets it right when they opine that the “proposed changes in North Carolina and elsewhere are based in part on recommendations from the Laffer Center for Supply Side Economics.  Supply-side economics (or “voodoo economics,” as former President George H.W. Bush once called it) didn’t work for the United States…. We wonder why such misguided notions endure and fear where they might take North Carolina.”


    Quick Hits in State News: Brownback Spins a Story, and More


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    Looks like the “spin room” in Topeka has been busy lately. Read how Kansas Governor Brownback and his staff “fashion[ed] a new budget narrative” in reaction to criticism over massive budget cuts he signed (PDF) earlier this year and possible further reductions. Insisting that revenue lost to his pet tax cuts (which take effect next year) won’t be responsible for budget shortfalls, the governor is saying that somehow the European debt crisis and other things beyond the state’s control are forcing spending cuts.

    It’s been a while since we’ve heard much about “marriage penalties” imposed by state tax structures (a so-called marriage penalty is imposed when single filers pay more tax as married couples than if they filed as two single filers). But the issue is rearing its head in Wisconsin and this thoughtful blog post from the Wisconsin Budget Projects helps to put the concept in context.

    In order to debunk the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent claim, an opinion piece in the Las Vegas Sun reminds Nevadans -- by pointing to research from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy -- that low income people are paying more than their fair overall share because of state and local taxes.

    Here the Charlotte Observer editorial board decries both gubernatorial candidates’ calls for politically popular rate reductions and their failure to commit to genuine, comprehensive reform for North Carolina. “Today’s tax code is riddled with exemptions, loopholes and preferential treatment that sap the state of needed revenue... [and] it’s time for tax code reform to take a prominent place on the agenda of the state’s chief executive. The public – the voting public – should insist on it.”


    In North Carolina, An Anti-Tax Gubernatorial Candidate Who Should Know Better


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    North Carolina is home to one of the great examples of how economies flourish when government gets involved: the Research Triangle Park. It was developed in the 1950s by a public-private partnership, depended heavily on more than one governor’s leadership and on the proximity of three major research universities (two of which are public), and succeeded in fundraising after it was granted nonprofit status from the state. It was designed with the goal of helping North Carolina transition into the modern economy, and it worked.

    But a candidate for governor named Pat McCrory wants to turn the state into a low-tax, low-service loser that could never undertake such a visionary project. While McCrory takes full credit for overseeing Charlotte’s economic boom while he ran that city as its Mayor, if he follows through on his anti-government campaign promises, North Carolina won’t have the resources to usher in the economic boom McCrory says he can deliver statewide.

    McCrory has made cutting taxes the centerpiece of his campaign for governor. He has pledged to cut the corporate income tax, the individual income tax and the estate tax if elected. Sadly, yet predictably, this candidate has also refused to release any details about the structure of these proposals, including their bottom-line cost in terms of revenues. What we do know, though, is that he’d have a friendly audience in the state capital, where GOP leaders – who control the legislature – have already proposed the outright elimination of personal and corporate income taxes. 

    As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has explained, corporate and personal income taxes are among the few tools state policymakers have for minimizing the stark regressivity of state tax systems, including North Carolina’s. An analysis (PDF) of all state and local taxes paid by Tar Heel State residents shows that the highest earners pay a far smaller portion of their income in taxes than do middle- and low-income families. McCrory’s proposed tax cuts would only exacerbate this gap. Indeed, the candidate has held up Tennessee and Florida as his models for state tax policy—two states that also happen to be among the five most regressive state tax systems in the country.

    But McCrory doesn’t talk about tax fairness. Instead, he presents the party line and says tax cuts are a means to support North Carolina’s “economic development brand,” which he claims is diminished by high taxes.

    Here are three reasons he is wrong.

    One, while the state’s unemployment rate is stubbornly high (9.4 percent), the cause is the state’s dependence on waning manufacturing jobs, not its tax policy. The unemployment rate is just as high across the border in manufacturing-dependent South Carolina despite that state’s lower business and personal income tax rates. Two, as the News & Observer points out, North Carolina is already regarded as being very business-friendly in national surveys of executives and industrial recruiters. And three, as research from ITEP has shown, supply side arguments for cutting taxes to grow the economy simply do not hold up in the face of evidence.

    Instead of making the state more enticing to business, McCrory’s race-to-the-bottom strategy on tax policy would threaten the public services that make the state so appealing. North Carolina’s public investments are already suffering from acute budget cuts. The legislature recently dealt a blow to the University of North Carolina system and the community college system, as well as to job recruitment and economic development programs. McCrory’s tax cuts would make additional cuts to such critical public programs all but inevitable, exacerbating the economic slump that is, of course, a nationwide phenomenon.

    Any political candidate who’s serious about learning how taxes affect the economy should read ITEP’s Four Tax Ideas for Jobs-Focused Governors.  This short report explains that the way you make taxes support economic growth is not by cutting them, but rather by wisely deploying them as revenues in the public interest.

    Cartoon by John Cole, NC Policy Watch

    Months after cutting the state income tax for wealthy taxpayers, Idaho’s budget situation isn’t looking good.  The Associated Press reports that “earlier this year it looked like the state had sufficient revenue to provide a $36 million tax cut, as well as give state employees a 2 percent raise” but that surplus has already evaporated. In fact, there was never real consensus about the state’s revenue projections in the first place.

    Kansas Governor Sam Brownback admits his radical tax cut package is a “real live experiment.”

    The South Carolina House approved a measure to keep the state running if it doesn’t have a budget by July 1 when the new fiscal year begins.  The Senate and House are currently bickering over how to implement a (regressive) tax cut for so-called "small" business owners.

    It’s back! New Jersey Assembly Democrats are once again planning to introduce a millionaire’s tax into the budget debate.  Proponents of the tax on the wealthiest New Jerseyans want to use the $800 million in revenue it would raise to boost funding to the state’s current property tax credit program for low and middle-income homeowners and renters.  Governor Chris Christie has already vetoed a millionaire’s tax twice. 

    The clever folks at Together NC, a coalition of more than 120 organizations in North Carolina, held a Backwards Budget 5K race this week to “to shine a spotlight on the legislature’s backwards approach to the state budget.” 

    California Governor Jerry Brown’s revenue raising initiative (which temporarily raises income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and increases the sales tax ¼ cent) has officially qualified for the state’s November ballot. Two additional tax measures will join Brown’s plan on the ballot: a rival income tax measure pushed by a billionaire lawyer to fund education and early childhood programs; and an initiative to increase business income tax revenues by implementing a mandatory single-sales factor (PDF backgrounder) formula.

    The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorializes in favor of capping Pennsylvania’s “vendor discount,” a program (PDF) that allows retailers to legally pocket a portion of the sales taxes they collect in order to offset the costs associated with collecting the tax.  The Gazette explains that a handful of big companies are taking in over $1 million per year thanks to this “antiquated” giveaway.  Computerized bookkeeping takes the effort out of tax collecting and a cap would only impact the national chain stores who disproportionately benefit from the program.

    • Last night’s Washington Gubernatorial debate did not answer the call  to shift their focus to the state’s broken revenue system.  Instead, the Republican candidate, Attorney General Rob McKenna said that the Democrats “just keep insisting we need higher taxes.”  Whoever wins, they will have to contend with the fact that Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the nation.
    • Last week we reported on public scrutiny of a $336 million “small business” tax break in North Carolina that is, in fact, going to benefit some of the state’s wealthiest individuals. Yesterday, Senate Republicans - torn between public outrage and affluent constituents - successfully wiggled out from under having to vote on a measure to modify it so it targets truly small businesses, as intended.  
    • New Hampshire voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether the state’s lack of a personal income tax should be enshrined in the constitution. In better news, the state’s lawmakers heeded the advice of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute and defeated a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority to pass any tax or fee increase.
    • Here’s an interesting read on the economic development impact of the arts. A new study contends that not only do the arts make Nebraska (for example) a better place to live, but they also contribute to state and local coffers to the tune of $18 million. For more on the impact of the arts in other states check out the study, Arts & Economic Prosperity IV.
    •  


    Costly Carolina Loophole Gets Long Overdue Scrutiny


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    Late in North Carolina’s legislative session last summer, lawmakers quietly passed a $336 million tax cut – one of the largest tax cuts the state has seen in the past decade.  Originally intended to target “small businesses” – defined as those with less than $850,000 in annual revenue – the final legislation removed the cap and exempted the first $50,000 of pass-through income for any size pass-through business. That’s a roughly $3,500 tax break that is now available to law firm partners, doctors, dentists, and in some cases the same lawmakers who passed the legislation.

    An article in the Raleigh News and Observer this week finally shone some light on this expensive and ill-targeted tax break, and illustrates the provision’s effect with examples like this:

    "…lawyers who are equity partners at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the state’s largest law firm, will each receive that tax break for income they earned in North Carolina. The Winston-Salem based firm brought in $279 million in 2011, and generated profits equal to $590,000 per partner, according to The American Lawyer, a trade publication.”

    That is, because it’s a structured as a pass-through firm, the partners report its profits and pay its taxes. The proponents of the tax cut argue (as usual) that it will spur private-sector job creation- close to 4,000 jobs over the next two years, according to a study they cite.  But as the article points out, the cost of the tax break is equivalent to 6,400 state employee positions.  You do the math there. As Gary Hancock, a lobbyist interviewed for the article, said:

     "...it makes no sense to provide a tax break – particularly to those who don’t need it – while cutting teachers and other public employees who perform needed services…As a general proposition, tax breaks for the wealthy while we are starving public schools and public services is bad government.”

    The News and Observer story was cited in a scathing editorial from the Charlotte Observer which had this to say:

    “When many of the people being helped by a tax break end up criticizing it, questioning it or refusing comment on it, something’s badly amiss. N.C. lawmakers in the Republican-dominated General Assembly should take note of this reaction to a tax break they gave to businesses in last year’s legislative session…. At a time when lawmakers are slashing funding for schools, law enforcement and other vital services, a perk for those who don’t need it is misguided and feels callous."

    The Observer editorial characterizes the state’s current tax system as “inadequate, outdated and unfair” and in need of real reform. We concur. And given the enterprising journalism and good policy analysis available, it’s time to get that process started.

    North Carolina’s two major newspapers, the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer, published editorials in support of the state’s estate tax in the wake of a hearing last week called to eliminate it.  From the News and Observer: “The estate tax is hardly a burden on those few inheritors who have to pay it. It is a modest but valuable asset to government revenue, and there is nothing unfair about [it]."  And, from the Charlotte Observer: “Some Republicans support abolishing the federal estate tax. They should explain why the extremely wealthy should be able to avoid paying any taxes on unrealized capital gains.”

    Washington State’s special legislative session started yesterday. The media is reporting that the session will be a contentious battle over how the state should close its $1 billion budget gap. (Hint: the answer’s in the Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s proposal to tax capital gains income. )

    An article from The Miami Herald reveals some ugly details surrounding the $2.5 billion in business tax cuts just passed by the Florida legislature.  As the Herald points out, “those benefiting had plenty of lobbyists … AT&T, which has 74 Florida lobbyists, spent $1.68 million on lobbying last year, more than any other company.”  Not coincidentally, AT&T and Verizon – both champion tax dodgers – were among the biggest winners.  A last-minute amendment to the legislation could give the telecommunications industry a tax break as large as $300 million.

    A great op-ed in the Kansas City Star asks why Governor Brownback wants taxes in Kansas to be like Texas, reminding Kansans that Texas ranks low in everything that really matters, from high school graduation rates to household income to crime.

    Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Co. and Gaylord Entertainment Co. have struck a deal with Nashville, Tennessee Mayor Karl Dean that, if approved, would result in an estimated $5.4 million in property tax breaks for their planned water and snow park.  Ben Cunningham of the Nashville Tea Party was right to point out that the plan amounts to a “giveaway” to companies that plan to move to the city anyway and that it’s time to stop “giving in to this kind of corporate extortion.”

    Photo of Dolly Parton via Eva Rinaldi Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


    Trending in 2012: Admitting Taxes Are Too Low


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    Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country.  This week, we’re taking a closer look at proposals which would increase state revenues to pay for important public investments. 

    Given the number of Governors calling for major tax cuts in their states, you’d think that states are suddenly awash in cash and well on the road to economic recovery.  But the reality is that very few states are back to where they were before the recession hit in terms of tax collections and public spending.  Many were limping along with federal stimulus funds, but now that’s dried up, too. Recognizing the need to begin restoring investments in education, transportation, and health care or prevent even more devastating cuts to these services, a handful of Governors have put tax increases on the table.  The proposals range from across-the-board rate increases to tax hikes only on the wealthiest, permanent to temporary changes, and plans that require only legislative approval to ballot initiatives for the public to decide.

    California Governor Jerry Brown is taking his proposed tax increase to the voters in November.  In an effort to prevent damaging cuts to public education, Brown is asking wealthy Californians to pay more income taxes and everyone to chip in with a higher sales tax for the next five years.  A recent poll shows Californians are overwhelmingly on his side- more than 2/3rds of those surveyed support the Governor especially when the tax increases are linked to investments in education.

    Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley included several revenue raising measures in his recent budget proposal to help close a $940 million gap.  Most notable is a plan to raise taxes on upper-income Marylanders through limiting the amount of itemized deductions and personal exemptions they are able to claim - a recommendation ITEP made last year.

    O’Malley also proposed taxing internet transactions, digital downloads and increasing taxes on tobacco products and the state’s “flush tax.”  He recently announced a plan to apply the sales tax to gasoline rather than an increase in the designated gas tax to address transportation needs in the state.

    Washington lawmakers are facing off on how best to address a $1 billion budget gap this year.  Governor Christine Gregoire is pushing for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase that would raise roughly $500 million, and to close the remaining gap with spending cuts.  At least two competing proposals, however, have emerged that would raise needed revenue and improve the fairness of the state’s tax structure.  The first is a one percent tax on corporate and personal income that would raise $500 million and allow for a reduction in the state’s sales and business-occupations taxes. Another plan would tax realized capital gains at five percent, raising between $215 million and $650 million a year. 

    Given Washington’s restrictive rules on revenue-raising (a two thirds legislative supermajority is required to enact increases), any proposed tax increase will likely end up on a ballot (which a legislative simple majority can implement) for the voters to decide this Spring or Fall.

    North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue recently proposed reinstating most of a temporary sales tax increase that expired last year.  She wants to invest the $800 million the tax would raise in the state’s public schools, community colleges and universities, all of which suffered massive cuts over the past four years.

    Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is promoting some revenue raising ideas he says are supported by the public.  His $230 million revenue package includes a 50 cent per pack increase in the cigarette tax (bringing the total to $3.01), increases on other tobacco products, expanding the bottle bill so that a wider range of beverages require a redeemable nickel deposit, and taxing candy and soda at the state’s 6.25 percent rate (both are currently exempt from taxation).

    Rhode Island After failing to gain legislative support last year for his reform-minded and sensible tax plan, Governor Lincoln Chafee has offered up a hodgepodge of tax changes this year he thinks lawmakers can stomach.  Chafee’s$88 million tax package includes some modest expansion of the sales tax to items such as taxi and limousine rides and pet services.

    Photo of Christine Gregoire via Studio 8, photo of Deval Patrick via Green Massachusetts, and photo Jerry Brown via Steve Rhodes Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


    Trending in 2012: Estate and Inheritance Tax Rollbacks


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    Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, ITEP will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country.  This week, we’re taking a closer look at proposals which would reduce or eliminate state inheritance and estate taxes.  If you haven’t already, be sure to read our inaugural article in the series on proposals in some states to roll back or eliminate income taxes, which are the uniquely progressive feature of our tax system.

    Whether state or federal, inheritance and estate taxes play an important role in limiting concentrated wealth in America. Warren Buffett views the estate tax as key to preserving our meritocracy, and the great Justice Louis Brandeis famously warned that we could have concentrated wealth or we could have democracy, but not both.  While the federal estate tax is often the source of passionate debate, these taxes are particularly important at the state level because they help offset some of the stark regressivity built into most state tax systems.  Unfortunately, lawmakers in some states have bought into the bogus claims of the American Family Business Institute (a.k.a. nodeathtax.org), Arthur Laffer, and others in the anti-tax, anti-government movement that repealing estate and inheritance taxes will usher in an economic boom.

    Nebraska – Governor Dave Heineman has proposed repealing Nebraska’s inheritance tax entirely, determined, it seems, to pile on to the tax cuts already enacted earlier in his term.  (Inheritance taxes are very similar to estate taxes, except that inheritance taxes are technically paid by the heir to the estate, rather than by the estate itself.)  Unfortunately, in addition to worsening the unfairness of the state’s tax system, the Governor’s proposal would also kick struggling localities while they’re down, since revenue from Nebraska’s inheritance tax flows to county governments.

    Indiana – Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley recently made the same proposal as Nebraska’s governor: outright repeal of the inheritance tax.  Kenley has floated the idea of using sales taxes on online shopping to pay for the repeal, but while Internet sales taxes are good policy on their own, this change would amount to an extremely regressive tax swap overall.  Indiana’s inheritance tax is already limited, however, and exempts spouses of the deceased entirely, as well as the first $100,000 given to each child, stepchild, grandchild, parent, or grandparent.

    Tennessee – Governor Bill Haslam’s inheritance tax proposal may be less radical than those receiving attention in Nebraska and Indiana, but not by much.  Rather than repealing the tax entirely, Haslam would like to increase the state’s already generous $1 million exemption to a whopping $5 million.  It’s surprising, to say the least, that one of Haslam’s top tax policy priorities should be slashing taxes for lucky heirs inheriting over $1 million.

    North Carolina – Efforts to gut the estate tax in North Carolina haven’t gained backers as visible as those in Nebraska, Indiana, and Tennessee.  But there are rumblings that repeal could be on the agenda of some legislators, as evidenced by the vehemently anti-estate tax testimony that a joint House-Senate committee heard from the American Family Business Institute this month.


    Advice for North Carolina on Gas Tax Policy: Don't Be Like Pennsylvania


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    With the state’s gas tax pegged to the price of gasoline, North Carolina is scheduled to raise its gas tax rate tomorrow (July 1). This increase was entirely predictable, but is understandably controversial. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding what to do in the wake of this increase has been far too narrow, focusing on just two options: capping the maximum tax rate, or doing nothing at all.Read the ITEP Press Release.

    Photo via herzogbr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


    Advice for North Carolina on Gas Tax Policy: Don't Be Like Pennsylvania


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    Expert to North Carolina: Don’t Cap the Gas Tax

    Statement from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP)

    June 23, 2011

    Washington, DC – With the state’s gas tax pegged to the price of gasoline, North Carolina is scheduled to raise its gas tax rate on July 1. This increase was entirely predictable, but is understandably controversial. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding what to do in the wake of this increase has been far too narrow, focusing on just two options: capping the maximum tax rate, or doing nothing at all.

    Carl Davis, Senior Analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and author of a major 50-state gas tax report due out late this summer, issued the following statement in response to the controversy:

    “North Carolina’s gas tax is clearly in need of reform, but a simple gas tax cap is a blunt instrument that can do more harm than good. The neighboring states of Kentucky and West Virginia have gas taxes similar to North Carolina’s, and both have wisely chosen to address the problem of price-related volatility by limiting changes in their tax rates to no more than 10%. They don’t cap the tax, but they do cap the volatility.

    “A cap on the variable portion of North Carolina’s gas tax, similar to the type used in Kentucky and West Virginia, would have resulted in the state’s gas tax rate rising just 1.5 cents this July 1, rather than the full 2.5 cents currently scheduled to occur. A cap above or below 10% could have resulted in a slightly larger, or smaller, increase.

    “A limit of this type would produce a more stable and predictable gas tax, and one that results in fewer surprises for taxpayers, transportation officials, and state lawmakers.

    “Such a limit would also allow the state’s gas tax to retain its character as a tax on the actual price of gas, while smoothing some of the jarring ups and downs seen in recent years. Gas tax caps, by contrast, run the risk of transforming North Carolina’s extremely sensible price-based tax into a stagnant, flat levy that can never keep up with the state’s transportation needs. In Pennsylvania, for example, a gas tax cap has left state’s tax rate unchanged since 2006, resulting in flatlining revenues while transportation funding needs continue to climb. Pennsylvania is the poster child for bad gas tax policy.

    “The problem facing North Carolina lawmakers is not new, and not unique to North Carolina. The Tar Heel State’s neighbors to the north have already dealt with this issue, and North Carolina should learn from their experiences by implementing a similar reform.”

    ###

    Founded in 1980, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, based in Washington, DC, that focuses on federal and state tax policy. ITEP's mission is to inform policymakers and the public of the effects of current and proposed tax policies on tax fairness, government budgets, and sound economic policy. ITEP’s full body of research is available at www.itepnet.org.

     


    Tar Heel State Could Become Tax Free Haven for Multistate Corporations


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    If a multistate corporation doing business in North Carolina shows signs of shifting income around to avoid paying state taxes, the state’s Department of Revenue has authority to require additional information to be sure the company’s not simply offshoring its profits. But that may be about to change.

    In the last hours of North Carolina’s legislative session this year, the House and Senate passed a two-pronged bill that will legally allow multistate corporations doing business in North Carolina to avoid paying corporate income taxes rightfully owed to the state.

    First, the bill limits the Department of Revenue’s power to demand companies “combined reporting,”  i.e., fully disclose income for all of a company’s subsidiaries, regardless of their location.

    Under the new law, the Secretary of Revenue could only force a combined report if transactions between subsidiaries have no "reasonable business purposes" other than reducing the corporation’s tax liability. As the NC Budget and Tax Center noted, “corporate accountants could easily restructure tax shelters and give them the appearance of "business purposes," even if the primary purpose was to, in fact, reduce corporate taxes.”

    Second, the bill reopens the egregious “royalties and trademark loophole” closed by legislators ten years ago.  Multistate corporations operating in North Carolina with headquarters out of state will now be allowed to charge their North Carolina entities for the right to use the corporations’ trademarks.  There is no limit to the ‘charge’ for this privilege and as such, it can (and will) be used to offset profits made in North Carolina for any given tax year resulting in zero state tax liability. 

    Speaking out against the amendment, House member Jennifer Weiss said, "We are telling multistate corporations, 'Come on over, rip us off, we won't charge you any taxes, but we're going to tax the little guy…Go ahead, cheat us, it's legal."

    House Majority Leader Paul Stam argued that affording corporations the confidence that they can, in fact, avoid taxes if they move to the state was “extremely important to the economy of North Carolina.”  He added that “of all the bills we've had this session, this is the jobs bill."

    The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Bev Perdue.

    Earlier last week, the Republican led legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the damaging state budget they crafted.  News of this last minute move to support corporate interests over the public interest is even more disturbing in light of the fact the state already has a budget in place that severely underfunds all levels of education, eliminates thousands of state workers  and limits access to health care.

    Photo via Jimmy Wayne Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


    North Carolina's Other Choice


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    Last weekend, North Carolina’s General Assembly gave final approval to a state spending plan for next year that significantly cuts spending, allows temporary taxes to expire, and offers small businesses a new tax break.  The budget now sits on Governor Bev Perdue’s desk and observers are watching closely to see if she will keep her promise to veto a budget that moves the state backwards in education spending.

    New North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis penned an op-ed describing his party’s approach to the Tarheel state’s $2 billion shortfall as a “new choice for North Carolina.”  This choice includes sticking to a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. It slashes funding to the state’s early childhood education programs, K-12 schools, community colleges, universities, Medicaid, court and prison systems, and substance abuse and mental health services resulting in the loss of thousands of government jobs. 

    But, there are alternatives to rolling back North Carolina spending to unprecedented levels, laying off government workers, and securing the economic recovery the state’s new leaders seek.  

    As the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center points out, the most damaging cuts in the final legislative budget agreement could be altogether avoided if lawmakers would extend two temporary taxes and close other major tax loopholes in the state. 

    First, Governor Perdue included an extension of ¾ of the 1 cent sales tax increase in her budget plan.  Second, advocates have also called on state leaders to extend a temporary personal income tax surcharge for the state’s wealthiest taxpayers as well as a surcharge for profitable corporations. Finally, tax loopholes abound and for years lawmakers have talked about, but failed to act on, comprehensive tax reform that would ensure more fair and adequate revenues in the short- and long-term.

    Unfortunately, unless a minimum of 2 of the 5 democratic House members who voted in support of the budget are convinced to change their minds, it appears a veto from the governor could be overturned and the ‘new choice’ for North Carolina will be in effect for at least a year in the state.


    North Carolina Senate GOP's Cuts-Only Approach


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    The ongoing recession, the expiration of two temporary taxes, and the end of federal recovery aid have left North Carolina with a $2.4 billion gap for next fiscal year.  The state’s Democratic governor, Bev Perdue, and the Republican-led legislature have taken very different approaches to plugging the gap. 

    Governor Perdue’s budget plan, released earlier in the spring, balanced spending reductions (around $1.4 billion) with about $1 billion of additional revenue.  The primary means for raising revenue in her budget included extending three fourths of a temporary sales tax increase enacted in 2009 and set to expire this summer.  She also proposed reducing the state’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 4.9 percent, a move Republican leaders have, surprisingly, not yet embraced.
     
    Republican House and Senate leaders have adamantly opposed extending either the temporary sales tax or personal income tax surcharge, taking a cuts-only approach to the state’s fiscal problems.  In fact, they have proposed new tax cuts that would force them to reduce state spending beyond the $2.4 billion budget gap and far beyond the governor’s proposal.
     
    The North Carolina Senate released its budget plan this week.  It includes around $550 million in tax cuts, once it's fully phased-in, resulting in deeper cuts to education, public safety, and health care. 

    Billed as a ‘Jobs Package’, it would cut personal income tax rates by 0.25 percentage points in each bracket and exempt the first $50,000 of small business income from the personal income tax for businesses with gross receipts under $850,000, at a cost of around $485 million.  The Senate would also eliminate the state’s estate tax for an additional loss of $72 million. 

    The plan raises small amounts of revenue by eliminating a handful of random state tax expenditures such as the credit for oyster recycling and the sales tax holiday for Energy Star appliances. 

    The House GOP’s budget plan, released earlier in the month, was short on tax package details other than sticking to the promise to allow the temporary taxes to expire.  However, rumors are swirling that their plan will be released soon and will likely closely mirror the Senate’s proposal. 

    If these rumors are true, their plan would not only cut taxes for wealthy taxpayer and businesses, but would also increase taxes on working families by eliminating the state’s Earned Income Tax, Child Tax, and Child and Dependent Care credits.

    House and Senate GOP leaders had made veiled promises to reform the state’s outdated and inadequate tax code this year.  Both hinted they would start by broadening the personal income tax base, moving from federal taxable income to federal adjusted gross income (AGI).  This move would eliminate costly tax breaks for the best-off taxpayers. 

    The Senate’s plan does indeed move the starting point for calculating North Carolina income taxes to federal AGI, but the move is completely revenue-neutral and only meant as a way to simplify tax forms. This would do nothing to truly reform its narrow tax base.  Rather than walking through a series of calculations to add back the difference between the state and federal amounts for the standard deduction and personal exemption, under the plan, taxpayers would simply subtract the state amounts from federal AGI and still be allowed to take all of their federal itemized deductions (with the exception being the deduction for state income taxes).  Social Security income would also continue to be exempt from state taxation.

    The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center said in a statement about the Senate budget plan that “these measures will do nothing to improve the upside-down nature of the state’s revenue system. North Carolina’s revenue system must provide adequate revenue for critical investments and must be fair and equitable.”


    New Tools in the Campaign for Tax Fairness in North Carolina


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    North Carolina advocates seeking to protect the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and supporting a balanced approach to the state’s budget crisis have stepped up their efforts to build public support with new multimedia campaigns.  

    The SaveEITC.org website, launched last week, features a clever ad titled "If You Work Hard, You Deserve a Chance to Get Ahead." The website also features fact sheets, and an action center where individuals can send virtual postcards to lawmakers explaining the many ways the EITC supports North Carolina’s low-wage workers and families. 

    TogetherNC, a coalition of more than 120 advocacy groups, service providers and professional associations, started running ads this week in 15 North Carolina newspapers calling on lawmakers to support teachers, firefighters, public health workers, and other vital services with new revenue. 

    Each of the four unique ads ends with the following message, “When our economy is out of balance, so are our classrooms.  Schools and parks. Libraries and fire stations. The things that make our communities great places to work and live are in jeopardy. Lawmakers, North Carolinians want a practical approach to our economy and our state budget–one that includes not only careful spending cuts but also new revenues that work for our changing economy. Balance is a beautiful thing.”

    The Together NC coalition also launched a new website, SpeakNC, which will introduce a new video each week featuring North Carolinians who rely on the hundreds of services in jeopardy of being gutted in this year’s budget. 

    Finally, the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center released their revenue raising and modernization plan this week.  The report describes the current failings of the state’s tax system and offers a comprehensive revenue modernization plan that would update the state’s personal income tax, sales tax, business taxes, and “tax-code spending” practices.  ITEP contributed substantial analysis and technical expertise to the report.

    In just the last few weeks, Arkansas and Illinois joined New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island in enacting legislation requiring some online retailers, like Amazon.com, to collect sales taxes on purchases made by their state’s residents.  At least a dozen other states are considering enacting similar policies, and the list of states with a serious interest in this issue seems to be growing by the week.  In a new brief, ITEP explains the basics of so-called "Amazon taxes," and discusses the actions that Amazon, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other retailers have taken during this new surge of interest in sales tax reform.

    Read the ITEP brief.


    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.


    North Carolina Republicans Propose Tax Increase on the Poor


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    Add North Carolina to the list of states considering increasing taxes on the low-income working families hit hardest by the economic downturn.  Republican lawmakers in North Carolina recently filed a bill to convert the state’s refundable 5 percent Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to a nonrefundable credit, essentially eliminating the benefit of the program for the lowest income households. 

    An op-ed this week by Lucy Gorham, director of the EITC Carolinas Initiative, put it this way: “The Republican leaders won their seats, in part, by pledging not to raise taxes and to represent those North Carolinians who work hard to provide for their families in the face of one of the worst economic downturns most of us have ever lived through. Strange, then, that in one of their first moves in the current legislative session, the leadership proposes to increase taxes on low- and moderate-income working families by eliminating the refundable portion of the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).”

    North Carolina’s House Finance Committee heard the bill on Wednesday.  Only two lawmakers spoke out in favor of the proposed change to the credit.  Representative Edgar Starnes, the bill's sponsor, delivered an endorsement of the credit even while he moved to destroy its value.  He said he recognizes the EITC is an extremely good program, but given North Carolina's large budget shortfall, he claims the state can no longer afford the cost and lawmakers must look to every program for savings, including the EITC. 

    Naturally, the opponents of the proposal turned the committee debate into a question of why the majority party was starting with the EITC — an attack on the state’s most vulnerable residents — and suggested they should look elsewhere for the $50 million saved by the regressive change.  

    House and Senate Democrats also held a press conference this week to show support for the EITC.  They argued that the refundability is a means to reimburse low-income families for other taxes they pay and pointed out that low-income workers pay a much larger share of their incomes in state and local taxes than wealthier households.  North Carolina’s governor, Bev Perdue, also weighed into the debate via Twitter: “Concerned that EITC bill hurts working families: waitresses, construction wrkrs, store clerks -- the backbone of our communities. #NCGA”

    The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center has argued that “working class, tax-paying families could no longer benefit from the credit’s ability to help them cover the substantial share of their income they pay in sales and property taxes” if refundability was eliminated.  An ITEP analysis found that eliminating the refundability of North Carolina’s EITC would result in a tax increase for 1 in 10 households.  The Budget and Tax Center also released an interactive map this week that demonstrates the wide-ranging and deep benefits of the North Carolina’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

    North Carolina lawmakers will continue to grapple with significant budget dilemmas in 2011 and beyond.  But balancing their budget on the backs of those families hit hardest by the recession should be a non-starter.


    States Take a Knife to One of Their Major Arteries: Corporate Income Taxes


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    It’s pretty evident that state corporate income taxes are especially flawed and riddled with loopholes. But, of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, there are lots of things that legislators can do (given the political will) to strengthen their corporate income taxes, including enacting combined reporting, increasing corporate tax disclosure, and closing selected loopholes.

    Despite all these options to strengthen the corporate tax, lawmakers from coast to coast are doing their best to undermine this inherently progressive tax. This seems especially sort-sighted given the revenue needs of many states.

    Here are some recent bad ideas regarding state corporate income taxes:

    Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s budget outline includes a proposal that would phase out the state's corporate income tax over four years.  

    Florida Governor Rick Scott has proposed reducing the corporate income tax rate from 5.5 to 3 percent.

    Indiana’s Senate is considering a bill to reduce the state’s corporate income tax by 20 percent. This bill recently passed the Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy.

    Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has said that he would like to cut Iowa’s corporate income tax in half, despite evidence that this tax change would only benefit large corporations.

    Recently, bills have been dropped in the both the Kansas House of Representatives and the Senate which would phase out the state's corporate income tax altogether.

    North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue is proposing that the corporate income tax rate be reduced to 4.9 percent from 6.9 percent.

    Instead of slashing or completely eliminating the state corporate income tax, lawmakers should be working to strengthen this revenue source.


    Bright Spots for Tax Policy from States with Good Ideas


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

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

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

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


    State-Based Coalitions Fight for Budget Fairness


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    Faced with huge budget deficits, many state lawmakers are eyeing dangerous short-sighted budget cuts that threaten to gut essential services and state infrastructure.  In response, dedicated advocacy organizations, service providers, religious communities, concerned citizens, and professional associations have formed coalitions in more than 35 states to battle for smart fiscal policies that will protect core services and ensure that states have the resources to meet current and future needs. 

    Here’s a brief overview of the newest of these coalitions:

    In Georgia, the coalition 2020 Georgia officially launched on January 18th to promote a balanced approach to their budget that adequately addresses the long-term needs of the state instead of pursuing damaging cuts to services that can hurt the state’s economy.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of partners, including AARP, the League of Women Voters of Georgia, and the Georgia Public Health Association.  2020 Georgia hopes to maintain smart investments in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

    In Texas, a wide coalition of organizations have created Texas Forward, a group that hopes to spur continued investment in vital public services instead of devastating budget cuts.  Texas Forward believes that smart investment now can prevent future generations from shouldering the burden of the lasting damage caused by disinvesting in services during this time of financial need.  Recently, Texas Forward urged state lawmakers to seek new revenue sources and federal funding to minimize the impact of the projected $24 billion deficit.

    In Iowa, the Coalition for a Better Iowa was formed with the express mission “to maintain and strengthen high quality public services and structures that promote thriving communities and prosperity for all Iowans.”  The Coalition for a Better Iowa includes organizations representing children, seniors, human service providers, environmental organizations, and politically engaged citizens.  The coalition is committed to creating a balanced solution to the budget shortfalls while protecting vital services and investing sustainably in the state’s future.

    In Montana, a group called the Partnership for Montana’s Future offers an extensive list of revenue-raising mechanisms to solve the state’s budge crisis.  The list has many specific proposals, generally categorized as collecting new revenue through improved tax compliance, closing tax loopholes, targeted tax increases, and other miscellaneous options.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of health, education, environmental, labor, and policy organizations.

    In Pennsylvania, Better Choices for Pennsylvania is a coalition of health, education, labor, and religious organizations that recognize that all Pennsylvanians benefit from the services and infrastructure provided by state government.  Like the other coalitions featured, Better Choices for Pennsylvania refutes the proposition that deep tax cuts can solve the state’s budget problems.  Instead, BCP is pushing for closing special tax breaks and loopholes.  The coalition believes that helping working families through hard times will put the state in a better position towards long-term financial stability.

    In Michigan, the revenue coalition, A Better Michigan Future recently issued a press release reviewing Governor Snyder’s budget proposal.  The group supports smart revenue-raising tactics like eliminating redundant and wasteful loopholes and modernizing the state sales tax to reflect the changing marketplace.

    While not a new coalition, North Carolina’s revenue coalition, Together NC, recently launched a web ad.  The ad is meant to remind North Carolinians about the smart budget choices the state has made in the past that allowed it to prosper and spur citizens to take action to protect their state from falling behind (or, as the ad says, to keep North Carolina from becoming its neighbor to the south).

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

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

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

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

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

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


    State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


    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.


    The Time is Ripe for North Carolina to Renew Tax Reform Commitment


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    In 2009, North Carolina lawmakers eliminated their $4 billion budget gap (roughly 20% of the state’s general fund) with a mixture of spending cuts, increased federal assistance, and a two-year $1.3 billion temporary tax package.  While the tax package relied primarily on a regressive 1-cent increase in the state sales tax (it also included an income tax surcharge on high-income households and corporations), the significant amount of revenue it raised helped to stave off proposed devastating cuts to education, health care, and public safety.  But, the spending cuts made were still deep, and the impact has been felt by every family and community in the state.  

    Last week, Governor Beverly Perdue announced that she intends to put together her 2011-2013 budget without the temporary taxes and instructed agencies to craft budgets that reduce spending by up to 15%. "I believe we should try to cut to the core ... and then we'll make those decisions later," Perdue said. "At this point in time, my budget will not have that sales tax increase."

    Essentially, the state is back to the same budget challenge it faced two years ago — a new $3.3 billion budget shortfall — but this time without the federal government pitching in, and, if Governor Perdue has her way, with no new revenue package.  

    The good news is North Carolina House and Senate Finance Committee members have been working together on a proposal for comprehensive tax reform, but no legislation has emerged from their discussions.  As North Carolina grapples with the news of a potentially significant budget shortfall next year, there are plenty of good reasons for state lawmakers to renew their commitment to progressive tax reform instead of resorting to painful spending cuts.

     


    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.


    Sales Tax Holidays: Good for Little More than a Laugh


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    We’re in the heart of sales tax holiday season now.  Despite cooler heads prevailing in DC and Georgia, where sales tax holidays have been scrapped due to gloomy budget projections, Massachusetts and North Carolina have recently decided to move ahead with their holidays, and Illinois has decided to join the party for the first time.

    By now, you may be familiar with all the reasons why sales tax holidays are a bad idea (read this ITEP policy brief if you’re not).  Aside from those groups with a vested interest in the holidays (e.g. retailers looking for free advertising, politicians looking to build their anti-tax credentials, and confused parents thinking these things actually save them money), just about everyone seems to agree that sales tax holidays are a worthless political gimmick.  Stateline pointed out last week that analysts as varied as those at Citizens for Tax Justice and the Tax Foundation have come to an agreement on this point.

    But as long as sales tax holidays remain popular enough to remain impervious to most state budget crises, we might as well take a moment to marvel at some of their more glaring absurdities.  For example, this year, Massachusetts’ sales tax holiday will apply to alcohol.  College students in the state clearly have quite an effective lobbying presence in Boston.  Interestingly, neither tobacco nor meals will be included in the holiday.

    In Illinois, which doesn’t have any experience with sales tax holidays, one columnist speculates that his wife isn’t alone in erroneously believing that the back-to-school holiday applies only to children’s clothes.  Indeed, adult clothes are included as well; as are aprons and athletic supporters.  Work gloves, however, will still be subject to tax.  You’d think that the Illinois Department of Revenue already has enough on its plate without having to worry about such minutia.

    Finally, in South Carolina, it looks like the state’s Tax Realignment Commission is going to recommend quite a few changes to the state’s tax holidays.  For starters, the state’s bizarre post-Thanksgiving tax holiday on guns has to go, according to the Commission.  And changes could be in store for the August holiday as well.  The State reports that if the Commission gets its way, “this could be the last year to get your wedding gown, baby clothes, pocketbooks and adult diapers at a discount on back-to-school tax-free weekend.”  Interestingly, the South Carolina representative who first introduced the sales tax holiday idea actually agrees, claiming that he wanted only the holiday to apply to stereotypical “back to school” purchases – that is, things other than wedding gowns and adult diapers.

     

    Despite continued fiscal woes that have forced states to cut billions of dollars in spending on education, health care, transportation, and public safety, North Carolina and Missouri became the latest states to pass expensive tax breaks in the hopes of luring, or retaining, business. 

    Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these unaffordable tax breaks will lead to economic recovery and job creation.  The University of North Carolina’s Center for Competitive Economies recently surveyed companies to determine the importance and effectiveness of economic development incentives on their location decisions. Availability of a skilled workforce, quality infrastructure, and presence of community colleges and universities ranked much higher than special tax breaks (13th on the list).  Time and time again, research has shown that the most effective growth strategy for states is investing in education and public infrastructure, not special tax breaks for corporations.

    During the final hours of North Carolina’s legislative session last week, state lawmakers passed a pair of bills that extended, expanded and created new incentives for specified industries and companies at a cost of more than $275 million over the next 5 years.  The most costly change was an expansion of the state’s refundable film production tax credit which raised the maximum amount of the credit that can be taken from $7.5 million to $20 million.  New credits were created for video game developers and businesses who locate in eco-friendly industrial parks.  Lawmakers also extended a tax credit program known as Article 3J that legislative staff and University of North Carolina researchers have found to be ineffective at job creation, and as recently as this spring they recommended it should be eliminated altogether.
     
    The second bill was developed with specific corporations in mind (although they were not named in the legislation and have still not been publicly disclosed). Commerce officials say these corporations are considering North Carolina as a finalist for their new facilities and incentives were needed to “clinch the deal”.  The legislation grants special sales tax exemptions on electricity and machinery to two data centers, a turbine manufacturing facility, and a paper mill.  Recent news reports suggest such “struggling” corporations as Microsoft (working under the code name “Project Deacon”) and Fidelity are likely to be the parties to benefit from the special rules for the new data centers. 

    Proponents of the tax breaks suggested they were needed for North Carolina to remain competitive and to spur economic recovery and job creation.  Yet, no industry listed in the second package will be required to meet a targeted employment level.  

    Earlier this week in a special session called by Governor Nixon, Missouri lawmakers passed a $150 million incentives package for Ford Motor Company and its suppliers.  Without the incentives, lawmakers claimed Ford would close its assembly plant in Claycomo and 4,000 jobs would be lost.  But, there’s no guarantee that Ford will stay even with the special treatment and attention it received from Missouri lawmakers.  The special tax break was paid for by cutting pensions for newly hired state employees.


    North Carolina Senate Seeks to Eliminate Penalty for Corporate Tax Dodgers


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    North Carolina’s state Senate has gone to bat for big business by voting to eliminate an important incentive for companies to pay their fair share of corporate income taxes.

    North Carolina remains in the minority of states that levy corporate income taxes but do not require corporations to file a combined tax return for all of their affiliates, a requirement called "combined reporting" by policymakers. The lack of combined reporting leaves the state vulnerable to various income shifting strategies used by large, multi-state corporations.  However, since 1941, North Carolina’s Department of Revenue (DOR) has had the authority to (at its discretion) force affiliated corporations to file combined returns.  In recent years, due to major court decisions affirming this authority and engaged leaders at the DOR, they have used this power aggressively, and successfully, to seek out corporate tax dodgers and hold them accountable for the true tax they owe.  

    Last year alone, DOR’s ramped up corporate tax compliance efforts brought in more than $400 million ($150 million was budgeted) and the governor, Senate, and House’s FY10-11 budget proposals are counting on DOR to bring in another $110 million this year.

    But the North Carolina Senate’s budget proposal also strips DOR of another tool that has allowed for their success, the 25 percent “large tax deficiency” penalty.  The penalty works like this: If the new tax liability determined from combining returns is more than 25% of the original tax paid, corporations may have to pay a penalty equal to 25% of the difference on top of the new tax they owe. 

    North Carolina’s Revenue Secretary, Ken Lay, says that without this penalty, multi-state corporations would continue to engage in tax avoidance strategies, playing the “audit lottery” and taking a chance on hiding their income.  The DOR uses the penalty to incentivize companies that owe back taxes to settle quickly and, as a reward for doing the right thing, DOR will waive the penalty. 

    They need this “stick” because without it their compliance efforts will fail to produce meaningful results and certainly will not yield the $110 million budgeted for collecting unpaid taxes.
     
    Whether or not to strip this authority is at the center of North Carolina’s final budget negotiations between the Senate and House.  The provision was not included in the House’s budget proposal.

    Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat and chair of the Senate’s finance committee, is leading the charge against DOR.  He thinks removing the penalty is “only fair” because businesses should not be punished for not anticipating a DOR audit that would result in different tax liability from a combined versus separate entity reporting practice. Other proponents claim that those forced to pay the penalty were “well-intentioned” and “had no way of knowing the department would disagree with its tax return years later.”
     
    Secretary Lay disagrees and says that DOR focuses on pursuing cases in which businesses are believed to be intentionally hiding income through complex tax avoidance schemes commonly used by large, multi-state corporations. When DOR determines a corporation did not purposefully abuse its separate entity filing status to hide income, the penalty is waived.
     
    With few exceptions, big corporations are fully aware when they're dodging their tax responsibility.  They frequently hire large accounting firms who tout tax avoidance schemes and promise them substantial tax savings. And in two recent high-profile court cases in North Carolina against Wal-Mart and Food Lion, the evidence was clear that the two companies restructured their operations with the intention to reduce their taxes in the state and elsewhere.  

    Even North Carolina’s major newspapers have joined this debate on what would seem to be an unusually technical issue.  Sen. Clodfelter’s hometown paper called the Senate’s proposal to “ease corporate taxes” a” bad idea” and the Raleigh News and Observer suggested big businesses’ campaign contributions may be behind the Senate’s efforts to eliminate “tax enforcement policies that are both fair and rigorous.”

    As the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center recommends, the obvious solution to address Sen. Clodfelter’s concerns would be to enact mandatory combined reporting.  Mandatory combined reporting would not only prevent tax-dodging and level the playing field between large, multi-state corporations and smaller, in-state businesses, but it would also offer clear guidance on the correct way to report income and business activity that occurred in North Carolina.


    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.


    North Carolina Factory Closure Highlights Failure of Special Tax Subsidies


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    Dell’s decision to close its Winston-Salem North Carolina factory provides one of the most visible examples to date of the failure of state and local tax subsidies as a tool of economic growth.  The subsidy given to Dell to open this factory was valued at over $300 million, and was described by Good Jobs First's Greg LeRoy as one of the highest ratios of subsidy – to – private investment ever received.  Be sure to read this blog post from Good Jobs First for some insights on this important story.  This closure is sure to have a significant impact on the nationwide debate over economic development subsidies.


    Experts Say States' Economies Will Suffer If Budgets Are Balanced Solely by Cuts in Spending


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    States policymakers across the country are looking to the future and anticipating another year of tough budget decisions about whether to cut services or increase taxes. Two recent pieces from research groups in Georgia and North Carolina make excellent points about the importance of considering tax increases and their impact on economic development.
     
    Last week, the Macon Telegraph published an editorial by Alan Essig, Executive Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Essig notes that there "is more to economic development policy than having the lowest tax rate. Economic development depends on, at the least, adequate public structures; without them, it is difficult to recruit and grow businesses in Georgia, no matter how low taxes are." Racing to the bottom in terms of tax rates is hardly the best economic development decision a state can make.
     
    North Carolina legislators did take a balanced approach to filling their state's budget shortfall by passing both tax increases and budget cuts. Yet, this hasn't stopped anti-taxers from crying "job killing taxes." The North Carolina Budget and Policy Center recently released a report debunking the myth that state tax increases cause job losses. Read the Center's report, Wishful Thinking: Claims That State Tax Increases Cause Job Loss are Unfounded.

     


    North Carolina's Budget Resolution


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    Governor Bev Perdue signed the budget passed by North Carolina's legislature last week. The compromise budget raises nearly $1 billion in needed revenue (about 23% of the state's budget shortfall for the fiscal year). While we can't describe all the revenue raisers as pleasingly progressive (the sales tax and various excise taxes were increased), legislators did opt for a progressive income tax surcharge targeted to upper income taxpayers instead of an across the board surcharge.

    The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center identifies the silver lining of the budget agreement. First, new revenue was raised, and second, there is new momentum for comprehensive tax reform.

    Read more about BTC's take on the compromise here.


    Tax Base Broadening on the Agenda in Michigan, California, and North Carolina


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    A broad base is an essential element of a good tax system. Fulfilling the principles of "horizontal equity," and "economic neutrality," both depend upon the use of a broad tax base. Unfortunately, the temptation to carve out special tax breaks for politically popular causes, or for powerful constituencies, if often irresistible to lawmakers.

    But efforts are currently underway in Michigan to undo some of these special tax breaks, and a tax reform commission in California is at least pretending to consider a reform that would help pave the way for a careful reconsideration of many of that state's tax breaks. Furthermore, policymakers in North Carolina have expressed a strong desire to return to the task of base-broadening this fall, even as efforts to include base-broadening revenue-raisers in this year's budget agreement seem to have failed.

    Earlier this month, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm stated her desire to eliminate between $500 million and $1 billion in special tax breaks as a way to reduce the state's looming deficit. While accomplishing such a feat will inevitably involve an uphill political battle, Michiganders should be grateful that the Michigan League for Human Services (MLHS) is closely following the action. MLHS Chairman Lynn Jondahl hit the nail on the head when he urged lawmakers to ask themselves, in reference to the state's film tax credit, "Would you be willing to appropriate $6 million to MGM, say, to make this film in Michigan? We're paying you to do something in lieu of filling pot holes or funding mental health treatment. Which do we value more?"

    In California, a tax reform commission that so far has shown interest mostly in cutting the progressive income tax is at least listening politely to a different idea. The so-called "blue proposal" currently before the commission, presented as a less regressive alternative to the much-ballyhooed flat-tax proposal supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, would require special tax breaks to be presented in the Governor's budget, saddled with a "sunset" provision, and evaluated based on their effectiveness in achieving their stated objectives. Of course, adopting this approach will amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic if the commission acts on its apparent zeal for moving away from income taxes and towards regressive consumption taxes. And the "blue proposal" has its warts as well: provisions that would impose a spending cap and create a new "net receipts" tax in lieu of the current corporate income tax have progressives feeling, well, blue. But the tax-expenditure element of the "blue proposal" is a welcome dose of thoughtful policy at a time when California surely needs it.

    Finally, in a recent development out of North Carolina, base-broadening appears to be off the agenda for the immediate future, though policymakers have expressed a strong interest in returning to the issue this fall. When they do return to the issue, they would be wise to review these recommendations, recently released from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, explaining how to broaden the state's tax base while simultaneously offsetting any potentially harmful effects on low- and moderate-income families.


    North Carolina: Revenue-Raising Options on The Table


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    Last week, we told you about North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue becoming more realistic about the need for tax increases to balance her state's projected $4.5 billion shortfall. Earlier this year the state's Senate Finance Committee released their Tax Modernization and Simplification Plan that includes broadening the state's sales tax base, moving toward an adjusted gross income base for purposes of calculating state income taxes, and lowering the state's income tax rates. (For a complete analysis of the Senate proposal see this informative brief from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.)

    Now there's more good news. This week the House Finance Committee passed their own proposal which included increasing sales and income taxes, and also broadening the sales tax base to include services. No doubt, North Carolina lawmakers are making difficult decisions about budget priorities, but having tax increases on the table makes their jobs much easier.


    North Carolina Budget Debate Remains Unresolved


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    A new brief from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center makes a strong case for increasing taxes to solve the state's budget crisis. The report rightly argues that economic times are so bad, resulting in such low revenue projections across the country, that policymakers aren't left with any other option but increasing taxes. In fact, the report finds that, "No state with a projected gap as large as North Carolina is attempting to balance its budget with spending cuts alone."

    Apparently, Governor Beverly Perdue is coming around to this thinking too, saying that tax increases may be necessary to close the state's projected $4.5 billion shortfall which is equivalent to 20% of the state's budget. The outcome of the state's budget debate remains to be seen. But with Senate leaders and now apparently the Governor interested in raising taxes, perhaps it's not too much of a leap to predict that North Carolina will join with other states that have raised taxes to address dire shortfalls.


    Missed Opportunities in North Carolina


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    North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has presented a $21 billion budget proposal that would cut spending across the board and relies on regressive revenue-raisers to plug the state's budget shortfall. Governor Perdue is also proposing to cut spending by $1.3 billion in each of the next two years. On Tuesday she said, "The budget I'm releasing today, I believe, makes strategic investments that will create jobs and increase overall per-student spending, and is a balanced budget." But it's clear that the Governor is missing a real opportunity to be forward-thinking. She could have chosen to improve the state's tax structure through sales tax base expansion and increased progressivity of the income tax, which would offset the regressive effects of her proposed increases in the state's cigarette and alcohol taxes. Let's hope that the Governor's budget isn't the last word on how to fix the state's budget shortfall.


    Goin' to Carolina in My Mind: NC's Misguided Budget Delays Much Needed Low-Income Credits


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    In recent weeks, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley signed into law the state's 2009 budget. Totaling around $21.3 billion, the legislation is supposed to respond to the current economic climate, but falls short.

    Lawmakers had earlier proposed two new tax cuts, one regressive and one progressive. The regressive cut was a repeal of the state's gift tax. North Carolina is one of the last remaining states with a gift tax and, as CTJ has previously pointed out, the tax is absolutely necessary to ensure that the estate tax is collected. If a state does not tax large gifts, wealthy residents can avoid the state's estate tax by giving their assets to their children before they die.

    The progressive cut proposed earlier was an increase in the state's earned income tax credit (EITC). The credit, which will increase from 3.5% to 5% of the federal EITC, will provide relief for the working poor.

    Neither progressive advocates nor anti-tax advocates got everything they wanted in the budget deal that was approved. Both tax cuts were delayed until 2010. That means that wealthy North Carolinians will be able to avoid the estate tax if they wait until 2010 and then give their assets to their children. It also means that the needed help provided by a boost in the EITC will not yet be available at a time when prices are rising and increasingly burdening low-income North Carolinians.

    The fact that these tax cuts were delayed is a result of the General Assembly's desire to balance the budget. But as CTJ has noted, even a 5% state EITC in North Carolina is not enough. In order to offset the burden of state and local taxes for a family of four, the EITC must be set at no less than 11% of the federal EITC. Next year, lawmakers should reject cuts in the gift tax that will result in reduced estate tax collections and instead focus on the needs of the working poor.


    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.


    State Transportation Woes Have Common Thread


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    North Carolina is suffering from an increase in the cost of asphalt. Asphalt is made of petroleum derivatives, and its cost has increased 25% since the end of 2006. This is causing the state to cut back on road repaving projects which are likely to cost more money to accomplish the longer they go unrepaired.

    In Missouri, the state has a projected $1 billion transportation fund deficit. It is only expected to be able to meet 40% of obligations starting July 2009. In spite of this, all three major candidates for Missouri Governor pledge not to raise the state motor fuels tax. The two Republican gubernatorial contenders, Sarah Steelman and Kenny Hulshof suggest dedicating general funds revenue to transportation and privatizing some state roadways respectively.

    Virginia is currently confronting a "growing bridge and road maintenance shortfall" which is depriving money from road construction. Governor Tim Kaine has recently released a proposal to raise vehicle registration fees and sales taxes on vehicles, while keeping the state fuel tax unchanged.

    These states have in common a tendency to tinker around the edges of transportation funding policy while failing to address the taboo topic of gas taxes. The root cause of these transportation troubles is that the gas tax has been kept too low to finance the transportation needs in all these states.

    Most states have a "per gallon" gas tax that leaves them unable to cope with rising costs of transportation as inflation erodes the value of the tax collected on each gallon. North Carolina's gas tax has been capped at 29.9 cents since 2006 due to pressure from anti-tax activist Bill Graham, although it was formerly readjusted to reflect price changes twice a year. Missouri has not raised its gasoline tax since 1996 and Virginia's gasoline tax has stayed constant since 1992. None of these states index their gasoline tax either to transportation costs or the general inflation rate.

    Sometimes even a major crisis is not enough to get politicians to consider gas tax adjustments. Due to Iowa's recent flooding, Iowa's legislature is likely to convene an emergency session to confront their newly pressing infrastructure needs and find sources of funds for disaster recovery. Legislators rejected efforts to raise the gasoline tax earlier in the year to fill the $200 million highway maintenance deficit, opting instead to tinker around the edges and simply raise vehicle registration fees. But even now, the Iowa House Majority Leader considers a hike in the gasoline tax "an absolute, absolute last resort," with gas selling for $4/gallon.

    Even a spectacular tragedy is sometimes not enough to get politicians to wake up. Before the August 2007 Minnesota I-35W bridge collapse, Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill raising the gasoline tax 7.5 cents per gallon, calling it "an unnecessary and onerous burden" as consumers were paying $3 per gallon for gasoline in May 2007. This was in a state that hadn't adjusted its gasoline tax in 19 years. Not even a bridge collapse and transportation funding shortfall of nearly $2 billion were enough to change the governor's position that gas taxes are anathema. Needed road and bridge repairs were being neglected, with obviously dire consequences. Fortunately, Minnesota lawmakers were finally able to override Governor Pawlenty's veto in February, raising the gas tax by 8.5 cents.

    For many, there will never be a "right time" to raise the gas tax. It wasn't the right time at $2 per gallon in 2005 when Gov. Pawlenty first vetoed a gas tax increase, nor at $3 per gallon in 2007, nor now at $4 per gallon. In fact, it's never the "right time" to raise any kind of tax... no one wants to pay more than they have to. But sometimes in order fund vital services policymakers need to come together and bite the bullet as they did in Minnesota, even if it is politically difficult.

    Opponents have sometimes successfully argued that raising the gasoline tax would be regressive and particularly damaging to the economy in such a car-dependent nation. But gas tax increases can be done in conjunction with progressive measures, such as raising the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating a refundable gas tax credit as was done in Minnesota and proposed in Virginia.


    Bittersweet: North Carolina Looks to Increase Its EITC


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    The North Carolina House of Representatives this week approved and sent to the Senate a measure that would raise the state's earned income tax credit (EITC) from 3.5 percent to 5.0 percent of the federal EITC. The measure is bittersweet: assistance to the working poor but still not enough to lift families out of poverty and the grasps of regressive taxation.

    A 10 percent state EITC in North Carolina would be more effective and would cost less than one percent of the current budget, according to estimates by the NC Justice Center. Research suggests that, among its many benefits, the EITC increases workforce participation and encourages asset building. Some surveys conclude that families invest their EITCs in education, savings accounts and transportation improvements, investments that, in turn, promote economic security among low-income workers.

    At the state level, an EITC helps to offset the regressivity of the sales and property taxes, the burdens of which fall primarily on low-income earners. In North Carolina, the wealthiest one percent of families spend 6.1 percent of their incomes on state and local taxes. Compare that with the poorest fifth of families in the Tar Heel state, who devote 10.6 percent of their earnings to state and local taxes.

    One in 5 North Carolinians benefit from the EITC. If the bill passes, under North Carolina's new EITC structure these residents would be able to receive from the state an additional credit equal to 5 percent of their federal EITC. Unfortunately, even with this boost from the state, low-income residents would still be subject to regressive sales taxes greater than this amount. A report by the NC Justice Center estimates that an 11 percent state EITC would be needed to offset the burden of state and local sales taxes on a family of four.


    The Rich Get Richer? North Carolina Contemplates Repeal of Gift Tax


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    The North Carolina Senate seems to think that cutting taxes for the wealthy should be one of its top priorities. This week the Senate passed a bill which if approved by the House and Governor Mike Easley, would repeal the state gift tax.

    In response, the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center released a brief discouraging the House and Governor from approving this bill as part of its overall budget. The brief explains that the gift tax is a progressive tax and that repealing it would negatively impact estate tax collections as more wealthy people convert their estates into gifts to reduce their taxable wealth. Estimates indicate that about $18 million would be lost each year if the gift tax were repealed, but as the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center points out, this number underestimates the true cost because it does not include revenue lost from increased estate tax avoidance. Repealing this tax would not only increase tax unfairness in North Carolina and harm state revenues, but would also send precisely the wrong message at a time of economic difficulty and ever increasing income inequality.

    Instead of providing tax giveaways to those who need them the least, North Carolina could target its tax cuts more carefully by increasing the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The House appears set to approve precisely that, having proposed an increase in the EITC from 3.5% to 5% of the federal credit. Interestingly enough, the price tag of increasing the EITC is around $20 million -- roughly equal to the amount associated with the gift tax repeal. As the NC budget goes up for consideration, lawmakers should re-evaluate their priorities; the EITC rewards work rather than wealth by providing a tax credit to working low-income families. There is no better time than now to expand such a program. As Rep. William Wainwright points out, the "rise in gasoline prices, food prices, pharmacy prices, [and] trying to pay mortgages" provides excellent reason for "trying to find progressive ways to help [the working poor] make some household ends meet."


    Tax Day Highlights Regressive Tax Systems in Many States


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

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


    One Step Forward, One Step Back for State EITCs


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    North Carolina took a large step forward towards tax fairness this week when both houses passed a new budget that includes a state Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.North Carolina now joins 20 other states that offer an EITC.These credits receive broad bipartisan support in so many states because of their proven track record of success.The EITC works by rewarding work, making sure that working low-income families aren't taxed further into poverty.Since the measure is targeted only at these families, it provides much more benefit per dollar of state revenue than almost any other anti-poverty program.

    Despite all this, however, some legislators in Michigan want to delay the introduction of that state's EITC.Last year, the state passed an EITC for the first time.Now, proponents of delaying the EITC argue that, given the state's current business and fiscal problems, the government simply can't afford the tax break.Of course, many of these senators are the same ones who have been advocating against any new business taxes in the state to replace revenue lost with the repeal of the Single Business Tax.It's true that the state is not in good fiscal condition, but during economic downturns anti-poverty measures become more important, not less.Michigan voters should urge their lawmakers to keep their promise to the working poor.For more information on state EITCs, try this helpful website.For more information on how EITCs work, read this ITEP policy brief.


    Showdown in the Tar Heel State


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    North Carolina policymakers appear to be deeply divided over the state budget and much is at stake for low- and middle-income taxpayers. In one corner, the state House of Representatives and the Governor are advocating budget packages that include extensions of temporary tax rate hikes in both the income and sales tax. House leaders say this revenue is necessary to help pay for the growing needs of the state. An exciting development in the House budget is the North Carolina Rewarding Work Tax Credit (a state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit). In the other corner, the state Senate passed a budget which allows the temporary tax hikes to expire and there's no targeted tax credit included. Earlier this week the House voted to reject the Senate's budget, so now the real show down begins. Policymakers must work quickly if they hope to pass a two-year budget by July 1 when the fiscal year begins.


    Good Ideas and Terrible Ideas Get Equal Hearing in North Carolina


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    North Carolina policymakers are facing short-term and long-term challenges this spring. A temporary 8 percent top income tax rate - and a quarter cent sales tax hike - are scheduled to expire on July 1, and leading elected officials (including Governor Mike Easley) are arguing that extending each of these tax increases will be necessary to make ends meet for the upcoming fiscal year.

    And with an eye on long-term reform, a " State and Local Fiscal Modernization Commission" is asking hard questions about how best to reform the state's tax system ... and how to divide funding responsibilities between state and local governments. ITEP staff testified before the commission earlier this week. Among the likely recommendations of the Commission: eliminating county governments' responsibility for paying some Medicaid expenses, and diversifying the revenue-raising options available to local governments. One possible source of new county tax revenue: a real-estate transfer tax on home sales. NC Policy Watch has some sensible commentary on the merits (and demerits) of this proposal.


    Strategies for Helping Low-Income Taxpayers - Comparing a No-Tax Floor to a State EITC


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    NC Budget and Tax Center Report:

    Strategies for Helping Low-Income Taxpayers - Comparing a No-Tax Floor to a State EITC

    Governor Michael Easley's recommended state budget set aside $63 million to reduce the income taxes paid by low-income taxpayers to be delivered through a "no-tax floor" plan. In fact, hundreds of thousands of the proposed 1.2 million taxpayers his plan claims to help already pay no income tax and would see no new benefit. In addition to not benefiting very low-income taxpayers, the governor's "no-tax floor" also has numerous design flaws that make it inferior to a state EITC.


    Is a "No Income Tax Floor" the Best Approach to Tax Fairness? Lessons from North Carolina


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    "People in poverty should not pay income tax in this state." It was North Carolina Governor Mike Easley who said it last week in his "State of the State" speech, but it's a sentiment that is widely shared by policymakers of all stripes around the nation. However, Easley's proposed remedy "a tax credit that eliminates all state income tax for some low-income families, and cuts the income tax bill in half for others" shows both the power and the limitations of this sentiment. A new report by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center (BTC) highlights the flaws in Easley's "no-tax floor". The main problem is that the proposed tax credit is non-refundable, which means it can be used to reduce income taxes to zero but can't be used to offset regressive sales and property taxes. As ITEP's Who Pays report has documented, these non-income taxes hit poor families far more heavily, on average, than does the income tax.

    This fact may have been unclear to many initially when the proposal was presented. The governor's projections of the number who would be taken off the income tax rolls by his plan erroneously included the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who already pay no income taxes because of the standard deduction and personal exemption already in place.

    As the BTC has also documented, there's a better answer for policymakers who are truly concerned about not taxing low-income families further into poverty: a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit. The goal of eliminating income taxes on poor families has gained heightened visibility in recent years, largely due to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' terrific annual report on this topic. Now, the BTC's work is prompting a healthy debate on how best to redress the inequities highlighted in the CBPP report.


    EITC Expansion: A Good Idea in Every State


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


    Good Ideas and Bad Ideas for State Budget Surpluses


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    Several states are debating ways to spend budget surpluses.

    Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has "tax reformation" plans which include putting more money in a rainy day fund and rebating money to taxpayers in the form of a tax credit.

    In response to the surplus in Idaho, legislators are debating ways to shift the tax burden from property taxes to regressive sales taxes.

    North Carolina legislators are taking notice of the financial hit that mental health services took during the previous recession and both houses have passed budgets that would provide more funds for these services. Of course, if any of these states had a Colorado-style TABOR policy there wouldn't even be a question about how to spend state surpluses because TABOR takes these important budget decisions out of the hands of elected officials.

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