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


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

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

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

 What We're Reading... 

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

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


Energy States Continue to Pay the Price for "Boom Time" Tax Cuts


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Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

What do these states have in common?

These are the five states that are most reliant on the energy sector (mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction) for their economic output, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. All of them are also facing budget shortfalls brought on in part by the falling price of energy, and in part by short-sighted tax cuts made by lawmakers that failed to prepare for this decline.

Alaska, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are currently grappling with these issues in contentious legislative sessions. In Alaska, the magnitude of the state’s budget shortfall forced lawmakers to extend their session beyond its scheduled date of completion, while West Virginia lawmakers just returned to their state capital this week for a special session. Lawmakers in North Dakota and Wyoming are not currently in session, but are gearing up to deal with the shortfalls that await them when they return to session in 2017.

In order to close their budget gaps, these states are contemplating whether previous tax cuts should be rolled back, whether new types of tax increases should be enacted, or whether the shortfalls should be closed primarily through deep cuts in public services. On the revenue side, there is also significant variation in the types of tax changes being explored—ranging from progressive income tax reforms to sharply regressive increases in consumption and excise taxes. Each of these five states’ tax and budget debates are discussed below.

In Alaska, lawmakers are facing a budget gap exceeding $4 billion and are currently focused on deep budget cuts and scaling back oil and gas tax credits as part of their extended legislative session. However, those changes alone will not solve the state’s budget problem. Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a broader package of tax policy options, including reinstating a personal income tax for the first time in 35 years and increasing existing taxes on various items and industries. Also on the table are proposals to scale back and restructure the state’s Permanent Fund dividend—an annual cash payment received by the vast majority of Alaskans each year. ITEP analyzed the Governor’s plan in a recent report and found that an equitable solution to the state’s revenue shortfall will require lawmakers to enact a personal income tax.

While Alaska’s tax cutting history is somewhat more distant than in other energy-dependent states, it is also the most dramatic. Following the discovery of oil, Alaska became the only state to ever eliminate a broad-based personal income tax and also started paying out dividends to Alaskans each year from the state’s Permanent Fund. Because Alaska also does not levy a sales tax at the state level, it is forced to rely heavily on oil tax revenues and royalties. For decades, oil revenues filled roughly 90 percent of the state’s general fund, but lower prices and declining production have dramatically reduced the level, and reliability, of those revenues.

West Virginia lawmakers are dealing with a $270 million budget hole this week as part of a special legislative session. During the regular session Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed increasing the state’s tobacco tax and applying the sales tax to telecommunications services. These proposals will be revisited this month, along with a possible increase to the state’s general sales tax rate on either a temporary or permanent basis. Budget cuts and fund sweeps will also be debated, though the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy notes that the state also has plenty of progressive revenue options worthy of consideration. The decision by previous West Virginia lawmakers to slash business taxes is a major contributing factor to the state’s shortfall. Elimination of West Virginia’s business franchise tax took full effect last year, and over the last several years the state’s corporate income tax was reduced as well.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma, facing a $1.3 billion budget hole with only a few weeks remaining in their legislative session, are weighing changes to income, sales, and excise taxes in addition to reductions in public services. Among the most damaging proposals on the table is an effort to eliminate or pare back tax credits for low-income families such as the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and sales tax relief credit. Oklahoma lawmakers have repeatedly cut the state’s income tax over the past decade, with the most recent reduction triggered this January despite an official “revenue failure.” Today this series of cuts comes with an annual price tag exceeding $1 billion in lost revenue. More sensible options under consideration include rolling back the state’s recent personal income tax cuts or repealing the state’s deduction for state income taxes paid.

North Dakota lawmakers, gearing up for their biennial session in 2017, have seen the state’s revised revenue forecast fall short once again. In response to that shortfall Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued budget guidelines requiring state agency heads to hold budget requests to 90 percent of current spending, signaling that most agencies will face budget cuts of up to 10 percent. This request follows a $245 million reduction this February done in an effort to help balance a mid-biennium revenue shortfall exceeding $1 billion. This is the first time since 2002 a North Dakota Governor has taken such measures. But unlike in other energy-dependent states, Gov. Dalrymple is refusing to consider tax increases and many legislators are promising not to raise taxes. Instead they intend to slash state services and withdraw money from their Budget Stabilization Fund. This painful budget tightening follows multiple cuts to the state’s income taxes over the past decade. In 2015, the most recent cuts led to reductions in both the individual and corporate rates costing the state $108 million over the biennium.

Lawmakers in Wyoming, expecting to be short at least $300 million over the coming biennium, last week weighed whether local governments should be able to impose an optional 2-percent tax on groceries. This tax was rolled back in 2006 in the face of criticism that it disproportionately fell on the state’s poorest residents. Lawmakers also considered raising the state property tax and increasing the tax on wind and energy production. However, only draft bills on the wind tax moved out of committee. In addition to these tax proposals, Gov. Matt Mead recently announced that state agencies must cut their budgets by 8 percent for the biennium. Wyoming has not enacted the same level of tax cuts over the years as in other energy-reliant states, largely because it already relies on such a narrow tax system. Wyoming levies no individual or corporate income tax, relying primarily on taxes on minerals, sales and use, and property.

If lawmakers in any of these states are looking for inspiration to take action, Louisiana and Nevada (ranked #7 and #9, respectively, in terms of their economic reliance on energy) stand out for their willingness to at least begin addressing their shortfalls by increasing tax revenue. Louisiana lawmakers this year, after much negotiation, approved a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax rate, removed sales tax exemptions, raised taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, and extended or reinstated taxes on vehicle rentals, cellphones, and landlines. Louisiana’s Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to call a second special session to continue pursuing revenue solutions. Nevada, in 2015, approved tax measures expected to raise up to $1.1 billion through a cigarette tax increase and the continuation of formerly temporary business taxes. These revenue increases have played a vital role in helping to avoid painful cuts in the face of low energy prices and weakened tax receipts.

States’ heavy reliance on their energy sectors has certainly contributed to their recent budget shortfalls. As energy prices plummeted, tax and royalty revenues fell and lawmakers have been forced to make tough decisions to fill the gaps. But not all of the blame for these states’ bleak fiscal outlooks can be assigned to the volatility of the energy sector. Narrow tax structures and repeated tax cuts, often enacted when energy-related revenues were abundant, have also played major roles in these states’ financial debacles.

Looking ahead, the experience of these states should serve as a cautionary tale for lawmakers prioritizing tax cuts over the long-run sustainability of state budgets.


State Rundown 5/6: Energy Boom Goes Bust


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown! Here's a sneak peek: Wyoming and North Dakota grapple with declining revenue amid an energy bust. Arizona lawmakers reach a budget agreement. Missouri legislators consider a state EITC, and Missouri judges rebuff Krispy Kreme.

-- Carl Davis, ITEP Research Director


 

State governments across the country continue to grapple with bottom-barrel energy prices, with Wyoming the latest to deal with the fallout. March revenue collections were worse than expected, with sales and use tax receipts $9.3 million below projected levels and severance taxes falling $17.4 million short. Wyoming, which is one of nine states without a broad-based personal income tax, is unusually dependent on the fossil fuel industry to support the state budget. Making matters worse, declining fossil fuel production could also have a secondary impact on sales tax revenue – the largest source of government funding – if demand for goods and services also decreases. Gov. Matt Mead has asked state agencies to cut their FY 2017 budgets by an additional 8 percent as revenues are expected to come in $300 million short over the biennium. Meanwhile, legislators are considering a number of tax increases to shore up the budget. One proposal would allow local jurisdictions to impose a sales tax on groceries—a development sure to worsen the stark regressivity of Wyoming's overall tax system. Another proposal would increase the tax on producing wind energy, and lawmakers have also considered an increase in the state's property tax to fund school construction.

North Dakota faces a similar predicament as a result of its extraordinary reliance on the fossil fuel industry coupled with historically low energy prices. This week, Gov. Jack Dalrymple asked state agency heads to hold 2017-2019 budget requests to 90 percent of current spending levels, but made exceptions for the departments of corrections and human services and K-12 spending. It is the first time since 2002 that a governor has issued budget guidelines mandating cuts. North Dakota was the only state to weather the recession thanks to the oil boom. Instead of sound fiscal management, leaders there cut taxes repeatedly when times were good and severance tax revenues were high. Now, the governor refuses to consider tax increases. Agency budgets were already reduced by $245 million in February to help balance a mid-biennium $1.03 billion revenue shortfall.

After an extended session, Arizona lawmakers have reached a budget deal. The Arizona Legislature approved a $9.6 billion budget that includes $29 million in (mostly) business tax cuts. If the budget is signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, corporations will get a number of perks, including $8 million in bonus depreciation and $7 million in sales and use tax exemptions for manufacturers. However, the budget does not include a children's health insurance program for 30,000 kids that would have been funded by the federal government at no cost to the state.

Missouri legislators will consider legislation that would cut taxes for working families in the state. Senate Bill 1018 and House Bill 1605 would both create a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) based on the federal credit. Households that qualify for the federal EITC would receive a non-refundable state EITC equal to 20 percent of the federal EITC. Most of the benefits would support families with income ranging from $20,000 to $37,000 annually. The Missouri Budget Project, citing ITEP numbers, estimates that these families would see an average tax cut of $54 to $289, giving a needed boost to these families and Missouri businesses.

In wackier Missouri tax news, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against pastry purveyor Krispy Kreme. In what some observers termed the "doughnut hole loophole," Krispy Kreme demanded a state refund on sales taxes paid after arguing its products were groceries. State law places a 1 percent tax rate on groceries but a 4 percent sales tax on foods made to be immediately eaten. The firm noted that many customers take their doughnuts home to consume later, but the judges didn't buy it. 

 

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


State Rundown 2/19: Guns, Gimmicks and Giveaways


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Thanks for reading the Rundown! Here's a sneak peek: Missouri lawmakers want to move money from anti-poverty programs to road construction in a move some are calling unconscionable. Arizona could pass a first-of-its-kind tax credit for concealed weapons carriers. Louisiana paid out more in corporate tax breaks than it made in corporate tax revenue. One North Dakota lawmaker has regrets about a recent oil tax cut.

 – Meg Wiehe, ITEP State Policy Director


The Missouri Legislature will consider a proposal to shift money from programs for poor families and children to road construction. Last year, legislators passed the Strengthening Missouri's Families Act over the veto of Gov. Jay Nixon. The two-part measure eliminated the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for 9,500 Missourians (6,300 of them children) and made another 58,000 adults ineligible for food stamps. The money saved was supposed to go to job training, child care and other programs to help poor Missourians; instead, lawmakers want to spend the money on road construction to avoid raising the state's gasoline excise tax by 1.5 cents a gallon. Missouri has not seen a gas tax increase in almost 20 years.  Gov. Nixon, who supports the gas tax increase to pay for road construction, rebuked the idea of paying for roads with money diverted from safety net programs as a budget gimmick that "could jeopardize priorities such as local public schools, higher education and services for Missourians with developmental disabilities and mental illness." An editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the proposal "unconscionable," arguing that if "Missouri drivers want better roads, they — and not the neediest among us — should bear the burden."

One North Dakota senator says the state will soon come to regret its 2015 decision to lower its oil extraction tax rate. Sen. Jim Dotzenrod said in an op-ed for the Grand Forks Herald that the rate reduction from 6.5 to 5 percent will leave North Dakota with $132 million less in annual revenue if prices remain at $25 a barrel. The rate cut was adopted last year at the insistence of lawmakers who wanted to offset the elimination of a "trigger" provision in a 1987 drilling law. The trigger provision automatically reduced the extraction tax rate if oil prices fell below a pre-determined price of about $55 per barrel; given the recent steep decline in oil prices, the effective tax rate would have fallen from 6.5 to 1 percent if the trigger were not eliminated. While eliminating the trigger was broadly supported by the state's political establishment, the choice to permanently lower the extraction rate from 6.5 to 5 percent was not. Dotzenrod notes that "the effect of this cut in the oil extraction tax could be quite high because it will be in place even when oil prices rise. For example, had this cut been in effect during the 2013-15 biennium, the revenue loss would have been well over $600 million." He believes the rate cut will adversely affect future investments in public services.  

Louisiana lawmakers are zeroing in on highly inefficient tax credits as one reason for the state's ongoing budget woes. The state's Department of Revenue reports that Louisiana paid corporations $210 million more in tax rebates and credits than it collected in corporate income and franchise taxes. From 2004 to 2014, state spending on the six largest tax credits increased from $207 million to $1.08 billion. Gov. John Bel Edwards wants lawmakers to close or reduce several corporate tax giveaways to help plug a significant revenue gap.

If you carry a firearm in Arizona, you could get a tax break. A House committee passed a new tax credit of up to $80 for Arizonans who get concealed weapons permits. Only those who obtain permits after the passage of the credit will be eligible. The bill's sponsor, House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, says the tax credit encourages gun safety since individuals must attend firearms training classes to get a permit. The credit, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, would cost $1.9 million in revenue.

 

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Cuts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


State Rundown 4/27: Leaders Push Back Against Unwise Tax Cuts


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New Hampshire business leaders, nonprofits and civic organizations have come together to oppose business tax cuts proposed in the legislature, arguing that they would jeopardize needed investments in education, infrastructure and other areas. The inclusion of business leaders in the coalition led by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute represents a rare but growing alliance between businesses who understand that investments are needed for economic growth and progressive organizations that advocate on behalf of working and middle-class families. The state Senate passed two bills in March that would cut corporate tax rates. One would reduce the business profits tax from 8.7 to 7.9 percent, while the other would reduce the business enterprise tax from 0.75 to 0.675 percent.

Kansas lawmakers want to take another look at Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax exemption on pass-through business income after more than 300,000 Kansans claimed the exemption at a cost of millions in state revenue. Initial estimates suggested that fewer than 200,000 taxpayers would be eligible for the exemption, a key part of the governor’s 2013 tax cuts. Many lawmakers, including members of Brownback’s own party, believe the business pass-through exemption is unfair because it has “created situations where a business owner may not pay tax on income, but an employee making less would.” Other legislators believe the exemption has contributed to structural imbalance in the budget, which currently has a $400 million hole.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton rejected a budget proposal from legislators in the state House, saying the $2 billion tax cut package is a “non-starter” because of its fiscal irresponsibility. The House plan would give many Minnesotans a temporary income tax break, permanently phase out the statewide business property tax and reduce taxes on Social Security benefits. The governor refuses to begin budget negotiations until House leaders come up with a plan that is closer to his own targets. Dayton also asserted that the House plan would cost $4 billion annually once implemented, turning the state’s $1.9 billion surplus into a deficit. Gov. Dayton’s budget plan would use the surplus to shore up investments in education, particularly on a push for universal pre-kindergarten.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and state legislators are headed for a showdown over a 6 cent-per-gallon increase in the state’s gasoline excise tax that, if approved, would raise $180 million after four years. The measure has already passed the initial hurdle in the state’s unicameral legislature, but two additional votes are needed before it is sent to the governor’s desk. Ricketts has said he does not support the measure. A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald found that inflation has eroded the buying power of Nebraska’s gasoline excise tax by $1 billion since 1995. ITEP's Carl Davis, who was interviewed for the article, noted that “It’s an inevitable fact that if gas tax rates are not updated from time to time, the tax is not going to keep pace with construction costs.” 

 

Things We Missed:

  • Arizona ended its legislative session on Saturday, April 25th.
  • North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed Senate Bill 2349, which cut the state’s corporate income tax rate by 5 percent and the personal income tax rate by 10 percent. This is the ninth straight year that the state’s leaders have cut income taxes. The House also passed a tax cut for oil companies.

States Ending Session This Week:
Montana (Monday)
Indiana (Wednesday)
Florida (Friday)
North Dakota (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 1/22: Twists, Turns and Intrigue


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Although it significantly cut income taxes over each of the last three legislative sessions, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly heard the first of 30 bills this week aimed at income tax cuts, One proposal would reduce all personal income tax rates to zero and collapse the state’s current five income brackets to one. The governor’s income tax plan would reduce personal income tax rates by 10 percent and corporate income tax rates by 4.8 percent across the board. Another proposal currently before Senate would reduce the income tax rate on the bottom income bracket from 1.22 percent to 0 percent, eliminating the tax liability for 170,000 North Dakotans. The tax cut would cost $151 million a year and expire after two years. Sponsors of the bill argue that the tax cut would provide relief to renters, who have seen rents skyrocket as a result of the oil boom. Other legislators have suggested a more targeted approach, through an income tax credit for renters. 

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed an increase in the state’s gas tax in her state of the state Wednesday. Previously, the governor pledged to veto any increase in the state’s gas tax, which has not changed since 1987. The catch (and there’s always a catch) is that Haley will not support a gas tax increase without an income tax cut for top earners (from 7 to 5 percent).  Hiking gas taxes while cutting the top income tax rate would result in a tax shift from well-off South Carolinians to middle income and working families. State legislators had varied reactions to the governor’s plan; while Republicans were enthusiastic, Democrats pointed out that the plan would result in a net revenue loss of $117 million.

A state Senate committee approved Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s tax plan Wednesday  with an amendment that would eliminate a planned capital gains tax cut. The amendment, offered by Sen. Bill Sample, would reverse a measure passed in 2013 to increase the exemption on capital gains from 30 percent to 50 percent and eliminate the tax on capital gains above $10 million. The amendment reduces the total cost of the governor’s tax plan to $93.4 million, according to the state’s Department of Finance and Administration. Local political prognosticators have noted the unorthodox nature of a Republican governor and legislature introducing a bill with tax increases.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of bills last week related to a ballot question that voters will decide on in May.  If approved, the package will generate $1.2 billion per year for roads and $300 million per year for schools by raising sales taxes, gas taxes, and vehicle registration fees.  In sharp contrast to Governor Haley’s proposal for South Carolina (described above), this package includes an income tax cut targeted toward low-income taxpayers, rather than the wealthy.  If approved, the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would rise to equal 20 percent of the federal credit.

 

Following Up:

MontanaDebate over tax cut measures continues in the legislature, and Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director opposed the measures in committee hearings, saying they would endanger the state’s surplus. The Montana Budget and Policy Center, citing ITEP numbers, said that the top 1 percent of Montana taxpayers would see a tax cut of $2,200, while low-income Montanans would see a cut of just $12.

New Hampshire – Gov. Maggie Hassan has announced she opposes  proposed corporate tax cuts, saying that the bills currently before the state senate would create a significant budget hole. It is uncertain if Hassan will veto the bills should they reach her desk.

New York – In a stunning turn of events, state assembly speaker and Cuomo ally Sheldon Silver was arrested this morning on corruption charges. The charges stem from investigations related to the Moreland Commission, which the governor shut down prematurely last year amid controversy. Needless to say, this development will have an impact on Gov. Cuomo’s legislative agenda.


State Rundown 1/8: All Eyes on the Governors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC


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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report


A New Wave of Tax Cut Proposals in the States


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Note to Readers: This is the third 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 proposals to cut personal income, business, and property taxes.

Tax cut proposals are by no means a new trend.  But, the sheer scope, scale and variety of tax cutting plans coming out of state houses in recent years and expected in 2014 are unprecedented.  Whether it’s across the board personal income tax rate cuts or carving out new tax breaks for businesses, the vast majority of the dozen plus tax cut proposals under consideration this year would heavily tilt towards profitable corporations and wealthy households with very little or no benefit to low-income working families.  Equally troubling is that most of the proposals would use some or all of their new found revenue surpluses (thanks to a mostly recovering economy) as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts rather than first undoing the harmful program cuts that were enacted in response to the Great Recession.  Here is a brief overview of some of the tax cut proposals we are following in 2014:

Arizona - Business tax cuts seem likely to be a major focus of Arizona lawmakers this session.  Governor Jan Brewer recently announced that she plans to push for a new tax exemption for energy purchased by manufacturers, and proposals to slash equipment and machinery taxes are getting serious attention as well.  But the proposals aren’t without their opponents.  The Children’s Action Alliance has doubts about whether tax cuts are the most pressing need in Arizona right now, and small business groups are concerned that the cuts will mainly benefit Apple, Intel, and other large companies.

District of Columbia - In addition to considering some real reforms (see article later this week), DC lawmakers are also talking about enacting an expensive property tax cap that will primarily benefit the city’s wealthiest residents.  They’re also looking at creating a poorly designed property tax exemption for senior citizens.  So far, the senior citizen exemption has gained more traction than the property tax cap.

Florida - Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he intends to propose $500 million in tax cuts when his budget is released later this month.  The details of that cut are not yet known, but the slew of tax cuts enacted in recent years have been overwhelmingly directed toward the state’s businesses.  The state legislature’s more recent push to cut automobile registration fees this year, shortly before a statewide election takes place, is the exception.

Idaho - Governor Butch Otter says that his top priority this year is boosting spending on education, but he also wants to enact even more cuts to the business personal property tax (on top of those enacted last year), as well as further reductions in personal and corporate income tax rates (on top of those enacted two years ago). Idaho’s Speaker of the House wants to pay for those cuts by dramatically scaling back the state’s grocery tax credit, but critics note that this would result in middle-income taxpayers having to foot the bill for a tax cut aimed overwhelmingly at the wealthy.

Indiana - Having just slashed taxes for wealthy Hoosiers during last year’s legislative session, Indiana lawmakers are shifting their focus toward big tax breaks for the state’s businesses.  Governor Mike Pence wants to eliminate localities’ ability to tax business equipment and machinery, while the Senate wants to scale back the tax and pair that change with a sizeable reduction in the corporate income tax rate. House leadership, by contrast, has a more modest plan to simply give localities the option of repealing their business equipment taxes.

Iowa - Leaders on both sides of the aisle are reportedly interested in income tax cuts this year. Governor Terry Branstad is taking a more radical approach and is interested in exploring offering an alternative flat income tax option. We’ve written about this complex and costly proposal here.

Maryland - Corporate income tax cuts and estate tax cuts are receiving a significant amount of attention in Maryland—both among current lawmakers and among the candidates to be the state’s next Governor.  Governor Martin O’Malley has doubts about whether either cut could be enacted without harming essential public services, but he has not said that he will necessarily oppose the cuts.  Non-partisan research out of Maryland indicates that a corporate rate cut is unlikely to do any good for the state’s economy, and there’s little reason to think that an estate tax cut would be any different.

Michigan - Michigan lawmakers are debating all kinds of personal income tax cuts now that an election is just a few months away and the state’s revenue picture is slightly better than it has been the last few years.  It’s yet to be seen whether that tax cut will take the form of a blanket reduction in the state’s personal income tax, or whether lawmakers will try to craft a package that includes more targeted enhancements to provisions like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which they slashed in 2011 to partially fund a large tax cut (PDF) for the state’s businesses. The Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) explains why an across-the-board tax cut won’t help the state’s economy.

Missouri - In an attempt to make good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year, House Republicans are committed to passing tax cuts early in the legislative session. Bills are already getting hearings in Jefferson City that would slash both corporate and personal income tax rates, introduce a costly deduction for business income, or both.

Nebraska - Rather than following Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman into a massive, regressive overhaul of the Cornhusker’s state tax code last year, lawmakers instead decided to form a deliberative study committee to examine the state’s tax structure.  In December, rather than offering a set of reform recommendations, the Committee concluded that lawmakers needed more time for the study and did not want to rush into enacting large scale tax cuts.  However, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.

New Jersey - By all accounts, Governor Chris Christie will be proposing some sort of tax cut for the Garden State in his budget plan next month.  In November, a close Christie advisor suggested the governor may return to a failed attempt to enact an across the board 10 percent income tax cut.  In his State of the State address earlier this month, Christie suggested he would be pushing a property tax relief initiative.  

New York - Of all the governors across the United States supporting tax cutting proposals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been one of the most aggressive in promoting his own efforts to cut taxes. Governor Cuomo unveiled a tax cutting plan in his budget address that will cost more than $2 billion a year when fully phased-in. His proposal includes huge tax cuts for the wealthy and Wall Street banks through raising the estate tax exemption and cutting bank and corporate taxes.  Cuomo also wants to cut property taxes, first by freezing those taxes for some owners for the first two years then through an an expanded property tax circuit breaker for homeowners with incomes up to $200,000, and a new tax credit for renters (singles under 65 are not included in the plan) with incomes under $100,000.  

North Dakota - North Dakota legislators have the year off from law-making, but many will be meeting alongside Governor Jack Dalrymple this year to discuss recommendations for property tax reform to introduce in early 2015.  

Oklahoma - Governor Mary Fallin says she’ll pursue a tax-cutting agenda once again in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling throwing out unpopular tax cuts passed by the legislature last year.  Fallin wants to see the state’s income tax reduced despite Oklahoma’s messy budget situation, while House Speaker T.W. Shannon says that he intends to pursue both income tax cuts and tax cuts for oil and gas companies.

South Carolina - Governor Nikki Haley’s recently released budget includes a proposal to eliminate the state’s 6 percent income tax bracket. Most income tax payers would see a $29 tax cut as a result of her proposal. Some lawmakers are also proposing to go much farther and are proposing a tax shift that would eliminate the state’s income tax altogether.

As the back- to-school sales tax holidays season winds down, this Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) op-ed is a reminder that consumers and citizens “should not accept tax-free weekends as a replacement for the types of real reforms that clean out unnecessary breaks at the top and solve the problems that will still be there, long after this year's sales tax holidays have passed.”  

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe has a message for Republican lawmakers bent on eliminating the state’s personal income tax: “If you’re going to eliminate the income tax, you better figure out where you’re going to get a couple billion just to stay where we are.”  The Arkansas Republican Party platform includes replacing the state’s personal income tax with what they call a “more equitable method of taxation.”  In Beebe’s words, “I don’t think there is more equitable… the income tax was designed to be more equitable than a flat, for example, sales tax.”

Now that Governor Jack Dalrymple has unveiled his tax cut plan, North Dakota voters (who rejected a ballot measure eliminating property taxes altogether in June) will hear from two gubernatorial candidates who want to cut property taxes, but in very different ways. While the incumbent, Dalrymple, would give across-the-board property tax cuts to every property owner (including profitable businesses and the wealthiest North Dakotans) and a token cut to older low-income adults, the Democratic challenger, Ryan Taylor, targets his tax cuts to homeowners and renters, with the largest cuts as a share of income going to low- and moderate-income taxpayers.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy is working up a full analysis of the candidates’ competing tax plans, which have roughly the same revenue cost.


North Dakota Says No to Measure 2, Preserves Its Property Tax


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North Dakota voters hit the polls yesterday and overwhelmingly (76 percent) said No to Measure 2, a proposal to eliminate -- and constitutionally ban into perpetuity -- their property taxes.

Among those against the measure, the state’s tax commissioner opposed it on the grounds it was fiscally unsustainable, and the state’s League of Cities opposed it for undermining local control over revenues and budgets.

Spearheading the measure was a group called Empower the Taxpayer, ET for short.  Proponents regularly cited North Dakota’s recent energy boom and the surplus of oil revenue it has created as one reason the state could afford to get rid of such a reliable revenue source – which constitutes roughly a quarter of all state revenues.  We note, however, that ET’s director said, “We started this movement before the oil boom…. This isn’t about being flush with oil money.”  

It is true that, thanks in large part to the state’s energy boom, North Dakota was the only state to weather the economic recession without taking a hit to its revenues.  But the oil and gas making the state rich today will run out one day, and banning property taxes would have undoubtedly made North Dakota more vulnerable when that happens, leaving the state unable to fund even the most basic level of services in future “bust” years.  In the end, voters recognized it was unwise to permanently eliminate a relatively stable revenue source in favor of a highly volatile and unsustainable one.

The North Dakota property tax repeal failure is the latest in a line of unsuccessful attempts this year to repeal, reduce or phase out major state taxes.  Its advocates have vowed to fight another day but for now, it goes to show that just as Americans want federal taxes to support government services, they also value strong schools, safe communities, accessible health care, and well maintained roads over tax cuts in the states they call home.

Photo of North Dakota Oil Field via Porchlife Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy talks back to the Wall Street Journal about its failure to cover the consequences of the new Kansas tax bill for the state’s working poor.
  • North Dakota Tax Commissioner Cory Fong comes out against a radical ballot initiative that would do away with the state’s property tax. The Commissioner writes that Measure 2 is risky, and will be destabilizing for North Dakotans. The vote is on June 12.
  • Louisiana’s legislature appears to be nearing adjournment now that the House approved a nearly $26 billion budget for the next fiscal year. The budget, now sitting on Governor Jindahl’s desk, includes $270 million in “one-time money” scavenged from various programs to balance the budget.
  • Read this op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times from the CEO of the National Retail Federation calling for fairly taxing Internet sales and pointing out that “modern software, allowing sales taxes to be calculated as quickly and easily as shipping costs, renders” any remaining objections a so-called Amazon Tax obsolete.

Earth to ET: Eliminating Property Taxes Would Hurt Most North Dakotans


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In June of 2012, North Dakota voters will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would eliminate all property taxes.  If passed, the initiative would make North Dakota the only state in the nation to completely abandon this cornerstone of local government finance. 

Although property taxes are somewhat regressive, they are a vitally important revenue source, and serve as an important complement to state income taxes by ensuring that families with large quantities of property wealth pay more than those without such reserves.  The initiative’s sponsors, Empower the Taxpayer (E.T.), gloss over these realities with simplistic arguments that “government has become too big,” and “property taxes penalize the homeowner.”

E.T. also contends that the state is empowered only to provide for the general welfare, and property taxes are currently being used to somehow provide kickbacks to “special interest” groups, three of which they identify as most egregious being the higher education system, state employees, and the health and human services system.

Since when did the public interest become a special interest?

E.T., we should mention, is spearheaded by Robert Hale, a successful lawyer in Minot, ND, who is also a builder and developer who, one can imagine, would benefit financially if he could legally avoid paying property taxes.

One final note: while E.T. calls for property tax elimination to be financed through deep cuts in public services, they also float local sales taxes as a more “democratic and fair” alternative to the property tax, never mind that they are a starkly regressive kind of tax, impacting the poor far more heavily than any other group.  

Regressive taxes, however, and massive service cuts are what we should probably expect from this organization which, as it happens, chooses that monocle-wearing millionaire from the Monopoly game, Rich Uncle Pennybags, for its logo.


North Dakota: The Only State with Money to Spare, Determined to Waste It


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While almost every state faces revenue shortfalls due to the recession, North Dakota is one of the few to escape relatively unscathed, as a result of its oil revenue. In fact, North Dakota’s recently passed budget includes nearly half a billion dollars in tax breaks and increases general fund spending by more than 20 percent over the next two years.

The $489 million in tax reductions includes $341.8 million in local property tax relief, $120 million in personal income tax reductions, and $25 million in corporate income tax reductions.

Unfortunately, the $120 million in personal income tax reductions will not benefit those most in need. According to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, two-thirds of the income tax reduction will go to those making over $96,000, while only 5 percent will go to those making under $40,000.

The average tax cut for the richest one percent, those with incomes over $414,000, would be nearly $4,700. Only a third of those making under $24,000 will see any tax cut at all, and those who do will only receive about $18 over one year.

Republican lawmakers favored this regressive approach, even though North Dakota already has an extremely regressive tax system. As ITEP has noted before, taxpayers in North Dakota making less than $21,000 pay an average of 9.4 percent of their income in taxes, while those making over $406,000 pay only 4.3 percent of their income in taxes.

The North Dakota Economic Policy Project argues that a better approach to income tax reduction would have been for the state to enact a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A state EITC equal to 10 percent of the federal EITC would only cost $17 million and would be specifically targeted to North Dakota’s low-income working families.

Ryan Taylor, the Democratic Minority Leader of the North Dakota Senate, also takes issue with cutting corporate income taxes by $25 million while many public services did not receive significant increases. In an op-ed for the Grand Folks Herald, Taylor asked, “Do we want to be a state that gives $25 million to corporations and countless more millions in the future by ignoring loopholes for oil companies, while leaving our children uninsured?”


Mining and Oil Lobbyists Extracting Major Benefits from States


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We've noted before that lobbyists for extractive industries extract billions of dollars out of taxpayer pockets through special tax loopholes and subsidies at the federal level. Unfortunately, this is true at the state level as well. Even when states face unprecedented budget shortfalls and are considering harsh spending cuts, petroleum and mining lobbyists are working hard to preserve and expand their tax subsidies.

One particularly egregious example is Nevada's Barrick and Newmont mining companies, which produce 90 percent of the gold in Nevada, worth over $500 million dollars. Recently, neither company reported any taxable income from their mines.

Interestingly, a Nevada State Tax Director recently admitted that the state has not even audited the industry for at least two years — and then entered into an ‘abrupt’ retirement.

Some legislators are proposing to limit tax deductions for mines to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. But Governor Brian Sandoval opposes the measure and it looks like proponents will not be able to overcome his veto.

In Alaska, oil industry lobbyists have found a friend in Republican Governor Sean Parnell, who is seeking to cut oil taxes and increase subsidies by at least $1.8 billion a year.

Governor Parnell says this will spur "investment" in the state. But the whole point of the tax is to ensure that oil profits result in investment in the state. As Democratic State Senator Bill Wielechowski explains, without the oil taxes, companies would take the billions in profits produced in Alaska and invest them in places like Venezuela or Ecuador. 

The new oil tax cuts do not come as a surprise to Democratic State Representative Les Gara, who contends that petroleum company representatives played a direct role in crafting the Governor’s legislation.

North Dakota seemed to have resisted extraction lobbyists when the State House rejected a measure strongly promoted by the energy industry. The state's current oil extraction tax is automatically reduced when the price of oil falls below $50 a barrel. The proposed measure would scrap that rule and instead reduce the tax as production increases.

Republican Majority Leader Al Carlson tried to ressurect the measure by sneaking the language into another oil bill without a proper hearing.

The Grand Forks Herald editorialized that the legislature must study the effect of the measure through a “neutral source” rather than relying on the “self-interested arguments from the oil industry.” Fortunately, the measure is being held up in the Senate, which will likely guarantee that the public will get to review the changes the energy industry is proposing.


Anti-Tax Lawmakers Look to Cement Their Legacy


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In some states, huge budget gaps are making it somewhat difficult to enact the types of large, immediate tax cuts that many lawmakers promised during their political campaigns last year.  Partially as a result, anti-tax lawmakers are increasingly looking toward the longer-term with proposals to cap state spending, cap property tax growth, and mandate a supermajority legislative vote in order to raise taxes.  Four states in particular generated headlines for proposals of this sort over the past week: New York, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Dakota.

As we mentioned two weeks ago, New York’s Republican-led Senate has already passed constitutional amendments that would impose a TABOR-style spending cap, and a supermajority requirement for raising taxes.  This week, the Senate added to that list by enthusiastically passing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap, which would limit property tax growth to 2 percent per year.  As the New York Times pointed out, property tax caps in general are extremely blunt instruments, and this one is particularly worrisome given the lack of exemptions for things like health care, pensions, debt service, or increased enrollment.  Fortunately, all three of these proposals will be less welcome in the state Assembly, though the Assembly’s speaker has expressed an interest in coming to a “common ground with the governor and the Senate on an appropriate property tax cap.”

In Wisconsin, the state’s newly elected Republican governor and Republican legislators have enacted relatively minor business tax cuts that some lawmakers have described as merely symbolic.  Not content with these small victories, Republican lawmakers are now turning to the slightly longer-term, as the state Assembly last week passed a bill that would require a supermajority vote in order to raise taxes during the next two years.  Of much more concern, however, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently impose the same restriction on Wisconsin residents’ elected representatives. That amendment has yet to come up for a vote.

In Virginia, two troubling constitutional amendments made it out of committee last week. One would mandate a supermajority vote to raise taxes and another would impose a TABOR spending cap equal to inflation plus population growth.  Both are being pushed by Del. Mark Cole, and both were the subject of a highly critical editorial in the Roanoke Times this week.

Finally, in North Dakota, a proposal to cap property tax revenue growth at 3 percent per year received a committee hearing this week and will eventually move to the full House for a vote.  Similar proposals have been rejected in each of the last two sessions, though the fate of this one remains unclear.

Hopefully, lawmakers in each of these states will eventually decide against reducing their ability to deal with the difficult and often unforeseen challenges that state and local governments must inevitably confront.


ITEP Releases New Report on Capital Gains Tax Breaks in the States


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Earlier this week ITEP released A Capital Idea: Repealing State Tax Breaks for Capital Gains Would Ease Budget Woes and Improve Tax Fairness. The report takes a hard look at the eight states that currently give special treatment to capital gains income including: Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The report finds that the benefits of state capital gains tax breaks go almost exclusively to the very best off taxpayers. In fact, in the eight states highlighted, between 95 and 100 percent of the state tax cuts from these tax breaks goes to the richest 20 percent of taxpayers.

Capital gains tax breaks also come with a pretty large price tag.  In tax year 2010, these eight states will lose about $490 million due to these loopholes, with losses ranging from $14 million to $151 million per state. These revenue losses represent a substantial share of currently-forecast budget deficits in several of these states.

ITEP finds that these preferences are costly, inequitable, and ineffective, depriving states of millions of dollars in needed funds, benefitting almost exclusively the very wealthiest members of society, and failing to promote economic growth in the manner their proponents claim. State policymakers cannot afford to maintain these tax breaks any longer.

 


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report.


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.


Two States Consider Offering Unproven Tax Breaks for Home Buyers


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Following the creation of a federal tax credit for new home buyers, two states are considering also wandering down this unproven and expensive path. North Dakota and Kentucky are each debating sacrificing taxpayer dollars to fund special tax breaks for newly built homes. In Kentucky, the break would come in the form of a $5,000 tax credit for purchasers of newly constructed homes, while in North Dakota, those fortunate enough to afford a newly built home during this downturn would enjoy a temporary doubling of their property tax homestead exemption (from $75,000 to $150,000).

In each case, the break would not be available for purchasers of older residences, suggesting that these breaks are more of a bailout for developers than they are aid for those in the market to buy a home. And in either case, the proposals still suffer from many of the flaws with the federal break -- such as their potential to re-inflate home prices, and the fact that these breaks won't provide homebuyers with any cash at the time of purchase.

As state policymakers craft their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, they must confront a pair of daunting challenges, one fiscal, the other economic. The budget outlook for the states is, at present, the most dire in several decades. In this context, then, states must find ways to generate additional revenue that create neither additional responsibilities for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet nor additional distortions in the economy as a whole.

For nine states -- Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin -- one straightforward approach would be to repeal the substantial tax breaks that they now provide for income from capital gains. In tax year 2008 alone, these nine states are expected to lose a total of $663 million due to such misguided policies, with individual losses ranging from $10 million to $285 million per state. A new ITEP report explains that repealing these tax preferences would help states reduce their large and growing budgetary gaps, enhance the equity of their current tax systems, and remove the economic inefficiencies arising from such favorable treatment.

This report explains what capital gains are, how they are treated for tax purposes, and who typically receives them. It also details the consequences of providing preferential tax treatment for capital gains income for states' budgets, taxpayers, and economies in nine key states. Lastly, it responds to claims about both the relationship between capital gains preferences and economic growth and the role capital gains taxation plays in state revenue volatility. (Appendices to the report provide detailed state-by-state estimates of the impact of repealing capital gains tax preferences.)

Read the report.


Three States Focus on Eliminating Regressive Deduction to Raise Much Needed Revenue


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We've recently highlighted a variety of progressive revenue raising options gaining serious attention in New York and Wisconsin. This week we bring you yet another idea that's recently been the subject of debate, though this one applies to fewer states. Those seven states still offering income tax deductions for federal taxes paid (i.e. Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Oregon), should immediately repeal, or at the very least dramatically scale back, that deduction.

The federal income tax deduction takes what is perhaps the best attribute of the federal income tax -- its progressivity -- and uses it to stifle that very attribute at the state level. Since wealthy taxpayers generally pay more in federal taxes than their less well-off counterparts, allowing taxpayers to deduct those taxes from their income for state income tax purposes is a gift to precisely those folks who need it least. And since most state income tax systems possess a degree of progressivity, those better-off taxpayers who face higher marginal tax rates are benefited even more by being able to shield their income from tax via this deduction.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver most recently drew attention to this problem while urging lawmakers this week to end the deduction. The idea has also recently garnered attention in Missouri, where ITEP recently testified on a bill that would, among other changes, eliminate the deduction. Finally, another bill making its way through the Alabama legislature seeks to end the deduction for upper-income Alabamians.

With three of the seven states that still offer this deduction considering its elimination, this is definitely one progressive policy change to keep an eye on.


Push for TABOR-style Spending Cap Dissolves in North Dakota


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Just over one month after progressives defeated a costly, irresponsible, and regressive tax cut on the ballot in North Dakota, backers of an even more irresponsible TABOR-style cap that would have limited spending increases to the rate of inflation have abandoned their efforts. The group pushing the spending cap says they have dropped their plan in part because of the opposition to lower taxes (and lower services) that North Dakotans demonstrated at the ballot box last month.


... and, Some Ideas to Reject


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Of course, not every idea floated during these tough fiscal times is worth adoption or even consideration. Some are just downright bad. Take New York, for instance. As the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) indicated earlier this week, the Empire State is expected to face a budget deficit of $12.5 billion in the coming fiscal year. Unfortunately, that dire outlook has not stopped Governor David Paterson from continuing to embrace an ill-advised property tax cap. On December 1, New York's Commission on Property Tax Relief issued its final report, recommending a 4 percent limit on annual property tax growth. Governor Paterson had backed the idea previously and does not seem likely to change his position any time soon, remarking upon the report's release that "Property taxes... have been the enabler of Albany's dysfunctional culture." As the Fiscal Policy Institute and others have observed, the problem with tax caps are legion and could be particularly harmful if put in place during a recession.

Similarly, North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, as part of his budget plan for the 2009-2011 biennium, has proposed cutting property taxes by $300 million and income taxes by $100 million. Fiscal circumstances in North Dakota are, to be sure, markedly different than those in New York; after all, the Peace Garden State is one of the few expected to experience a budget surplus by the end of the current fiscal year. Yet, as the Grand Forks Herald recently warned, "oil prices already have plunged, threatening the energy boom that has dramatically boosted the state's surplus," suggesting that state legislators should proceed slowly and carefully. Caution certainly seems to be what the voters of North Dakota want anyway -- in November, they resoundingly defeated a ballot measure that would have cut income taxes by more than $200 million.

Legislators in Virginia, despite that state's $2 billion plus budget deficit, seem bent on cutting taxes too, as a special House-Senate subcommittee has recommended that the state offer a new corporate tax break known as single sales factor. Where North Dakota officials should listen to the recently expressed views of their constituents, Virginia should follow the hard-learned lessons of other states. Simply put, single sales factor is a costly and ineffective means of spurring economic activity. Just ask Massachusetts: In 1995, Massachusetts adopted single sales factor for manufacturers, a move that was hailed by some proponents as "a bold step towards restoring Massachusetts as a manufacturing state." After thirteen years -- and millions of tax dollars and thousands of manufacturing jobs lost -- it's clear that that restoration has not occurred.


Progressives Defeat Regressive Tax Cuts in Three States


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Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Oregon residents rejected regressive and costly income tax cuts (or even outright repeals, in the case of Massachusetts) in each of their respective states this Tuesday. The results in every state were fairly lopsided, with between 60% and 70% of voters coming out in opposition. As we noted in earlier Digest articles, these victories for fair tax policy are partly the result of hard work by progressives and also partly the result of very broad (and sometimes unexpected) coalitions. This cooperation symbolized a growing recognition of the importance of taxes in paying for valued government services and generally improving Americans' quality of life.

The votes in these three states are especially important given the economic slowdown that is laying waste to state budgets across the country. Massachusetts is already projecting a mid-year budget deficit, while Oregon is projecting a deficit in the next fiscal year. North Dakota, though doing well relative to other states, is unlikely to escape the slowdown without similar budgetary wounds. Given such a difficult environment for state budget-makers, it's not at all hard to see that tax cuts are the exact opposite of what is needed -- especially if those cuts are targeted overwhelmingly to the rich.

Multiple stories and descriptions of each of these failed measures can be found in the Tax Justice Digest's Massachusetts, Oregon, and North Dakota archives.


Supply-Side Disasters in the Making at the State Level


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One does not have to be elected to Congress or hired to anchor a national news show to become addicted to supply-side economics. State government and local media are equally at risk. This November, voters in several states will decide on ballot questions that are being promoted with supply-side justifications.

A proposal to be voted on in Oregon seeks to allow taxpayers to deduct (in full) their income tax payments to the federal government for state income tax purposes. Currently, only the first $5,600 one pays to the federal government is allowed to be deducted on Oregon state income tax forms. This arrangement already has regressive results, and by uncapping the deduction limit completely, those wealthy individuals who owe the most in federal income taxes will be allowed to slash their Oregon tax payments substantially.

Though the workings of the Oregon proposal may seem a bit confusing, its results most certainly are not. The vast majority (78 percent) of Oregonian families will get nothing, the wealthiest 1 percent will enjoy a nearly $16,000 annual tax cut, and the government of Oregon will have to make due with between $500 million and $1 billion less in revenues each year. (Six other states, Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota, currently allow for some deduction of federal income taxes, and they should all end this regressive practice.)

So how are backers of the Oregon proposal justifying this giveaway to the rich? You guessed it. One news account informs us that "[Russ] Walker, Oregon director of the national fiscal conservative group FreedomWorks [and co-sponsor of Measure 59], says the tax reduction would produce a supply-side result of economic expansion with more income and more tax revenue to offset the cut." The argument is that the tax cut will at least increase revenue enough to pay for itself -- the most extreme form of supply-side thinking.

North Dakota voters will also be taking a look at their income tax this fall. Backers of an income tax rate cut are enthusiastically pushing a plan that offers an average tax cut of just $83 to the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers statewide. What's the big deal? The wealthiest 1 percent of North Dakotans would save an average of over $11,000 per year. And those numbers don't even include the corporate income tax cuts, which are sure to also disproportionately benefit the wealthy. And to make matters worse, the proposal would cost the state over $200 million annually.

And how do backers of this measure justify giving away revenue to the rich? Well, if a tax cut simply pays for itself through supply-side magic, backers hope that the practical, common sense folk of North Dakota won't ask such uncomfortable questions. As one news account explains, "Measure 2 proposes to cut income taxes 50 percent and corporate taxes 15 percent, said Duane Sand of the group Americans for Prosperity [the measure's principal backer]. Sand said the state's tax policies have forced young and old to leave the state. The OMB estimates Measure 2 would cut state revenue about $415 million for the next biennium. That money would be replaced by higher tax collections from increased economic activity, Sand said."

A proposal on the ballot in Massachusetts provides perhaps the most obvious example of the recklessness so often involved in anti-tax ballot initiatives. Massachusetts voters will once again have to decide this November on a proposal to constitutionally end the income tax -- a move that would reduce government revenues by a whopping 40 percent, and would undoubtedly have dire consequences in the form of reduced government services. But while all Massachusetts residents would have to share in the pain of a 40 percent reduction in their government's budget, the wealthy would be the primary beneficiaries of the tax cut, since the income tax is the only major progressive tax levied by the state. Even more alarming is the fact that over 45 percent of Massachusetts voters supported a similar measure in 2002.

Now, even supply-siders would have trouble arguing that reducing a tax to zero can result in increased revenues. (Except that apparently the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representative do believe that about the capital gains tax, as we said in a previous article in this Digest).

But backers of the Massachusetts measure do argue, using supply-side logic, that less taxes will result in so much economic growth that no one will feel the loss of public services that would inevitably result.

Carla Howell, chairperson of the group backing the measure (and Libertarian candidate for governor in 2002) says that "In addition to giving each worker an annual average of $3,700, it will take $12.5 billion out of the hands of Beacon Hill politicians -- and put it back into the hands of the men and women who earned it. Every year. In productive, private hands this $12.5 billion a year will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts."

Actually, this proposal to slash state government revenue by 40 percent is so extreme that even business groups cite a report showing just how devastated infrastructure, education and other services would be if this proposal is approved.

So it seems that many states are on the verge of ruining themselves with the narcotic of supply-side tax economics. If these states fail to resist, then what? Rehabilitation is possible, but it's a long and hard road. Colorado is trying to break free of the mess it created a decade ago when taxes and revenues were strictly suppressed by the so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) that was approved by voters. TABOR poses a serious problem given that the cost of government services sometimes increases at a rate greater than general inflation. Also, another amendment to the state's constitution requires regular increases in education spending. Reconciling these two competing demands proved impossible, and in 2005 Colorado voters temporarily suspended a significant portion of the TABOR requirement.

This year, it appears many Coloradans have finally had enough with having to deal with inadequate government services under the unrealistic TABOR requirements. Voters will have the opportunity to decide on Amendment 59, which would end the automatic refunds to taxpayers used to suppress state revenues, in favor of diverting that money toward education. This effort gives hope to those who realize that public services like schools and roads are the building blocks of a state economy, and that to have these services we have to pay for them. It also should serve as a warning to people in other states where supply-siders are promising voters that they can have their cake and eat it too.


Ballot Initiatives: An Often Crooked Process


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The runup to the 2008 elections has given us plenty of reminders of why direct democracy is generally not the best approach to tax reform. In North Dakota, a typo in the language of a proposed tax cut may actually result in a tax increase for some families. In Nevada, the failure of supporters to properly file thousands of signatures in favor of an (ill-conceived) property tax cap resulted in that measure being thrown off the ballot.

But while both of these rather innocent mistakes are undoubtedly serious, neither is as serious as the rampant dishonesty often involved in the signature collection process. In Arizona, for example, a staggering 42% of signatures for a transportation ballot proposal this year were found to be invalid. In North Dakota, though problem wasn't quite as rampant, one signature collector this week was found guilty of faking potentially hundreds of signatures for their regressive income tax cut.

While there may be compelling reasons rooted in democratic theory for allowing citizens to take matters directly into their own hands, it is also important to remember the benefits of representative democracy. A badly written ballot proposal backed by thousands of fraudulent signatures is hardly an improvement over whatever flaws the legislative process may have. The problems with the initiative process illustrate that there are good reasons for having those who we have elected (and whose salaries we pay) writing our laws.


Ballot Update: Measure on the Ballot in North Dakota Despite Fraudulent Signature Collection


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It's official. When North Dakotans go into the voting booth this fall, they will be faced with a ballot initiative that would cut their state's personal income tax in half and reduce their state's corporate income tax by fifteen percent. The initiative, known as Measure 2, was approved late last month by Secretary of State Al Jaeger, despite the submission of several hundred fraudulent signatures, including at least one from beyond the grave.

While the process by which the initiative made its way onto the ballot may be troubling, its likely impact, should it make it into law, is even more worrisome. North Dakota voters and policymakers alike may be feeling flush due to an oil-boom-fueled budget surplus, but that surplus won't be around forever. The enormous tax cut that Measure 2 would engender, well in excess of $100 million per year, would be forever. Moreover, the vast majority of the tax reductions that Measure 2 would spawn would be realized by the very wealthiest North Dakotans -- at a time when the latest data from the Census Bureau show no improvement in income for the typical North Dakota household or in the state's poverty rate.


Gloom & Boom


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States' collective fiscal outlook appears to be quite dim and could get even darker in the months ahead according to a report released this week by the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL). The report notes that, in the aggregate, states experienced a $40 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2009, a chasm that has been bridged largely through reductions in spending.

Not every state's budget is shrouded in gloom, however. Some states derive significant revenue from severance taxes (taxes imposed on the extraction of natural resources like oil and natural gas) and have economies closely tied to these industries. These states, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Wyoming for example, are enjoying substantial budget surpluses.

Given the volatility of energy markets, these surpluses are likely a temporary phenomenon, but that hasn't stopped states from considering and enacting tax cuts that would permanently reduce revenue. Earlier this year, Louisiana briefly weighed the idea of repealing its income tax altogether, only to settle on an oh-so-modest annual cut of $300 million. North Dakota has not only revived its property tax debate from a few years ago, but may also place on this November's ballot a measure that would slash the personal income tax by 50 percent and the corporate income tax by 15 percent. In this context, a plan backed by West Virginia Republicans to completely exempt groceries from the state sales tax appears far more reasonable in scope - and would certainly help to improve the progressivity of the state's tax system. However, it would still likely leave the Mountain State with inadequate revenues once oil and gas prices come back to earth.

Perhaps the most responsible - and fair - approach to surpluses generated by skyrocketing severance tax revenue comes from New Mexico, where Governor Bill Richardson this past week put forward a proposal to dedicate the majority of the state's projected $400 million surplus to one-time tax rebates and to highway construction. Richardson's proposal does contain some permanent changes in tax law, such as an expansion of the state's working families tax credit, but they appear to be targeted towards those low- and moderate-income taxpayers who are facing the greatest challenges from the nationwide foreclosure crisis and from rising fuel and food prices.


Tax Talk-Back in North Dakota


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"Americans for Prosperity", a national anti-tax organization, has been gathering signatures for an initiative petition that would, if passed, cut the state income tax by 50 percent and the state corporate tax by 15 percent. The group is aiming to put the measure before the people on the November 2008 ballot. This week former North Dakota Lt. Governor Lloyd Omdahl published an editorial criticizing the initiative. Mr. Omdahl noted that North Dakota is already a low-tax state, ranking 37th nationally. More importantly he also pointed out that North Dakota has real education needs and cutting taxes certainly won't provide students with the resources they need to learn. Mr. Omdahl's editorial is commendable for pointing out so succinctly the folly of what he terms a meat axe approach to tax reform.


Sales Taxes and School Districts


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Rural representatives in North Dakota's legislature have started a revolt against local option sales taxes used by some localities to help fund local education.State Rep. Mike Brandenburg argues that the lack of stores in more rural communities forces residents to shop in towns in more affluent districts, increasing the inequality between rich and poor districts.However, his proposed solution, House Bill 1314, may well create more problems than it solves.The bill would require stores to keep track of the home district of any shopper who spends more than $5, so the sales tax revenue can be directed to the shopper's home county.This system would create a huge administrative burden for both businesses and local governments.For a better solution to the problem of funding inequality between counties, North Dakota should consider revenue-sharing programs like those in Minnesota and Vermont.

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