With the exception of New Jersey, the dust has now settled on most state legislatures' 2016 tax policy debates. Many of the conversations that took place in 2016 were quite different than those that occurred over the last few years. Specifically, the tax cutting craze sparked by the election of many anti-tax lawmakers in November 2010 has subsided somewhat—at least for now. For every state that enacted a notable tax cut in 2016, there was another that took the opposite path and opted to raise taxes. And contrary to what you may expect, the distinction between tax-cutting and tax-hiking states did not always break down along traditional partisan lines.
The most significant theme of 2016 was one we've written about before: the plight of energy-dependent states whose budgets have been battered by falling oil and gas prices as well as the growing cost of tax cuts enacted during the "boom" years. In conservative-leaning energy states such as Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, lawmakers raised taxes to help deal with these issues in the short-term, but long-term solutions are still needed.
Tax increases elsewhere were enacted to fund health programs (California), raise teacher salaries (South Dakota), and expand tourism subsidies (Oregon). In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a significant but flawed tax package was enacted to cope with a large general fund revenue shortfall.
On the tax cutting side, the "tax shift" craze was less pronounced than usual this year. Again, however, New Jersey lawmakers may be the exception as they continue to debate a shift toward gas taxes and away from some combination of income, estate, and sales taxes. Moreover, some of the tax cuts that were enacted this year may ultimately set the stage for future "tax shifts," as lawmakers in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee search for ways to fund tax cuts whose full cost won't be felt for many years.
Looking ahead, debates over tax increases in Alaska and Illinois are likely to resume once the November elections have passed. On the other hand, lawmakers in Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and elsewhere are already positioning themselves for tax cut debates in 2017. But before that happens, there are also a significant number of revenue raising ballot proposals to be voted on in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Oregon.
Below is our summary of 2016 state tax happenings, as well as a brief look ahead to 2017.
Louisiana: Tax increases of varied sorts were among the strategies lawmakers employed this year to address billion dollar deficits for FY16 and FY17. The most significant was a one cent increase to the sales tax, a regressive hike that gives the state the highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the country. Given the severity of Louisiana's revenue shortfall, much of the appeal of this approach came from the fact that it could be implemented quickly. But while a higher sales tax will generate hundreds of million of dollars in needed revenue, it is also set to expire in July 2018 and is not a permanent solution to the state's fiscal stress. Over the course of two special sessions, lawmakers also: increased cigarette and alcohol excise taxes; extended, expanded, or reinstated taxes on telecommunications, hotel, and auto rentals; cut vendor discounts; limited deductions and credits that benefit businesses; and increased a tax on the health insurance premiums of managed care organizations. All of these incremental changes buy the state some time in the short-term, but the need for more substantive reform remains.
Oklahoma: To fill the state's $1.3 billion shortfall, Oklahoma lawmakers enacted a number of policy changes that will harm the state's poorest residents and set the state on an unsustainable fiscal path. Oklahoma's 2016-17 budget relied heavily on one-time funds. Lawmakers opted to change the state portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from refundable to non-refundable, meaning that poor families earning too little to owe state income taxes will now be ineligible for the credit. While this will have a noticeable impact on those families' abilities to make ends meet, the $29 million saved as a result of this policy change is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion in revenue lost every year from repeated cuts to the state's income tax. Thankfully, though, cuts to the state’s sales tax relief credit and the child tax credit were prevented, and full elimination of the state EITC was avoided. Lawmakers also capped rebates for the state's "at-risk" oil wells, saving the state over $120 million. On another positive note, Oklahoma lawmakers eliminated a nonsensical law, the state's "double deduction," that allowed Oklahomans to deduct their state income taxes from their state income taxes.
Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania lawmakers avoided broad-based tax changes, largely relying instead on regressive tax options, dubious revenue raisers, and one-time funds—most of which fall hardest on the average Pennsylvanian—to fill the state’s $1.3 billion revenue shortfall. The state’s revenue package draws primarily from expanded sales and excise taxes. In particular, it includes a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase and a tax on smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and other vaping devices along with changes to the state's sale of wine and liquor. State lawmakers also opted to include digital downloads in the sales tax base and put an end to the “vendor discount”—an unnecessary sales tax giveaway that allowed retailers to keep a portion of the tax they collected from their customers.
West Virginia: Lawmakers in West Virginia punted, for the most part, on solving their fiscal problems this year. Instead, they addressed the state’s $270 million shortfall with budget cuts, tobacco tax increases, and one-time funds. The state increased cigarette taxes by $0.65 per pack and will tax electronic cigarettes and vaping liquids. Even with this $98 million revenue gain, shortfalls are not last year’s news. Ill-advised tax cuts and low energy prices will again put pressure on the state’s budget in 2017.
South Dakota: South Dakota lawmakers enacted a half-penny sales tax increase, raising the rate from 4 to 4.5 percent. The increase will fund a pay raise for the state's teachers, who are currently the lowest-paid in the nation. Though they rejected a less regressive plan to raise the same amount of funding by raising the sales tax rate a whole cent and introducing an exemption for grocery purchases, progressive revenue options are very limited in states like South Dakota that lack an income tax, and lawmakers can be applauded for listening to public opinion that consistently favors raising revenues to fund needs like education.
California: This past session, California lawmakers were able to drum up the two-thirds majority support needed to extend and expand the state's health tax levy on managed care organizations. The prior tax expired on July 1, 2016 and was deemed too narrow to continue to comply with federal requirements. By extending the tax to all managed care organizations, California lawmakers were able to preserve access to over $1 billion in federal match money used to fund the state's Medicaid program.
Oregon: Lawmakers approved an increase to Oregon's tourist lodging tax from 1 to 1.8 percent in order to generate more revenue for state tourism funds, specifically to subsidize the World Track and Field Championships to be held in the state in 2021.
Vermont: Vermont’s 2016 revenue package included a few tax changes and a number of fee increases. Tax changes included a 3.3 percent tax on ambulance providers and the conversion of the tax on heating oil, kerosene, and propane to an excise tax of 2 cents per gallon of fuel. The move from a price-based tax to one based on consumption was meant to offset the effect of record low fuel prices.
Mississippi: Mississippi lawmakers made some of the most irresponsible fiscal policy decisions in the country this year. For one, they opted to plug their growing transportation funding shortfall with borrowed money rather than raising the necessary revenue. And at the same time, despite those funding needs and the fact that tax cuts enacted in recent years caused a revenue shortfall and painful funding cuts this very session, legislators enacted an extremely costly new round of regressive tax cuts and delayed the worst of the impacts for several years. By kicking these two cans down the road at once, lawmakers have avoided difficult decisions while putting future generations of Mississippians and their representatives in a major fiscal bind.
Tennessee: Tennessee legislators, who already oversee one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation, nonetheless opted to slash the state's Hall Tax on investment and interest income. The Hall Tax is one of the few progressive features of its tax system. After much debate over whether to reduce, eliminate, or slowly phase out the tax, an unusual compromise arose that will reduce the rate from 6 to 5 percent next year and repeal the tax entirely by 2022. While the stated "legislative intent" of the bill is to implement the phase-out gradually, no specific schedule has been set, essentially ensuring five more years of similar debates and/or a difficult showdown in 2021.
New York: New York lawmakers approved a personal income tax cut that will cost approximately $4 billion per year. The plan, which is geared toward couples earning between $40,000 and $300,000 a year, will drop tax rates ranging from 6.45 to 6.65 percent down to 5.5 percent. The tax cut will be phased-in between 2018 and 2025. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the plan “is not being paid for” since its delayed start date pushes its cost outside of the current budget window.
Florida: The legislative session in the Sunshine State began with two competing $1 billion tax-cut packages and ended with a much more modest result. In the end, the state made permanent a costly-but-sensible sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment, reduced its sales tax holiday down to three days, and updated its corporate income tax to conform with federal law, along with several other minor changes. Ultimately, the plan is expected to reduce state revenues by about $129 million. The legislature also increased state aid to schools, which is expected to reduce local property taxes and bring the total size of the tax cuts to $550 million if those local reductions are included.
North Carolina: Billed as a "middle-class" tax cut, North Carolina lawmakers enacted an increase in the state's standard deduction from $15,500 to $17,500 (married couples). This new cut comes on top of four years of tax changes that are slowly but surely moving the state away from relying on its personal income tax and towards a heavier reliance on consumption taxes.
Rhode Island: While an increase in the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) from 12.5 to 15 percent of the federal credit was a bright spot in Rhode Island this year, lawmakers also found less than ideal ways to cut taxes. Specifically, they pared back the corporate minimum tax to $400, down from $450 in 2016 and $500 the year before. The state will also now provide a tax break for pension/annuity income for retirees who have reached their full Social Security age. It exempts the first $15,000 of income for those earning up to $80,000 or $100,000, depending on filing status.
Hawaii: Hawaii legislators made changes to their state's Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit this year, slightly expanding the credit by altering the method for determining the percentage of qualifying child care expenses.
Oregon: Lawmakers increased the state's Earned Income Tax Credit from 8 to 11 percent for families with dependents under 3 years old. Qualifying families will be able to claim this larger credit starting in tax year 2017.
Arizona: There was much talk of tax reform in Arizona this year. Gov. Doug Ducey expressed interest in a tax shift that would phase out the income tax over time and replace it with a regressive hike in the state's sales tax. That plan, thankfully, did not come to fruition this year. Rather, state lawmakers enacted a grab bag of (mostly business) tax cuts, including an expansion of bonus depreciation and sales and use tax exemptions for manufacturing.
Stalled Tax Debates Likely to Resume in 2017
Alaska: Faced with a multi-billion revenue hole, state lawmakers weighed and ultimately punted on a range of revenue raising options—including, most notably, the reinstatement of a personal income tax for the first time in 35 years. Notably, however, Gov. Bill Walker did scale back the state's Permanent Fund dividend payout through the use of his veto pen.
Georgia: Ambitious plans to flatten or even eliminate Georgia's income tax ultimately stalled as advocates showed (PDF) these measures would have amounted to enormous giveaways to the state's wealthiest residents, drained $2 billion in funding for state services over five years, and even threatened the state's AAA bond rating.
Idaho: Lawmakers in the House enthusiastically passed a bill that cut the top two income tax rates and gave the grocery credit a small bump, but the bill stalled in the Senate where lawmakers were more interested in addressing education funding than a tax break for the state's wealthiest residents.
Illinois: After a year of gridlock, Illinois lawmakers passed a stopgap budget. Unfortunately, this "budget" amounts to no more than a spending plan as it is untethered from actual revenue figures or projections. Its main purpose is to delay the work of much needed revenue reform until after the November election.
Indiana: An effort to address long-standing needs for infrastructure improvement in Indiana resulted in lawmakers abandoning all proposals to raise new revenue, relying instead on a short-term plan of shifting general revenue to the state highway fund. Over the next two years this change will generate some $230 million in "new money" for transportation projects at the expense of other critical public services.
Maryland: Maryland lawmakers rejected two tax packages that included more bad elements than good. While the plans included an innovative expansion of the state's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless low- and middle-income working families, this valuable reform would have been paired with income tax cuts that would have unnecessarily benefitted the very wealthiest.
What Lies Ahead?
Key Tax-Related Measures on the Ballot in November
California: State officials have announced that seventeen (and possibly more) initiatives will appear on California's ballot this November. Among them are several tax initiatives, including extending the current income tax rates on high-income earners, raising the cigarette tax by $2 per pack, and the implementation of state, and potentially local, taxation on the sale of marijuana if legalized.
Colorado: A campaign is underway to gather the signatures required to place a proposal to raise tobacco taxes on the ballot this November. The measure would raise the tax on cigarettes from $0.84 to $2.59 per pack and increase the tax on other tobacco products by 22 percent. If approved, the proposal would raise $315 million each year for disease prevention and treatment and other health initiatives.
Maine: The Stand up for Students campaign is behind a ballot measure in Maine that would enact a 3 percent income tax surcharge on taxable income above $200,000. If approved, the additional tax would bring in well over $150 million annually to boost support for K-12 classroom instruction.
Missouri: Three tax-related questions will be posed to Missouri voters in November. Two are competing tobacco tax increase measures of 23 and 60 cents per pack. The third measure would prevent state lawmakers from reforming their sales tax by expanding its base to include services in addition to currently taxed tangible goods.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma state question 779, to increase Oklahoma's sales tax 1 cent to fund teacher pay increases and other educational expenses, will appear on the state's ballot this November.
Oregon: Voters in Oregon will have the final say on a proposal to increase taxes on corporations this fall. Measure 97 (previously known as IP-28) would increase the state's corporate minimum tax for businesses with annual Oregon sales over $25 million. Under current law, corporations pay the greater of a tax on income (6.6 percent on income up to $1 million and 7.6 percent on income above $1 million) or a minimum tax on sales ($150 to $100,000). Measure 97 would eliminate the $100,000 cap on the sales-based portion of corporate minimum tax and apply a 2.5 percent rate to sales above $25 million. If passed the measure would generate $3 billion in new revenue earmarked specifically to education, health care, and services for senior citizens.
Laying the Groundwork for Significant Tax Cuts, Tax Shifts, and Tax Reform in 2017:
The saying "after the calm comes the storm" may prove true for state tax policy debates next year. Lawmakers in more than 20 states have already begun to lay the groundwork for major tax changes in 2017, most with an eye towards cutting personal income taxes and possibly increasing reliance on consumption taxes. Lawmakers in energy dependent states including Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia and New Mexico will need to continue to find long-term revenue solutions to their growing revenue problems. Illinois and Washington lawmakers will also be debating significant revenue raising options. Governors in Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona and Maryland will take the lead on tax cutting (and possibly income tax elimination) proposals. Mississippi lawmakers are currently meeting to discuss ways to shift the state's reliance on income taxes towards "user- based" taxes (i.e. regressive consumptions taxes). And, Kansas lawmakers will likely revisit the disastrous tax changes under Governor Brownback.