South Carolina News


State Rundown 3/22: Springtime Tax Debates Blossom Nationwide


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This week in state tax news saw major changes debated in Hawaii and West Virginia and proposed in North Carolina, a harmful flat tax proposal in Georgia, new ideas for ignoring revenue shortfalls in Mississippi and Nebraska, an unexpected corporate tax proposal from the governor of Louisiana, gas tax bills advance in South Carolina and Tennessee, and property tax troubles in Missouri, Nevada, and New Jersey.

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

  • The North Carolina Senate has released its preferred tax plan, a billion dollar so-called “middle-class” tax cut featuring a drop in the state’s personal and corporate income tax rates and other reductions.  An ITEP analysis found the top 20 percent of North Carolinians would receive nearly half of the personal income tax cuts under the proposal despite lawmakers claiming the cuts are targeted to low- and middle-income taxpayers.  The Senate’s proposal would come on top of years of tax cuts in the Tarheel state that have already reduced revenues by more than $2 billion annually.
  • Louisiana's Gov. Bel Edwards is out with a surprising proposal in advance of the state's legislative session--scrap the state's corporate and franchise taxes and adopt instead a Gross Receipts Tax (like in Ohio). This proposal comes from left field, a very different direction from reforms suggested by many groups, including the governor's own Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget & Tax Policy. More details are expected to be released next week.
  • Legislators in West Virginia are taking up an extreme constitutional amendment resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 8, this week that would, among other things, repeal the state's personal property tax, alter the real property tax, apply limitations to the personal income tax, and limit excise, sales and use, and corporate net income taxes. Under the resolution, three-fifths majority vote in each house would be needed to reinstate any repealed tax.
  • Sources in Georgia report that the latest change to a harmful regressive income tax cut bill there creates a larger nonrefundable credit to deliver more help to low- and middle-income residents and those without children who were overlooked in the original bill. But the heart of the bill remains a flat 5.4 percent income tax that slashes taxes on the wealthy while raising them for many lower-income people and reducing revenue for education and other priorities by hundreds of millions.
  • After crossover, Hawaii legislators are still considering over a dozen tax change bills. Proposals include establishing a state earned income tax credit, reinstating high income tax brackets that were repealed in 2015, and changes to low-income credits. Lawmakers are also weighing possible tax increases to fund the state highway system, including a tax based on car value and fuel tax increases.
  • Nebraska lawmakers dead set on massive income tax cuts are trying to get creative to get them passed despite the state's billion-dollar shortfall and general focus on property taxes. The latest idea floated is to repackage an existing property tax credit and then phase in the income tax cuts in future years using an arbitrary "trigger" mechanism.
  • Mississippi's shortfall in its Medicaid budget is still $89 million with just a few months to go in the fiscal year and a key legislative deadline coming up this weekend. Lawmakers are now considering simply not paying health providers for several weeks to push the problem off until next year.
  • Tennessee legislators have reverted back to Gov. Haslam's original regressive tax shift plan, which is now advancing through committees in both houses, after failing to replace it with a raid of the general fund for infrastructure needs.
  • A bill to raise South Carolina's gas taxes and vehicle fees to shore up that state's infrastructure needs is likely to pass the legislature soon, but could be vetoed by Gov. McMaster.
  • New Jersey's property tax cap may be revised this year because it is hamstringing local budgets to such an extent that they cannot qualify for state and federal matching funds for local services like public safety needs.
  • Efforts to reform Nevada's property tax cap that has been undermining local budgets have shifted from various band-aid fixes to a likely study committee to seek solutions over the summer.
  • The Missouri House advanced a bill mentioned in this space last week to eliminate a property tax circuit breaker that helps low-income seniors remain in their homes.
  • Alabama is seeking to modernize its tax structure to include streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and music services.
  • In an effort to make money managers pay their fair share, Rhode Island legislators have introduced legislation to tax carried interest income the same as earned income.
  • In Texas, a bill to limit the increase of local government budgets has passed the Senate and is expected to receive support of the House. Senate Bill 2 would limit county and local government budget increases to 5 percent annually as a way to limit property tax increases. Any increase above 5 percent would trigger an automatic vote.
  • Seventy percent of New Jerseyans polled were in favor of raising taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to restore pension funds the legislature has failed to make adequate contributions to for years.

What We're Reading...  

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


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


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

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

Major Tax Overhauls Being Debated

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

Varied Responses to Revenue Shortfalls

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

Reconsidering Tax Breaks

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

Transportation Funding Needs

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

Consumption Taxes and More

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

 Governors' State of the State Addresses

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

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 3/8: Much Ado About Consumption Taxes


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This week brings more news of states considering reforms to their consumption taxes, on everything from gasoline in South Carolina and Tennessee, to marijuana in Pennsylvania, to groceries in Idaho and Utah, and to practically everything in West Virginia. Meanwhile, the fiscal fallout of Kansas's failed ‘tax experiment’ has new consequences as the state’s Supreme Court found the state is unconstitutionally underfunding public schools. Make sure to check out our "What We're Reading" section, which is chock full this week with recent research on Earned Income Tax Credits, state and local responses to budget woes and federal uncertainty, and more.

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

  • Legislative attempts in West Virginia to restructure the state’s tax system, replacing the state’s personal income, corporate income, and sales and use taxes with an 8 percent general consumption tax, are expected to cost at least $610 million a year as currently structured. The state’s fiscal note warns of potential unintended consequences of the tax shift, such as increased taxes on business inputs and consumers evading the higher tax rate on goods and services. That being said, the state is looking for ways to move forward with income tax repeal.
  • Kansas lawmakers return from recess with the added pressure to enact substantive tax reform due to a state Supreme Court ruling that the state is not adequately investing in public education. The state has until June 30 to present a satisfactory plan. As lawmakers continue to work on tax reform, the Senate has clearly indicated that Gov. Brownback's proposals will not be in the mix.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's "IMPROVE Act," which combined a needed gas tax update to generate revenue for roads with an unneeded package of tax cuts, may be falling apart. A subcommittee this week replaced the gas tax component of the bill with a sales tax redirection that essentially raids the state's general fund budget for the money needed for roads, while also cutting taxes that go into the general fund. Gov. Haslam is still pushing to get the gas tax provision of the bill restored. Polls show public opinion on the plan is mixed, though more informed respondents are more supportive.
  • South Carolina is setting a better example for what to do when a gas tax falls far behind the times and is no longer bringing in adequate revenue for the state's infrastructure costs, as the House voted this week to approve raising the rate by 10 cents over five years without tacking on other tax cuts or siphoning off funding from other priorities. The Senate may begin debate on the bill next week, though a filibuster attempt is expected.
  • Pennsylvania's auditor general suggests the state consider regulating and taxing marijuana to close its budget gap. By doing so, the state could bring in $200 million a year.
  • West Virginia's Gov. Jim Justice weighs a state tax on sugary sodas as companies in Pennsylvania (namely, Pepsi) fight against Philadelphia's recent tax increase.
  • Lawmakers in Idaho are hoping to get a hearing on a bill that would eliminate the sales tax on food along with the state's grocery tax credit. Efforts to do the reverse in Utahreinstate the sales tax on food and enact offsetting tax credits for low-income households—will have to wait for another legislative session.
  • It's potentially a big season for sales and excise tax policy in New Mexico. Amazon will start collecting sales taxes in April, the Senate passed a bill that would raise the gas tax for the first time in 20 years, and lawmakers are considering a $1.50 per pack increase on cigarettes to fund education.
  • More than three-fourths of Florida residents polled are against a proposed corporate tax cut, preferring to keep the tax and devote the revenue to education. Of course, that didn't stop Gov. Scott from proposing more tax cuts in his annual address.
  • Despite the state's $1.7 billion projected deficit, democratic lawmakers in Connecticut are lining up in support of a full exemption of social security income. The plan is expected to cost $45 million a year.

 Governors' State of the State Addresses

  • Governor Scott of Florida gave his address on Tuesday. Most governors have now given their addresses for the year. The next scheduled address is Gov. Kasich of Ohio on April 4, with Gov. Carney of Delaware and Gov. Cooper of North Carolina's speech dates still to be announced.

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 2/8: Lessons of Kansas Tax-Cut Disaster Taking Hold in Kansas, Still Lost on Some in Other States


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This week we bring news of Kansas lawmakers attempting to fix ill-advised tax cuts that have wreaked havoc on the state's budget and schools, while their counterparts in Nebraska and Idaho debate bills that would create similar problems for their own states, as well as tax cuts in Arkansas that were proven unaffordable within one day of being signed into law. Meanwhile, debates over online sales taxes, Earned Income Tax Credits, and gas tax updates to fund transportation needs continue around the country.

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

  • Kansas lawmakers in both chambers are considering bills this week to roll back Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts primarily via reforming the personal income tax, including repealing the exemption for business pass-through income and raising personal income tax rates in the Senate and a more comprehensive tax reform plan in the House.
  • Nebraska's Revenue Committee will conduct a hearing on Gov. Rickett's proposal to use a trigger mechanism to cut income taxes for the state's wealthiest residents this week. Last week, the committee was presented with two alternatives to slashing taxes on the rich by instead increasing the state's Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Idaho lawmakers in the House passed bills cutting the corporate and top personal income tax rates and raising the exemption levels for the business personal property tax. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
  • Alabama lawmakers joined the list of states looking to cut income taxes this year.   
  • Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed his $50.5 million tax cut  into law last Wednesday. The following day, the governor told several agencies to prepare contingency plans for budget cuts as the latest revenue reports came in $57 million behind forecast.
  • The Mississippi House has advanced a bill to enforce sales tax collection on online sales and divvy up the revenue with 70 percent going to state roads and other needs, 15 percent to counties, and 15 percent to cities. The need for such a fix is highlighted by the fact that even though Amazon is now collecting sales taxes on its own transactions in the state, many transactions hosted by the site are still not covered. Meanwhile, Tennessee's rule to require such collections has been challenged, adding to the pressure for a new court ruling on the matter.
  • Michigan lawmakers are considering bills to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed increasing the state's Earned Income Tax Credit for families with one child. Walker decreased the credit six years ago.
  • Wyoming lawmakers are faced with the need to diversify their tax base. Some have already begun considering revenue options: the House recently passed a cigarette tax increase that would increase a pack of cigarettes from $0.60/pack to $0.90/pack.
  • State legislators in both New York and Pennsylvania are pushing back against recent local tax initiatives: the New York City bag tax and the Philadelphia soda tax.
  • A proposal to update the South Carolina gas tax, raising $600 million per year for the state's transportation needs through a 10-cent per gallon increase and other fee changes, has advanced from the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • Tennessee Gov. Haslam's proposal to raise the state's gas tax while slashing other taxes has received criticism lately, as has an alternative plan to divert sales tax revenues away from general fund needs to plug the hole in the transportation fund.
  • Missouri private school advocates are pushing a bill to circumvent the state's prohibition on state money funding religious schools by creating a tax credit for donations to private schools. Read about how these programs are costly and frequently abused in our report here.

Governors’ Budget Watch

  • Faced with an $868 million shortfall, Oklahoma's Gov. Mary Fallin delivered her state of the state address this week. Proposed tax changes include replacing the state corporate income tax with increases in fuel, tobacco, and sales taxes. While details of the sales tax base broadening have not been released, Fallin has called for elimination of the state sales tax on groceries.
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released his budget proposal this week. As he promised, it was void of any broad-based tax increases. Rather, state spending cuts and a proposal to tax natural-gas drilling are among the ways in which he plans to fill the state's $3 billion shortfall.
  • Today Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy is scheduled to unveil his two-year budget proposal. Faced with a $1.7 billion deficit, the plan will likely include a call to eliminate the state's $200 property tax credit and a requirement for cities and towns to pay a third of the annual cost for teacher pensions.
  • Alabama Gov. Bentley proposed studying and ultimately eliminating the state sales tax on groceries, increasing prison construction to deal with overcrowding, and increasing the state's investment in pre-K education in his address this week.

Governors' State of the State Addresses

  • In the past week, Governors Bentley of Alabama, LePage of Maine, Fallin of Oklahoma, and Wolf of Pennsylvania delivered their State of the State addresses.
  • States with addresses scheduled through the end of next week are: Kentucky and West Virginia, both scheduled for today.

What We're Reading...

  • As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) details in two new reports, state lawmakers are increasingly turning to tax cut phase-ins and triggers as ways to take credit for cutting taxes without having to face the full consequences for years, decades, or in the case of term-limited lawmakers, maybe never.
  • A new report by Ohio Policy Matters uses ITEP research to dig into Gov. John Kasich's tax plan, finding that it would, once again, shift taxes and worsen inequality.
  • Pew Trusts explores the various reasons behind declining state populations in recent years.
  • The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy released a report that provides an overview on how refugees and immigrants are important to the state's economy.
  • The Georgia Budget and Policy Center released two reports showing the importance of immigrants to Georgia's state and local economies and budgets.

 

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


States Kick Can Down Crumbling Road on Transportation Funding


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Three states – Indiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia – started the year on the right foot, looking at serious proposals to raise new revenue for severely underfunded transportation construction and maintenance funds. Sadly, legislators in all three states embraced partial solutions or punted entirely, preferring short-term fixes at the expense of other budget priorities.

South Carolina lawmakers had the chance to pass a significant tax package that would increase revenue for road repairs. In January, the state’s Senate Finance Committee considered a plan that would raise revenue by $694 million annually through a phased-in 12-cent increase in the gas excise tax, along with other transportation-related fee increases. Those increases would then be offset with a combination of $398 million annually in "broad-based" income tax cuts (bracket expansion and rate reductions on the top and bottom brackets), "targeted" income tax cuts (creation of a 3.5 percent refundable EITC and expansions of a few other credits), and some reduction of business property taxes. The offsets were a requirement of Gov. Nikki Haley, who vowed to veto any bill without them. The net effect of this plan would have been somewhat regressive and would have been much worse without the EITC.

However, the unwieldy package that tried to appeal to all legislators was undone by its complexity. For example, the EITC intended to attract progressive lawmakers repelled more conservative lawmakers. After weeks of delay in the Senate and a filibuster, the backers of the more ambitious package caved. Senators instead passed a measure to raid the general fund for more road money, jeopardizing other priorities and failing to solve the state’s structural funding issues. House Speaker Jay Lucas was not pleased. “This plan kicks the can further down the road and into a giant pothole,” he decried. “It's not really a new idea, and it's not a solution.” Gov. Haley has urged House lawmakers to accept the Senate’s $400 million punt, but also acknowledged that the state needs a long-term fix.

The debate in West Virginia followed a similar pattern, but began with more urgency due to the ongoing fiscal challenge there. A global downturn in energy markets has hit West Virginia and many other states reliant on oil and gas revenues hard in the pocketbook. Just last week, revenue forecasts for the state were downgraded by $92 million, adding to the $354 million shortfall that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and lawmakers have been grappling with since January.

Gov. Tomblin began the legislative session by calling for new tax increases to close the budget gap, including an increase in the cigarette tax of 45-cents-per-pack, a new tax on e-cigarettes and a 6 percent sales tax on telecommunications. A Senate bill, SB 555, would have increased the gas tax by 3-cents-per-gallon, the sales tax rate by 1 percent and various vehicle fees and taxes to send more money to the State Road Fund. The Senate proposal would have increased revenue by $290 million annually.

State lawmakers have been unable to come to an agreement on how to solve the budget crisis or raise new revenue for roads. After the release of the gloomy revenue numbers, Gov. Tomblin announced that the legislative session would end with no budget at all. Lawmakers are expected to reconvene later this spring.

Indiana lawmakers followed a familiar script this legislative session. There, the most ambitious proposal belonged to state Rep. Ed Soliday. His plan, HB 1001, would have earmarked excess general funds and gasoline excise taxes for transportation infrastructure, allowed counties and municipalities to levy motor vehicle surtax and wheel taxes, and allowed some portion of local income tax revenues to be used for roads/bridges. The bill would have increased revenue by raising the gas tax, special fuel tax, and motor carrier surcharge tax. It also would have increased the cigarette tax to $1.995 per pack to pay for Medicaid (to offset the general fund revenues now earmarked for infrastructure). Soliday’s proposal was later amended by his House colleagues to include expanded tolls and an income tax cut for non-corporate taxpayers.

Unfortunately, HB 1001 was stripped of most of its revenue raising components once it moved to the Senate. The final bill allowed the earmarking of general fund and gasoline excise taxes to transportation and includes the provision allowing local jurisdictions to levy vehicle surtaxes and wheel taxes. But instead of increasing state revenue, the final bill relies on shifts and transfers,  including transferring surplus general revenue funds to the state highway fund, which over the next two years will generate less than $230 million in “new money” for transportation funding at the expense of other critical state investments. Gov. Mike Pence praised the final measure as short-term benefit for the state, but the bill is far less than the $1 billion investment in transportation infrastructure he initially sought. 


2016 State Tax Policy Trends: Addressing Poverty and Inequality Through Tax Breaks for Working Families


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

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

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

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

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

Enacting state EITCs:   

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

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

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

Enhancing state EITCs:   

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

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

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

Protecting state EITCs:  

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

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

 


2016 State Tax Policy Trends: Shifty Tax Proposals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Shifts for Transportation a Bridge to Nowhere

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

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

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

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

Up Next

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

 


State Rundown 1/28: Taxes Up For Debate


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


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


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

  

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


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


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


What to Watch for in 2016 State Tax Policy: Part 1


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State legislative sessions are about to begin in earnest.We expect tax policies to get major playin statehouses across the nation this year with many states facing revenue surpluses for the first time in years and others having to grapple with closing significant deficits. Regardless, officials should focus on policies that create fairer, more sustainable state tax systems and avoid policies that undermine public investments.

ITEP this year once again will be taking a hard, analytic look at tax policy proposals and legislation in the states. This is the first in a six-part blog series providing analyses on the implications of policy proposals, as well as thoughtful commentary on best policy practices.

 Part 2: Revenue Surpluses May Prompt Tax Cut Proposals

In some states, economies have recovered well since the economic downturn, and lawmakers are considering spending surpluses on tax cuts instead of providing much-needed boosts to public investments that were scaled back during the recession. The economic recovery has been uneven, however, and some states that find their economies still struggling or newly sputtering may consider tax cuts on high-income residents under the misguided premise that tax cuts at the top trickle-down and stimulate economic growth.

One trend we expect to see is tax cuts that take effect in small increments over a very long period based on revenue performance or some other automatic "trigger." The effect of these incremental cuts is to push the brunt of revenue losses into the future. Another trend is to move toward single-rate income taxes, negating the chief advantage of the income tax: its ability to reduce tax unfairness by requiring people with higher incomes to pay higher rates and those with less income to pay lower rates. Keep an eye in 2016 on Georgia where there is a proposal to cut and flatten the income tax and then further reduce it in future years based on automatic triggers.

Part 3: Revenue Shortfalls Create Opportunities for Meaningful Tax Reform

A number of states including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, New Mexico, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming are grappling with current and future year revenue shortfalls. Pressed for revenue, we anticipate that some states may turn largely to spending cuts or more regressive and less sustainable tax options (like a small hike in the cigarette tax) to close their budget gaps. The scale of the problem in many of these states could also present a real opportunity for lawmakers to debate and enact reform-minded tax proposals that could raise needed revenue, improve tax fairness, and craft more sustainable state tax systems for the future. 

The most significant revenue downturns and best opportunities for reform are in states dependent on oil and gas tax revenue, most notably Alaska and Louisiana. Alaska Governor Bill Walker unveiled a proposal in December that would among other things bring back a personal income tax. Louisiana's new governor, John Bel Edwards, will call a special session next month to pitch short- and long-term revenue raising ideas, including much-needed reforms to the state's income tax. We are also watching Illinois and Pennsylvania where lawmakers are now more than seven months overdue on putting together a budget for the current fiscal year, largely over disagreements on how to find needed revenue to pay for public investments.

Part 4: Tax Shifts in All Shapes and Sizes

Tax shifts, which reduce or eliminate reliance on one tax and replace it with another source, are one bad policy idea we expect to continue to rear its ugly head. The most common tax shifts in recent years have sought to eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and make up the lost revenue with an expanded sales tax. Such proposals result in a dramatic reduction in taxes for the wealthy while hiking them on low- and middle-income households, increasing the unfairness of state tax systems and exacerbating already growing income inequality.

Lawmakers in Mississippi  and Arizona  have expressed support for lowering and eliminating income taxes. Changing political and revenue pictures in both of these states could lead to lawmakers finally making good on their promises in 2016. Also watch for smaller scale shifts like a plan in New Jersey where lawmakers want to pair a much needed increase in the state’s gas tax with an elimination of the estate tax to “offset” the tax hike.

 Part 5: Addressing Poverty and Inequality Through Tax Breaks for Working Families

In 2016, we expect states to focus on a range of policies to support working families, building off the momentum of their 2015 reforms and national dialogue on poverty and income inequality. In particular, developments to enact or improve state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) are likely in a dozen states across the country. For instance, Louisiana’s new governor John Bel Edwards called for doubling the state EITC as part of his commitment to reduce poverty. Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, called to accelerate the planned EITC increase. Delaware lawmakers are looking to take a step forward by making the state’s EITC refundable, but unfortunately are also considering a drop in the percentage of the credit.

Tax breaks for working families may also appear as proposals to provide targeted cuts to offset regressive tax increases in states where lawmakers plan to raise revenue. We suggest also keeping an eye on working family tax break proposals in the following states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Part 6: Overdue Increases in Transportation Funding

The recent momentum toward improvements in funding for transportation infrastructure is likely to continue in 2016. Governors in states such as Alabama, California, and Missouri have voiced support for gasoline tax increases, and gas taxes seem to be on the table in Indiana and Louisiana as well. These discussions on a vital source of funding for infrastructure improvements are long-overdue, as many of these states haven’t updated their gas taxes for decades

But not all transportation funding ideas being discussed are worth celebrating. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, has proposed that additional infrastructure funding come from diverting significant revenues away from education, health care, and other services. Meanwhile, lawmakers in other states (Mississippi, New Jersey, and South Carolina) would like to leverage a gas tax increase to slash income or estate taxes for high-income households. While these plans would result in more funding for transportation, their overall effect would be to worsen the unfairness and unsustainability of these states' tax codes.


State Rundown 11/20: Incentives, Deficits and Unexpected Windfalls


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Oklahoma officials want an independent review of business incentives that cost the state more than $355 million each year. A new law that took effect at the beginning of this month established an Incentive Evaluation Commission charged with looking at tax credits, deductions, expenditures, rebates, grants and loans intended to promote business relocation and expansion. Under the law, each business incentive will be reviewed every four years. Currently, just two incentives – the Investment/New Jobs Tax Credit and the Quality Jobs Program – account for over $180 million in lost revenue for the state, and have failed to meet rosy job creation projections. State Auditor Inspector Gary Jones is cautiously optimistic about the independent review process, saying, “Some of these things ought to be eliminated….The problem is, you’re leaving so much to people whose jobs depend on campaign contributions.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who recently abandoned his bid for the presidency, returns to a state in budget turmoil. Louisiana’s budget officials predict the state faces a deficit of $370 million after downgrading their projections for 2015-2016 fiscal year revenue. The shortfall is due to freefalling oil and gas prices as well as anemic business tax collections. The state must also contend with a $117 million deficit from last fiscal year that has yet to be addressed. This mid-year deficit is the eighth time in Jindal’s eight years in office that revenue has come in under projections. There will likely be cuts to critical services. Both of the candidates vying to replace Jindal have said they will call a special session in 2016 to deal with the budget and revenue crisis.

Improved budget numbers in South Carolina have caused some officials to question whether the state needs to raise its gasoline excise tax – last increased over 26 years ago. Forecasters say the state will see an additional $1.2 billion next year in unallocated money and new tax revenues. State Sen. Tom Davis says that rather than increase the gas tax, road repairs should be funded with this unexpected revenue.  Of course, funding long-term infrastructure projects with what appears to be a one-time windfall will create sustainability problems down the road.  In the last session, Haley attempted to use the push for a gas tax increase as an opportunity to enact a significant income tax cut for high-income households. A similar “tax shift” will likely be on the table once again during the upcoming session.


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 5/11: Deadlock and Infighting


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Kansas lawmakers continue to clash with Gov. Sam Brownback over the efficacy of his tax break on business pass-through income, this time in the House. State Rep. Mark Hutton says the measure was passed to boost the economy, and that the record shows the tax cut hasn’t paid off. His concerns echo those of Senate Pres. Susan Wagle, who pointed out that her constituents are concerned the tax break isn’t fair, since owners of businesses can avoid income taxes while their employees cannot. The Chair of the House Taxation Committee, Rep. Marvin Kleeb, has stated that lawmakers never intended that small business owners would have no income tax liability, and that changes should be considered. Meanwhile, public schools in the state continue to cut programs and shed jobs, and legislators hold out hope the governor will present a coherent strategy for dealing with the budget shortfall.

The budget negotiations in Minnesota continue, though lawmakers have reached the last full week of the regular legislative session. After Gov. Mark Dayton released his budget proposal, Conservative lawmakers in the House passed over $2 billion in unwise tax cuts. Gov. Dayton expressed his willingness to consider the House’s personal income tax exemption and a some additional exemptions for Social Security income, but held firm on his opposition to proposed business tax cuts, calling them a bait-and-switch: “You put out the favorable item, in this case middle-income tax cuts,” Dayton argued, “and then you switch that to eliminating the estate tax on millionaires and billionaires and then permanent business property tax relief that goes on and on after the middle-income tax cut falls away.” The governor, meanwhile, called for permanent investments in education in his budget, including $343 million for universal pre-kindergarten that the House and Senate budget proposals did not include. Some legislators, like Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, want to tie agreement on any tax cut proposals to a transportation package that raises new revenue for road construction and maintenance.

 

Following Up:
South Carolina: Political observers in the Palmetto State feel that Gov. Nikki Haley’s hard-line stance on road funding could prove costly. Some legislators have grumbled that the governor’s transportation plan is unrealistic and that she should work with lawmakers instead of demonizing them.

Nebraska: State senators passed a six cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax, which Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed immediately. The gas tax bill passed just four votes shy of a veto-proof majority, and its sponsors say they are confident they can override the governor’s veto since eight senators didn’t vote at all. Gov. Ricketts wants the legislature to give his newly-appointed roads director time to come up with an alternative.

States Ending Session This Week:
Missouri (Friday)

 


State Rundown 5/8: Legislators Make Deficit Sausage


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Conservative leaders in the South Carolina Senate proposed a road funding bill Thursday that reforms the Department of Transportation (DOT), increases the gas tax and reduces income taxes – all measures that Gov. Nikki Haley insisted must be in any funding package she signs. The measure increases the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over three years, ties the gas tax to inflation and prohibits it from rising higher than gas taxes in Georgia or North Carolina. The bill raises $400 million for roads in the short term and $800 million after five years. The bill also gives the governor near-complete control over the DOT through the power to appoint the Department’s board of directors. Income taxes would be cut across the board by one percent over five years, but would be delayed if economic growth is lower than expected. The plan is in direct contrast to the proposal passed by the Senate Finance Committee last week, which would increase gas taxes and other fees without reforming the DOT or cutting income taxes.

A new study from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center blasts another hole in the myth that state tax cuts are a recipe for economic success.  After closely examining a 2008 study that claimed tax cuts could benefit state economies, the authors attempted to replicate the results and found they were “not robust” in more recent years.  Instead, the study concludes that low state income tax rates, or low taxes in general, are unrelated to economic growth across states.

Bad news in the Badger state: new revenue estimates in Wisconsin have confirmed the dismal outlook for the state’s budget, making the adoption of Gov. Scott Walker’s austerity cuts to higher education more likely. Legislators were hoping the new estimates would point to increased tax revenue, but the numbers show that Walker’s tax cuts have evaporated the state’s surplus. The Wisconsin Budget Project has pointed out that legislators have other options, among them accepting federal Medicaid dollars, halting the expansion of ineffective tax cuts, and capping a tax break for manufacturers.

Gov. Paul LePage and Maine lawmakers in favor of eliminating the state’s income tax have shifted tactics away from using negotiations over the budget to push their agenda and toward a constitutional amendment. The proposal currently before legislators would eliminate the state income tax by 2020 and requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate, as well as ratification by Maine voters. It faces a long road in the legislature. Meanwhile, the Maine Center on Economic Policy argues that eliminating the income tax would be a boon for the wealthy and would fail to promote economic growth.

Alabama legislators moved in the direction of common sense this week. First, lawmakers decided to abandon a proposal to replace the state’s currently regressive income tax structure with an even worse flat tax. At the same time, conservative legislators announced their willingness to increase taxes on cigarettes and large businesses and fees for car titling and renting in order to address a budget deficit. While the proposed fees and taxes are mostly regressive, they are a step toward a better budget. An even bigger step would be if legislators considered the plan put forward by Gov. Robert Bentley, which would increase revenues by a far larger magnitude. 

 


State Rundown 5/4: Road Money and Budget Gaps


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A complex Michigan ballot initiative that would increase various taxes to fund roads, public transit, K-12 education and local governments is a sound idea that, unfortunately, is unpopular among the state’s voters. The measure, Proposal 1, would increase the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent for education, and increase the gas tax and vehicle registration taxes to fund transportation. The measure also includes a provision to improve the EITC. An analysis of the plan estimates it would raise about $1.8 billion annually. The bottom fifth of Michigan taxpayers would receive an average tax cut of $24, while earners in the state’s top bracket would pay an average of $497 to $697 more. Given that Michiganders spend more than $686 a year on vehicle repairs thanks to atrocious roads, the measure is a comparative bargain for most.

The South Carolina Senate Finance Committee passed a road funding bill that would raise $800 million a year by increasing the gas tax and driver’s license and vehicle registration fees. It would also tie the gas tax to inflation and increase the sales tax cap on cars.  Passed earlier, a House plan would raise $400 million by increasing the gas tax and sales tax cap on cars (by smaller amounts than the Senate bill) and introducing a new gas excise tax at the wholesale level. Neither measure includes the immense income tax cuts that Gov. Nikki Haley insisted be included with any bill that raises the state gas tax. For more on the gas tax debate in South Carolina, check out this guest blog post from John Ruoff on the Tax Justice Blog.

Despite the plethora of bad press the state has received for attempting to balance the budget on the backs of low-income people while maintaining ill-advised tax cuts for the wealthy and businesses, Kansas lawmakers continue to propose regressive tax plans to plug the state’s deficit. Sen. Les Donovan, who chairs the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee, suggested that the committee would consider a measure to increase excise taxes on cigarettes and liquor as well as a bill that would weaken the state’s EITC by reducing the credit and making it non-refundable. The committee will also review a host of small tax exemptions to phase out. Kansas faces an $800 million deficit, $400 million of which must be closed with spending cuts or tax increases.

Over the past decade, West Virginia lawmakers have phased out and eliminated the state’s Business Franchise Tax and reduced the corporate income tax rate from 9 to 6.5 percent. The tax cuts failed to deliver the promised job growth, instead blowing a hole in the state budget; business tax collections next year will be lower than they were in 1990.  Meanwhile, public university students in West Virginia could soon see big tuition increases thanks to shrinking state funding. West Virginia University is considering a 10 percent tuition hike on top of the 29 percent increase over the past five years, while West Virginia State University recently announced a 7 percent hike.

A California Senate committee approved a bill that creates a refundable earned income tax credit (EITC) for low-income and working families. The state EITC would equal 30 percent of the federal EITC for eligible individuals with children.


Who Pays for South Carolina Road Plans?


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Guest Post by John Ruoff of the Ruoff Group, Click here for orignal post

Who will pay to fix our roads? The burden, as a percentage of income, will fall hardest on those making less than $19,000 a year. Facing massive shortfalls in repairs and maintenance on our state roads and highways, the General Assembly is looking at ways to fund those needs. Everyone understands that, in the end, new revenues to fund the roads are needed. The Governor, seeing an opportunity to pull off a massive income tax cut, proposed that massive cut tied to a much more modest increase in the gas tax. Three proposals have been placed on the table: the Governor’s, a House-passed Plan that combines some tax increases with a much more modest income tax cut and a Senate Finance plan which increases revenues without an income tax cut.

In order to figure out who will pay for these changes, we asked the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a Washington, DC, based think tank that produces widely-respected tax incidence studies to model these changes. Their Who Pays? provides detailed analyses of which income groups pay what shares of their income towards various taxes. You can see the most recent analysis of South Carolina here. The ITEP modeling allows us to look at gross income, unlike the estimates from the Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs which are based on taxable income.

They modeled three plans:

  • Governor Haley proposes trading a 10 cent per gallon gas tax increase for an eventual reduction in marginal tax rates of 2 %. That translated, according to the SC Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs, to $1.7 billion reduction in General Fund Revenue by 2025.
  • The House version combines an effective 10 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax and raises the cap on sales tax for cars from $300 to $500 with a broadening of income tax brackets that produces a maximum $48 per year tax cut. Other provisions were not modeled.
  • The Senate Finance Plan contains no tax cut but increases the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and the sales tax cap on cars to $600. Other provisions were not modeled.

The Governor’s plan creates a very large tax cut for those with higher incomes. In the Top 1 % of incomes, the tax cut,on average, is $6,893. Meanwhile, those in the lowest 20 % of incomes would face, on average, a tax increase of $34.

The House and Senate Finance plans raise taxes and revenues across the board. The House Plan, netted for a modest income tax cut, raises on average the  annual taxes for the lowest income group, which averages $12,000 a year, by $39. The Top 1 %, which averages $987,000 in income, would pay on average an additional $414.

As a share of income, the various plans hit harder on the most vulnerable. The Senate Finance Plan would cost our lowest income quintile, on average, .4 % of their income, compared to .1 %, on average, of the income of the Top 1 %. The House Plan calls on the poorest in our state to pay, on average, an additional .3 % of income while costing our wealthiest 1 % only, on average, .04 %. As percent of income, the Governor would raise taxes on taxpayers in the Lowest 20 % by .3 %, on average, while cutting them for the Top 1 % by, on average, .7 %.

Legislative debates frequently resound with arguments that the rich pay the most taxes and lower income people “don’t pay taxes”. They, of course, mean that most lower income taxpayers don’t pay income taxes. We all pay taxes and we have increasingly in South Carolina relied on regressive sales taxes that take a larger cut of poor people’s income than rich people’s. ITEP’s most recent statewide analysis of actual tax burden (Who Pays?, 5th Ed., Jan. 14, 2015) shows that in South Carolina the lowest income group pays, on average, about 7.5 % of income for all state and local taxes. The Top 1 % pay only, on average, 4.5 % of their income in state and local taxes.

Advocates of cutting taxes repeatedly argue, often to the accompaniment of anecdotes, that cutting income taxes drives in-migration of rich people who bring or start companies. The actual evidence suggests, at best, a very modest relationship between income taxes and economic development. That relationship is far outweighed by the effects of spending on things like infrastructure and education.

Recognizing both that road funding is a critical need for all of us and that gas and sales taxes hit harder on lower than upper income South Carolinians, there are additional approaches which could meliorate these effects on our most vulnerable taxpayers.

A refundable State Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has many desirable policy effects. Ronald Reagan and many conservative policy leaders recognize the EITC as the most effective anti-poverty measure we have. The EITC encourages personal responsibility by rewarding work, since only working people get the EITC.  In addition, a state EITC keeps money in the hands of folks who will spend it in local communities with local businesses. It’s good for the economy. An EITC pegged at 10 % of the federal EITC, would cut taxes for the Lowest 20 % receiving the credit by, on average, $262 and $331 and $190 to the next two quintiles according to another analysis by ITEP.

Rather than raising the cap on sales taxes on cars (not to mention yachts and airplanes), flipping the cap so that it was a floor would provide relief to folks who can only buy cheap cars while shifting more tax burden to those better able to afford it. That way, instead of stopping the tax when a car’s price reaches $6,000, $10,000 or $12,000, it would start at one of those points. Either of these approaches would reduce revenues for roads overall, but would make the tax system fairer.

The Governor’s Plan appears to be a nonstarter in the General Assembly. The House and Senate Finance plans are not that far apart. A critical flaw in our gas tax has been its failure to adjust for inflation and both legislative plans make provisions for indexing the gas tax (within limits) to inflation. That is a good thing.

What is absolutely clear is that something needs to be done to raise funds to ensure future economic development and safer roads. Clearly, income tax cuts are not the answer, although the House’s approach is far preferable to the Governor’s massive tax cut masquerading as a road funding plan. Equity for our poorest taxpayers needs more legislative attention, since all of these plans ask them to contribute a larger share of income to fixing the roads than their better-off fellow taxpayers.


State Rundown 4/20: State Houses Consider Cuts


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Legislators in the Pennsylvania House released an alternative to Gov. Tom Wolf’s tax reform plan last Tuesday. The House plan would increase income and sales tax rates to provide significant property tax cuts, as would the governor’s plan. One difference is that the House plan would raise the sales tax rate to 7 percent but leave the base unchanged, while Wolf’s plan would increase the sales tax rate to 6.6 percent and expand the sales tax base. The House plan also would not provide property tax rebates for renters as the governor’s plan would. While the House plan would provide even more funding for property tax cuts, ($4.9 billion vs. $3.9 billion under the governor’s plan) their package is essentially revenue neutral and does not include increased investments in public education which is a signature piece of the governor’s plan. The House Finance Committee is expected to vote on the House plan next week. Stay tuned to the Tax Justice Blog for a more in-depth analysis of tax reform efforts in Pennsylvania.

The Ohio House is set to approve Gov. John Kasich’s proposed tax cuts while nixing his proposals for new tax revenue. Kasich originally proposed $5.7 billion in income tax cuts and $5.2 billion in consumption tax increases over two years– specifically an increase in the sales tax rate from 5.75 percent to 6.25 percent, an expansion of the sales tax base, and increases in the commercial activities tax and severance tax on natural gas extraction. The House is expected to pass a smaller income tax cut and to reject all of the proposed tax increases; whereas the governor wanted to lower the top personal income tax rate to 4.1 percent, the House will likely reduce the rate to just under 5 percent. At the same time legislators blocked the governor’s proposed cuts in public school funding, a welcome but contradictory move.  Stay tuned to the Tax Justice Blog for a more in-depth analysis of tax cutting efforts in Ohio.

The South Carolina House approved a bill by a veto-proof majority that would increase the states gas tax by 10 cents and provide most residents with a modest income tax cut of $48. It is expected to generate $400 million in new revenue for road construction, tax cuts excluded. The margin of passage is important because Gov. Nikki Haley, who vowed not to increase the gas tax without significant income tax cuts, feels that the cuts passed by the House are not enough. The bill also does not contain the Department of Transportation reform measures demanded by Haley, who seeks to assert more control over road funding and construction. The Senate is also considering a road funding plan.

 

Following Up:
Florida: Senate President Andy Gardiner says the $600 million in tax cuts championed by Gov. Rick Scott and passed by the House last week are “on the shelf” until the fight over Medicaid expansion is resolved. Federal subsidies to Florida for healthcare providers who treat the poor are scheduled to expire, but the governor is resistant to expanding Medicaid coverage under Obamacare to make up for the lost revenue.

 

In Case You Missed It:

  • ITEP released a report on undocumented immigrants’ contributions to state and local tax systems. The report found that undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $11.84 billion in taxes in 2012. Check out this blog post for more!
  • In honor of Tax Day, the Tax Justice Blog highlighted the great work done by our state partners around tax issues.  

 


State Rundown 3/16: Win Some, Lose Some


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Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval will make his case for expanding the state’s business license fee before a joint legislative committee on Wednesday. The governor wants to change the fee from a flat rate of $200 per year to a tiered system with rates from $400 to $4 million per year, with a company’s revenue and industry type determining the fee level. Sandoval argues that the change is necessary to support investments in K-12 education throughout the state.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal received positive reviews last week for its emphasis on job creation and education. Notable tax changes include a two-step increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a targeted tax exemption on social security income for couples who make up to $60,000. An ITEP analysis shows that all of the benefits of the governor’s proposed social security exemption would go to seniors in the bottom 80 percent of the state’s income distribution, whereas a rival plan to exempt all social security income from taxes would deliver half its benefits to the top 20 percent. To help raise revenue, Gov. Raimondo also proposed a new property tax on second homes worth over $1 million, as well as increases in the cigarette excise tax and taxes for online rental companies.

The Montana House of Representatives failed to override Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto of HB166, a bill that would have cut income taxes. Under the proposal passed by the legislature, income tax rates would have been reduced by 0.2 percentage points across all brackets. Opponents of the bill argued that the state already faces a $47 million deficit and that most of the benefits of the income tax cut would accrue to high-earners; almost 50 percent of the cuts would have gone to the top ten percent of Montanans. Gov. Bullock also pointed out 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.” A smattering of other tax cut proposals are still making their way through the legislature, including a measure that cuts income taxes and reduces breaks for capital gains, and another that would increase the exemption allowed for business equipment.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives, by contrast, voted to allow a scheduled income tax cut to proceed despite facing a $611 million budget deficit. The tax cut will reduce the top income tax rate from 5.25 to 5 percent beginning in January 2016. After that, if revenue conditions are met, the tax rate will fall to 4.85 percent in 2018. Since the Oklahoma Tax Commission says the state will lose $404 million in revenue from 2016 to 2018 due to the cuts, that’s a big “if.” ITEP data show the tax cut will put an average of just $29 back into the pockets of middle-income households, while the top 1 percent of Oklahoma earners will get an average benefit of $2,009 each.

A bill that would cut income taxes in Arizona if online shoppers lose their ability to evade sales taxes passed in the House after being defeated twice in the same chamber.  Sponsored by state Rep. J.D. Mesnard, the income tax cut proposal will only go into effect if Congress passes the Marketplace Fairness Act (which has little chance of happening soon).

 

Following Up
Massachusetts: Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget faces a tough road in the legislature; Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has said it fails to “invest in the future,” while other state officials have claimed that the cuts proposed by the governor would endanger everything from the lottery to elections.

Texas: The budget drafted by leaders of the state’s House Appropriations Committee reportedly includes more money for public schools than the Senate budget does. The Senate plan would cover additional costs from surging school enrollment, but would direct more revenue to tax cuts than the House proposal.

South Carolina: A Senate panel headed by Sen. Ray Cleary approved a bill that would increase the gas tax by 20 cents over five years and index the tax to inflation. The measure is expected to be vetoed by Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said she will not approve an increase in the gas tax unless it’s paired with a big cut in the state’s income tax.

 

States Ending Session This Week:
New Mexico (Saturday)

 


State Rundown 3/9: Revenue Strikes Back


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


State Rundown 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 1/20: Plenty of Tax Cut Proposals


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Legislators in Montana have a full plate this week, including several proposals to cut taxes. One plan would cut state income taxes by 5 percent across the board at a cost of $79 million in lost revenue, while a more modest proposal would cut income tax rates at a cost of $26 million. An ITEP analysis found that the rate cuts in both plans would overwhelmingly benefit high-income taxpayers; in each case, the top 20 percent of taxpayers would receive roughly two-thirds of the tax cut.

Two proposals in the New Hampshire Senate would lower the business enterprise and business profits taxes. Sponsors of the proposals have argued that the state’s corporate tax rates deter investment, but as the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute points out business tax cuts are an ineffective economic development strategy. One bill proposes a reduction in the business profits tax rate from 8.5 to 8 percent. The profits tax falls on businesses with gross receipts over $50,000, though only one percent of filers actually pay it after credits are applied. The other bill would reduce the business enterprise tax, which is levied on businesses’ wages, dividends and interest, from a rate of 0.75 percent to 0.675 percent. Combined, the two measures could cost $35 million in lost revenue each year. Opponents of the cuts complain the lost revenue would mean fewer services and worse infrastructure.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will address state legislators and interested citizens in a joint State of the State and budget address this Wednesday. A key element of his budget proposal is a $1.7 billion property tax circuit breaker credit that would be available to homeowners and renters if their property tax payments exceed 6 percent of income. The circuit breaker would phase out for homeowners with $250,000 or more of income and for renters at $150,000 (13.75 percent of their rent would be considered property taxes). The governor estimates that over 1.3 million New Yorkers would receive an average credit of $950 if his plan is fully implemented. The governor may also express his support for a bill that offers tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate money to public schools or scholarship programs for poor and minority students to attend private schools. The bill is contentious, as some see it as a way to divert state money to private education.

 

Things We Missed:

 

  • Last week, we reported that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo released her budget proposal. She has decided to release her budget instead in early March.
  • Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal released his budget proposal last Friday; an overview can be found here.
  • South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley released her budget proposal last Monday; an overview can be found here.
  • Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gave his State of the Commonwealth speech last Wednesday; you can read a transcript and watch the speech here.
  • Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber gave his State of the State address last Monday; you can read a transcript and watch the speech here.
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    States Starting Session This Week:
    Alaska
    Hawaii
    New Mexico

    State of the State Addresses This Week:
    Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (watch here)
    New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (watch here)
    Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (Wednesday)
    Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (Wednesday)
    New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Wednesday)
    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (Wednesday)
    Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (Thursday)
    Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (Thursday)

    Governor’s Budget’s Released This Week:
    Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (Monday)
    Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (Wednesday)
    New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Wednesday)


    New Year, New Gas Tax Rates


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Why Now May Be the Time to Implement Higher Gas Taxes


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    Earlier this year, copious potholes on highways and roads due to severe winter weather conditions exposed the harsh truth about our nation’s transportation funding: there’s not enough of it, and potholes and other crumbling infrastructure could become the norm if the states and the federal government don’t address the issue.

    Twenty-four states have gone a decade or more without increasing their gas tax, and 16 states have gone two decades or more without an increase. The last time Congress increased the federal gas tax was in 1993.

    A blog in Wednesday’s Washington Post pondered whether now is the time for the federal government to raise the tax since gas prices have dropped to levels last seen four years ago. While there will not be any movement on the federal level in the short term, a couple of states are weighing increases. 

    South Carolina Gov.  Nikki Haley and a majority of House members have historically refused to increase the state’s gas tax, but The State newspaper reported that lawmakers are increasingly recognizing that the South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure needs are woefully underfunded. Perhaps a hike in the gas tax isn’t that unrealistic.  A state Department of Transportation report released earlier this year found that the state needs to generate an additional $43 billion over the next 25 years to meet those needs.

    South Carolina’s gas tax is one of the lowest in the country (PDF) and hasn’t been raised in more than 25 years. After adjusting for inflation, ITEP found that the state’s current gas tax is lower today than at any point in history – going all the way back to the tax’s creation in 1922. For example, while the 2 cent gas tax that South Carolina levied in 1922 may sound very low to today’s drivers, in the context of the 1922 economy it was actually higher than the 16 cent gas tax South Carolina levies today. In fact a 2-cent tax in 1922 is roughly equivalent to a 28.3-cent tax in today’s dollars. Simply restoring the South Carolina gas tax to the same inflation-adjusted levels would represent a big step toward fully funding the state’s transportation needs. More and more states are realizing that undoing inflationary tax cuts is the most straightforward way to keep their infrastructure from crumbling beneath their feet.

    In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder is putting pressure on the House of Representatives to follow in the footsteps of the Senate and pass legislation that would replace both the state’s current 19-cent gas tax and 15-cent tax on diesel with a tax on the average wholesale price of gas. Based on current gas prices the tax rate would increase to 44 cents in 2018 and raise an additional $1.2 billion for transportation by 2019.   The Governor admits this is asking representatives to take a “tough vote”, but it’s one that the Senate already took by a nine-vote margin (23-14). Gov. Snyder said of the state’s infrastructure crisis, “Every day that passes it's only going to get worse. Pothole season isn't going to be any better next year.”

    Because this legislation links the gas tax to the wholesale price of gas the state is putting itself in a better position to ensure that transportation funding keeps up with inflation overtime. 

    Policymakers in South Carolina and Michigan aren’t alone in their quest for dealing with infrastructure woes. ITEP’s report State Gasoline Taxes: Built to Fail, But Fixable concludes that the poor design of gas taxes “has resulted in sluggish revenue growth that fails to keep pace with state infrastructure needs.” ITEP recommends raising gas taxes especially in states that haven’t increased their taxes in several years, restructuring gas taxes to take into account increased fuel efficiency and construction costs, and offsetting regressive gas tax hikes with targeted low-income tax relief.

    In this political environment, tax increases may be a tough sell. But roads aren’t going to fix themselves, and the D-grade results of inadequate transportation funding will only get worse. States and the federal government should present and consider serious policy proposal for raising gas taxes to repair our nation’s roads and bridges.

     


    State Rundown 9/30: The Gas Tax Cometh?


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    WP-Gas-Pump-1.jpgPolitical leaders in New Jersey could be close to figuring out a fix for the state’s transportation funding crisis. The Transportation Trust Fund is set to run out of money soon, and Gov. Chris Christie has declared that all options are on the table -- including, perhaps, an increase in the gas tax, which is currently second lowest in the nation (it has been more than 20 years since the tax was increased). The pledge represents a softening of the governor’s position; he has opposed any increase in the gas tax in recent years, and has also raided the trust fund to balance the state budget. State lawmakers could also consider indexing the gas tax to inflation, as they’ve done in Massachusetts, or applying the state’s sales tax to gasoline purchases, as advocated by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a leading nonpartisan think tank in the state.

    The president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce recently announced that his group would support the first state gas tax increase in over 25 years (lowest in the nation -- take that New Jersey). Otis Rawl says the chamber will push for a 1-cent-per-year increase for the next 10 years to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure, citing a poll that shows a majority of the state’s Republican voters would support such a measure. Both candidates for governor are on the record as opposing an increase in the gas tax, though their alternatives haven’t been well-received by state leaders. Incumbent Nikki Haley (R) has been criticized for refusing to reveal her “secret” plan to fix the state’s roadways, while challenger Vincent Sheheen would rely on anticipated revenue increases from the state’s general fund.

    An analysis from Wyoming finds that the state’s 10-cent increase in the gas tax has not been entirely passed to consumers. The Casper Star-Tribune found that after the tax on gas and diesel was increased by 10 cents in 2013, the price of unleaded gasoline increased only 5 cents per gallon in 2014 while the price of diesel increased by 8 cents. Gov. Matt Mead (R), who signed the tax increase, has long argued that infrastructure investment is the conservative approach, since maintenance costs increase with less investment.

    Transportation spending is a big issue in the Michigan governor’s race, with challenger Mark Schauer (D) calling out incumbent Rick Snyder (R) for his failure to convince state legislators to fix the states’ potholes and bridges. Snyder supports an increase in the state’s gas tax and wants to hike vehicle registration fees, while Schauer opposes an increase on the grounds that the governor has already raised taxes on ordinary Michiganders to pay for business tax cuts. Michigan’s gas tax is which is one of the nation’s highest at ten cents above the national average, but state road spending per driver is far below average. Meanwhile, the sale of tire and wheel insurance has skyrocketed across the state.

    If you have a great state news item that we missed here, please send it to Sebastian at sdpjohnson@itep.org so we can spread the word.


     


    Tax Policy and the Race for the Governor's Mansion: South Carolina Edition


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    South Carolina voters should have no problem drawing distinctions this fall when it comes to their gubernatorial candidates’ visions for the state’s tax structures (or lack thereof) in a year when the issue of fairness in state taxation is likely to loom large.

    Republican Gov. Nikki Haley continues to tout her income-tax elimination plan on the campaign trail, while challenger Vincent Sheheen, currently a Democratic state senator, is pushing a multifaceted recalibration of numerous state and local taxes to, as he says, restore fairness to the tax system.

    The linchpin of Gov. Haley’s campaign is the eventual elimination of the state’s income tax. Her attempt to repeal South Carolina’s tax in order to “bring jobs and investment to the state” has been years in the making. In 2010, then-candidate Haley campaigned on the promise of lowering income taxes. This year, the governor’s proposed budget included eliminating the state’s 6 percent income tax bracket, which applies to income between $11,520 and $14,400 (estimated to cost $27 million for the year), a provision that state lawmakers did not approve. Haley previously signed a bill in mid-2012 reducing the tax rate on “pass-through” business income from 5 percent to 3 percent over three years.

    Critics have characterized the governor’s income tax proposal as a fantasy, taking issue with the fact that Haley has given no timetable for implementation and has presented no viable options for replacing lost revenue from the tax, which is currently the source of over half of the state’s general fund revenues. Eliminating the tax outright would be catastrophic for the state’s fiscal picture and even with a pay-for mechanism, repeal would mean the loss of the state’s most progressive revenue source, exacerbating income inequality in the state.

    Challenger Vincent Sheheen bookends his comments on tax reform with the word “fairness.” Sheheen’s plan seeks to preserve important revenue sources and targets multiple taxes in an attempt to rebalance the distributional effects of the overall state tax levy. He calls the state’s current tax system “a giant mess littered with special interest loopholes.”

    On the topic of the income tax, Sheheen proposes to adjust the brackets (presumably by revising the thresholds upward) to create a structure appropriate for the 21st century and to reinstate a measure of balance. Sheheen would also enact a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit to reward low-income working families. The state currently lacks such a credit, a mechanism ITEP has frequently endorsed as one of the most effective ways to combat regressivity in the tax code and pull low-income families out of poverty.

    Sheheen’s income tax plan is likely to come with its own significant costs, some of which may be offset via his proposal to eliminate loopholes for special interests and corporate tax breaks – revenue losers that both complicate the tax code and reduce the fairness of the overall tax system. Another reform proposed by the candidate is the broadening of the sales tax base, using revenue gains from such a move to reduce the overall state sales tax rate, currently at 6 percent. South Carolina is one of several states that currently fail to tax many services, creating unfair advantages for sellers and purchasers of goods and leading to a narrowing of the tax base over time. Sheheen’s plan would also eliminate local property taxes that go toward funding schools and institute a uniform statewide property tax in their place, which he says would allow for a lower rate, incorporate the entire state property tax base, and allow property values to be calculated in a uniform and fair way. In particular, the candidate is proposing to lower the industrial property tax rate, which he says currently disadvantages South Carolina manufacturers who pay the highest rates in the country.

    The outcome of this fall’s election may determine whether South Carolina goes the way of states like Kansas and North Carolina, whose governors have placed all of their proverbial eggs in the basket of supply-side economics by implementing heavy income tax cuts and who continue to see their fiscal and economic health falter as a result.


    Quick Hits, Redux: Bloody Kansas, Bleeding North Carolina


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

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

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

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


    Governor Haley Leaves South Carolinians in the Dark


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    Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a fix for the state’s sorry highway finances, but she can’t let us in on the secret until after Election Day. 

    Haley’s state has more than 66,000 miles of public roads, “one of the highest per capita totals in the nation,” according to The Herald, and 40 percent of them are in poor or mediocre condition. More than a fifth of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. South Carolina leads the nation in fatalities on rural roads, due in part to their appalling maintenance. State officials estimate that an additional $1.5 billion is needed each year for the next 20 years just to make the roads adequate. 

    Infrastructure funding is a pressing topic, with the federal Highway Trust Fund set to run out and states struggling to keep up with road repairs. You don’t have to be a motorist to realize that our infrastructure is crumbling around us, even as gas prices continue to rise – conjuring images of Mad Max dystopia and collapsing bridges.

    Mad Max in the ThunderdomeCome to think of it, replacing elections with Thunderdome-style cage matches might not be a bad idea.

    Enter Governor Haley, stage far-right, with a scheme to save the roads (and perhaps some motorists’ lives). The catch is she won’t reveal the plan until January, two months after the end of her reelection campaign. This, of course, is the opposite of how campaigns usually go, where candidates make their proposals public so that voters can judge them on their merits.

    Unsurprisingly, South Carolinians have been slow to praise the governor’s political courage. For one, Haley has insisted she will veto any increase in the state’s gas tax – even though it’s one of the lowest in the country (half of what’s charged in neighboring states Georgia and North Carolina).

    Furthermore, South Carolina’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. As ITEP has reported, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of many state gas taxes over time; in fact, South Carolina would have to more than triple its current gas tax to have the same purchasing power it did in 1968. Put simply, sixteen cents doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to.

    In a reversal, Haley has also ruled out shaking the state’s “money tree,” a budgetary accounting scheme which is as ridiculous as it sounds.

    The Giving Tree “Thanks for the fruit! Also, do you have a billion dollars for necessary road repairs?”

     

    In the absence of any concrete proposals, there has been wild speculation. Some think the governor’s plan will involve new casinos in Myrtle Beach; others think she’ll revive a plan to divert some sales tax revenue to highway maintenance. Whatever the truth is, ruling out any increase in the gas tax makes little sense. South Carolina motorists pay an extra $811 million every year in vehicle repairs and operating costs; surely they would be willing to pay a little more at the pump for better roads.

    So far, the only gubernatorial candidate willing to endorse a hike in the gas tax is independent candidate Tom Ervin, an attorney and former judge.* “Nobody likes a tax increase,” notes Ervin. “But we want our highways to be safe. And we also want to continue to attract quality industry to our state, and you can't get products to market when the highways are falling apart.” It’s always refreshing, if all too rare, when a candidate tells the truth before the election.


    *Haley’s Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen declined to endorse a gas tax increase, but said all options should be on the table.


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


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

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

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

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


    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.


    State News Quick Hits: Myth of the Tax-Fleeing Millionaire, and More


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    In 2011, Michigan lawmakers enacted a huge “tax swap” that cut taxes dramatically for businesses and raised them on individuals – especially lower-income and elderly families. Given that many of these changes went into effect at the beginning of 2012, and that many Michiganders are just now beginning to file their 2012 tax forms, the Associated Press provides a rundown of the ways in which the tax bills of typical Michiganders will look different from previous years. Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), estimated (PDF) that changes in the personal income tax would result in tax increases of $100 for a poor family, $300 for a middle income family and $7 from a rich one.

    South Carolina is considering jumping onto a bandwagon heading the wrong way: supplementing the state’s transportation revenues by taking money away from schools and other state services. If enacted, the plan under consideration would raid $80 million from the state’s general fund every year and use it for roads instead. ITEP estimated, however, that South Carolina could raise more than $400 million for transportation every year just by updating its stagnant gasoline and diesel taxes to catch up to over two decades of inflation.

    There’s some good news on the gas tax issue in Iowa. This week, an ad hoc transportation lobby will rally to support the “It’s Time for a Dime” campaign. These builders, farmers and contractors are urging lawmakers to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for needed infrastructure repairs. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) Building a Better Gas Tax concludes that Iowa hasn’t raised its gas tax in over two decades and has lost 43 percent of its value since the last increase.

    In case you missed it, here’s a great read from the New York Times about how we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that millionaires are ready to pack up their bags and move at the slightest increase in their tax bills. In “The Myth of the Rich Who Flee From Taxes,” the Times cites ITEP’s work on the Maryland millionaire tax: “a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington, found that nearly all the decline in millionaires was the result of a drop in incomes largely attributable to the stock market plunge and recession, and not to migration — “down and not out,” as the study put it.”

    Good news: Wisconsin appears to be  gearing up for serious income tax reform. Bad news: the legislator heading up the effort is a flat tax proponent.

    Illinois Governor Quinn began the legislative session in February proposing a variety of loopholes be closed, but the budget he signed on June 30 didn’t close those loopholes.

    Think state budgets don’t have an impact on what services localities can provide? Read this article about eight South Carolina school districts facing cuts.

    Millionaires don’t flee taxes. With help from ITEP, the millionaire migration myth takes a hit in this Baltimore Sun letter to the editor.

    Illinois’ pension system is in crisis.  This insightful column by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability’s Ralph Martire argues that the state’s tax policy is at least partially to blame:  “For decades, Illinois’ antiquated, poorly designed tax policy created an ongoing structural deficit.”

    While Kansas recently repealed its only form of grocery tax relief (a credit for low-income families), West Virginia is moving in the opposite direction.  That state’s sales tax rate on groceries will drop by one percentage point starting on July 1 this year, and be repealed entirely midway through next year.

    West Virginia revenue officials aren’t too enamored with any suggestion to increase the state’s already generous property tax breaks for senior citizens.  Using a $300,000 home as an example, the state’s deputy secretary of revenue explained how under today’s rules, a homeowner under 65 would pay $2,334 on that house while a homeowner over age 65 using the credit could pay as little as $764. Moreover, with the state’s eligible senior population expected to grow by 37 percent over the next decade, the cost of any tax breaks for older West Virginians is going to grow dramatically.

    After much debate, South Carolina lawmakers appear to have come to an agreement on a regressive tax change that allows “pass-through” business income (which tends to go mainly to wealthy individuals rather than businesses) to be taxed at three percent instead of the five percent currently levied.

    After the legislature overrode Governor John Lynch’s veto, New Hampshire became the latest state to adopt neo-vouchers: tax credits for corporations who contribute money to private school scholarship funds which end up diverting taxpayer dollars into corporate coffers.  In his veto message, the Governor wrote: "I believe that any tax credit program enacted by the Legislature must not weaken our public school system in New Hampshire, downshift additional costs on local communities or taxpayers, or allow private companies to determine where public school money will be spent.”

    Tax experts asked by the Associated Press couldn’t find anything nice to say about Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed $1.7 billion tax break for Shell Chemicals – the largest-ever financial incentive offered by the state – for the company to build an oil refinery. David Brunori from George Washington University said, “There's absolutely nothing good about what the governor is proposing" and a libertarian policy expert pointed out that government shouldn’t be covering the cost of risk for businesses through tax subsidies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Kansas Governor Brownback’s insistence on steep tax cuts has met more resistance.  A group called Traditional Republicans for Common Sense has come out against  even a watered down version of Brownback’s vision in the legislature. One of the group’s members (a former chair of the state’s GOP) said, “Now is not the time for more government intervention. Topeka needs to stay out of the way and make sure proven economic development tools – like good schools and safe roads – remain strong so that the private sector can thrive.” 
    • Stateline writes about the problems with “the spending that isn’t counted” – meaning special breaks that lawmakers have buried in state tax codes.  The article highlights efforts in Oregon and Vermont to develop more rational budget processes where tax breaks can’t simply fly under the radar year after year.  CTJ’s recommendations for reform are in this report.
    • In this thoughtful column, South Carolina Senator Phil Leventis writes, "I have been guided by the principle that government should invest in meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. This principle has been undermined by an ideology claiming that government is the cause of our problems and, accordingly, must be starved.” He praises tax study commissions and says being “business friendly” cannot be the only measure of state policy.
    • An op-ed from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) calls on lawmakers to address the issue of rampant corporate tax avoidance, and to do so responsibly. It raises concerns that legislation currently under consideration to close corporate loopholes could be a “cure worse than the disease.”  The legislation takes some good steps but is paired with business tax cuts that could cost as much as $1 billion over the next several years.  PBPC argues for a stronger and more effective approach to making corporations pay their fair share such as combined reporting, which makes it harder for companies to move profits around among subsidiaries in different states.
    • Just four days after Amazon agreed to begin collecting sales taxes in Nevada in 2014, the company announced a similar agreement with Texas that will take effect much sooner – on July 1st.  As The Wall Street Journal reports, “With the deal, the Seattle-based company is on track to collect sales taxes in 12 states, which make up about 40% of the U.S. population, by 2016.”

    Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.


    South Carolina House Pulls Its Punch, Preserves Costly Exemptions to Sales Tax


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    We’ve long advocated for taxes that have a broad base. Tax structures that abide by this principle don’t pick winners and losers and, importantly, they keep revenues more stable in the long run.  In South Carolina earlier this week, a House subcommittee took a positive step in this direction when it voted to eliminate several exemptions to the sales tax, including the sales tax holidays for guns and back-to-school purchases.  The increased revenues would allow an overall reduction in the sales tax rate.

    But when the legislation went to the full House Ways and Means Committee, it was amended. Instead of the $250 million worth of exemptions the original bill contained, the amended version only returns about $15 million in revenues to the state’s budget.

    Among the unwise exemptions restored were the two sales tax holidays, which do little to help the taxpayers they’re supposed to help and don’t seem to boost local economies, either.  The Republican sponsor of the original legislation, Rep. Tommy Springer, said of sales tax holidays, “We researched tax analysis, tax reports and the evidence does not suggest they actually save money.” But as an astute Carolinian told the local news, had they ended those holidays, even if it meant a lower year round tax rate, “I don't think your typical citizen is going to see it as anything other than taking something away from them, because they've become accustomed to it.”  

    Though the bill has been pared back considerably, Springer is hopeful that a fundamental piece of the legislation will be approved: the requirement that any sales tax exemptions be automatically re-evaluated every five years.  Mandating evaluation of tax expenditures is a good idea; too often these loopholes become permanent features of budgets – and sources of deficits – long after their usefulness has passed.  They aren’t the same as real tax reform that broadens the base and lowers the rate, but the transparency they afford helps build the case for progressive reform.

    Photo of South Carolina State House via Richard Boltin Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

    Whatever comes of rumors that Governor Haley might face tax fraud charges, a modified income tax cut has passed out of South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee. Perhpas due to ITEP’s analysis, which found that the poorest South Carolinians would see their taxes increased under the legislation, it was modified to at least spare the poorest South Carolinians from new taxes.

    Check out yesterday’s post from the Wisconsin Budget Project showing that diminishing revenues are a "purple problem" because taxes keep getting cut no matter who's in power.

    The personal income tax has been under threat of repeal for most of this year in Oklahoma, but the Oklahoman reported yesterday that the Chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee says it’s unlikely full repeal will come to fruition.  A cut in the top tax rate, however, still appears likely so they’re still buying the economic snake oil.

    Here is a commonsense editorial from the Kansas City Star advocating for the taxing internet purchases and the streamlined sales tax agreement.  

    This week, Progressive Maryland came out with their compromise plan designed to bridge the gap between the personal income tax increases passed by the state House and Senate.  The plan was analyzed with the help of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), and would raise needed revenues while actually reducing the unfairness of the state’s regressive tax system.

     


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


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

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

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

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

     


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    State Tax Battles with Amazon.com Continue to Make Headlines


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    Sales tax laws would be essentially meaningless if retailers were not required to collect the tax every time a purchase is made.  The opportunities for customers to evade the sales tax (either on accident, or on purpose) would be overwhelming.  Every state with a sales tax knows this — and as a result, the vast majority of retailers are legally required to collect and remit sales taxes.

    Amazon.com and many other online retailers, however, are the major exception to this broad rule.  A 1992 Supreme Court case carved out a special exemption for any “remote sellers” that don’t have a “physical presence” in a state — like a store or warehouse.  The ruling has allowed the Internet to become an open highway for tax evasion. While customers shopping online owe the same sales tax they would if they shopped in a store, very few actually take the time and effort necessary to pay that tax.

    This week, four states (California, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont) made headlines for their attempts to limit the amount of sales tax evasion occurring through “remote sellers,” while a fifth state (Illinois) will soon have to defend its efforts to do the same in court.  By contrast, South Carolina lawmakers were recently bullied into granting Amazon an exemption from having to collect sales taxes for five years, despite the fact that it will soon have a “physical presence” in the state.

    In Vermont, Governor Shumlin recently signed a so-called “Amazon law” that will eventually require all remote sellers partnered with affiliate companies physically based in the state to collect and remit sales taxes (see this ITEP report for more on “Amazon laws”).  Unfortunately, the bill was written so that it won’t take effect until 15 other states have enacted similar laws. 

    Six states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — have enacted such laws so far, and many more have given the issue serious consideration.  In the meantime, remote sellers like Amazon will be required to notify Vermont residents of the taxes they owe when making a purchase.

    The California Assembly easily passed an Amazon law last week.  That legislation now goes back to the Senate, where a similar bill gained narrow passage last month.  Even if the Senate approves the Assembly’s version of the bill, however, it’s unclear whether Governor Brown will sign the measure.

    Louisiana can now be added to the long list of states giving serious consideration to enacting an Amazon law.  The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed such a law in late-May, though opposition by Gov. Jindal makes it unlikely that it will be enacted any time soon.

    In Texas, Gov. Perry recently vetoed a measure that would have required Amazon.com to collect sales taxes in the state, though the legislature may still try to enact the measure by inserting it into a larger bill that Perry is unlikely to veto. 

    Unlike the true “Amazon laws” discussed above, the measure in Texas was designed to prevent Amazon from continuing to skirt its sales tax responsibilities by claiming that its Texas distribution center is actually owned by a subsidiary, and therefore does not amount to a “physical presence.”  The nearby photo is the actual sign in front of the Texas-based distribution center that Amazon claims it does not own.  

    In Illinois, the Performance Marketing Association (PMA) has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Amazon law.  The lawsuit is similar to one being pursued by Amazon against New York State.

    And in South Carolina, Amazon.com has demanded, and received, a five year exemption from having to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolinians, despite the fact that it plans to open a distribution center in the state (and will therefore meet the Supreme Court’s definition of having a “physical presence”). 

    The granting of this exemption represents a stark reversal from just one month ago, when it was soundly defeated 71-47 in the House. 

    Brian Flynn of the South Carolina Alliance for Main Street Fairness accurately summed up the unfortunate reality of this situation when he said that “with this economy, [Amazon was] in a good position to strong-arm legislators.”  Fortunately, the exemption is only supposed to last five years — though judging from Amazon’s past behavior, it’s reasonable to expect that the company will undertake an aggressive campaign to extend that five-year window.


    Amazon Throws Temper Tantrum, Leaves South Carolina


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    Very few businesses allow taxes to shape their business strategy as much as Amazon.com.  Amazon has shuttered a Texas warehouse, ended partnerships with businesses in at least three states, and sued the state of New York — all because of state tax laws it doesn’t like.  When the South Carolina House rejected a massive tax break package designed to lure Amazon.com within its borders last week, that state became just the latest victim of one of Amazon’s tax-induced temper tantrums.  

    The drama in South Carolina all started when former Governor Mark Sanford and his Commerce Department told Amazon that they would try to score the company a lucrative tax break package in return for Amazon’s promise to build a distribution center in the state.  The most important component of that proposed package was an agreement that, despite having a physical presence in the state, Amazon.com would not be required to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolina residents. 

    Unsurprisingly, this proposal angered virtually every other retailer in the state, from “mom and pop” shops to Wal-Mart, all of which are quite sensibly required to assist South Carolina in collecting the sales tax owed on each sale they make.  

    Last week, these retailers, working in combination with Tea Party activists (who, for once, actually recognized that “big government” can indeed extend its influence through new tax breaks), were able to defeat the legislation in the House in a lopsided 71-47 vote.  Gov. Nikki Haley helped contribute to the proposal’s defeat, rightly announcing that its passage would be “a slap in the face to every small business we have.”

    Amazon responded by canceling millions in procurement contracts, removing South Carolina job postings from its website, and announcing that the million-square-foot distribution center currently under construction will probably be “put into mothballs” after its completion. 

    Reaction to news of Amazon’s departure in the Palmetto State has understandably been mixed.  But South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, did run a nice editorial pointing out that “this doesn’t have to be a loss for our state in the long or even medium term.”  The editorial rightly argues that lawmakers should build on this development by limiting narrow tax giveaways, evaluating existing economic development programs, and investing in a skilled workforce and other broad-based quality-of-life initiatives that employers value.

    South Carolina might get the last laugh if it follows the advice contained in this editorial.  Amazon is currently pursuing a business strategy that is far more concerned with state tax law than logic would dictate.  The vast majority of businesses very sensibly do not regard taxes as the be-all and end-all of a good business climate.  Many other factors, like the quality of a state’s workforce, roads, and public safety measures, are often much more important to a company’s bottom line. 

    With more states growing tired of Amazon’s bullying and temper tantrums, it appears unlikely that a business strategy that regards taxes as an unbearable burden with no upside will remain profitable for long.


    South Carolina Considers Turning its Property Tax into Something Else Entirely


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    Under any reasonable property tax system, a property’s tax bill should be tied fairly closely to the actual value of that property.  Sure, some modest exemptions and credits can (and should) be used to reduce the property tax’s regressivity, but the basis for the tax should remain the property’s actual market value.  Oddly, a proposal currently being considered in South Carolina would depart drastically from this fundamental principle.

    Back in 2006, South Carolina raised its state sales tax rate in order to pay for a property tax cap that limits growth in a home’s taxable assessed value to no greater than 15% every 5 years — or a little under 3% per year, on average.  Under this arrangement, changes in one’s property tax bill have very little to do with changes in the value of one’s property, and are instead driven by the artificially imposed 15% limitation.  Over time, the impact of the 15% limit can add up, and South Carolinians often end up paying property taxes at an assessed value far below what their home is actually worth.  In other words, for these families the term “property tax” has very little meaning, as their tax bill is only loosely tied to their property as it currently exists.

    As strange and shortsighted as this policy may be, the law as currently structured does have one bright spot: whenever a property changes hands, the 15% limitation is reset.  This means that — at least for a short time — the property tax is once again applied to the home’s actual value.  These “resets” play an important role in ensuring that South Carolina’s property tax retains some of its character as a tax on actual property values.

    Unfortunately, some state legislators would like to eliminate this feature of the law, claiming that the “reset” results in unaffordable tax bills for people looking to change residences.  In a way, it’s a legitimate complaint.  The South Carolina tax cap (like those in California, Florida, and many other states) results in vastly different property tax bills for different taxpayers, based solely on how long they’ve chosen to remain at their current address.

    But the “cure” lawmakers are considering in this case is worse than the disease.  Ending the reset feature would essentially divorce South Carolina’s residential property tax system from present day reality.  Rather than having anything to do with actual property values, a tax cap system without a reset feature would forever base each property’s tax bill on its 2006 value, and then grow it artificially based on the 15% formula.  Sure, when the real estate market is weak the 15% formula might not kick in, but given enough time, many residences will accumulate massive tax cap savings and will be subject to tax bills with almost no basis in present reality.

    Ultimately, if the goal of state lawmakers is to ensure that property taxes don’t grow faster than South Carolinians’ ability to pay them, the best relief option is an income-tested circuit breaker credit.  Property tax caps, circuit breakers, and many other related topics are discussed in the property tax chapter of the newly released ITEP Guide to Fair State and Local Taxes.


    Bad and Less Bad: Business Tax Cuts vs. Grocery Tax Cuts


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    Some politicians in state capitals across the U.S. seem convinced that tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy are the best way to accelerate economic recovery. In two states, governors are proposing instead to cut taxes on groceries, which is a more effective, though not exactly flawless, way to help ordinary families. The tradeoff to any tax cut, of course, is unaffordable cuts to essential services including education, public safety, and health care.

    In Wisconsin, state lawmakers agreed on a business tax cut that would add about $50 million to the budget deficit.  The Republican controlled legislature and newly elected Governor Scott Walker believe that the tax cuts will leave everybody with more money and leave the state with an improved economy.  Incredibly, Walker’s proposal rests on the assumption that the tax cuts will lure businesses away from Illinois, which recently saw an increase in its income tax, rather than fostering young, developing businesses. 

    In Iowa, where a similar $300 million business tax cut is being discussed, critics of Governor Terry Branstad point out that essential social services are being axed in favor of pro-business policies.

    In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is proposing to cut taxes on high-wage industries while further reducing funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, and K-12 education.  

    Similar tax cuts are being proposed in New York, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. All of these plans prioritize tax breaks for business over providing essential services to those most affected by the economic downturn.  

    The Governors of West Virginia and Arkansas have arrived at an entirely different tax-cutting proposal: reducing the sales tax on groceries.  Like lawmakers who support business tax cuts, Governors Tomblin and Beebe believe their brand of tax cuts will circulate quickly throughout the economy, providing necessary relief to the taxpaying public while stimulating the economy. 

    Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas wants to cut the sales tax on groceries by a half-cent and has said it is the only tax cut he will consider this year.  In West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wants to reduce the grocery sales tax from 3 to 2 cents and would ultimately like to see it eliminated entirely.

    While the proposals to cut the sales tax on groceries are a welcome development compared to proposed tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, there are still two problems with them. 

    First and foremost, states are in dire need of revenue this year as they face the most significant budget challenge yet since the start of the recession.  Every dollar lost to a tax cut will have to be made up by an even deeper cut in spending. 

    Second, reducing the sales tax on groceries is not the most targeted approach available to state leaders looking to support working families.  The poorest 40 percent of taxpayers typically receive only about 25 percent of the benefit from exempting groceries. The rest goes to wealthier taxpayers who can more easily afford to pay the sales tax on groceries. 

    Enacting or increasing a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or other low-income refundable credit would be a more affordable and better targeted alternative to ensure that tax cuts reach low- and middle-income working families.  Tax cuts that directly benefit low-wage workers are especially beneficial to the general economy because low-wage workers immediately spend their refunds out of necessity.  By pumping the money back into the economy, the tax cut goes further in stimulating the economy than tax cuts for the wealthy or businesses.

    Instead of pursuing tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, state lawmakers should be working to alleviate hardship on the most vulnerable.  Indeed, the governors in West Virginia and Arkansas may end up being much more efficient at helping their state economies rebound than the “business friendly" governors in Wisconsin and Iowa.


    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.

     

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

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

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

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

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

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


    State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


    Tax News in Gubernatorial Races Across the Country


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    Many gubernatorial candidates campaign on a platform of tax cuts, and few, outside of Minnesota Gubernatorial Candidate Mark Dayton, promote tax increases.  In such a political climate, perhaps the best that voters can hope for are candidates that promise to maintain progressive tax structures. 

    California

    One such candidate, California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, recently hammered his opponent, Meg Whitman, for supporting a regressive tax cut that would benefit only taxpayers who have capital gains income.

    In 2008, 93% of taxpayers who paid capital gains taxes in California earned over $200,000.  While other gubernatorial candidates fight over who will cut taxes more, it is refreshing to see a candidate like Brown refuse to endanger the state's budget by cutting taxes for the wealthiest.

    Illinois

    Illinois current Governor Pat Quinn is having it out against Republican Bill Brady to see who will move into the Governor's Mansion next year. Brady proposes to eliminate the state's estate tax and the sales tax on gasoline, saying that this will send a message to business that  "Illinois is open again for business and we're here to stay for the long term." Quinn, on the other hand, supports an increase in the state's income tax to help solve the state's enormous fiscal woes.

    Maryland

    While fiscal prudence may call for hard decisions, campaigning calls for easy sound bites.  Former Governor and current Republican candidate for Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich wants to repeal Governor O’Malley’s 2007 sales tax increase.  Ehrlich’s proposal would cost the state treasury over $600 million. While Ehrlich himself raised taxes during his tenure, the former Governor is trying to re-brand himself as the anti-tax candidate

    Like Ehrlich, current Governor O’Malley is also seeking to distance himself from his past constructive and successful tax policies.  However, O’Malley refuses to rule out future tax increases, signaling that he has not forgotten how he expanded health coverage and increased education funding these last four years.

    Michigan

    The “Michigan Business Tax” has fallen out of grace with Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates.  Both Democrat Virg Bernero and Republican Rick Snyder favor eliminating the business tax and replacing it with some other revenue source. Synder’s plan would partially offset the revenue loss from the business tax cuts by instituting a flat 6% corporate income tax.  Still, Synder recognized the plan would remove $1.5 billion from the state’s coffers. 

    Bernero’s plan does little more to make up for the lost revenue.  His proposal includes collecting taxes on internet sales, although he refuses to commit to any gas or service tax increase. Instead, Bernero also seeks to cut state programs and lower costs.  While it is disappointing to see both candidates propose tax and funding cuts, Bernero has pledged to support state funding for anti-poverty and unemployment programs.

    Pennsylvania

    Despite massive state budget shortfalls in Pennsylvania, both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato pledged, abstractly, not to raise taxes. Neither candidate seems to be sticking to such a pledge. Onorato was gutsy enough to suggest imposing a new tax on shale severance.  Onorato’s proposed tax would allow the state to remain competitive with neighboring states.  Onorato’s Republican counterpart, Tom Corbett, has maintained that he will not raise taxes, but he is reportedly open to increasing payroll taxes. So apparently, Corbett’s pledge only applies to big business.

    South Carolina

    South Carolina voters are guaranteed to see a new Governor in Columbia that is going to slash budgets instead of raising revenue. Both the major candidates, Democrat Vincent Sheheen and Republican Nikki Haley, are saying that they won't raise taxes despite the fact that the budget is in disarray (falling to mid-1990's levels) and the federal government can't be relied on for more stimulus money to help prop the state up. Sheheen has said, "We can't keep funding everything at the levels of two or three years ago. We can't keep funding everything, period."

    Perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Haley does have some pet projects she'd like to see improved despite claiming that South Carolina must live within its means. She says, "When your revenues are down, the last thing you cut is your advertising, so we need to make sure the Commerce Department is strong. We need to strengthen our technical colleges." No matter who wins this election, it's going to be difficult to improve technical colleges and the Commerce Department when money is so tight and lawmakers aren't leaving many options.

    Tennessee

    Tennessee politicians realize the state has serious budget shortfalls.  Unfortunately, the only question facing Tennessee voters this November will be how much to cut state programs and who to reward with tax cuts.

    Last week, the current Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen announced plans to cut next year’s state budget by up to $160 million.  Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter lauded the plan, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam criticized the cuts for not being large enough

    However, the candidates do have differing ideas about creating jobs through tax cuts.  McWherter proposed a $50 million state tax break for small businesses that would reward qualifying companies for creating the next 20,000 jobs.  In contrast, Haslam proposed creating regional economic development centers.  McWherter’s plan is based on a similar program in Illinois, which Democratic Governor Pat Quinn instituted and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady would like to expand.


    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.


    What You Should Know Candidates are Saying About Taxes


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    Candidates across the country are gearing up for the November elections. Over the coming months we'll highlight just some of the candidates running in local, state, and national races with an eye toward evaluating their positions in terms of tax fairness.

    Current Iowa Governor Chet Culver - Iowa's film tax credit program has been costly and controversial. This week current Governor Chet Culver came out against keeping the program. He said in a recent news conference, "We’re not going to be taken for suckers. People, unfortunately, exploited that program.”

    Current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn - During the Democratic primary we wrote about Governor Quinn's proposal to raise income taxes in a progressive way. Now Candidate Quinn is proposing that, in combination with an income tax hike, he would urge local school districts to reduce regressive property taxes. He recently said, "If you get additional new money from Springfield, from the state government, then I think part of the bargain has to be that the local school districts at least roll back a portion of their property taxes. It's a fair bargain."

    Current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick - Massachusetts voters will be asked to decide Question 3, which would slash the state sales tax from 6.25 to 3 percent. Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, taking a hammer to this revenue stream would have a disastrous impact on the state budget. Current Governor and gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick has come out against Question 3, saying that if the sales tax is reduced it would be "a calamity."

    X South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley - South Carolina collected $147 million in corporate income tax revenue in the last fiscal year. Nikki Haley has said that she would eliminate the tax altogether in hopes of attracting more businesses. She said at a recent fundraiser, "If we become a no-corporate-income-tax state, we will become a magnet for companies." Instead of proposing to throw out an entire revenue source, she should take a minute to read ITEP's latest policy brief on economic development.

    X Vermont gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie - Candidate Dubie is campaigning on a promise to cut $240 million in income and property taxes paid by Vermonters. Specifically, he would drastically reduce personal income tax rates, cut corporate income tax rates, and support a property tax cap.  But when he was asked how the tax cuts would be paid for in terms of fewer services, Dubie couldn't offer any details.


    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.


    South Carolina Sales Tax Reform Proposal is Flawed in at Least Two Important Ways


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    It's encouraging that the South Carolina Taxation Realignment Commission (TRAC) is interested in broadening the state sales tax base and lowering the overall tax rate.  Nonetheless, testimony submitted by ITEP late last week makes clear that the specific proposal being considered by the Commission is seriously flawed in at least two ways.

    The first flaw is what ITEP describes in its testimony as a "worrying focus on taxing the 'necessities' that represent a large share of low-income families’ spending."  While low-income families will be helped by the lower overall sales tax rate proposed by the TRAC, the new taxes those families will face on groceries, residential utilities, and prescription drugs may outweigh the benefits they see from the lower rate.  Lessening the impact of this change through the enactment of a state EITC or some other type of tax credit is of vital importance if South Carolina is to avoid pushing its impoverished residents deeper into poverty.

    The second flaw relates to the TRAC's insistence that its proposal be revenue neutral.  South Carolina tax revenues — like those in most states — have taken a serious blow as a result of the economic recession.  Large-scale tax base-broadening of the type being discussed by TRAC would raise more than enough revenue to substantially lower the sales tax rate while simultaneously bolstering the state's weakened revenue streams. 

    Refusing to pursue this latter goal would be a serious mistake.  And moreover, as ITEP's testimony points out, estimating the amount of revenue that can be raised by taxing a slew of previously untaxed purchases is much easier said than done.  As a result, it will be very difficult for lawmakers to know precisely what tax rate would be needed to ensure true revenue neutrality.  At the very least, this difficulty should encourage a more cautious approach to revenue neutrality than what the TRAC appears interested in pursuing.


    Sales Tax Holidays: Good for Little More than a Laugh


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

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

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

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

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

     


    Update on South Carolina's Tax Deform Commission


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    South Carolina's Taxation Realignment Commission  (TRAC) was established over a year ago and has been meeting since September. Commissioners were charged with studying the tax structure with these instructions: "The goal of TRAC, and ultimately of the state’s tax structure, is creation of a system that enhances the state’s reputation as a '…optimum competitor in efforts to attract business and individuals to locate, live, work and invest…' in South Carolina."

    The Commission has spent much of its time studying sales tax exemptions. Last week the Commissioners approved a proposal that would eliminate a series of sales tax exemptions including those for electricity and water, and would also expand the sales tax (albeit at a reduced rate) to include groceries and prescription drugs. The Commission's proposal includes a reduction in the overall sales tax rate so that the net fiscal impact of the base broadening measures is revenue-neutral.

    A broad-base, low-rate tax is often good policy, but applying the tax to so many basic necessities is cause for alarm. As ITEP noted last week, "It's hard to find items that you could tax that would have more of a regressive impact than groceries and utilities."

    The revenue-neutral nature of the proposal is also cause for concern. John Rouff from South Carolina Fair Share recently addressed that issue, saying, "Revenue neutrality is not what we need today. We have a state that is facing a dire economic crisis."

    The Commission is expected to make a final decision in September about whether to send the proposal to the Legislature for their approval.


    State Tax Cuts Are Not Stimulus


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    State lawmakers in Kansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and at least ten other states have attempted to advance tax cuts — frequently targeted at businesses — as a means of stimulating their economies.  In response to these types of proposals, this week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a short report pointing out the futility of attempting to stimulate state economies by cutting taxes. The report explains:

    “State balanced-budget requirements prevent states from stimulating their economies by cutting taxes. If a state cuts a tax, it generally has to make an offsetting cut to expenditures for a program or service in order to maintain balance. This spending cut is likely to reduce demand in the state just as much as the reduction in taxes may stimulate demand.  It is at best a zero-sum game, where the gains in one area are offset by the losses in another.”

    Against this backdrop, there is little question that the proposals described below (as well as the proposal described in the Minnesota story from a couple weeks back) are doomed to fail, despite their political popularity among some groups.

    On Tuesday, Florida Governor Charlie Crist used his State of the State address to voice his support for a 10-day sales tax holiday and a sizeable cut in corporate taxes.  The corporate tax cut Crist is seeking could include a one percent reduction in the state’s corporate tax rate.  Both of these proposals would force a reduction in state spending at the worst possible time.  And sales tax holidays, of course, have long been recognized by serious observers as little more than political gimmicks.

    In Kansas, the state House of Representatives has passed an expansion of a tax break aimed at boosting employment in the state.  Of course, the revenue loss associated with expanding this break, were it to become law, would only make the legislature’s job of producing a balanced budget even more difficult.  And, as the CBPP explains quite well, the larger cuts in government services that would be needed to finance this cut would effectively cancel out any purported economic gains.

    In Georgia, an op-ed by Sarah Beth Gehl of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) points out the folly of another proposal that claims to offer help for the state’s economy.  Specifically, the proposal would eliminate the state’s corporate net worth tax.  As Gehl points out, “there is no evidence that ending this tax will incite businesses to come to Georgia.”

    Some South Carolina lawmakers are making use of a similar logic, though their focus is on a somewhat longer-term initiative.  Their plan would phase-out the corporate income tax over the course of 20 years, with the hope of improving the state’s “economic competitiveness.”  An editorial published in The State this week points out the flaw in this plan:

    “The theory is that the tax breaks will entice people to start and expand businesses and move jobs to South Carolina. ... But there's a limit to how much difference a lower tax can make when there's no market for a company's products or services. And the stimulative value is particularly questionable when the tax is relatively low to start with. That's why we never have been convinced that supply-side economics can work at the state level.”


    South Carolina: New Details Released Showing that Boeing Subsidy Package Approaches $1 Billion


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    New details have just surfaced regarding the deal between South Carolina and Boeing that we discussed in the Digest last week.  It turns out that the subsidy package Boeing was able to extract from the state’s taxpayers will be at least twice as large as was first reported.  In total, over $900 million will be given to Boeing. 

    Put another way, the state will be giving Boeing an “incentive package” large enough to cover the entire cost of building its plant, with at least $150 million in benefits left over. 

    State residents should keep this package in mind the next time South Carolina lawmakers proclaim the virtues of “free markets” and “limited government” as part of their anti-tax platform.

    The details of an extremely generous subsidy package given by South Carolina to Boeing, Inc. have rightly garnered a lot of attention.  The entire package is valued at around $450 million, and will require the cash-strapped state to borrow $270 million in order to help fund the construction of Boeing’s new facility in North Charleston. Among other things, the package would assess Boeing’s in-state property at a mere 4% of its value for property tax purposes (a fact that may irk other industrial taxpayers who are assessed at a 10.5% rate), promises the company that its tax rate won’t rise during the next 30 years, and allows the company to retain half of what it ultimately does “pay” in property taxes, if it uses the money for site improvements.  

    But an extremely detailed study of tax incentives in Pennsylvania, released by Good Jobs First this week, should cause South Carolina policymakers to think twice about their “smokestack chasing” ways.  The report explains, among other things, that state tax bills are generally of little importance in company location decisions, and rarely can such breaks encourage a company to be truly loyal to a state and its workforce (as demonstrated recently in North Carolina).  As a result, selectively reducing taxes for certain companies in order to attract them to a state is a “low-impact but high cost” strategy.  Instead, Good Jobs First provides a number of recommendations for encouraging economic growth in much more sophisticated ways – such as improving workforce training policies, or taking targeted, careful steps to maximize the growth potential of young, small, and local businesses.

    The full study can be found here.


    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.


    Tax-Free Gun Days Starting to Catch On


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    A little over a year ago, we told you about a ridiculous law in South Carolina that provided for a sales tax "holiday" on purchases of handguns, rifles, and shotguns (later ruled unconstitutional for technical reasons, though only after the holiday had already taken place).  Little did we know then that the idea would actually catch on.  Louisiana enacted a similar "holiday" last month, upping the ante by exempting not only handguns, rifles, and shotguns, but also bows, crossbows, hunting knives, arrows, ammunition, rifle scopes, holsters, and much more.  Unbelievably, the idea is reportedly receiving attention in Texas and Kentucky as well.

    The Louisiana holiday is scheduled to occur each year on the first consecutive Friday through Sunday in September.  During that weekend, neither state nor local sales taxes will be collected on a variety of items the legislature has declared worthy of being included in its "Second Amendment Holiday." 

    But it's not hard to imagine how many of those exemptions will pose serious administrative problems.  With some exempt items, such as tree stands, there seems to be little room for confusion.  In other cases however, the state has decided to exempt a variety of multi-purpose items based on whether they were designed, marketed, or even simply purchased for use while hunting (e.g. some items must be designed with hunting in mind, while others need only be purchased by somebody with the intent to hunt).  Items falling into this category include off-road vehicles, animal feed, boots, bags, binoculars, chairs, belts, and various types of camouflage clothing. 

    Apparently, according to this list of tax-exempt items, you can look at a bird through tax-free binoculars, but only if you intend to kill it.  Ensuring that these items are really purchased by individuals with "Second Amendment" intentions will no doubt prove impossible.

    The bill's official fiscal note hints at a further complication involved with this holiday.  Specifically, it explains that the state will pay retailers $25 for each cash register they re-program to calculate "Second Amendment" items as being tax-free.  On top of that, the state will pay $25 more when the register is re-programmed, back to normal, at the end of the holiday.  Official estimates are that it could cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $100,000 to help retailers make the necessary modifications.  Since the holiday is only expected to result in $263,000 per year in tax savings, this $100,000 cost is not a trivial concern.  And keep in mind, Louisiana taxpayers not purchasing weapons will be helping to pay this $100,000 tab to benefit their soon-to-be well-armed neighbors.

    The inevitably complicated nature of sales tax holidays is just one of their many flaws -- as explained in this ITEP Policy Brief.  But despite all their problems, at least typical "back-to-school" sales tax holidays can be interpreted as a misguided attempt to make life easier for families with school-age children.  When it comes to these "Second Amendment Holidays," however, it's hard to see what exactly lawmakers are trying to gain, other than a pat on the back from the NRA.


    Happy Holidays? Reconsidering Sales Tax Holidays


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    So-called sales tax holidays, normally two- or three-day events that encourage shoppers to purchase back-to-school items tax-free, are bad policy for a variety of reasons. The holidays are poorly targeted, costly, and lull legislators into thinking that they've done something substantial to help reduce the regressivity of sales taxes.

    The bottom line is that given the choice between targeted sales tax reform that takes into account one's ability to pay and a three-day sales tax holiday, lawmakers should always opt for targeted reform.

    Last weekend a handful of states from Alabama to New Mexico held their sales tax holidays. (The Federation of Tax Administrators keeps a complete list of holidays here.) But because of the recent economic downturn, some legislators and economists are questioning the wisdom of not collecting sales taxes a few days a year.

    Former chairman of South Carolina's Board of Economic Advisors Harry Miley certainly has his doubts about the effectiveness of sales tax holidays. He says that shoppers don't need incentives to go back-to-school shopping, and the cost to the state is quite high. He says, "The idea of a tax holiday for essential items doesn’t make any sense to me." For more on why sales tax holidays aren't all they are cracked up to be, see ITEP's Policy Brief.


    South Carolina's Tax Commission Saga


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    You know a state has some problems when it claims it cannot even afford to conduct a study to determine whether its revenue system is adequate and effective. That's what happenedearlier this week in South Carolina, where it appeared that legislation to create a special panel to study the state's tax structure might get derailed. Lawmakers found it difficult to resolve the panel's membership and whether the costs associated with the panel (staffing, travel, etc.) could actually be paid for.

    On Tuesday the legislature decided that the state could, in fact, afford to conduct a study to determine how it should raise revenue. Unfortunately, the effort is set to fail before it even begins. Ultimately both the House and Senate approved the creation of the 11-member board, but House Democrats won't be allowed to appoint a panel member. The panel is supposed to study the so-called "Fair Tax," a proposal that would eliminate state personal and corporate income taxes and replace that lost revenue with huge sales taxes shouldered primarily by low- and middle-income people. Incredibly, recent controversial changes to the state's property tax won't be discussed before the panel.


    "Fair Tax" Dead in Missouri But May Rear Its Head in Kentucky or South Carolina


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    It's safe to assume that there will be a special legislative session in Kentucky this summer. After all, the Blue Grass state is expected to face a billion dollar shortfall for the fiscal year starting July 1. Governor Beshear claims

    he hasn't committed to calling back the legislature or decided what topic he would even select for a special session, but everyone knows a shortfall this large isn't going away without further action. So a flurry of proposals are being discussed from progressive income tax reform to increased gambling and even the so-called "fair tax."

    The infamous "fair tax" legislation, which proponents are pushing all over the country, would eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, replace the lost revenue with increased sales taxes on a wide range of services, and eliminate most current sales tax exemptions. Before going too far down this path,

    Kentucky legislators should take a moment to look at how that same proposal has faired in other states just this year.

    Missouri, "fair tax" legislation passed the House of Representatives but went nowhere in the Senate. An ITEP analysis found that this proposal would raise taxes on middle-income Missourians and require a much higher sales tax rate than advertised.

    A similar fate is expected in South Carolina where similar legislation has been introduced in the House. Advocates in South Carolina are hopeful that the legislation won't get very far.

    Kentucky lawmakers should quickly jump off the failed "fair tax" bandwagon and instead look for ways to improve their state's tax structure while also increasing state revenue.

    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.


    South Carolina Governor More Concerned About Election Year 2012 Than Fiscal Year 2009?


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    The budget picture in South Carolina is grim. The State's Comptroller General said recently that corporate income tax collections are down 57 percent, sales tax collections are down by 18 percent, and individual income tax collections are down nearly 3 percent since July. State agencies have reportedly reduced their own budgets by $600 million to take into account reduced revenues.

    According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities forty-two other states now face a budget shortfall. Policymakers in other states have come forward with a variety of proposals to deal with their state's crisis. For example, New York Governor David Paterson recently asked for federal money to assist his state and Arizona Governor-Elect Jan Brewer won't take tax hikes off the table.

    Governor Mark Sanford's answer to South Carolina's budget woes are in left field and across the street compared to these strategies.

    In fact, Governor Sanford has publically argued against providing federal aid to the states and just this week he released a budget busting list of tax changes that include eliminating the state's progressive corporate income tax and introducing an optional single rate personal income tax. While some other items on his list would raise some revenue (raising the state's regressive cigarette tax, eliminating sales tax holidays, reducing business tax "incentives"), overall, it's pretty clear that Governor Sanford's solution is to dig the revenue hole deeper.

    To the cynical among us it appears that Sanford may be gearing up for 2012. He was recently elected chairman of the Republican Governor's Association and is clearly attempting to beat the "supply-side" drum -- never mind that the notion of supply side economics has been debunked repeatedly.

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

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

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

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


    EITC Campaign in South Carolina


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    Advocates in South Carolina have launched a campaign (using an ITEP analysis) to educate policymakers and the public about the benefits of an earned income tax credit (EITC). The EITC receives bipartisan support and is a unique tool that serves to help working families rise from poverty. States choose to design their credits in different ways but having an EITC is always better than having none at all. South Carolina will hopefully join over twenty states in using an EITC to make their tax structure fairer. For more on the efforts of South Carolina Fair Share and their work on the EITC click here.


    Cigarette Taxes: Another State Seeking the Path of Least Resistance


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    Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius this week again voiced support for a 50 cent cigarette tax hike, proposing that the revenue be dedicated to expanding health care coverage to more low-income Kansans. This story should sound familiar, as numerous tax-phobic states in search of ways to pay for popular government services have recently turned to the cigarette tax.

    The benefits that a higher cigarette tax would produce in terms of reduced smoking deaths and improved public health are well-documented in the recommendations included in a recent report from the Kansas Health Policy Authority. But it's the tension such an arrangement would create between efforts to reduce smoking, and efforts to fund health care, that is controversial.

    Arkansas this year attempted to pass a similar cigarette tax hike dedicated to funding a new health trauma system. South Carolina pursued similar legislation (eventually vetoed by the Governor) that was designed to direct new cigarette tax hike revenues into a popular health-care expansion.

    In each of these cases, legislators were seeking to fund vital programs (each of which naturally increases in cost over time) with a revenue source that is sure to decline with time. South Carolina briefly considered one interesting approach to this problem (indexing the amount of its tax to a measure of medical cost inflation) but that proposal was ultimately dropped from the final bill.

    Sustainability issues arise not only from inflation, however, but also from decreases in the popularity of smoking, and increases in the incentives to purchase cigarettes in low-tax areas. This latter component of the sustainability problem, in particular, has received a good bit of attention as of late.

    With cigarette tax rates having increased substantially in many parts of the country, the rewards to smokers associated with shopping in low-tax areas have grown. A recent study by Howard Chernick entitled "Cigarette Tax Rates and Revenue" found that a 10% increase in the cigarette tax rate of one state can boost the revenue collections of a neighboring state by about 1%. Maryland provides one stark example of this phenomenon, where a recent tax hike has yielded significantly less than expected as a result of cross-border cigarette purchases and smuggling. The experience of New Hampshire, however, may suggest that this point has only limited applicability (see next story).


    South Carolina: Gold, Frankincense, and Handguns


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    While many politicians in the District of Columbia were dismayed when the U.S Supreme Court struck down DC's handgun law, people in other parts of the country got ready to celebrate. The South Carolina legislature mustered the two-thirds majority it needed in both chambers to override the Governor's veto of the "Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday". The "holiday" establishes an annual, two day sales tax exemption for handguns, rifles, and shotguns. That exemption will occur each year on two of the busiest days of the Holiday shopping season, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. That Friday is commonly referred to as "Black Friday" because of the heavy traffic and crowds surrounding most shopping centers. (Consider that before you cut someone off in the shopping mall parking lot on Black Friday this year.)

    Adding a twist to this story, however, is the fact that the bill containing the "holiday" may in fact be unconstitutional, as concerns have been raised as to whether it violates the state constitution's "single subject" requirement demanding that every bill deal with only one policy area. The bill includes a provision requiring oil companies to sell "blendable" fuel that can be mixed with ethanol, which perhaps stretches the definition of a "single subject".

    As a result, some observers think the entire bill, including the "holiday", may end up never taking effect as a result of constitutional challenges. South Carolina may therefore need to begin formulating new ways to promote its vision of arming more of its citizens, though as this ITEP Policy Brief explains, a sales tax holiday may not necessarily be the most preferable route to doing so.


    Selective Fiscal Responsibility in South Carolina


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    South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford vetoed a bill this week that sought to increase the state's cigarette tax rate, which is currently the lowest in the nation. While the Governor supported the cigarette tax hike (as most people in the state do), he criticized the bill for linking the new revenues to a Medicaid expansion that would ultimately be unsustainable.

    The cost of providing health care is constantly on the rise, and the real value of tax collected on each pack of cigarettes continuously declines as a result of inflation and other factors. The Governor, perhaps correctly, pointed out that the bill "virtually ensures future tax increases" in order to maintain consistent Medicaid funding. Interestingly, this is precisely the problem the legislature tried to address in attempting to index the amount of tax to the rate of medical cost inflation (as was discussed in a previous Digest).

    The Governor's complaints about the bill's lack of sustainability seem suspect when one considers the purpose to which he would like to see the revenue dedicated: an optional flat income tax that (primarily wealthier) taxpayers could use to avoid the state's graduated rate structure. If the Governor wants a tax cut that neatly offsets the cigarette tax hike, then his plan would fail this test dramatically. While cigarette taxes exhibit some of the slowest growth (or even decline) of any tax, income taxes on the wealthy are among the most quickly growing revenue sources. This is in part because income is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands better-off individuals who pay at the top marginal tax rate. Reducing the rate at which this income is taxed would almost certainly come to cost more than what the cigarette tax could provide.


    South Carolina: A Cigarette Tax Increase with a Twist


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    During a recent debate over a proposed cigarette tax increase, South Carolina legislators briefly considered a unique proposal to index the amount of the tax to the inflation rate of medical costs; the logic being that without indexing the tax, the revenues it raised would soon fall short (as a result of inflation) of the amounts needed to maintain the health care expansion to which it would be dedicated. The provision to index the tax has already been removed from the bill, but it nonetheless continues to provide an interesting context in which to discuss the cigarette tax. With the cigarette tax being on the agenda of so many states in just the past few months, including Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia, to name a few, any new perspective with which to view this issue is certainly useful.

    Though cigarette tax increases are often packaged as attempts to curb smoking, prevent teen addiction, or offset the various costs that smoking imposes on society, many policymakers either privately or publicly view the tax primarily as a method for obtaining revenue with which to enact or expand a favored program. The problem is that the stream of funding produced by cigarette taxes always falls short over time as inflation erodes the value of tax collected on each pack sold. Indexing the tax to inflation is one way to begin to remedy this problem.

    The South Carolina proposal was especially interesting in that it explicitly tied the revenues raised to the cost of the program it would fund (health care). The main problem with South Carolina's approach is that smoking rates are generally on the decline -- meaning the tax base upon which this revenue source depends is shrinking. Indexing does nothing to solve this problem, and therefore should not serve as an excuse for policymakers to increase their state's reliance on this regressive and unsustainable revenue source.

    As an interesting aside, indexing the cigarette tax to inflation does make sense for states whose primary goal in taxing cigarettes is to curb smoking. As inflation erodes the true value of the tax levied on each pack, the deterrent power of that tax is reduced. Indexing the tax is the most reliable way to ensure that a consistent amount of tax is collected.


    Taxation's Own Digital Divide


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    Earlier this month, Apple announced that it had surpassed Wal-Mart as the largest music retailer in the United States, citing data from market research firm NPD for the first two months of 2008. The announcement will hopefully help to draw more attention to a long-standing shortcoming in some states' tax systems -- namely, their inability to tax electronic commerce properly. Simply put, the form a transaction takes should not affect the amount of tax it might incur. Someone who downloads the latest Mariah Carey album from iTunes should pay the same state sales tax as someone who purchases the CD at his or her local record store, and a hotel reservation made through Orbitz should result in the same amount of revenue to the state as one made over the phone or in person.

    Yet, flaws in state tax laws mean that purchases of intangible goods -- like a downloaded version of E=MC2 -- are often not subject to the same sales taxes levied on purchases of tangible goods. For example, California loses an estimated $500 million in sales tax revenue each year because it makes such a distinction between tangible and intangible goods. A proposal to move towards ending that distinction was defeated in the Assembly's Revenue and Taxation Committee this past week, the victim of lobbying by the American Electronics Association, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others.

    Similarly, states and localities continue to lose vital tax dollars due to hotel reservations made via the Internet. That is, online travel companies like Hotels.com frequently avoid paying the correct amount of taxes by maintaining that they only owe tax based on the wholesale price they paid to the hotels for the room reservations they offer, rather than the retail price they charge their customers. Different jurisdictions have taken different approaches to this problem. A number of cities have brought lawsuits against hotel resellers, while the state of South Carolina recently served one such company with a bill for $6.3 million in unpaid sales taxes. On the other hand, Florida, predictably, has the worst idea. A bill before one House committee -- and backed by Expedia -- would let online travel companies keep this tax break, at a cost of $22 million in forgone revenue.


    Less than Half of Tennessee Sales Subject to the 'Sales' Tax


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    According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, state and local governments in Tennessee lose over $3.5 billion per year as a result of sales tax exemptions. Just five years ago, that number was only $2.2 billion. Five years before that, only $1.1 billion was lost annually.

    So why is this number so large? And why is it growing so quickly? The answer to the first question is especially interesting in light of the fact that Tennessee is one of a minority of states that continues to tax groceries. Exempting groceries is widely recognized as an easy way to reduce the disproportionate impact that sales taxes have on the poor, but Tennessee doesn't do this. So where is the money going? For one thing, less than 40 percent of potentially taxable services in the state are actually taxed. Despite the gains in revenue and in fairness to be had from taxing services, haircuts, taxidermy, limousines, dating services, and many others remain tax-free in the state.

    This also helps explain why the losses to the state have grown more than three-fold in the last decade. It is no secret that the U.S. has steadily been moving towards a more service-based economy. As this has happened, consumption has been shifted into purchases that are tax free under Tennessee law. This shift in the economy has a lot to do with why one University of Tennessee professor believes that only 48% of Tennessee's sales are subject to the sales tax. In 1979, it is estimated that that number was 65%.

    But services don't explain the entire loss. Under pressure from organized interest groups, year after year, Tennessee legislators continue to add more exemptions to the tax code. This year alone, football merchandize, solar panels, and flatbed farm trucks were proposed to be made exempt from the sales tax. Exemplifying the problem perfectly was one bill that proposed to exempt mulch from taxation. Upon being introduced, a long list of goods including fencing wire and machine oil were added to the bill, ballooning its cost from $88,000 to $1.3 million per year.

    This problem is by no means unique to Tennessee. As one South Carolina newspaper recently pointed out, shrinking sales tax revenues are partially a result of "small, targeted tax cuts [that] get even less scrutiny -- and make even more of a mess of our Swiss-cheese tax code". But this problem is especially noteworthy in Tennessee because the state lacks a broad-based income tax. With Tennessee state and local governments relying almost exclusively on sales taxes for revenue, these kind of exemptions are cutting into the fiscal foundation of public services. Tennessee state and local sales tax rates have already been raised to levels that are among the highest in the nation in order to make up for this lost revenue.


    A Word from the Wise


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    A state cannot improve the lives of its residents by becoming the "discount store of the U.S." warned Dr. William Fox, the respected Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, in a speech at the Annual Economic Outlook Conference in South Carolina this week. Fox said of South Carolina's tax structure, "If you want to be the discount store of the U.S. that certainly is an option. But it is not the way to create a rising income relative to the U.S. and the rest of the world."

    According to The State, Fox reportedly said that South Carolina "needs to put in place a tax system that grows with the need for education and infrastructure, "so that you can invest in yourself." Fox and other colleagues are consulting with the Palmetto Institute (a South Carolina based think-tank) regarding ways to improve the state's tax structure. Let's hope that in the coming legislative sessions South Carolina follows Fox's advice instead of attempting to become the tax policy equivalent of K-Mart.


    TABOR Alert: South Carolina


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    As we noted in last week's Digest, South Carolina will likely face a budget deficit of roughly $430 million in the coming fiscal year. Predictably, this has prompted some, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, to call for a constitutional amendment to limit state spending. Similar proposals have been offered before in South Carolina and in other states. The only such limitation that has passed in any state is Colorado's so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" or TABOR. The result for Colorado has been a dramatic deterioration in essential public services and the state chose to suspend that limitation in 2005.

    More to the point, as Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State points out, South Carolina's real problem is not runaway spending, but a deeply flawed tax system. Among the tax policy challenges that South Carolina must address are limitations on property tax growth and property tax assessments, wasteful tax breaks for profitable corporations like Michelin, and an excessive reliance on a sales tax that fails to tax services adequately. ITEP's Issue Briefs can help to explain the shortcomings of South Carolina's approach to property and sales taxation - and what can be done about them.


    Conservative [Reckless] Approaches to State Fiscal Policy


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    Policymakers in South Carolina learned late last week that the state will likely face a budget deficit of some $430 million heading into FY 2009. A number of states will have to close budget gaps in the coming fiscal year -- in part because critical sources of revenue growth have slowed with the cooling housing market. But South Carolina has brought some of this problem on itself. As the Bureau of Economic Advisors -- the body responsible for the latest budget projection -- indicates, one of the three largest factors contributing to the likely deficit is the $240 million in tax cuts enacted this summer.

    News like this should give elected officials in Utah some pause. According to the Deseret Morning News, legislators there are already talking about using a projected $400 million budget surplus to cut taxes once again. Yet, as the News points out, that surplus may exist only because Utah's budget projections have not yet been updated to account for previously enacted tax cuts. In other words, some elected officials want to use these surpluses, which may not even exist because of previous tax cuts, to fund more tax cuts. Anti-tax politicians with this kind of mindset like to portray themselves as conservative, but this kind of behavior can only be described as reckless


    Cuts, Cuts, and More Cuts


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    Last Thursday South Carolina legislators passed a substantial tax cut package, two weeks after the legislative session was scheduled to end. Fierce disagreement between policymakers caused delays but lawmakers finally reached a compromise. Starting November 1, South Carolina visitors and residents will no longer pay a three percent sales tax on groceries. Of course, there are more targeted ways to assist low income tax payers than simply eliminating the grocery tax altogether (take a look at ITEP's policy brief). Progressives did win a defensive victory by lobbying hard against the House plan to lower income tax rates for better off South Carolinians. Instead, the state's bottom income tax rate was eliminated - a move that benefits taxpayers at all income levels.


    Bill Comes Due in South Carolina


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    South Carolina's free lunch comes to an end today. A controversial "tax swap" enacted last year repealed all homeowner property taxes for school operating costs and reduced the state sales tax on groceries... and partially paid for these tax cuts by increasing the sales tax rate on all other items by a penny. Residents of the Palmetto State have been enjoying the reduced grocery tax since last fall, but the extra penny of sales tax only takes effect today. So, for the first time since the tax swap was enacted, South Carolinians will get a taste of the plan's real impact on them. Low-income families, especially renters, will likely be shortchanged by this move, while wealthier homeowners will enjoy the lion's share of the tax cuts. The State newspaper puts it all in perspective here.

    Adding insult to injury, state lawmakers are now contemplating cutting the state's income tax rates. House lawmakers want to cut the top rate, while the Senate wants to cut the bottom tax rate. Unfortunately, neither change will do a thing for the low-income families hit hardest by last year's tax swap.


    Food Fight: Sales Tax on Food Questioned in Tennessee and South Carolina


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    In a move towards a more progressive tax structure, lawmakers in both Tennessee and South Carolina have floated plans to eliminate or reduce the sales tax on groceries. However, several competing proposals are under discussion in both states, and a political food fight of sorts has broken out.

    In Tennessee, the Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed a targeted food sales tax exemption for milk, eggs, and baby formula. Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans are lining up behind the bizarre idea of completely eliminating the state sales tax on groceries for a single month.

    Tennessee's neighbor to the east is also grappling with various tax cut proposals. The South Carolina Senate Finance Committee passed a measure that would phase out the state sales tax on food over three years. The proposal is competing against a House measure that would reduce the top income tax rate.

    Many have expressed concern over South Carolina's ability to pay for either measure, noting (wisely) that reducing revenues during a time of budget surpluses can lead to budget deficits down the road. There are ways to make tax breaks for food more targeted to those who need them the most (ways to get the most "bang for their buck" in other words). But almost any tax break on food would be more progressive than lowering the top income tax rate. For more on the best ways to target tax breaks to those who could really use them, read ITEP's policy brief on providing targeted tax relief for residents who need it the most.

    While the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives (and apparently also the Senate) on Tuesday has has given new hope to advocates of progressive tax policies at the federal level, the results of ballot initiatives across the country indicate that state tax policy is also headed in a progressive direction.

    In the three states where they were on the ballot, voters rejected TABOR proposals, which involve artificial tax and spending caps that would cut services drastically over several years. Washington State defeated repeal of its estate tax. Several states also rejected initiatives to increase school funding which, while based on the best intentions, were not responsible fiscal policy. Two of four ballot proposals to hike cigarette taxes were approved and the night also brought a mixed bag of results for property tax caps.

    Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR):
    Maine - Question 1 - FAILED
    Nebraska - Initiative 423 - FAILED
    Oregon - Measure 48 - FAILED
    Voters in three states soundly rejected tax- and spending-cap proposals modeled after Colorado's so-called "Taxpayers Bill of Rights" (TABOR). Apparently people in these three states had too many concerns over the damage caused by TABOR in Colorado. Property Tax

    Caps:
    Arizona - Proposition 101 - PASSED - tightening existing caps on growth in local property tax levies.
    Georgia - Referendum D - PASSED - exempting seniors at all income levels from the statewide property tax (a small part of overall Georgia property taxes. (The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute evaluates this idea here.)
    South Carolina - Amendment Question 4 - PASSED - capping growth of properties' assessed value for tax purposes. The State newspaper explains why the cap would be counterproductive.
    South Dakota - Amendment D - FAILED - capping the allowable growth in taxable value for homes, taking a page from California's Proposition 13 playbook. (The Aberdeen American News explains why this is bad policy here - and asks tough questions about whether lawmakers have shirked their duties by shunting this complicated decision off to voters.)
    Tennessee - Amendment 2 - PASSED - allowing (but not requiring) local governments to enact senior-citizens property tax freezes.
    Arizona's property tax limit will restrict property tax growth for all taxpayers in a given district. South Dakota's proposal was fortunately defeated. It would have offered help only to families whose property is rapidly becoming more valuable, and those families are rarely the neediest. Georgia's is not targeted at those who need help but would give tax cuts to seniors at all income levels. The Tennesse initiative, which passed, is a reasonable tool for localities to use, at their option, to target help towards those seniors who need it.

    Cigarette Tax Increase:
    Arizona - Proposition 203 - PASSED - increase in cigarette tax from $1.18 to $1.98 to fund early education and childrens' health screenings.
    California - Proposition 86 - FAILED - increasing the cigarette tax by $2.60 a pack to pay for health care (from $.87 to $3.47)
    Missouri - Amendment 3 - FAILED - increasing cigarette tax from 17 cents to 97 cents
    South Dakota - Initiated Measure 2 - PASSED - increasing cigarette tax from 53 cents to $1.53. While many progressive activists and organizations support raising cigarette taxes to fund worthy services and projects, the cigarette tax is essentially regressive and is an unreliable revenue source since it is shrinking.

    State Estate Tax Repeal:
    Washington - Initiative 920 - FAILED
    Complementing the heated debate over the federal estate tax has been this lesser noticed debate over Washington Stats's own estate tax which funds smaller classroom size, assistance for low-income students and other education purposes. Washingtonians decided it was a tax worth keeping.

    Revenue for Education:
    Alabama - Amendment 2 - PASSED - requiring that every school district in the state provide at least 10 mills of property tax for local schools.
    California - Proposition 88 - FAILED - would impose a regressive "parcel tax" of $50 on each parcel of property in the state to help fund education
    Idaho - Proposition 1 - FAILED - requiring the legislature to spend an additional $220 million a year on education - and requiring the legislature to come up with an (unidentified) revenue stream to pay for it.
    Michigan - Proposal 5 - FAILED - mandating annual increases in state education spending, tied to inflation - but without specifying a funding source. The Michigan League for Human Services explains why this is a bad idea.
    Voters made wise choices on education spending. The initiative in California would have raised revenue in a regressive way, while the initiatives in Idaho and Michigan sought to increase education spending without providing any revenue source. Alabama's Amendment 2 takes an approach that is both responsible and progressive.

    Income Taxes:
    Oregon - Measure 41 - FAILED - creating an alternative method of calculating state income taxes. Measure 41 was an ill-conceived proposal to allow wealthier Oregonians the option of claiming the same personal exemptions allowed under federal tax rules and would have bypassed a majority of Oregon seniors and would offer little to most low-income Oregonians of all ages.

    Other Ballot Measures:
    California - Proposition 87 - FAILED - would impose a tax on oil production and use all the revenue to reduce the state's reliance on fossil fuels and encourage the use of renewable energy
    California - Proposition 89 - FAILED - using a corporate income tax hike to provide public funding for elections
    South Dakota - Initiated Measure 7 - FAILED - repealing the state's video lottery - proceeds of which are used to cut local property taxes
    South Dakota - Initiated Measure 8 - FAILED - repealing 4 percent tax on cell phone users.

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