South Dakota News


Investors and Corporations Would Profit from a Federal Private School Voucher Tax Credit


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A new report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, details how tax subsidies that funnel money toward private schools are being used as profitable tax shelters by high-income taxpayers. By exploiting interactions between federal and state tax law, high-income taxpayers in nine states are currently able to turn a profit when making so-called “donations” to private school voucher organizations. The report also explains how legislation pending in Congress called the Educational Opportunities Act (EOA) would expand these profitable tax shelters to investors and corporations nationwide.

The core feature of these tax shelters are credits that offer supersized incentives to donate to organizations that distribute private school vouchers. When taxpayers donate to most charities, such as food pantries or veterans’ groups, they typically receive a charitable tax deduction that somewhat reduces the out-of-pocket cost of their donation. Private school proponents have decided that their cause is worthy of a far more generous subsidy, however, and have successfully pushed for the enactment of state tax credits that wipe out up to 100 percent of the cost of donating to private school voucher organizations. When these lucrative state tax credits are combined with federal charitable tax deductions (and sometimes state deductions as well), some high-income taxpayers are finding that the tax cuts they receive are larger than their actual donations (see Figure 1). Tax accountants and private schools have seized on this tax shelter and turned it into a marketing opportunity, advising potential donors that: “You can make money by donating!”

As things stand today, this tax loophole is only available to taxpayers in nine of the seventeen states with private school voucher tax credits. But the Educational Opportunities Act (EOA) introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (IN) would open up entirely new profit-making schemes to investors and corporations nationwide.

The EOA would offer a 100 percent tax credit of up to $4,500 for individuals or $100,000 for corporations donating to fund private school vouchers. Under this system, investors choosing to donate stock (or other property) rather than cash to voucher organizations would find that doing so would be more lucrative than if they had simply sold the stock and kept the money for themselves. This is because rather than receiving (taxable) capital gains income from a buyer of the stock, the investor would be paid in (tax-free) federal tax credits.

Another potential tax shelter would be limited to those taxpayers living in states offering their own voucher tax credits. While the EOA prohibits claiming a federal tax deduction and federal tax credit on the same donation, it is silent as to whether taxpayers can claim a state tax credit and federal tax credit on a single donation. If this occurred, taxpayers would enjoy a guaranteed profit every year they donate to private schools when they stacked 100 percent federal credits on top of state credits valued at 50 to 100 percent of the amount donated.

Wealth managers and tax accountants would be foolish not to advise their clients to take advantage of these handouts. Even families with no particular attachment to private schools would find it to be in their own financial best interest to begin donating to those schools. The result could be an explosion in funding for private schools at the expense of the public coffers and everything they fund—including public education.

Read the report: Public Loss, Private Gain: How Voucher Tax Shelters Undermine Public Education


Surveying State Tax Policy Changes Thus Far in 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Increases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Cuts

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

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

New York: New York lawmakers approved a personal income tax cut that will cost approximately $4 billion per year. The plan, which is geared toward couples earning between $40,000 and $300,000 a year, will drop tax rates ranging from 6.45 to 6.65 percent down to 5.5 percent. The tax cut will be phased-in between 2018 and 2025. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the plan “is not being paid for” since its delayed start date pushes its cost outside of the current budget window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalled Tax Debates Likely to Resume in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Lies Ahead?

Key Tax-Related Measures on the Ballot in November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


State Rundown 2/26: Tax Changes on the Horizon


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Thanks for reading the Rundown! Here's a sneak peek: Alaska legislators consider moving money from their oil tax fund to shore up the budget. Maine lawmakers consider tax changes that would benefit the top 5 percent of earners while Oklahoma lawmakers consider delaying a tax cut that would also primarily benefit the wealthy. Hawaii's legislature will mull a new state Earned Income Tax Credit. And the South Dakota House passes a sales tax increase by a one-vote margin.

 – Meg Wiehe, ITEP State Policy Director


 

Efforts to raise taxes in Alaska to close a yawning budget gap caused by declining oil revenues may be pushed to next session. Legislators are instead considering plans to use the Permanent Fund to plug the state's revenue hole. The Permanent Fund is a constitutionally-mandated sovereign wealth fund, financed with oil tax revenue that pays Alaska residents a dividend each year. Dividends have ranged from $878 to $2,072 per person over the last decade. Under Gov. Bill Walker's plan, that payout would be reduced as the state would transfer $3.3 billion from the Permanent Fund to the state budget each year. Rep. Mike Hawker's plan would go even farther, putting dividends on hold until the state's deficit is eliminated. A large reduction in the dividend is likely to impact lower- and moderate-income families much more heavily than the wealthy, though a progressive income tax (as has also been proposed by the Governor) could help offset some of that regressivity.

Under the cloud of a large budget deficit, the Oklahoma Senate Finance Committee has voted to reverse itself on a previously approved income tax cut. The committee surprised many by voting 10-2 to delay the 0.25 percent reduction in the state's top income tax rate that went into effect January 1. Gov. Mary Fallin and the leaders of the House and Senate all want the income tax cut to remain in effect. The author of the bill to postpone the tax cut, Sen. Mike Mazzei, rallied support to his cause last week, as we covered on The Tax Justice Blog. Expect additional fireworks in this developing story.

A column in the Portland Press Herald makes the case against a bill that would give upper-income Mainers a tax break. The column's author, Bill Creighton, is in the top 5 percent of Maine taxpayers and would see a tax cut if LD 1519 were passed. The proposal would eliminate the cap on itemized deductions adopted last year in a comprehensive tax reform package and would come at a cost to the state of roughly $52 million. ITEP crunched the numbers on behalf of the Maine Center for Economic Policy and found that over half the benefit of eliminating the cap on itemized deductions would go to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. That group would receive an average tax cut of $4,000 per year. No Mainer in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution (those making less than $93,000) would see any benefit.

Hawaii lawmakers will consider creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). SB 2299 would implement a state credit equal to 10 percent of the federal EITC—providing an average benefit of approximately $220 per eligible filer. In 2013 over 315,800 Hawaii residents, including 127,200 children (PDF), benefited from the federal version of the EITC. Enacting an EITC could go a long way toward lessening the unfairness of a tax system that ITEP ranks as levying the 2nd highest taxes in the country on low-income taxpayers.

The South Dakota House voted to raise the state sales tax rate by half a point, from 4 to 4.5 percent, in order to fund an increase in pay for teachers. The measure initially failed by one vote, but supporters were able to convince their colleagues to reconsider. The measure will now go to the Senate for consideration. The South Dakota Budget and Policy Institute, citing ITEP data, says the change will raise $107 million but will also make the state's tax structure more regressive. They suggest an alternative plan that would remove food purchases from the sales tax base but raise the rate an entire percentage point on all other goods. This alternative would raise $128 million while actually cutting taxes for the bottom 20 percent of earners.

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

 


2016 State Tax Policy Trends: States Considering Raising Revenue in Both Big and Small Ways


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This is the third installment of our six part series on 2016 state tax trends.

Significant revenue shortfalls and the desire to increase funding for public education and other public investments are spurring lawmakers in more than 16 states to consider revenue raising measures both big and small this year.  The need to raise a significant amount of revenue, due either to dips in oil and gas tax revenue or ongoing budget impasses, will provide an opportunity to overhaul upside-down and inadequate tax systems with reform-minded solutions.

A new report from the Rockefeller Institute (PDF) quantified what we all instinctively already know--states with a heavy dependence on revenue from natural resources suffer when oil and gas tax prices tumble.  Revenues dropped by 3.2 percent between September 2014 and 2015 in Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming while the other 42 states experienced a combined growth in revenues of more than 6 percent. So, it should be no surprise that some of the biggest revenue challenges in the country are found in these energy dependent states, many of which shortsightedly reduced or even eliminated reliance on broad-based taxes during their "boom" years.  Of this group, Alaska and Louisiana are of particular interest as both states will explore transformative changes to their tax systems.

More than seven months into the current fiscal year, Illinois and Pennsylvania are still working without budgets, or much needed new revenue, in place. We will be watching both states closely this year for proposals that will finally help to break the stalemates.  And, many other states including Connecticut, and Vermont have lingering revenue problems leftover from the recession that will require lawmakers to take a hard look at their state tax systems to avoid yet more spending cuts. 

On a brighter note, not all of the anticipated revenue raising in the states this year will happen in response to revenue crises.  There are a number of efforts across the country to raise new revenue for much needed investments in public education, health care and transportation.  Voters in California, Maine, and Oregon will be asked to support higher taxes on the wealthy or corporations at the ballot in November and a similar effort could make it onto the ballot in Massachusetts in 2018.  Lawmakers in New York and Utah have filed bills to increase taxes on their states' wealthiest residents to allow for more revenue for public investments.  Even South Dakota is considering raising revenue--lawmakers from both parties want to increase the state's sales tax in order to pay for teacher salary increases (a regressive choice, but one of the few options available in a state that does not have a personal income tax). 

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

Alaska

Alaska sticks out like a sore thumb compared to all of the other states with natural resource dependent economies experiencing revenue shortfalls.  The state has no personal income tax or sales tax to turn to in times of crisis and more than 90 percent of state investments are funded via taxes on the energy sector.  (Alaska is the only state to ever repeal a personal income tax and has been without one for 35 years.)  Thus, there are few options short of drastic measures to plug a growing budget gap of more than $3.5 billion.

Gov. Bill Walker proposed a plan in December that would, among other things, institute an income tax equal to 6 percent of the amount that Alaskans pay in federal income taxes and cut the annual dividend paid out to every Alaska resident.  Other lawmakers have discussed enacting a state sales tax.  No matter the outcome of the debate in the Last Frontier State this year, one things is for certain -- lawmakers in other states that are interested in cutting or eliminating their personal income taxes must now think twice before holding up Alaska as a model for what they would like to achieve.

California

Back in 2012, California voters soundly approved a ballot measure, Proposition 30, that raised more than $6 billion in temporary revenue via a small hike in the sales tax and higher taxes on the state's wealthiest residents.  The revenue raised from the measure helped get the Golden State back on its feet following the Great Recession and has allowed lawmakers to make much needed investments in education and health care.  Now there is an effort afoot to place a new question on the ballot this coming November to extend the income tax changes (higher brackets and rates on upper-income households) through 2030 with the revenue going largely towards expanding and sustaining investments in public education.

Illinois

More than seven months into the fiscal year, Illinois continues to operate without a budget in place because Gov. Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers are still battling over the best way to address the state's massive $6 billion revenue shortfall.  Revenues are short largely due to a 25% income tax cut that took effect the beginning of 2015, leaving the state on even rockier fiscal ground. Democrats have proposed some tax increases, but the governor says he will not consider revenue raising proposals until lawmakers agree to his so-called "pro-business" reforms. 

Louisiana

Louisiana faces a current year shortfall of $750 million as well as a $1.9 billion hole next year thanks to anemic oil and gas revenues and the nearsighted tax policies (all cuts and no investments) of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.  Lawmakers will get to work post- Mardi Gras celebrations on a plan to address the state's immediate and long-term revenue problems.

The state's new leader, Gov. Jon Bel Edwards has proposed a number of revenue raising options including much needed reforms to the state's personal and corporate income tax.  But, given that most reform options would take time to implement and that the state has an immediate need for cash to plug the current year gap, he is starting with a call for a one cent increase in the state sales tax (an approach the governor has conceded is less than ideal).  Gov. Edwards'  more long-term solutions to Louisiana's structural budget problems come with a focus on the income tax -- specifically calling for the elimination of the federal income tax deduction as a reform-minded idea that would raise much needed revenue and improve tax fairness. 

Maine voters will likely have the opportunity in November to approve a ballot measure that would raise more than $150 million in dedicated revenue for the state's public schools. Under the initiative, taxpayers with $200,000 or more in income would pay a 3 percent surcharge on income above that amount.  The campaign behind the measure, Stand Up for Students, has collected well above the threshold of needed signatures to qualify for the ballot, but the question along with others must still be certified by the state.

Massachusetts

The Raise Up Massachusetts coalition is behind an effort to create a millionaires tax, dubbed the "fair share amendment", in the Bay State.  Due to the lengthy ballot process involved, the question will not go before voters until 2018, but the campaign is already in high gear. They have collected the needed signatures to move forward and last month the initiative won overwhelming approval from the Legislature's Committee on Revenue.  If approved by voters in 2018, taxpayers with incomes over $1 million would pay an additional 4 percent on that income on top of the state's flat 5.1 percent income tax.

New Mexico

Gov. Susana Martinez continues to stand by her no-new-taxes pledge despite a growing revenue problem in her state, but that has not stopped other lawmakers from filing bills to increase taxes. Proposals have been introduced to delay the implementation of corporate income tax cuts enacted in 2013, raise gas taxes, and increase personal income tax rates.

New York

The New York Assembly unveiled  a proposal to raise taxes on millionaires and cut taxes for working families. Under the proposal, individuals earning between $1 million and $5 million would pay a tax rate of 8.82 percent on that income. Income between $5 million and $10 million would be taxed at 9.32 percent, and income over $10 million would be taxed at 9.82 percent. If enacted, the tax plan would raise $1.7 billion in revenue to increase spending on public education, and infrastructure projects . The plan also includes tax cuts for New Yorkers earning between $40,000 to $150,000 and an increase the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break targeted to low-income working families.

Oklahoma

Gov. Mary Fallin recently unveiled a revenue raising package relying heavily on regressive cigarette and sales tax increases to plug the state's more than $900 million shortfall.  The governor deserves some kudos for recognizing her state's revenue problem needs a revenue-backed solution.  However, it should be noted that the state has cut the personal income tax by more than $1 billion since 2004, including a more than $140 million cut that went into effect at the start of the year despite the state's revenue woes. Other than a proposal to eliminate a truly nonsensical income tax deduction, her plan mostly ignores income tax options.  Raising significant new revenue from sales and cigarette taxes will continue to shift more of the state's tax reliance onto low- and moderate-income Sooner taxpayers, especially if some lawmakers succeed in their wish to eliminate the state's 5 percent Earned Income Tax Credit.  Without this targeted tax break for low-income working families, the kinds of revenue raisers being discussed would certainly exacerbate tax inequality in the state.   

Oregon

An Oregon ballot initiative, sponsored by Our Oregon, would create an additional minimum tax on corporations with Oregon sales of at least $25 million (a 2.5 percent tax would apply to sales in excess of $25 million). If the initiative wins approval, it would raise close to $3 billion annually in new revenue for public education and senior health care programs. Currently, corporations doing business in Oregon pay the greater of a minimum tax based on relative Oregon sales or a corporate income tax rate of 6.6 percent on income up to $1 million and 7.6 percent on income thereafter.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania government continues to operate more than 7 months into this fiscal year without a budget (there is an emergency funding budget in place that is more than $5 billion less than the proposed budget).  Yet, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to propose a budget for next fiscal year on February 9th.  An ongoing disagreement on revenue raising measures and spending priorities between the governor and House and Senate lawmakers explain the hold up and several compromise budget and tax plans last summer and fall failed to gather enough support to break the impasse.  The situation is reaching crisis stage as the state now faces a $2.6 billion structural revenue gap and cannot continue to operate much longer on emergency funding if there are no longer enough revenues coming in to fund core government services.  Gov. Wolf is likely to try yet again to solve the problem with a balanced revenue proposal including income and sales tax increases and a new severance tax. 

South Dakota

South Dakota lawmakers led by Gov. Dennis Daugaard are proposing a 0.5 cent increase in the state's sales tax that will raise more than $100 million annually.  Most of the revenue will be used to increase teachers' salaries, a long sought after policy goal in a state that ranks 51st in teacher pay.  Democrats are proposing a similar measure, but their plan would first remove food from the state's sales tax base and then raise the rate by a full cent.  While both measures fall more heavily on low-income households, the Democrats' proposal is slightly less unfair (although it raises more revenue) since taxes on food hit low-income households especially hard.  South Dakota is one of nine states without a broad-based personal income tax, so their options for a more progressive tax increase are limited.

Utah

Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis has proposed adding two new brackets with higher rates to his state's flat income tax to raise revenue for public education.  Taxpayers with income greater than $250,000 would pay more under his plan.  Dabakis argues that the state's flat tax is a "disaster" and is largely to blame for the underfunding of K-12 schools.

West Virginia

Just a few short months ago, we were watching West Virginia for a large-scale tax reform package that would have likely reduced reliance on the state's personal income tax.  But now that the state faces a revenue shortfall of more than $350 million this year (and more than $460 million next year), attention has turned to options for filling the gap.  As in Louisiana, past tax cuts are as much to blame for the state's revenue woes as the hit to the state's coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's budget proposal included higher taxes on tobacco and adding cell phone plans to the state's 6 percent sales tax that together would raise around $140 million when fully implemented.

Other States to Watch: While governors in Vermont and Connecticut have said no to raising taxes to address budget gaps, lawmakers in those states are likely to challenge those sentiments and propose reform-minded tax increases that ask the wealthiest residents in their states to pay more. And Iowa lawmakers are considering a series of bills to increase the state's sales tax to pay for everything from school construction to water quality projects and transportation infrastructure. 


Fiscal Year Finish Line Part III: Transportation Funding


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

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

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

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

 

Transportation Funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Six States Have Raised or Reformed Their Gas Taxes This Year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


States Praised as Low-Tax That Are High-Tax for Poorest Families


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Annual state and local finance data from the Census Bureau are often used to rank states as “low” or “high” tax states based on state taxes collected as a share of personal income. But focusing on a state’s overall tax revenues overlooks the fact that taxpayers experience tax systems very differently.  In particular, the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than any other income group in all but nine states.  And, in every state, low-income taxpayers pay more as a share of income than the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) took a closer look at the Census data and matched it up with data from their signature Who Pays report which shows the effective state and local tax rates taxpayers pay across the income distribution in all 50 states.  ITEP found that in six states— Arizona, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington —  there is an especially pronounced mismatch between the Census data and how these supposedly low tax states treat people living at or below the poverty line. 

See ITEP's companion report, State Tax Codes As Poverty Fighting Tools.

The major reason for the mismatch is that these six states have largely unbalanced tax structures.  Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Washington rely heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes because they do not levy a broad-based personal income tax.  Since lower-income families must spend more of what they earn just to get by, sales and excise taxes affect this group far more than higher-income taxpayers.  Arizona has a personal income tax, but like the no-income tax states, the Grand Canyon state relies most heavily on sales and excise taxes.

To learn more about how low tax states overall can be high tax states for families living in poverty, read the state briefs described below:

Arizona has the 35th highest taxes overall (9.8% of income), but the 5th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Arizona residents pay only 4.7% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Florida has the 45th highest taxes overall (8.8% of income), but the 3rd highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (13.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Florida residents pay only 2.3% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

South Dakota has the 50th highest taxes overall (7.9% of income- making it the “lowest” tax state), but the 11th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest South Dakota residents pay only 2.1% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Tennessee has the 49th highest taxes overall (8.3% of income), but the 14th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Tennessee residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Texas has the 40th highest taxes overall (9.1% of income), but the 6th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Texas residents pay only 3.2% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Washington has the 36th highest taxes overall (9.7% of income), but the 1st highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (16.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Washington residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.


Quick Hits in State News: The Perils of Tax Credits, Breaks and Incentives


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A Los Angeles Times report out of Hawaii illustrates why all tax breaks need to be subjected to more scrutiny.  The state’s well-intentioned and wildly popular tax “incentive” for solar energy has gotten more than a little out of control, skyrocketing in cost from $34.7 million in 2010 to $173.8 million in revenues this year, and even jeopardizing the reliability of the state’s power grid. Tax authorities have responded by slicing the credit in half for now.  Had Hawaii implemented some of the tax break accountability reforms we’ve recommended before, (first among them establishing measurable outcomes!), they could have prevented some of this chaos.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard is encouraging Congress to take action on a national Amazon tax policy because he worries about the impact that exempting online sales from his state’s tax base has on tax fairness and revenues. In the wake of a record settling Cyber Monday he points out that the “gift-buying binge also likely broke another record: most purchases made in South Dakota without paying sales tax.” For more on taxing Internet sales see this Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) brief (PDF).

The Illinois Senate deserves kudos for passing legislation that would require publicly traded corporations to disclose their Illinois income tax bill.  Currently about two-thirds of the companies doing business in Illinois aren’t paying state income taxes. If the bill passes the House and is signed into law by Governor Quinn, important, never-before-known information will be available about corporate taxpayers.  House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said, "Public policymakers can't make good public policy if they don't know what's going on. We don't know whether those 66 percent of corporations that pay no income tax in fact don't have any profits."

In case you missed it -- Good Jobs First and the Iowa Policy Project recently collaborated to release this must read report, Selling Snake Oil to the States, which debunks the tax and regulatory recommendations made by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for building economic growth in the states. Here’s a sneak peak of the study’s findings: “the states ALEC rates best turn out to have actually done the worst.”

Michigan House members will likely approve a proposal in the next week to repeal the tax businesses pay on industrial and commercial personal property (equipment, furniture and other items used for business purposes). Idaho lawmakers are considering a similar proposal.  An editorial in the Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer, however, urges lawmakers to put the plan on hold until there is a “better understanding of the impact on local units of government, along with a plan to mitigate that impact.”  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of revenue generated by this tax helps to fund  local governments, and it would be difficult for localities to absorb a cut that severe. 


Ballot Measures in Eleven States Put Taxes in Voters' Hands


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California is not the only state this election season taking taxing decisions directly to the people on November 6.  The stakes will be high for state tax policy on Election Day in nine other states with tax-related issues on the ballot. With a couple of exceptions, these ballot measures would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both).

Arizona

  • Proposition 204 would make permanent the one percentage point sales tax increase originally approved by voters in 2010.  The increase would provide much-needed revenue for education, particularly in light of the worsened budget outlook created by a flurry of recent tax cuts.  But it’s hard not to be disappointed that the only revenue-raising option on the table is the regressive sales tax (PDF), at a time when the state’s wealthiest investors and businesses are being showered with tax cuts.
  • Proposition 117 would stop a home’s taxable assessed value from rising by more than five percent in any given year.  As our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains (PDF), “Assessed value caps are most valuable for taxpayers whose homes are appreciating most rapidly, but will provide no tax relief at all for homeowners whose home values are stagnant or declining. As a result, assessed value caps can shift the distribution of property taxes away from rapidly appreciating properties and towards properties experiencing slow or negative growth in value - many of which are likely owned by low-income families.”

Arkansas

  • Issue #1 is a constitutional amendment that would allow for a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax to pay for large-scale transportation needs like highways, bridges, and county roads. If approved, the state’s sales tax rate would increase from 6 to 6.5 percent for approximately ten years, or as long as it takes to repay the $1.3 billion in bonds issued for the relevant transportation projects. Issue #1 would also permanently dedicate one cent of the state’s 21.5 percent gas tax (or about $20 million annually) to the State Aid Street Fund for city street construction and improvements. It’s no wonder the state is looking to increase funding for transportation projects. ITEP reports that Arkansas hasn’t increased its gas tax is ten years, and that the tax has lost 24 percent of its value during that time due to normal increases in construction costs. Governor Beebe is supporting the proposal, and his Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr recently said, “No one hates taxes more than me; however, one of the primary functions of government is to build roads and infrastructure and this act does just that. My two primary reasons for supporting Ballot Issue #1 are the 40,000 non-government jobs that will be created and/or protected and the relief of heavy traffic congestion.”

California

  • Thus far overshadowed by the competing Prop 30 and 38 revenue raising proposals, Proposition 39 would close a $1 billion corporate tax loophole that Governor Brown and other lawmakers have tried, but failed to end via the legislative process.  Currently, multi-national corporations doing business in California are allowed to choose the method for apportioning their profits to the state that results in the lowest tax bill.  If Prop 39 passes, all corporations would have to follow the single-sales factor apportionment (PDF) method.  Half of the revenue raised from the change would go towards clean energy efforts while the other half would go into the general fund.

Florida

  • Amendment 3 would create a Colorado-style TABOR (or “Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) limit on revenue growth, based on an arbitrary formula that does not accurately reflect the growing cost of public services over time.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, Amendment 3 is ““wolf in sheep’s clothing” because it would phase in over several years, which obscures the severe long-term damage it would cause.  Once its revenue losses started, however, they would grow quickly. To illustrate its potential harm, we calculate that if the measure took full effect today rather than several years from now, it would cost the state more than $11 billion in just ten years.” The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board urged a No vote this week writing that voters “shouldn't risk starving schools and other core government responsibilities that are essential to competing for jobs and building a better future in Florida.”
  • Amendment 4 would put a variety of costly property tax changes into Florida’s constitution, including most notably an assessment cap (PDF) for businesses and non-residents that would give both groups large tax cuts whenever their properties increase rapidly in value.  Moreover, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, “Amendment 4’s biggest likely beneficiaries would be large corporations headquartered in other states, with out-of-state owners and shareholders,” including companies like Disney and Hilton hotels.

Michigan

  • Proposal 5 would enshrine a “supermajority rule” in Michigan’s constitution, requiring two-thirds approval of each legislative chamber before any tax break or giveaway could be eliminated, or before any tax rate could be raised.  As we explained recently, the many flaws associated with handcuffing Michigan’s elected representatives in this way have led to a large amount of opposition from some surprising corners, including the state’s largest business groups and its anti-tax governor. Republican Governor Rick Snyder wrote an op-ed in the Lansing State Journal opposing the measure saying it was a recipe for gridlock and the triumph of special interests. Proposal 5 is also bankrolled by one man to protect his own business interests.

Missouri

  • Proposition B would increase the state’s cigarette tax by 73 cents to 90 cents a pack. The state’s current 17 cent tax is the lowest in the country.  Increasing the state’s tobacco taxes would generate between $283 million to $423 million annually. The Kansas City Star has come out in favor of Proposition B saying, “It’s not often a single vote can make a state smarter, healthier and more prosperous. But Missourians have the chance to achieve all of those things on Nov. 6 by voting yes on Proposition B.”

New Hampshire

  • Question 1 would amend New Hampshire’s constitution to permanently ban a personal income tax.  The Granite State is already among the nine states without a broad based personal income tax and proponents want to ensure that will remain the case forever. As Jeff McLynch with the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute explains, a Yes vote would mean that “you’d limit the choices available to future policymakers for dealing with any circumstances, and by extension, you’re limiting choices for future voters.”

Oklahoma

  • State Question 758 would tighten an ill-advised property tax cap (PDF) even further, preventing taxable home values from rising more than three percent per year regardless of what’s happening in the housing market.  As the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains, “Oklahomans living in poor communities, rural areas, and small towns would get little to no benefit, since their home values will not increase nearly as much as homes in wealthy, suburban communities.”  And since many localities are likely to turn to property tax rate hikes to pick up the slack caused by this erosion of their tax base, those Oklahomans in poorer areas could actually end up paying more.  
  • State Question 766 would provide a costly exemption for certain corporations’ intangible property, like mineral interests, trademarks, and software.  If enacted, the biggest beneficiaries would include utility companies like AT&T, as well as a handful of airlines and railroads.  The Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that the exemption, which would mostly impact local governments, would have to be paid for with some combinations of cuts to school spending and property tax hikes on homeowners and small businesses.  And the impact could be big.  As one OK Policy guest blogger explains: “In 1975, intangible assets comprised around 2 percent of the net asset book value of S&P 500 companies; by 2005, it was over 40 percent, and the trend is likely to continue. If SQ 766 passes, Oklahoma will find itself increasingly limited in its ability to tax properties.”

Oregon

  • Measure 84 would gradually repeal Oregon’s estate and inheritance tax (PDF) and allow tax-free property transfers between family members.  If the measure passes, Oregon would lose $120 million from the estate tax, its most progressive source of revenue.   According to many legal interpretations of the measure, the second component - referring to inter-family transfers of property - would likely open a new egregious loophole allowing individuals to avoid capital gains taxes (PDF) on the sale of land and stock by simply selling property to family members.  Oregon’s Legislative Revenue Office released a report last week that showed 5 to 25 percent of capital gains revenue could be lost as a result of the measuring passing. The same report also found no evidence for the claim that estate tax repeal is some kind of millionaire magnet that increases the number of wealthy taxpayers in a state.
  • Measure 79, backed by the real estate industry, constitutionally bans real estate transfer taxes and fees.  However, taxes and fees on the transfer of real estate in Oregon are essentially nonexistent, prompting opponents to refer to the measure as a “solution in search of a problem.”
  • Measure 85 would eliminate Oregon’s “corporate kicker” refund program which provides a rebate to corporate income taxpayers when total state corporate income tax revenue collections exceed the forecast by two or more percent. Instead of kicking back that revenue to corporations, the excess above collections would go to the state’s General Fund to support K-12 education. Supporters of this measure acknowledge that a Yes vote will not send buckets of money to schools right away since the kicker has rarely been activated.  But, it is a much needed tax reform that will help stabilize education funding and peak interest in getting rid of the Beaver State’s more problematic personal income tax kicker.

South Dakota

  • Initiative Measure #15 would raise the state’s sales tax by one cent, from 4 to 5 percent. The additional revenue raised would be split between two funding priorities: Medicaid and K-12 public schools. As a former South Dakota teacher writes, “[w]hile education and Medicaid are important, higher sales tax would raise the cost of living permanently for everyone, hitting struggling households the hardest, to the detriment of both education and health.”  This tax increase is the only revenue-raising measure on the horizon right now; South Dakotans deserve better choices.

Washington

  • Initiative 1185 would require a supermajority of the legislature or a vote of the people to raise revenue. A similar ballot initiative, I-1053, was already determined to be unconstitutional. As the Washington Budget and Policy Center notes about this so called “son of 1053” initiative:  “Limiting our state lawmakers with the supermajority requirement is irresponsible, and serves only  to limit future opportunity for all Washington residents.”

 


Quick Hits in State News: The Avengers Movie Tax Subsidy, and More


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  • On the controversial film tax credit front, movie goers should be thanking New Mexico taxpayers who gave away $22 million in tax credits to the Avengers movie – which has earned over $1 billion so far. The state doled out a total of $96 million in film tax credits last year.
  • Stop the presses! There is public support for introducing corporate and personal income taxes in South Dakota. Read about it here.
  • The list of tax cuts being promised by Indiana Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg continues to grow.  In addition to his earlier plan ,Gregg now promises to eliminate the corporate income tax for any company headquartered in Indiana, and to offer a variety of new “job-creation” tax credits to certain businesses, and to pay for it by asking online retailers to collect a sales tax from Hoosiers (despite the current governor’s agreement with Amazon.com to postpone such a tax until 2014).
  • Yet another income tax cut proposal has been unveiled in Oklahoma, this time by Senate leadership.  In it, low-income families would fare poorly because it repeals the Earned Income Tax Credit and scales back the grocery sales tax credit.

Victory in South Dakota: Studying Tax Expenditures


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The South Dakota Legislature’s Executive Committee voted earlier this week to study the more than 100 sales tax exemptions that the state currently allows. Tax exemptions are one type of "tax expenditure," or government spending through the tax code.

Tax expenditures have the same impact as cash grants from the government, but implementing them through the tax system makes them less visible — and makes lawmakers less accountable for justifying them.

South Dakota's sales tax exemptions alone are estimated to cost over $500 million annually. Adding the cost of property tax and corporate tax expenditures would make that figure even larger. To put that figure in perspective, South Dakota's general fund budget for fiscal year 2012 is just over $1 billion.

"We don't know when they were put in place, how they were trended over time and if they continue to meet their initial intent,” said Joy Smolnisky, director of the South Dakota Budget & Policy Project.

This summer legislators will meet to review the exemptions and study whether or not they achieve any sensible policy goals. Let’s hope this initial study leads to the creation of a regularly published tax expenditure report. For more on the importance of tax expenditure reporting, see the Budget and Policy Project’s work on this important issue.

For more general information, see CTJ's report on tax expenditures.


Super Bowl Ad about Taxes from Corporate Astroturf Group


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The last place you would ever expect a discussion of tax policy is in the sea of Super Bowl commercials about beer, cars, and Doritos, yet the organization Americans Against Food Taxes spent over $3 million to change that last Sunday.

The ad, called “Give Me a Break”, features a nice woman shopping in a grocery store,  explaining how she does not want the government interfering with her personal life by attempting to place taxes on soda, juice, or even flavored water. The goal of the ad is to portray objections to soda taxes as if they are grounded in the concerns of ordinary Americans.

But Americans Against Food Taxes is anything but a grassroots organization. Its funding comes from a coalition of corporate interests including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It is easy to understand why these groups are concerned about soda taxes, which were once considered a way to help pay for health care reform. The entire purpose of these taxes is to discourage the consumption of their products. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains in making the case for a soda tax, such a tax could be used to dramatically reduce obesity and health care costs and produce better health outcomes across the nation. Adding to this, the revenue raised could be dedicated to funding health care programs, which could further improve the general welfare.

These taxes may spread, at least at the state level.  In its analysis of the ad, Politifact verifies the ad’s claim that politicians are planning to impose additional taxes on soda and other groceries, writing that “legislators have introduced bills to impose or raise the tax on sodas and/or snack foods in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.”

It's true that taxes on food generally are regressive, and taxes on sugary drinks are no exception according to a recent study. It's a bad idea to rely on this sort of tax purely to raise revenue, but if the goal of the tax is to change behavior for health reasons, then such a tax might be a reasonable tool for social policy. We have often said the same about cigarette taxes, which are a bad way to raise revenue but a reasonable way to discourage an unhealthy behavior.

With so many states considering soda taxes and the corporate interests revving up their own campaign, the “Give Me a Break” ad may just be the opening shot in the big food tax battles to come.


South Dakota: Sales Tax on Food Debate Heats Up


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Low-income tax credits and rebates are one of the most effective ways that lawmakers can reduce poverty through the tax code. The proliferation of state Earned Income Tax Credits attests to policymakers' growing awareness of this. But these rebates can be meaningless if lawmakers don't make at least minimal outreach efforts to ensure that eligible taxpayers claim the credits.

Case in point: South Dakota, where last week the House Taxation Committee met to consider HB 1131, a bill that would have eliminated the state’s sales tax on food and replaced the lost revenue by increasing the sales tax rate on other items.

Data generated by ITEP and presented in testimony by the South Dakota Budget and Policy Project showed that this revenue-neutral tax change would actually result in a tax cut for 99 percent of South Dakotans. Yet, the bill was defeated in committee.

Certainly, the debate about whether or not to tax food is worth having. It’s important to note that in states that tax food, most offer some type of low-income tax relief to help offset the regressive nature of sales taxes levied on necessities. South Dakota offers a rebate, but it’s ineffective at best. The current rebate was only claimed by 726 families in all of fiscal year 2010. Qualifying for the program is difficult and there’s little effort by the state to even make sure families know about the refund.

Maddeningly, some of the lawmakers who rejected HB 1121 cited the existence of the rebate as a reason why a grocery tax cut is unnecessary. South Dakota’s tax structure is plenty flawed already (it’s a state that doesn’t levy an income tax) and taxing food without offering an effective refund simply doesn’t help.


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.


Big Doings in South Dakota


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Last week, the South Dakota Budget and Policy Project (SDBPP) launched their new website and released their South Dakota Budget Primer: A Guide to the South Dakota Budget Process. The guide is designed to offer readers assistance in “understanding the components of the state budget, how it is created, and some of the priorities and choices it reflects.”

The group is one of the latest additions to the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative (SFAI), a nationwide network of nonprofit groups working on state tax and budget policy coordinated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If you aren't familiar with the good work done by the SFAI group in your state, you should be, as these groups will be directly involved in efforts to make state tax systems fairer and more sustainable as a means of closing continuing budget shortfalls in 2011.
 
The group's existence is especially exciting because, according to ITEP's 2009 ranking of state tax fairness, Who Pays, South Dakota has one of the five most chronically unfair tax systems in the nation. As the Budget Primer points out, the main reason for this is that the state has no personal income tax, coupled with its especially high sales tax. The Primer is a valuable resource for stakeholders seeking to understand next steps for reforming the state's out-of-balanced tax system.

The guide closes by saying, “It is citizen involvement — your involvement — that helps assure that South Dakota’s budget priorities reflect our values and meet the needs of our state.”


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.

And then there were seven.  With the enactment of a tax expenditure reporting requirement in Georgia late last week, only seven states in the entire country continue to refuse to publish a tax expenditure report — i.e. a report identifying the plethora of special breaks buried within these states’ tax codes.  For the record, the states that are continuing to drag their feet are: Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming

But while the passage of this common sense reform in Georgia is truly exciting news, the version of the legislation that Governor Perdue ultimately signed was watered down significantly from the more robust requirement that had passed the Senate.  This chain of events mirrors recent developments in Virginia, where legislation that would have greatly enhanced that state’s existing tax expenditure report met a similar fate. 

In more encouraging news, however, legislation related to the disclosure of additional tax expenditure information in Massachusetts and Oklahoma seems to have a real chance of passage this year.

In Georgia, the major news is the Governor’s signing of SB 206 last Thursday.  While this would be great news in any state, it’s especially welcome in Georgia, where terrible tax policy has so far been the norm this year. 

SB 206 requires that the Governor’s budget include a tax expenditure report covering all taxes collected by the state’s Department of Revenue.  The report will include cost estimates for the previous, current, and future fiscal years, as well as information on where to find the tax expenditures in the state’s statutes, and the dates that each provision was enacted and implemented. 

Needless to say, this addition to the state’s budget document will greatly enhance lawmakers’ ability to make informed decisions about Georgia’s tax code. 

But as great as SB 206 is, the version that originally passed the Senate was even better.  Under that legislation, analyses of the purpose, effectiveness, distribution, and administrative issues surrounding each tax expenditure would have been required as well.  These requirements (which are, coincidentally, quite similar to those included in New Jersey’s recently enacted but poorly implemented legislation) would have bolstered the value of the report even further.

In Virginia, the story is fairly similar.  While Virginia does technically have a tax expenditure report, it focuses on only a small number of sales tax expenditures and leaves the vast majority of the state’s tax code completely unexamined.  Fortunately, the non-profit Commonwealth Institute has produced a report providing revenue estimates for many tax expenditures available in the state, but it’s long past time for the state to begin conducting such analyses itself.  HB355 — as originally introduced by Delegate David Englin — would have created an outstanding tax expenditure report that revealed not only each tax expenditure’s size, but also its effectiveness and distributional consequences. 

Unfortunately, the legislation was greatly watered down before arriving on the Governor’s desk.  While the legislation, which the Governor signed last month, will provide some additional information on corporate tax expenditures in the state, it lacks any requirement to disclose the names of companies receiving tax benefits, the number of jobs created as a result of the benefits, and other relevant performance information.  The details of HB355 can be found using the search bar on the Virginia General Assembly’s website.

The Massachusetts legislature, by contrast, recently passed legislation disclosing the names of corporate tax credit recipients.  While these names are already disclosed for many tax credits offered in the state, the Department of Revenue has resisted making such information public for those credits under its jurisdiction. 

While most business groups have predictably resisted the measure, the Medical Device Industry Council has basically shrugged its shoulders and admitted that it probably makes sense to disclose this information.  Unfortunately, a Senate provision that would have required the reporting of information regarding the jobs created by these credits was dropped before the legislation passed.

Finally, in Oklahoma, the House recently passed a measure requiring the identities of tax credit recipients to be posted on an existing website designed to disclose state spending information.  If ultimately enacted, the information will be made available in a useful, searchable format beginning in 2011.


Leaving Money On the Table


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Since the passage of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, federal tax law has given state lawmakers a clear incentive to rely on income taxes, instead of sales taxes, to fund public investments. This is because state income taxes can be written off by federal taxpayers who itemize their deductions, and sales taxes generally cannot. Even with temporary legislation in place that does allow a sales tax deduction, states that rely heavily on sales taxes — and not at all on income taxes — are essentially choosing to ignore what amounts to a federal "matching grant" for states that rely heavily on progressive income taxes.

A new joint report from ITEP and United for a Fair Economy's Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative quantifies the cost of this choice in seven states that currently have no broad-based income tax — and that make up the gap by leaning heavily on the sales tax. The report shows that collectively, these seven states could reduce the federal taxes paid by their residents by $1.7 billion a year if they enacted a revenue-neutral reform that replaces sales tax revenue with a flat-rate income tax, and that the same states could save their residents $5.5 billion a year in federal taxes by enacting a similarly revenue-neutral shift to a graduated-rate progressive income tax.

Read the report.


New Jersey Finally Joins Majority of States Producing Tax Expenditure Reports


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Until this week, New Jersey was one of just nine states refusing to publish a tax expenditure report – i.e. a listing and measurement of the special tax breaks offered in the state.  Such reports greatly enhance the transparency of state budgets by allowing policymakers and the public to see how the tax system is being used to accomplish various policy objectives. 

Now, with Governor Jon Corzine’s signing of A. 2139 this past Tuesday, New Jersey will finally begin to make use of this extremely valuable tool.  Beginning with Governor-elect Chris Christie’s FY2011 budget, to be released in March, the New Jersey Governor’s budget proposal now must include a tax expenditure report.  The report must be updated each year, and is required to include quite a few very useful pieces of information.

The report must, among other things:

(1) List each state tax expenditure and its objective;
(2) Estimate the revenue lost as a result of the expenditure (for the previous, current, and upcoming fiscal years);
(3) Analyze the groups of persons, corporations, and other entities benefiting from the expenditure;
(4) Evaluate the effect of the expenditure on tax fairness;
(5) Discuss the associated administrative costs;
(6) Determine whether each tax expenditure has been effective in achieving its purpose.

The last criterion listed above is of particular importance.  Evaluations of tax expenditure effectiveness are extremely valuable since these programs so often escape scrutiny in the ordinary budgeting and policy processes.  Such evaluation can be quite daunting, however, and the Governor’s upcoming tax expenditure report should be carefully scrutinized in order to ensure that these evaluations are sufficiently rigorous.  One example of the types of criteria that could be used in a rigorous tax expenditure evaluation can be found in the study mandated by the “tax extenders” package that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.  For more on the importance of tax expenditure evaluations, and the components of a useful evaluation, see CTJ’s November 2009 report, Judging Tax Expenditures.

Ultimately, New Jersey’s addition to the list of states releasing tax expenditure reports means that only eight states now fail to produce such a report.  Those states are: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming.  Each of these states should follow New Jersey’s lead.


States Get Serious About Transportation Funding


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ITEP's "Who Pays?" Report Renews Focus on Tax Fairness Across the Nation


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This week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), in partnership with state groups in forty-one states, released the 3rd edition of “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States.”  The report found that, by an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy.  The response has been overwhelming.

In Michigan, The Detroit Free Press hit the nail on the head: “There’s nothing even remotely fair about the state’s heaviest tax burden falling on its least wealthy earners.  It’s also horrible public policy, given the hard hit that middle and lower incomes are taking in the state’s brutal economic shift.  And it helps explain why the state is having trouble keeping up with funding needs for its most vital services.  The study provides important context for the debate about how to fix Michigan’s finances and shows how far the state really has to go before any cries of ‘unfairness’ to wealthy earners can be taken seriously.”

In addition, the Governor’s office in Michigan responded by reiterating Gov. Granholm’s support for a graduated income tax.  Currently, Michigan is among a minority of states levying a flat rate income tax.

Media in Virginia also explained the study’s importance.  The Augusta Free Press noted: “If you believe the partisan rhetoric, it’s the wealthy who bear the tax burden, and who are deserving of tax breaks to get the economy moving.  A new report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Virginia Organizing Project puts the rhetoric in a new light.”

In reference to Tennessee’s rank among the “Terrible Ten” most regressive state tax systems in the nation, The Commercial Appeal ran the headline: “A Terrible Decision.”  The “terrible decision” to which the Appeal is referring is the choice by Tennessee policymakers to forgo enacting a broad-based income tax by instead “[paying] the state’s bills by imposing the country’s largest combination of state and local sales taxes and maintaining the sales tax on food.”

In Texas, The Dallas Morning News ran with the story as well, explaining that “Texas’ low-income residents bear heavier tax burdens than their counterparts in all but four other states.”  The Morning News article goes on to explain the study’s finding that “the media and elected officials often refer to states such as Texas as “low-tax” states without considering who benefits the most within those states.”  Quoting the ITEP study, the Morning News then points out that “No-income-tax states like Washington, Texas and Florida do, in fact, have average to low taxes overall.  Can they also be considered low-tax states for poor families?  Far from it.”

Talk of the study has quickly spread everywhere from Florida to Nevada, and from Maryland to Montana.  Over the coming months, policymakers will need to keep the findings of Who Pays? in mind if they are to fill their states’ budget gaps with responsible and fair revenue solutions.

Read ITEP's New Report: Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of Tax Systems in All 50 States

By an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy, according to a new study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP).

“In the coming months, lawmakers across the nation will be forced to make difficult decisions about budget-balancing tax changes—which makes it vital to understand who is hit hardest by state and local taxes right now,” said Matthew Gardner, lead author of the study, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States. “The harsh reality is that most states require their poor and middle-income taxpayers to pay the most taxes as a share of income.”

Nationwide, the study found that middle- and low-income non-elderly families pay much higher shares of their income in state and local taxes than do the very well-off:

-- The average state and local tax rate on the best-off one percent of families is 6.4 percent before accounting for the tax savings from federal itemized deductions. After the federal offset, the effective tax rate on the best off one percent is a mere 5.2 percent.

-- The average tax rate on families in the middle 20 percent of the income spectrum is 9.7 percent before the federal offset and 9.4 percent after—almost twice the effective rate that the richest people pay.

-- The average tax rate on the poorest 20 percent of families is the highest of all. At 10.9 percent, it is more than double the effective rate on the very wealthy.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.” noted Gardner. “But virtually anyone would agree that this upside-down approach to state and local taxes is astonishingly inequitable.”



The “Terrible Ten” Most Regressive Tax Systems

Ten states—Washington, Florida, Tennessee, South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Alabama—are particularly regressive. These “Terrible Ten” states ask poor families—those in the bottom 20% of the income scale—to pay almost six times as much of their earnings in taxes as do the wealthy. Middle income families in these states pay up to three-and-a-half times as high a share of their income as the wealthiest families. “Virtually every state has a regressive tax system,” noted Gardner. “But these ten states stand out for the extraordinary degree to which they have shifted the cost of funding public investments to their very poorest residents.”

The report identifies several factors that make these states more regressive than others:

-- The most regressive states generally either do not levy an income tax, or levy the tax at a flat rate;

-- These states typically have an especially high reliance on regressive sales and excise taxes;

-- These states usually do not allow targeted low-income tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit; these tax credits are especially effective in reducing state tax unfairness.

“For lawmakers seeking to make their tax systems less unfair, there is an obvious strategy available,” noted Gardner. “Shifting state and local revenues away from sales and excise taxes, and towards the progressive personal income tax, will make tax systems fairer for low- and middle income families. Conversely, states that choose to balance their budgets by further increasing the general sales tax or cigarette taxes will make their tax systems even more unbalanced and unfair.”

Implications for State Budget Battles in 2010

“In the coming months, many states’ lawmakers will convene to deal with fiscal shortfalls even worse than those they faced last year,” Gardner said. “Lawmakers may choose to close these budget gaps in the same way that they have done all too often in the past—through regressive tax hikes. Or they may decide instead to ask wealthier families to pay tax rates more commensurate with their incomes. In either case, the path that states choose in the upcoming year will have a major impact on the wellbeing of their citizens—and on the fairness of state and local taxes.”


South Dakota Committee's Transportation Plan Tackles Familiar Problem


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The problem is simple – and it’s also one that’s being faced by most states around the country.  South Dakota’s gas tax has been levied at a rate of 24 cents per gallon for close to a decade.  With inflation and improving vehicle fuel efficiency eroding the value of that tax, the state is now facing a shortfall of transportation revenues.  As a result, South Dakota has grown increasingly incapable of paying for routine road maintenance, much less improvements to its transportation system. 

Thankfully, the South Dakota Joint Transportation Committee took the obviously needed, but politically difficult step of approving a bill that would raise the gas tax, among other transportation-related revenue sources.

Specifically, the committee approved a bill raising the gas tax by 10 cents (to be phased-in by 2012), and increasing the vehicle sales excise tax from 3% to 4% (also to be phased-in by 2012).  Annual vehicle registration fees would also be increased, and heavier vehicles would be required to pay more in fees.

The plan is both straightforward and effective, and its broad outlines should be examined by the multitude of other states facing dwindling transportation revenue streams.  The downside to the plan is its regressivity.  Should the bill become law, lower- and moderate-income families can be expected to pay a disproportionate share of their incomes in tax as a result of these tax and fee increases.  For this reason, South Dakota should consider providing some offsetting relief to low-income families, similar to what it already does with the state’s grocery tax via its low-income refund program.  In states with EITCs or other low-income credits, the options for providing low-income relief to offset the regressivity of gas tax and fee hikes are even more straightforward.


South Dakota Gubernatorial Hopeful Pushes Enactment of Corporate Income Tax


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South Dakota Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Ron Volesky recently came out in support of enacting a corporate income tax.  Since corporate income taxes are widely believed to fall most heavily on wealthy shareholders, enacting such a tax in South Dakota could add a useful bit of progressivity to a state tax system desperately in need of it.  At present, South Dakota lacks both a personal, and corporate, income tax.

Volesky appears interested in using much of the revenue from a new corporate income tax to increase funding for education.  He also has expressed an interest in using those revenues to provide property tax relief, or to eliminate the state sales tax on necessities such as food, clothing, and utilities.

Unfortunately, Democratic front-runner Scott Heidepriem, while reportedly "interested in hearing [Volesky's] theory," has stated that he remains opposed to the idea.  From a purely political standpoint, this is unsurprising. 

An income tax of any kind hasn't been seriously discussed in South Dakota since the 1970's, after a number of Democratic legislators who voted in favor of an ill-fated personal income tax plan lost their re-election bids.

But an awful lot of time has passed since the 1970s, and the world looks a lot different now. Volesky should be commended for taking this sensible, yet controversial position. It's time for South Dakota lawmakers to give the income tax a second look.


Transportation Funding in the News


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

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

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

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

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

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


CBPP Report on Tax Expenditure Reporting Encourages Smarter Thinking About Special Tax Breaks


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The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently released a very useful report summarizing tax expenditure reporting practices in the states, as well as methods for improving a typical state's tax expenditure report. For those unfamiliar with the term, a "tax expenditure" is essentially a special tax break designed to encourage a particular activity or reward a particular group of taxpayers. Although tax expenditures can in some cases be an effective means of accomplishing worthwhile goals, they are also frequently enacted only to satisfy a particular political constituency, or to allow policymakers to "take action" on an issue while simultaneously being able to reap the political benefits associated with cutting taxes.

Tax expenditure reports are the primary means by which states (and the federal government) keep track of these provisions. Unfortunately, most if not all of these reports are plagued by a variety of inadequacies, such as failing to consider entire groups of tax expenditures, or not providing frequent and accurate revenue estimates for these often costly provisions. Shockingly, the CBPP found that nine states publish no tax expenditure report at all. Those nine states Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming, undoubtedly have the most work to do on this issue. All states, however, have substantial room for improvement in their tax expenditure reporting practices.

For a brief overview of tax expenditure reports and the tax expenditure concept more generally, check out this ITEP Policy Brief.

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.


A Bad Idea in New Mexico is a Bad Idea in South Dakota


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This November, South Dakotans will vote on the latest too-good-to-be-true policy solution... Amendment D, a constitutional amendment that would change how property is assessed for tax purposes. In most states a property's taxable value depends on what its really worth. Amendment D would confuse matters by creating two different property tax systems. Property that is sold would be assessed based on its value at the time of the sale. Property that does not change hands would be assessed by rolling back its value to 2003 levels and then increasing growth by an arbitrary 3% or the rate of inflation.

The ideas driving Amendment D are nothing new. In fact, almost identical laws have passed in New Mexico, Florida and California. These laws created a situation where one home located next to an identical home could be assessed at twice the value of the adjacent home, merely because it was sold more recently. As this excellent letter to the editor points out, South Dakota currently has several measures in place to support homeowners when property taxes are due. An expansion of the current homestead credit or a property tax circuit breaker would help those most in need of assistance.


Tax and Budget Reform in the States


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In South Dakota, property tax reform became a hot topic this week when schools brought a suit against the state over education funding. In New Hampshire, where the role of property taxes has been debated for a while now, the State Supreme Court is hearing a case to determine and define the cost of adequate education. The districts bringing the suit argue that statewide property tax is geared to give wealthy towns a break compared to poor towns.

Meanwhile, another state looks to passively let its problem slide by. In response to an executive order by Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a 15-member panel will study property tax reform. Some speculate that the panel was formed for purely political reasons and that during an election year a study of this magnitude means that legislators can put off making politically difficult decisions.

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

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