Tennessee News


State Rundown 4/19: Alaska's Long Income Tax Freeze May Be Thawing


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This week Alaska's House advanced a historic bill to reinstate an income tax in the state, Oklahoma's House voted to cancel a misguided tax cut "trigger," West Virginia's governor colorfully vetoed his state's budget, tax reform debate kicked off in Louisiana, and gas tax updates were considered in South Carolina and Tennessee, among other tax-related news from around the country. And in our "what we're reading" section you'll learn about a new book on American attitudes toward taxes and a new effort to make public finance data readily available online.

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

  • The Alaska House voted 22-17 to reinstate a personal income tax for the first time since 1980. An ITEP analysis found that the income tax contained in House Bill 115 would be the fourth lowest in the nation when measured relative to overall personal income. But the progressive nature of the tax (with rates ranging from 0 to 7 percent) would play an important role in counterbalancing the regressive measures also being considered by Alaska lawmakers. The bill now moves to the Senate, where legislative leaders have expressed resistance to new revenues and would instead like to slash the state's Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) payout and hold out hope for a rapid increase in oil prices. Gov. Bill Walker, by contrast, supports enacting a state personal income tax.
  • Oklahoma’s House passed a bill to repeal the arbitrary tax cut “trigger” created in 2014 that will worsen the state’s $878 million revenue shortfall if left in place.
  • Calling it a "bunch of political bull you-know-what," West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the legislature's budget, which relied on spending cuts and a withdrawal from the state's Rainy Day Fund. All eyes are now on the "compromise plan" for tax reform that will play out in special session. It could potentially include the creation of a commercial activities tax, an increase and expansion of the sales tax, and lower reliance – and eventual elimination – of the state's personal income tax.
  • Lawmakers in Louisiana are beginning to chip away at tax reform, starting with examining various tax expenditures early this week. The state exempts almost as much as it collects in taxes, leaving significant holes in the tax structure. Closing these loopholes offers significant opportunities for filling the $1.3 billion revenue gap that the state faces upon the expiration of the temporary sales tax increases enacted in 2016.
  • As Minnesota policymakers return from recess to finalize a budget, there are many divergent ideas regarding the treatment of the state's surplus. In response to proposals for either large tax cuts or spending increases, the Star Tribune Editorial Board has a wise word of advice for lawmakers facing surpluses anywhere--"modest tax cuts and spending increases are affordable; big moves are not." Among their list of priorities: targeted tax relief for low-income workers and families through expanding the Working Family and Child Care Credits.
  • The Senate tax plan in North Carolina would worsen he state’s budget situation by $600 million and likely lead to dwindling reserves and funding cuts to education and other priorities.
  • South Carolina's gas tax debate heated up today, with House lawmakers urging their Senate counterparts to follow their lead and vote to update the gas tax. Some in the Senate continue to hold out for income tax cuts to be added to the package, and Gov. Henry McMaster remains opposed, preferring to fix the roads with borrowed money.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's gas tax bill still has a fighting chance as well and is also being debated, and possibly voted on, in the both houses before the end of the week.
  • Lawmakers in Rhode Island are considering a proposal to cut the state's sales tax rate – from the current 7 percent to 3 percent. The impacts will be studied in a special legislative commission.
  • Ohio lawmakers recently announced that they need to cut $800 million from the state budget over the biennium. Some legislators have pointed to recent tax cuts and tax shifts, that have taken place over the past five years, as key drivers of the state's budget woes.
  • Nebraska legislators debated a property tax and school funding bill Tuesday that would have redirected funding from an existing property tax credit to increase school aid in rural areas. The bill did not appear to have enough support to overcome a filibuster and will likely not advance.
  • Alabama's effort to update its gas tax was declared officially "dead" for the year after the bill failed to pass a procedural hurdle in the House, but proponents are still working to resuscitate it.

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 4/12: Season in Transition as Some States Close, Others Open Tax Debates


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This week in state tax news we see Louisiana's session getting started, budgets passed in New York and West Virginia, Kansas lawmakers taking a rest after defeating a harmful flat tax proposal, and Nebraska legislators preparing for full debate on major tax cuts. Nevada lawmakers may make tax decisions related to tampons, diapers, marijuana, and property before closing their session this week. And gas tax update efforts are gaining steam in Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

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

What We're Reading...  

  • An op-ed penned by New Jersey Policy Perspective makes a good case for a change of approach to New Jersey's fiscal issues, arguing that "Instead of the annual ritual of scores of groups with important needs fighting for tiny scraps of an ever-shrinking pie of funding, New Jersey needs to take a serious look at making that pie larger." The op-ed offers a few excellent suggestions for how to accomplish this goal.
  • A new report by the Keystone Research Center (KRC) provides estimates of the impact of property tax elimination proposals. The analysis shows that eliminating Pennsylvania's school property taxes would increase taxes on the middle class while hampering the state's ability to adequately fund public schools.
  • The Louisiana Budget Project has just released an analysis of Gov. John Bel Edward's tax plan—a plan that suggests adopting a Commercial Activities Tax and significant changes to the personal and corporate income taxes that would require both legislative and voter approval. If all components of the tax reform package were to be enacted, collectively these reforms would be a move toward a more adequate tax system for the state.
  • The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has released a brief on elements to consider when discussing tax reform and debunking some of the myths currently driving the debate.
  • The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute takes a look back at this year's session, noting the state avoided some harmful regressive tax cuts but also passed a number of smaller changes that add up to a significant reduction in revenue for state services.

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


State Rundown 3/22: Springtime Tax Debates Blossom Nationwide


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

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

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

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 3/8: Much Ado About Consumption Taxes


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

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

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

 Governors' State of the State Addresses

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

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 2/23: Regressive Tax Proposals Multiplying


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This week saw a nearly successful attempt to right the fiscal ship in Kansas; regressive tax proposals introduced in West Virginia, Georgia, and Missouri; ongoing gas tax fights in Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee; and further tax and budget wrangling in Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and beyond.

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

  • Both Chambers of the Kansas legislature approved a tax bill that would repeal the exemption for business pass-through income, restore a third income tax bracket at a higher rate, and remove haircuts to itemized deductions for medical expenses. After the governor's veto of the bill, the House voted to override the veto but the Senate vote to override fell three votes short.
  • Senate Bill 335, proposed last week, would create a general consumption tax in West Virginia (a broader, higher sales tax), eliminate the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and sales and use tax, and reduce the state’s severance tax. The result of such a dramatic shift would result in low- and middle-income West Virginians paying more while wealthy earners benefit. Read more on how this misguided policy would impact West Virginia families.
  • All the while, for the third time this past year, West Virginia braces for another credit downgrade. This week Gov. Jim Justice announced Moody’s decision to downgrade the state’s general obligation debt. The state’s growing structural imbalance between revenue and expenditures was cited as a main concern.
  • A regressive proposal in Georgia would flatten the state's income tax to a single 5.4% rate, eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, and create a small non-refundable Earned Income Tax Credit at 10% of the federal credit.
  • A proposal has been floated in a Missouri Senate committee to amend the state constitution to slowly eliminate the state's income tax, which brings in more than 60 percent of general revenues, and place a cap on state spending.
  • A proposal to eliminate the personal income tax over several decades has died in the Michigan House, which is now fast-tracking alternative legislation to cut the personal income tax rate from 4.25% to 3.9% over four years.
  • Representatives of 16 Nebraska agriculture and education groups joined to push back against attempts by Gov. Ricketts and others to cut income taxes, arguing that property taxes and school funding issues are higher priorities.
  • The Indiana House passed a bill that would raise fuel taxes by 10 cents and increase vehicle registration fees to fund improvement to the state's infrastructure. The bill now moves to the Senate, which may require smaller increases to ensure passage.
  • Proposals to raise Tennessee's gas tax while cutting other taxes, or instead divert sales tax revenue to infrastructure needs, will be on hold for a week after a procedural maneuver.
  • South Carolina business leaders are coming together to advocate for a gas tax increase to improve funding for the state's roads and bridges, warning of job losses if the state doesn't act.
  • Louisiana lawmakers reached a budget agreement for closing the mid-year deficit of $304 million, through a combination of agreed cuts, use of rainy day funds, and shifting around other revenue. The special session ended Wednesday.
  • Delaware's revenue shortfall is now a $350 million gap.
  • Lawmakers in New Mexico are considering a bill that would eliminate exemptions to the gross receipts tax and enact a flat rate for both personal and corporate income taxes. Democratic House members are wary of the inclusion of food and drugs in the proposed base expansions. 
  • Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s tax plan, which included proposals to expand the state’s sales tax base, eliminate the state sales tax on groceries, eliminate the corporate income tax, and increase cigarette and gas taxes, has been faced with strong opposition. Raising any revenue at all has been described as the last resort for a number of Oklahoma Legislators.
  • The Utah Senate has approved a bill to require more businesses to collect sales taxes for online purchases. In the neighboring chamber, lawmakers have proposed a plan for tax reform without much time for debate or analysis.
  • Following up on a promise from his State of the State address, Alabama's Gov. Bentley has launched a task force to study potentially eliminating the state's sales tax on groceries. He has no plans to replace the revenue.

Budget Watch

  • For his proposed budget to balance, Illinois Gov. Rauner needs $4.6 billion from a "grand bargain" still being worked out in the Senate. But the governor doesn't support major components of the latest iteration of the plan, such as taxing food and drugs at the general sales tax rate. He also is calling for a permanent property tax freeze in exchange for any increase in the income tax rates.  

Governors' State of the State Addresses

  • Most governors have now given their addresses for the year. The next scheduled address is Gov. Scott of Florida on March 7, followed by Gov. Kasich of Ohio on April 4, with Gov. Carney of Delaware and Gov. Cooper of North Carolina's speech dates still to be announced.

What We're Reading...  

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


State Rundown 2/15: Tax Overhauls Debated Around the Country


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This week we are following a number of significant proposals being debated or introduced including reinstating the income tax in Alaska and eliminating the tax in West Virginia, establishing a regressive tax-cut trigger in Nebraska, restructuring the Illinois sales tax, moving New Mexico to a flat income tax and broader gross receipts tax, and updating gas taxes in Indiana and Tennessee.

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

  • Introduced last week, Alaska HB 115 would reinstate an income tax for the first time since 1980, setting the income tax rate at 15 percent of federal tax liability. It would also draw from the state’s Permanent Fund and change the structure of the yearly dividends provided to Alaskans.
  • West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice echoed the sentiment of the state’s Senate President, who is leading a select committee to examine taxes, to eliminate the state’s personal income tax. The governor said his goal is to “… be the eighth state in the country to have no income tax.” However, given the state has a revenue shortfall, the governor’s budget proposes to use spending cuts and tax increases to close the gap this year, potentially putting the income tax elimination plan on hold for now. Tax increases in his budget proposal include a sales tax increase and base broadening, a gasoline tax increase, and the creation of a commercial activities tax.
  • Nebraska lawmakers sent $137 million in budget cuts to the governor's desk in an effort to help close the state's $900 million budget gap. Also this week, the state's Revenue Committee will hear testimony on a trigger-based tax cut for wealthy Nebraskans that would worsen the budget gap in future years.
  • The latest tax plan out of the Illinois Senate would reduce the general sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.75 percent while taxing food, drugs, and medical supplies at a higher rate and newly taxing services including repair and maintenance, laundry, landscaping, cable, and satellite.
  • Proposals to increase fuel taxes to better fund infrastructure improvement are dead in Idaho but still under consideration in Indiana and Tennessee. In Tennessee, variations on Gov. Haslam's attempt to combine the needed gas tax update with other tax cuts are proliferating, including one that would divert sales tax revenues from their intended purposes rather than update the gas tax, and a more responsible alternative that would update the gas tax and other fees without slashing other taxes.
  • Kansas revenue committees in both chambers are seeing their share of tax reform proposals. A House bill that increases income taxes, eliminates the LLC exemption, and restores itemized deductions for medical expenses advanced by a wide margin today, and could receive a final vote on Thursday. The latest in the Senate—eliminating the exemption for LLC income and restoring pre-Brownback standard and itemized deductions and a third income tax bracket at 6.45 percent--is expected to go to a vote to the full floor tomorrow.
  • A major tax bill has been introduced in the New Mexico House. House Bill 412 would restructure the state's gross receipts tax and proposes a flat personal income tax.
  • Despite higher energy prices, Wyoming’s economy remains flat while job and revenue growth continue to lag.
  • In Oklahoma, the House Appropriations and Budget Committee passed a bill that would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50/pack. The bill now heads to the full House for consideration.
  • Pennsylvania’s state supreme court refused to hear the Philadelphia soda tax appeal, arguing that the pending litigation is stopping the tax from funding programs it was created to fund.
  • An Arkansas bill to collect taxes from online retailers passed the Senate but stalled in House committee. However, Amazon will start collecting and remitting sales taxes in the state this March. A bill to require tax collections for online sales from large retailers is still under consideration in Idaho.
  • Another poll shows Iowa voters support paying more in sales taxes in exchange for investments in the state's water quality and parks system.
  • Efforts to help fill some of the state's $1.8 billion budget deficit with increased revenue contributions from corporations are underway in Oregon.
  • Nevada lawmakers heard a detailed presentation from an economic consultant explaining issues caused by the state's property tax cap that has held property taxes down but undermined funding for schools and other local services.

Budget Watch 

  • Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will be delivering his third budget address today. The state has not had a regular budget since FY 2015 due to an ongoing impasse between the governor and a democratic majority legislature.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal includes a proposed $600 million in additional tax cuts—including elimination of the state's property tax levy, reducing income tax rates, and restoring the EITC for families with one child. Senate leadership has suggested the more realistic target for tax cuts this session is $100 million.
  • Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget proposal, released last week, includes a mix of budget cuts, new revenue and shifts of state pension obligations onto municipalities. Elimination of the state’s property tax credit and a cut to the state EITC are among the new revenue sources.

Governors' State of the State Addresses 

  • In the past week, Governors Bevin of Kentucky, Sununu of New Hampshire, and Justice of West Virginia delivered their State of the State addresses.
  • There are no states with addresses scheduled through the end of next week.

What We're Reading...

  • A new paper out of the Wharton Business School looks at the relationship between "sin taxes" and consumer behavior, as well as ways to offset the more regressive impacts of these consumption taxes on low-income taxpayers.
  • A study on government pension funds shows combined costs for most jurisdictions appear manageable. Concern is for those outlier states with highest pension burdens—Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
  • The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy issued a brief showing that shifting from income taxes to sales taxes is a poor strategy for growing the state’s economy.

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


'IMPROVE' Act Fails to Improve Tennessee's Regressive Tax Code


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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal (dubbed the IMPROVE Act) to raise the state’s gas tax while cutting three other taxes would essentially be a tax cut for the state’s wealthiest residents and a tax increase for the lowest-income Tennesseans.

While the gas tax is badly in need of an update to fund maintenance and investment in the state’s roads and bridges, slashing other taxes by an equivalent amount would essentially plug the hole in transportation funding with money devoted to other vital needs like K-12 schools, higher education, and public safety. And because the gas tax increase predominantly impacts lower-income Tennesseans and many of the tax cuts are tilted in favor of the highest-income Tennesseans, the net effect of the proposal would be a shift in responsibility for funding state investments away from high-income individuals and onto low- and middle-income families (Figure 1).

Raising the gas tax in Tennessee is long overdue and gas taxes are widely regarded as an appropriate means for funding transportation infrastructure because they are paid by the people who use that infrastructure the most. Importantly, this includes visitors passing through Tennessee as well as businesses that may not be headquartered in Tennessee but ship goods into, out of, or within the state.

However, increasing the gas tax has a bigger effect on low- and middle-income family budgets than it does on those with higher incomes. While it is desirable to seek ways to offset the gas tax increase for those families least able to afford the tax, lawmakers should seek to do so without sacrificing revenues needed to fund other public services. The IMPROVE Act fails mightily in this regard, slashing other taxes to such an extent that the state will end up with no more revenue than it has today, and focusing many of those tax cuts on wealthy individuals and corporations.

As shown in Figure 2, only the token grocery tax reduction (from the current 5 percent rate to 4.5 percent) is targeted to the Tennessee families most affected by the gas tax increase. On the other hand, the Hall Tax cut for investors (from the current 5 percent rate to 2 percent over two years) and corporate tax cut (allowing businesses to choose “single sales factor” apportionment) predominantly benefit the state’s wealthiest residents. The Hall Tax is slated for full elimination in 2022.


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


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

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

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

Governors’ Budget Watch

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

Governors' State of the State Addresses

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

What We're Reading...

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

 

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


Surveying State Tax Policy Changes Thus Far in 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Increases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalled Tax Debates Likely to Resume in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Lies Ahead?

Key Tax-Related Measures on the Ballot in November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


State Rundown 7/27: Stalemates and Tax Cut Talk


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This week’s Rundown features an ongoing stalemate in New Jersey, talk of new tax cuts in Arkansas, "tampon taxes," and the taxation of fantasy sports. Be sure to check out the What We’re Reading section for new research on public attitudes toward tax and budget issues. Thanks for reading the Rundown!

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

  • The gas tax stalemate continues in New Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie voiced his disapproval on Monday of a tax package supported by the leaders of the state's Senate and Assembly. While Gov. Christie's opposition is focused mainly on the gas tax increase contained in the package, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) has voiced its disapproval of a different component: the "financially reckless" proposal to repeal the state's estate tax. As the debate over transportation funding drags on, some observers are now speculating that by canceling construction projects, the state may be opening itself up to breach-of-contract lawsuits.
  • Gov. Asa Hutchison hopes to lead Arkansas in another round of income tax cuts. This week the governor suggested that cutting the state's top tax rate to 5 percent would make the state "competitive," despite considerable evidence to the contrary. In reality, the most likely practical effect of such a change would be to increase the regressivity of the Arkansas tax code.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law last week that will repeal the state's so-called "tampon tax," thereby joining five other states in extending sales tax exemptions for feminine hygiene products. Removing these items from the state's sales tax base is estimated to reduce New York tax receipts by $10 million per year. Lawmakers in Florida and Illinois, among other states, have also contemplated similar exemptions in recent months.
  • Without a broad-based income tax, Tennessee sometimes finds itself looking for revenue in unusual places. To that end, the state's new fantasy sports privilege tax took effect this month. The tax sets clear rules for the taxation of daily fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel. While five other states also took action this year to regulate and/or tax fantasy sports websites, the topic remains a gray area in most states for the time being.

What We're Reading... 

  • The Oklahoma Policy Institute released a two-part report this week that outlines proposals to improve the state's fiscal policies and expand economic opportunity in the Sooner State.
  • The Washington Post reports on a new study revealing public attitudes on how to fund transportation improvements.
  • A new poll shows that Utah voters are willing pay more income taxes to better fund public education.
  • The OECD calls on the G20 to lead reforms that will create more socially equitable tax systems.

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


Five States Change their Gas Tax Rates on Friday; Will New Jersey Join Them?


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UPDATE: New Jersey did not increase its gas tax on July 1 because of disagreement over tax cuts that many legislators wanted to tie to the gas tax increase.  Lawmakers continue to search for a solution to the state’s infrastructure funding shortfall.

Independence Day weekend isn’t the only thing arriving this Friday.  Most states will be starting new fiscal years on July 1, and a handful of them will be adjusting their gas tax rates to mark the occasion.  And depending on the actions of New Jersey lawmakers over the coming days, it’s possible that the Garden State could overshadow the rest by implementing the largest gas tax increase in recent memory—and the state’s first in 26 years.

Aside from New Jersey, the rest of the 21 states that have waited a decade or more since last raising their gas tax rates will continue to hobble along as their transportation revenues stagnate.  In total, nineteen states will witness gas tax “anniversaries” on Friday when their gas tax rates will officially become a full year older.  Of that group, Tennessee’s 27 years of inaction leads the pack.  The Volunteer State has been collecting the same 20 cents in tax per gallon of gas since July 1, 1989—a few months prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Gas Tax Increases

For the moment, Washington State has the largest gas tax change scheduled for this Friday.  There, the tax rate on gasoline and diesel fuel will rise by 4.9 cents per gallon, bringing the state’s overall rate to 49.4 cents.  This is the second and final stage of an 11.9 cent increase enacted last year to fund improvements to the state’s transportation network.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s gas tax rate will rise by just under a penny per gallon (0.9 cents).  This represents the final stage of a reform signed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2013, though the state’s tax rate will continue to vary in the years ahead alongside both inflation and fuel prices.

Given the enormous economic importance of our transportation network, both of these increases are steps forward for these states.  But both would also pale in comparison to the 23 cent increase under consideration in New Jersey.  For years, lawmakers in the Garden State have struggled to fund their state’s infrastructure with a meager 14.5 cent per gallon gas tax, ranked second lowest in the nation behind only Alaska.  Boosting that rate to 37.5 cents per gallon would allow for enormous improvements to the state’s infrastructure while still leaving its rate below that of its two largest neighbors—New York and Pennsylvania.  But the cuts to general fund taxes (including income, sales, and estate taxes) that key lawmakers are insisting must accompany a gas tax hike would result in a major erosion of funding for education, health care, and the state’s notoriously underfunded pension system.

Gas Tax Cuts

Three states will see their transportation funding situations deteriorate later this week when gas tax rate cuts take effect.

In California, the 2.2 cent per gallon cut taking effect on Friday represents the third cut in as many years.  Altogether, this series of reductions has pushed the Golden State’s gas tax rate 11.7 cents lower than where it stood in the summer of 2013.

In Nebraska, the situation is somewhat better as the state’s more modest 1 cent per gallon cut is bookended by an increase that took effect in January and another increase expected to take effect next January.  But even so, the state’s gas tax rate is still lower than it was a decade ago.

And finally, the 1 cent per gallon gas tax cut taking place in North Carolina actually represents a smaller decline than was originally scheduled.  Last year, lawmakers intervened to curb reductions in the gas tax rate triggered by low gas prices.  At the same time, they also implemented a new formula that will allow the state’s tax rate to grow alongside its population starting this January.

Given how gas prices have declined as of late, it is remarkable that more states aren’t cutting gas tax rates on Friday.  Kentucky, Vermont, and Virginia all have gas tax rates linked to fuel prices that often undergo automatic adjustments on July 1, but the tax rates in each of these states have already fallen so low that they’ve reached the minimum, or “floor,” level specified in law.  Similarly, had Georgia not reformed its gas tax last year, it’s possible that a gas tax cut would have taken effect there as well.

Decades of Procrastination

Sometimes, inaction can be just as significant as actual changes in policy.  In total, nineteen states will see gas tax “anniversaries” arrive on Friday.  Unless New Jersey lawmakers act, for example, the state’s 14.5 cent per gallon fuel tax rate will have been frozen in time for exactly 26 years come Friday.  The last time the state’s tax rate on fuel went up was on July 1, 1990 when the four cent Petroleum Products Gross Receipts Tax took effect.

Other states where gas tax rates officially become one year older on Friday include Tennessee (27 years), New Mexico (23 years), Montana (22 years), Arkansas (15 years), Kansas (13 years), North Dakota (11 years), and Ohio (11 years).  At the other end of the spectrum, states such as Idaho and Rhode Island saw their gas tax rates increase exactly one year ago under reforms recently enacted by those states’ lawmakers.

As we explain in a newly updated brief identifying the number of years that have elapsed since each state last raised its gas tax rate:

If the gas tax is going to provide an adequate amount of revenue to fund transportation in the medium- and long-term, the tax rate needs to be periodically adjusted to at least keep pace with the rate of growth in the cost of infrastructure maintenance and construction. State gas tax rates that have gone ten to twenty years, or more, without an increase clearly do not live up to this bare minimum test of sustainability.

Read the brief 


What Just Happened in Tennessee? Questions and Answers


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Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill 47, affecting the state's Hall Tax on dividend and interest income. But the unusual nature of the Hall Tax, and of this legislation, have created some lingering questions regarding this bill's consequences.

Did Tennessee just eliminate its income tax? Yes and no. SB 47 reduces the tax rate from 6 percent to 5 percent in the first year, eliminates the tax entirely in 2022, and declares the legislature's intent to gradually reduce the rate in the intervening years. In essence, lawmakers bought a ring and set a wedding date, but gave themselves six years to plan the wedding and find the money for it. That's a big commitment, but not quite the same as tying the knot; people can change over the course of six years, and the Tennessee legislature will have new members and be operating in a different context six years from now.

So why the long engagement? While Tennessee had a modest budget surplus coming into this year, the Hall Tax brings in more than $300 million per year and Gov. Haslam and others expressed concerns about the state's ability to afford full repeal of the tax. And because more than $100 million in Hall Tax revenues are distributed to Tennessee cities and counties each year, opposition to repeal from local officials was strong as well. By delaying repeal until well outside the current budget window (2022), current legislators can take credit for "eliminating" the Hall Tax without having to identify a way to deal with the associated revenue drop for another six years—if they are even still in office when that time comes.

Who will be harmed and who will benefit? As we have written about here, here, and here, the primary beneficiaries of this bill are a small number of the wealthiest Tennesseans. The highest-income 5 percent of households will receive 61 percent of the tax cut while only 14 percent of the benefit will flow to the 95 percent of Tennesseans who earn less than $173,000 per year. The remaining 25 percent actually ends up going to the federal government as Tennesseans will lose the ability to write off their Hall Tax payments on their federal tax returns and will pay more in federal taxes as a result.

The negative effects of Tennessee losing more than $300 million in revenue, meanwhile, are more likely to fall on everyday Tennesseans. Local officials have been vocal that they are "definitely not happy about" losing their share of the funding (three-eighths of total Hall Tax revenues) and will "have to either increase property tax or cut services or both."

The state will ultimately face a similar decision, either having to cut funding for services like schools and public safety or raise other taxes to replace the lost Hall Tax funding. But finding potential cuts in Tennessee's already lean budget will be difficult, as the state currently ranks 48th in education spending and 43rd in total state and local spending as a share of personal income.[1] Moreover, the fact that Tennessee is unusually reliant on its sales tax (2nd highest reliance on general sales taxes in the country) to fund government means that its budget situation is likely to grow increasingly difficult in the years ahead if Tennesseans' consumption habits continue to shift away from (taxed) goods and toward (often untaxed) services and Internet purchases.

What is more, the Hall Tax was already one of the few progressive features of Tennessee's tax structure, so any future tax increases to offset the revenue loss are likely to hit low- and middle-income Tennesseans the hardest. The Tennessee tax system is more regressive (meaning it captures a greater share of income from the lowest-income residents than the wealthiest) than in all but six other states, a situation that will only worsen under SB 47.

Is this an example other states can follow? Anti-tax advocates in other states might mistake this year's action in Tennessee as an indication that their state may be able to eliminate its own income tax. In reality, however, Tennessee's situation is unique enough that it's unlikely to offer many lessons for would-be tax repealers elsewhere.

To be clear, Tennessee already lacks a broad-based income tax as the Hall Tax only applies to certain types of dividend and interest income. Moreover, the tax already includes generous exemptions that keep the vast majority of Tennesseans from paying anything at all. So while the Hall Tax is an important source of revenue for Tennessee's state and local governments, it is also much more modest than the broad-based income taxes that advocates in other states sometimes seek to repeal.

The Hall Tax generates 1.3 percent of state and local tax revenue in Tennessee, the lowest share of any state outside of the seven states that have no personal income tax at all.[2] Other states that have recently considered eliminating their income taxes are many times more reliant on those taxes than is Tennessee. For example, personal income taxes are 15 percent of tax revenues in Arizona, 21.7 percent in Oklahoma, and 22.9 percent in Kansas.

And despite the Hall Tax's comparatively small size, Tennessee lawmakers were only able to cut the rate by one-sixth this year—meaning that instead of losing 1.3 percent of public revenues, the short-term loss will be closer to 0.2 percent. In this light, income tax elimination in Oklahoma or Kansas would be about 100 times more damaging than what is occurring in Tennessee this year, and 17 times more damaging than what Tennessee is hoping to do over the next six years.

What's the bottom line? Tennessee's Senate Bill 47 has the potential to significantly reduce the adequacy and fairness of Tennessee's tax system. But lawmakers' desire to avoid making difficult budgetary tradeoffs led them to delay most of the bill's impact until 2022, meaning that there is plenty of time for the law to be scaled back or repealed before it takes effect. Moreover, lawmakers and advocates in other states should be careful not to read too much into Tennessee's experience—income tax repeal in a state like Tennessee means something very different than it does in a state deriving 15 to 20 percent, or more, of its revenue from taxes on income.


[1] Data in this paragraph are for Fiscal Year 2012-13 from U.S. Census Bureau Survey of State and Local Government Finances, the most recent data comparable across states; spending measure is direct general expenditures; Personal Income data from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

[2] Data in this paragraph also from U.S. Census Bureau Survey of State and Local Government Finance, Fiscal Year 2012-13.


State Rundown 5/26: Bad Ideas, Worse Budgets


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Thanks for reading the State Rundown! Here's a sneak peek: Kansas marks tax cut anniversary with budget cuts. New York governor expected to sign tampon tax repeal. Minnesota legislators pass tax cuts amid chaos. Tennessee repeals its Hall Tax. Massachusetts legislators give initial approval to millionaire tax.

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


 

This week marks the fourth anniversary of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cut "experiment," and the governor recently celebrated by signing another austerity budget. Brownback's mid-biennium budget adjustment includes $97 million in cuts for most state agencies. The budget cut by 4 percent all agencies except for public safety and K-12 education, with higher education being hit worst. More than $30 million of the cuts were to the higher education system; the University of Kansas (KU) has already proposed a 4 percent tuition increase for next year. Meanwhile, a recent report found that the state's highest paid public employee – KU basketball coach Bill Self – pays virtually no state income tax thanks to Brownback's derided exemption of business pass-through income. Self receives the bulk of his $2.75 million in annual compensation through a limited liability corporation. Not quite the outcomes Brownback claimed would come from his income tax cuts.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign a bill that would eliminate the state's sales tax levy on female hygiene products. Right now, the sales tax adds approximately 88 cents to an $11 pack of 50 tampons. The so-called "tampon tax" has come under fire in some circles for being regressive and an unfair imposition of the sales tax on a product that should be considered a necessity. Others, however, have noted that exempting products from the general sales tax base erodes the base over time, necessitating higher rates on other purchases. They also note that targeted sales tax credits for working families would be a better solution to sales tax regressivity.

Minnesota's legislative session ended in chaos this week, with lawmakers scrambling to pass a series of major deals but falling short. The legislature managed to pass a $260 million package of tax cuts before the Sunday night deadline but fell short on bills for transportation funding and public works. The tax cuts include property tax cuts for farmers and businesses, a new tax credit for Minnesotans with student loan debt, and credits to help Minnesota families with childcare costs. Interestingly enough, lawmakers also passed a $3 million sales tax exemption for the purchase of suites at sports stadiums, but not an exemption for ordinary game tickets. Gov. Mark Dayton has suggested he could call a special session in June to give lawmakers another shot at passing the transportation and public works bills. EDIT: The package of tax cuts also includes a strong expansion of the Working Family Credit, Minnesota’s version of the EITC. Under the changes, the size of the credit would expand for most families and individuals, and the income cutoff for eligibility will be raised for some families and individuals. Moreover, the age requirement for childless workers to qualify for the credit will be lowered from 25 years old to 21 years old. Minnesota is the first state (after Washington, DC) to expand the state EITC to childless workers. About 386,000 Minnesota families and individuals will benefit from the credit expansion, which will reduce taxes by $49 million.

Anti-tax advocates in Tennessee succeeded in their years-long push to eliminate the state's Hall income tax on investment income. Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill that cuts the tax rate from 6 to 5 percent this year, and that eliminates the tax entirely in 2022. The bill also says that its "intent" is for future legislators to enact additional, gradual rate cuts in the years before full repeal takes effect. The Hall income tax is levied on some dividend and interest income, and was expected to generate $341 million in revenue in FY 2017. ITEP data show that eliminating the tax would give the top 1 percent of Tennessee taxpayers an average $5,000 tax break while doing nothing for the vast majority of Tennesseans. As senior analyst Dylan Grundman notes, “The Hall Tax plays an important role in offsetting the otherwise regressive impact of Tennessee’s tax system. Overall, the state’s tax system captures a greater share of income from low- and middle-income people than from the wealthy but the Hall tax is one of the few taxes that runs counter to that trend.” Municipalities could struggle to make up lost Hall tax revenue, which delivers more than $100 million to the state’s cities and counties each year.

In a bit of good tax policy news, a proposed "millionaire tax" ballot initiative gained initial approval in Massachusetts. Lawmakers  voted 133-57 to advance a 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million. Massachusetts currently has a flat tax rate of 5.1 percent on all income, and the uniform rate is constitutionally mandated. To change this, the millionaire tax ballot initiative must be approved by at least 25 percent of lawmakers in a joint session during two successive legislative sessions. If lawmakers vote again to advance the measure next year then voters will have the chance to weigh in. If enacted, the millionaire tax would generate an additional $1.9 billion in revenue for transportation and education.

 

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.  


Koch Kudzu Takes Root in Tennessee, Threatens to Devour Hall Tax


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Two years ago, the Koch-brothers-backed group Americans for Tax Reform and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist launched an aggressive effort in Tennessee to eliminate the Hall Tax, a modest tax on capital gains and dividends that primarily falls on the very wealthiest Tennesseans.

That effort failed to produce results at the time, but like Kudzu, “the vine that ate the South,” the invasive idea proved difficult to stop once it took root in the Tennessee Legislature. With continued urging from outside groups and the state running a budget surplus this year, lawmakers again considered various proposals to outright eliminate the tax or phase it out over a number of years. Still, some remained concerned about giving life to a process that would be difficult to reverse and would choke off funding needed for state and local services.

But in a compromise that advanced unanimously through the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on Monday and continues to gain co-sponsors, Tennessee legislators are hoping they can introduce just a little bit of this Koch Kudzu this year and manage its spread in future years.

Can’t See the Forest for the Kudzu

While passing a measure to eliminate a tax that raises millions each year may be politically expedient during a year with a budget surplus, it is shortsighted.

The compromise reduces the Hall Tax rate from 6 percent to 5 percent in 2016 and declares the General Assembly’s intent to continue reducing the tax by 1 percentage point per year until it is extinct in 2021. This would reduce state and local revenues by about $57 million in the first year and $341 million per year if full repeal happens.

Revenue from the Hall Tax funds many vital state services and are also shared with Tennessee counties and municipalities. Ultimately these local governments could lose all of their Hall Tax revenue, which is currently about $119 million annually and used to pay for city streets, local police officers, county roads, etc. Once that revenue disappears, Tennesseans will either face cuts to those services or increases in their local property taxes.

Moreover, an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis finds that only those in the upper reaches of the Tennessee economy would see any significant benefit from the tax cuts. In just the first year, the wealthiest 1 percent of Tennesseans (with an average income of $1.2 million) would receive tax cuts averaging $870, while a majority of Tennesseans would see no benefit at all (see graph). 

More specifically, as we have detailed in our full report on Hall Tax repeal, only 14 percent of the total tax cut would flow to households among the bottom 95 percent of earners, while the top 5 percent of households would receive 61 percent of the benefit, and the federal government would collect the remaining 25 percent due to higher federal income tax payments by Tennesseans who would not be able to deduct as much in state taxes from their federal income taxes.

It should be noted that the Tennessee tax system is more regressive (meaning it captures a greater share of income from the lowest-income residents than the wealthiest) than all but six other states. In fact, the average tax rate for the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers is 10.9 percent compared to just 3 percent for the top 1 percent. Reducing or repealing the Hall Tax would make this imbalance even worse.

 


Tennessee Hall Tax Repeal Would Overwhelmingly Benefit the Wealthy


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Lawmakers in Tennessee will debate a bill today (SB 47) that would gradually eliminate the Hall Tax, Tennessee’s limited income tax on interest and dividends that generates about $341 million per year for public services in Tennessee. The bill would reduce the tax rate incrementally whenever state revenue growth exceeds 3 percent, until the tax is phased out altogether. As our newly updated report explains, this would be bad policy for the state of Tennessee for a number of reasons:

  • In a state that already leans more heavily on its low-income families for tax revenue than all but six other states, slashing the Hall Tax would make this imbalance even worse. The richest 1 percent of Tennesseans would receive tax cut windfalls averaging more than $5,000 and making up 45 percent of the total. In contrast, the 95 percent of Tennesseans who have incomes below $173,000 per year would get only 14 percent of the benefit, receiving a $17 tax cut on average.

  • To add insult to this injustice, $85 million, or 25 percent, of the total cut would actually flow to the federal government as Tennesseans lose the ability to write off their Hall Tax Payments on their federal tax returns and pay more to the federal government as a result. In fact, the richest 5 percent of Tennesseans would gain so much from the tax cut that they would lose more in federal write-offs than the bottom 95 percent would gain from the tax cut.
  • Local entities would suffer as well, as Hall Tax revenues are shared with Tennessee counties and municipalities. SB 47 would hold these local governments harmless for the first few years, but they would eventually lose all of their Hall Tax revenue, which is currently about $119 million worth of city streets, local police officers, county roads, etc. per year. Once that revenue goes away, Tennesseans will either face cuts to those services or increases in their local property taxes. And of course, delaying the effect on local governments means speeding up the losses to the state budget.

As we highlighted in earlier blogs, this approach of cutting taxes in small increments based on automatic "triggers" is a growing trend across the states. Such proposals appear modest on the surface but are ultimately yet another way of undermining vital public services while placing an even greater share of the responsibility for funding those services on low- and middle-income families.

 


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


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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tax Cuts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


State Rundown 6/18: Promising Gas Tax Developments, Pandering Tax Cuts


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Wisconsin lawmakers are considering eliminating the state’s Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), a move that would send tax breaks to the rich and nothing to more than 80 percent of Wisconsinites. The AMT is meant to ensure that wealthy individuals pay a minimum level of income tax, and is therefore assessed at higher incomes. Ironically, as state lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker slashed top marginal income tax rates for the wealthy, more of these taxpayers were subjected to the AMT. The proposal to eliminate the tax would cost more than $27 million annually in lost revenue.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives unanimously approved the 2016 budget deal on Tuesday night, sending the measure to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration. The unanimous approval cleared the House by 7:30pm, and has been touted as the quickest budget vote in at least 30 years. The $8.7 billion bill exempts Social Security income from the personal income tax for Rhode Islanders over 65 if their income is below $80,000 (single) or $100,000 (married) – a change that will benefit mostly wealthy retirees, as we’ve argued before. The plan also phases out sales taxes on utility bills for non-manufacturing businesses. On a positive note, the budget increases the states refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a tax break for working families, from 10 to 12.5 percent.

The Florida Legislature approved a $400 million package of tax cuts on Monday, and Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the measure even though it reduces taxes by less than he wanted. Passage of the measure comes after the resolution of a deadlock over healthcare spending; Florida is expected to lose federal aid to state hospitals, and many lawmakers were reluctant to accept Medicaid dollars offered under the Affordable Care Act. In the end, the size of the tax cuts relative to what Scott proposed was reduced by almost half in order to cover healthcare costs. The package of cuts includes tax cuts for cellphone purchases and cable bills, college textbooks, and sailboat repairs that cost more than $60,000.

As the summer travel season heats up, lawmakers in states across the country are mulling gas tax increases as a way to boost road construction and maintenance budgets. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam plans to barnstorm the state to stress the need for more transportation funding, though he’s stopped short of endorsing a gas tax increase. Tennessee’s gas tax hasn’t risen in decades, and the average motorist there is paying a third less per mile for roads than a generation ago. An editorial in The New York Times, meanwhile, argues that New Jersey lawmakers must raise their state gas tax to pay for crumbling roads. At 14.5 cents a gallon, the state tax is less than a third of New York’s tax and trails Pennsylvania and Connecticut by similar margins. Meanwhile, New Jersey has 577 structurally deficient bridges and 300,000 potholes. Efforts to increase state gas taxes also received a boost from a recent study that finds gas tax increases do not result in penny-to-penny increases in the price that motorists pay at the pump.

A Delaware House committee will consider a bill that would make their income tax rate structure more progressive. Currently, the top personal income tax rate is 6.6 percent for income above $60,000. The new proposal would institute a rate of 7.1 percent for income between $125,000 and $250,000, and a rate of 7.85 percent for income above $250,000. State officials say the changes would increase revenue by $97.5 million over the next two years. 


State Rundown 4/30: Tax Cuts Stall, Tax Increases Advance


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A proposed constitutional amendment that would implement a flat income tax has stalled in the Alabama Senate. A vote on the measure, titled the “The Simplified Flat Tax Act of 2015,” was postponed by a Senate budget committee after sponsor Sen. Bill Hightower asked for more time to work on the measure. The bill would implement a flat income tax and eliminate some exemptions, credits and deductions. Opponents of the bill, including the advocacy group Alabama Arise, note that the changes would reduce revenue for the Education Trust Fund by hundreds of millions of dollars, and that some of the credits and deductions eliminated would impact retirees and working families. Kimble Forrister, executive director of Alabama Arise, cited ITEP data showing the bill would benefit mainly the wealthy while hurting the poorest Alabamans. He told the committee that “Alabama can't move forward as long as we have an outdated, upside down tax system." Sen. Hightower wants to make the bill revenue neutral and prevent any tax hikes for low-income Alabamans.

A committee in the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that would raise revenues in the state. Members on the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee voted to approve a tax package that increases personal income tax rates for the wealthy and broadens the sales tax base. The top marginal income tax rate would increase to 6.99 percent for individuals making $500,000 or more and joint filers making $1 million or more. The measure also creates a new supplemental tax on capital gains income of 2 percent for the same group. The state sales tax rate would be reduced from 6.35 to 5.35 percent, while the base would expand to include more services, including engineering, veterinary services, laundries and dry cleaners, golf courses, and accountants. The measure is expected to raise $1.7 billion over the next two fiscal years, and would reverse many of the deep cuts proposed in Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget. The bill incorporates some of the progressive tax changes proposed by Connecticut Voices for Children, which incorporated ITEP analysis into their report.

Efforts to repeal the Hall Income Tax have failed again in Tennessee after the legislature failed to act on two repeal measures before the close of session. The Hall Tax is a 6 percent tax on income from stocks, bonds and dividends that is the state’s only tax on personal income. A significant portion of the revenues raised by the tax supports county and municipal governments. Opponents of the Hall tax won a small victory, however, as they succeeded in increasing the exemption allowed for citizens over the age of 55.

A measure to raise the sales tax in Iowa advanced out of a Senate subcommittee on Monday, while a parallel bill is being discussed in the House. Senate Bill 1272 would increase the sales tax by three-eighths of one percent to generate new revenue for natural resources and outdoor education – as much as $150 million annually, according to its sponsors. The bill has wide support, including “representatives of conservation, environmental, farm and outdoor recreation groups.”

 

Do you have a story you think should be in the next Rundown? Email sdpjohnson@itep.org with your idea!

 


State Tax Policy Trends in 2015: Not All That "Trickles Down" Is Rain


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The theory that tax cuts for the affluent will eventually trickle down to everyone else is shopworn, yet supply-side adherents keep promising the public that the rich can have their tax cuts and the rest of us will eat cake too.

Despite 35 years of data showing this to be false, the notion has seduced enough policymakers to keep the lights on at Art Laffer’s house.

At least 10 states have tax cut proposals in motion that, unlike the tax shifts we reviewed previously, will not offset cuts by raising other taxes but by raiding surpluses or reducing spending. The overwhelming majority of these proposals will reduce taxes for the best off while doing nothing or little for everyone else, making a regressive tax landscape worse.  Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s overhaul of his state’s income tax and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s proposal to introduce a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would actually benefit low- and moderate-income families, but most of the other proposals would lead mainly to benefits for the wealthy.

Over time such tax cuts exacerbate income inequality and stymie opportunity for the masses. Taxes and spending are on a balance scale. Top-heavy tax cuts and their purported economic benefits do not trickle down a rolling hill; they tip the scale in favor of the rich while depriving states of necessary revenue to adequately fund basic services, including education, public safety, infrastructure health and other priorities. Below are some pending proposals:

Arkansas: Gov. Asa Hutchinson fulfilled his campaign promise of passing a middle class tax cut. The governor’s plan introduces a new income tax rate structure for middle income Arkansans. To help pay for the measure the capital gains exemption was reduced from 40 to 50 percent. Using data from ITEP, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families explains that the taxpayers who benefit from capital gains exemptions are wealthier families.

Florida: Once again, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is pushing lawmakers to enact an unusual hodgepodge of tax cuts.  Under his proposal, taxes on cable TV and cell phone usage would drop by 3.6 percentage points, manufacturing machinery and textbooks would both be exempted from the sales tax, the corporate income tax exemption would be raised from $50,000 to $75,000, and yet another back-to-school sales tax holiday would be held this summer.  The overall cost of this package would be roughly $700 million, and while it’s too early in the session to gauge the chances of passage, there is apparently some skepticism toward the plan in the state legislature.

Idaho: The big tax shift sought by some Idaho lawmakers is off the table for now, but Gov. Butch Otter made clear all along that he prefers a straight-up cut to the state’s corporate income tax rate, and its top personal income tax rate, from 7.4 to 6.9 percent.  Our analysts recently found that such a tax cut would make Idaho’s decidedly regressive tax system even more unfair.  More than three out of every four dollars in personal income tax cuts would flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of households, and members of the top 1 percent would see an average tax cut of over $3,500 each year.  These cuts would come on top of a very similar package of regressive income tax reductions enacted in 2012.

Mississippi: Lawmakers in the Magnolia State can’t seem to get enough of tax cut proposals. In addition to the tax shift proposal passed by the House recently (and written about here), lawmakers are debating a variety of tax cutting measures, which include decreasing personal and corporate income tax rates, introducing a nonrefundable EITC, and eliminating the corporate franchise tax.

Montana: The Montana legislature has approved a bill that would cut personal income tax rates across the board and reduce state revenues by roughly $42 million per year.  ITEP analyzed similar, earlier versions of the cut and found that high-income households would be the largest beneficiaries and that low-income and middle-income taxpayers, who currently face the highest overall state and local tax rates, would receive little or no benefit.  Governor Steve Bullock is likely to veto the plan because of its impact on the state’s ability to fund vital public services.

Nebraska: With the sheer number and diversity of tax cut bills circulating in Nebraska this winter, it seems certain some cut will be enacted.  Much of the focus so far has been on reducing property taxes, a stated priority of newly elected Gov. Pete Ricketts.  Property tax proposals include creating a new refundable, targeted property tax circuit breaker credit for homeowners and renters, introducing a local income tax to reduce reliance on property taxes for school funding, hiking the sales tax rate to pay for a bump in a statewide property tax credit, and increasing personal and corporate income tax rates to pay for property tax cuts. State business leaders, however, have made it clear that income tax cuts are their main concern, and Governor Ricketts has not ruled out the possibility.  One plan being floated would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates over eight years, giving the biggest benefits by far to the richest Nebraskans.

North Carolina (updated 4/6/2015): Two years after North Carolina enacted a sweeping tax cut package, state lawmakers have returned this year with more tax cutting plans that will bust the budget to benefit wealthy residents and profitable corporations.  Senate Republicans have unveiled another round of personal income tax cuts that cost more than  $1 billion when fully enacted and would slash millions of dollars in corporate income taxes. There has also been talk of reducing taxes on capital gains income, restoring items eliminated in 2013 including a deduction for medical expenses and historic preservation tax credit.  What makes these proposals even more egregious is the state’s anticipated revenue shortfall of almost $300 million this year. Lawmakers were forced to close a $500 million revenue gap last year with deep spending cuts after underestimating the steep cost of the tax cuts passed in 2013.  

North Dakota: Just a few short months ago, North Dakota lawmakers were giddy about the idea of using booming oil and gas tax revenue to pay for an elimination or significant reduction of the state’s personal income tax.  But as gas prices plummeted, reality set in and the House approved a scaled back proposal – a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in personal and corporate income tax rates (Gov. Dalrymple also proposed a 10 percent personal income tax cut).  North Dakota lawmakers enacted similar plans in 2011 and 2013, slowly chipping away at the two taxes.

Tennessee: In what’s becoming an annual tradition, multiple Tennessee lawmakers have proposed (subscription required) repealing the state’s “Hall Tax”—a modest 6 percent income tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains income.  As we showed in our recent Who Pays? report, the Hall Tax is a rare progressive bright spot in a tax system that tilts overwhelmingly in favor of affluent households.  Fortunately, leaders in the state’s House and Senate are reportedly unenthused by the idea since Tennessee’s wealthiest households recently benefited from cuts in estate, inheritance, and gift taxes.  And while it’s discouraging that the governor isn’t making principled tax fairness arguments against these proposals, he is very skeptical that the state can afford to get rid of the Hall Tax right now.

Texas: Lawmakers in the Lone Star State hope to enact a tax cut package that would cost about $4 billion over a two year period.  Governor Greg Abbott’s top priority is cutting the business franchise tax, and he has said that he will veto any budget that does not include such a cut.  So far, the main options for reducing business franchise taxes include cutting the rate from 1 to 0.85 percent or raising the exemption from $1 million to $4 million.  The governor would also like to see school property taxes cut, and the Senate seems happy to go along with that idea.  Options currently under discussion include raising the $15,000 homestead exemption to $33,625, or converting it to equal 25 percent of home value.  As we explain in this policy brief, the percentage-based option is less fair than a flat-dollar exemption.  But it’s also important to keep in mind the context provided by Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities: “There’s better uses of this money … than tax cuts.”


State Rundown 1/16: Kumbaya Caucus


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

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

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

 

Following Up:

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

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

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

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

 

Things We Missed: 

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


State Rundown 1/12: When Your Mouth Writes a Check Your State Can't Cash


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Welcome to the State Rundown, your source for the latest in state tax policy! This week, 21 states begin their legislative sessions, including a number of states where newly-elected conservative governors will have to grapple with big budget deficits. Presidential contenders Scott Walker and Chris Christie will deliver highly-anticipated State of the State addresses as well. Here are the top stories we’ll be following this week:

 

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who campaigned on a pledge to cut income taxes, will likely shift his focus from tax cuts to spending cuts in his State of the State address today. His pledge last week not to raise taxes in his inaugural address was widely seen as a concession that promised tax cuts were untenable given the state’s $500 million deficit this fiscal year and projected $1 billion shortfall in FY 2016. Ducey will instead announce a statewide hiring freeze and his intention to push for a resolution to a long-standing school funding dispute.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will attempt to use his State of the State address to stop his recent slide in the polls and seize the initiative on two issues that threaten his legacy – public employee pension reform and transportation funding. So far the governor has been mum about the contents of his speech, but New Jersey political watchers anticipate Christie will defend his decision to cut back on promised payments to state pension plans. A bipartisan commission appointed by the governor has yet to release recommendations on how to deal with tens of billions of dollars in unfunded health benefits and pension liabilities. Christie must also contend with a nearly insolvent transportation fund that will go broke in July without additional funding. Some observers speculate that the governor will call for a state gas tax increase, which, after adjusting for inflation, is currently at its lowest level in history.

Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who identified property tax cuts as his first priority in his inaugural address last week, may also welcom efforts in the legislature to push for income tax cuts as well. Business leaders in the state have made it clear that income tax cuts are their main concern, and the state’s projected budget shortfall makes it unlikely Nebraska could afford both property tax cuts and income tax cuts. The release of the Governor’s budget this week will provide more details on his vision for tax cuts. Proposals already circulating in the legislature include reducing the taxable value of agricultural land, capping property taxes, taxing land based on profit generated instead of market value, or increasing the size of the state’s property tax credit fund.            

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam could be a victim of his party’s success in the last election, as conservative state lawmakers could push the governor farther to the right than he would like during the legislative session that starts this week. Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, and some lawmakers plan to push to cut or eliminate the Hall Tax over the governor’s objections. The Hall Tax is a six percent tax on income from dividends, interest and capital gains – and a rare progressive feature in a tax system that leans overwhelmingly on the poor. Haslam has repeatedly rebuffed calls from conservative groups to push for repeal, arguing that the $300 million in revenue gained from the tax each year would be difficult to replace. His stance could be complicated, however, by his push to have Tennessee accept Medicaid expansion under his Insure Tennessee plan. Expansion could bring $1.14 billion in new spending and 15,000 jobs to Tennessee, but is a lightning rod among conservatives who oppose the Affordable Care Act. The governor could decide that he lacks the political capital to fight for Insure Tennessee and the Hall Tax at the same time.

 

States Starting Session This Week:
Arkansas
Arizona
Colorado
Delaware
Georgia
Idaho
Illinois
Iowa
Kansas
Maryland
Minnesota
North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wyoming

State of the State Addresses This Week:
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (watch here)
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (watch here)
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (Tuesday)
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (Tuesday)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Tuesday)
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (Tuesday)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (Tuesday)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (Tuesday)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (Wednesday)
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (Wednesday)
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (Wednesday)
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (Thursday)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (Thursday)
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (Thursday)
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (Thursday) 

Governor’s Budgets Released This Week:
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (Monday)
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (Wednesday)
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (Thursday)
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (Thursday)
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (Thursday)
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (Thursday)
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (Friday)


The Best and Worst State Tax Policies of 2014


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2014. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Our position didn’t prevail in every state, but the cause of tax justice and fairness for working families made significant gains in a number of places. Below, the best and worst tax policies of the past year:

The Best

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Washington, DC takes the number one spot for enacting a progressive tax reform package this past summer. Unlike other jurisdictions that have used the guise of “reform” to cut taxes for the wealthy, the D.C. City Council cut the personal income tax rate for middle-class residents and expanded a number of provisions to assist working families, including the property tax circuit breaker and standard deduction. The council also expanded the city’s EITC for childless workers, one of the most effective strategies for lifting workers out of poverty and a longtime ITEP recommendation. The city partially paid for these reforms by broadening the sales tax base to include more services, limiting personal exemptions for better-off citizens, and making permanent its 8.95 percent income tax bracket on high-income earners.  Many additional changes are tied to revenue triggers, ensuring that the reform measures won’t wreck the city’s finances.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made sustainability and fairness the centerpiece of his 2015 budget proposal, announced this month. The proposal protects education spending and important services through a 7 percent capital gains tax on capital gains earnings above $25,000 per individual and $50,000 per couple. The governor also pledged to fund the state’s working families tax credit (the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit) through his proposed tax on carbon polluters, benefiting 450,000 Washington families. The proposal is the boldest by a Washington governor in some time.

Lawmakers in Minnesota and Maryland invested in provisions to give working families a lifeline. Minnesota expanded the property tax credit for homeowners and renters and increased the working family credit (the state’s EITC) and the dependent care credit. Maryland legislators expanded the refundable portion of the EITC, from 25 percent to 28 percent.

Alaska officials saw the light and decided to let their film tax credit expire five years early. The film tax credit has been notoriously ineffective in a number of states.

Vermont legislators increased homestead property taxes by 4 mills (cents per $100 of assessed value) and non-residential property taxes by 7.5 mills, while leaving rates unchanged for low and moderate-income taxpayers.

 

The Worst

Lawmakers in Wisconsin doubled down on their tax-cut fervor, reducing the bottom personal income tax rate from 4.4 percent to 4 percent and enacting another round of state-funded property tax cuts.

Voters in Tennessee permanently banned the state from enacting a broad-based personal income tax through a ballot measure that amends the state constitution, essentially tying the hands of future lawmakers and ensuring that the state’s tax system will remain among the most regressive in the nation.  Georgia voters approved an amendment to cap the state’s top personal income tax rate where it stands as of Jan. 1, 2015, which could lead to financial problems down the road and will prevent future Georgians from making needed investments.

Lawmakers in Missouri and Oklahoma enacted personal income tax cuts dependent on the state hitting revenue targets.  Oklahoma’s top personal income tax rate would drop from 5.25 to 4.85 percent while Missouri’s top income tax rate would drop from 6 to 5.5 percent; in Missouri, a new 25 percent exemption on pass-thru business income would be implemented.

Lawmakers in a number of jurisdictions – Washington, DC, Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota, and New York – increased the estate tax threshold, essentially giving the wealthiest residents in those states a huge, unnecessary tax break.

Florida lawmakers passed a hodgepodge of gimmicky sales tax holidays and exemptions for car seats, cement mixers, helmets, electricity bills, college meal plans and a host of legislator’s pet causes. The legislature also reduced the business franchise tax and cut motor vehicle fees, for a total of $500 million in lost revenue. 


Tax Proposals on the Ballot this Election Season


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Ah, fall. The season marks the countdown to that quintessential American holiday, where childish figures go door-to-door, asking for favors under false pretenses. I am of course talking about election season, which traditionally kicks into high gear in October.

This year, voters in states across the nation will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on a number of ballot initiatives regarding taxes. In some states, ballot initiative supporters are seeking to limit tax policy choices available to lawmakers, while ballot initiatives in other states would raise revenue to boost school funding. We’ve compiled a few of them here, along with links to the best resources, to help voters understand the issues and make their decision this November.

Georgia voters will decide the fate of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state from increasing the top marginal income tax rate above the rate in effect on Jan. 1, 2015. While the legislature is now adjourned until 2015, a special session could theoretically be called to lower the top rate (now at 6 percent) before Jan.1. Supporters of the measure argue that its passage would make the state more competitive and reduce uncertainty over fiscal policy for businesses interested in investing in Georgia. Opponents say the uncertainty argument is bogus since the state hasn’t raised the income tax since the 1980s, and that businesses and residents choose where to locate based on a number of factors other than income tax rates. They further note that states that have passed similar measures have faced fiscal challenges down the road; Illinois and California, both of which have restrictive tax amendments in their constitutions, have been hamstrung by budget deficits and an inability to raise revenue during economic downturns.

Massachusetts voters have the option of repealing a 2013 law that ties the gas tax to inflation, allowing for automatic gas tax increases each year. The law also includes a minimum cap on the state gas tax, to prevent gas tax decreases due to deflation. Supporters of repeal argue that the law is a slippery slope that could lead to the linkage of other taxes to inflation, and that it unfairly allows legislators to raise taxes “through the back door” without having to answer to voters. They also argue that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem; the last time the state raised the gas tax for road repairs, the money was diverted to other purposes. Opponents of the ballot measure say it would jeopardize transportation projects across the state, threatening the safety of Massachusetts drivers and contributing to the deterioration of many roads and bridges. 53 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and bad roads cost Massachusetts drivers $2.3 billion a year in car repairs. In the past, ITEP has argued that gas tax indexing is good policy since it maintains a state’s purchasing power and creates a stable funding source – read more in our comprehensive gas tax report.

Tennessee voters could enshrine the state’s current lack of a broad-based personal income tax in the state constitution. A ballot question would permanently ban the legislature from enacting a general income tax on wages and salaries by state or local governments. Supporters argue that the measure would make the state more attractive to businesses by reducing uncertainty and locking in Tennessee’s status as a low-tax state. Opponents argue the measure will make it harder for future Tennesseans to deal with economic downturns and that the state’s political climate makes the imposition of an income tax unlikely in any event. For more on Tennessee, check out this recent blog post.

Nevada voters could implement a new 2 percent margins tax on businesses with over $1,000,000 in revenue to support public schools. Supporters argue that Nevada is 49th in per-pupil spending while also maintaining the lowest state corporate taxes in the nation; since 2009, the state has cut education spending by $700 million. The also maintain that 87 percent of businesses would be unaffected by the measure, and that revenues raised would go solely to education spending. Opponents claim the measure would increase the cost of doing business in the state, would hurt thousands of small businesses, and that the revenue raised would go to county bureaucrats instead of classrooms. The AFL-CIO, which initially supported the measure, now opposes it on the grounds that it could cost some Nevadans their jobs and raise the cost of living if businesses cut costs or pass the tax on to consumers.

Illinois voters will decide whether to support an additional 3 percent surtax on income over $1,000,000 to provide more funding for school districts based on student population. The ballot measure is an advisory question, so it will not be legally binding. Supporters argue that the best-off Illinoisans should do more to support the public schools, which are chronically underfunded. Opponents argue that the measure is an election-year gimmick meant to boost the performance of Democratic candidates rather than a serious proposal. They also argue that the state raised taxes substantially just a few years ago and still cut education funding, and that the tax will lead to tax flight by the wealthy. For the record, tax flight is a myth


Tennessee Mulls Move from Bad to Worse on Tax Policy


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tennessee.jpgTennessee is already one of the ten most unfair states when it comes to tax policy. It is one of nine states that do not levy a broad-based personal income tax on their residents’ earnings (the state does collect a 6 percent tax on investment income from dividends, interest, and some capital gains income- see more below). Instead, the state relies heavily on regressive sales taxes to fund public services, and as a result the bottom 20 percent of Tennesseans pay four times as much of their income in state and local taxes as the top 1 percent. Sadly, instead of trying to create a more fair tax system, there are two efforts underway that would make a bad deal for working families even worse.

The first effort is Amendment 3, a ballot initiative (and political gimmick) that would permanently ban the state legislators from creating a broad state income tax. Never mind that any income tax bill has zero chance of passing, and that the last serious effort in 2002 ended in wild protests and bricks thrown through windows. The measure has many prominent cheerleaders, most notably the father of voodoo economics, pundit-for-hire and Nashville resident Art Laffer, and his sidekick Travis Brown. They claim that Tennessee’s economic success (43rd in unemployment rate, 30th in quality of labor supply, 40th in quality of life) is due to its “status as a no-income tax state.”  They see Tennessee as the vanguard of the “heartland tax rebellion,” a gaggle of shortsighted tax “reforms” pushed by Laffer and right-wing organizations in conservative states. Kansas was the poster-child until recent events caused the state to become a liability.

Amendment supporters also claim the measure will bring more jobs to Tennessee, since business owners would be absolutely certain there would never be any broad income tax imposed. As usual, the claim is made with no evidence or common sense; who are these fence-sitting job creators who refuse to set up shop in Tennessee because of the possibility of a new tax that isn’t even imposed on businesses? Perhaps supporters, who are making a clearly ideological choice, can’t conceive of any other way to make business decisions. 

Unfortunately for supporters, their claims are belied by pesky facts. John Stewart, an opponent of the measure and former state economic development official, asserts that he “never had one company raise the issue of income tax as to whether they were going to come or not. The one issue they always cared about was a skilled and trained workforce through our colleges.” Stewart notes that the measure will force future Tennesseans to pay higher sales, property, food and business taxes or cut services in order to balance the budget. A recent Standard and Poor’s report found that states without progressive income taxes will see revenues shrink due to growing income inequality.

The second effort is the ongoing fight to repeal the Hall tax, which taxes investment income from dividends, interest, and some capital gains income. Attempts to repeal the tax failed this year, so advocates – backed by the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist – will try again during the 2015 legislative session. An ITEP analysis found that nearly two-thirds of the benefits from repealing the Hall tax would go to the wealthiest Tennesseans – those earning an average of $970,000 a year. The next largest beneficiary would be the federal government, since investors would no longer be able to write off Hall tax payments on their federal returns.

The losers from the repeal of the Hall tax would be ordinary Tennesseans, who would see state and local spending decrease or other taxes increase. Last year, the tax generated $264 million in revenue, three-eighths of which went to local jurisdictions. The plan to repeal the Hall tax would require the state to reimburse cities and counties for any revenue losses, but doesn’t specify where the money would come from. An editorial in the Knoxville News-Sentinel gets it right: “Without new revenue sources, the state would have to cannibalize other parts of its perpetually lean budget….Repeal of the Hall tax at this time without finding alternative revenue sources does not make sense for the state, for local governments or for the people of Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s blind, ideological pursuit of tax cuts has prevented the state from making crucial investments that would actually make the state more competitive. Tennessee ranks 40th in teacher pay, yet the most recent state budget was passed without promised raises for teachers and state employees. Proposed higher education spending was also eliminated, meaning college students will see tuition jumps. The idea that states can cut their way to prosperity – despite the evidence all around us – is alive and well. 


State Rundown 9/19: Income Tax Debates and Film Tax Credits


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tax.news-article.jpgA new report from Standard and Poor’s that shows progressive income tax systems are better for state revenue could provide a boost to tax reformers in Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe. Massachusetts is one of seven states with a flat personal income tax rate, and a bipartisan commission recently found that the state’s overall tax system places a greater burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers than it does on the wealthy. They’ve recommended that the state adopt a graduated income tax structure -- a move that would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment. Similar proposals have been defeated at the polls five times, most recently in 1994. For our take on the S&P report, check out this blog post from our director, Matt Gardner.

Meanwhile, Tennessee voters will soon decide whether to ban their state legislature from ever imposing a state tax on all personal income (Tennessee currently taxes interest and dividend income). The measure is largely superfluous, since there is little chance state lawmakers would ever consider a broader income tax. The last attempt to introduce a tax on personal income, in 2002, resulted in strident protests, including a brick thrown through the governor’s office window. Lawmakers ended up passing a sales tax increase instead, the last time any general tax increase was passed in the state. In last year’s Who Pays report, Tennessee ranked in the bottom ten states for tax fairness.

The Louisiana Film Entertainment Association (LFEA) commissioned a study on the economic impact of the state’s film tax credit incentive program. They’ve tapped HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm that has done similar analysis of film tax credits for the Motion Picture Association in Massachusetts and New York. The results of the state’s own studies, commissioned by Louisiana Economic Development, show that film credits were a net loss to the state in 2012, and each dollar collected on film credits cost $4.35 in state revenue. In 2010, the state spent $7.29 for each dollar collected. The LFEA study is sure to come up with much rosier numbers.

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that would triple funding for the state’s film and television tax credit program. The measure is meant to keep film and television production from leaving the state, and is the culmination of a yearlong campaign by entertainment industry lobbyists. Hollywood has been hammered by aggressive competition from other localities – like New York, Vancouver and Atlanta, where incentives were more generous – and new business models, like Netflix and HBOGo. While the measure enjoys broad support, not everyone is happy about the tax credits: the state’s public education unions fear the measure will reduce the money available for schools, while others have questioned the effectiveness and transparency of the credits. 


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


Norquist-Backed Tax Cut for the Rich Fails in Tennessee


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Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, along with the Tax Foundation and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity all tried to convince Tennessee lawmakers that the state’s wealthiest investors need a tax cut.  Fortunately for Tennesseans, their elected officials rejected that idea this week.

 At issue was the state’s “Hall Tax,” a 6 percent levy on stock dividends, certain capital gains, and interest.  Tennessee does not tax wages, business income, pensions, Social Security, or virtually any other type of income imaginable.  But for anti-tax groups, even the state’s narrow income tax on investors was too much to stomach.

The Tax Foundation put out an alert claiming Tennessee could improve in its (highly questionable) tax climate ranking by repealing the tax, while Grover Norquist traveled to Tennessee to urge repeal and Americans for Prosperity ran a series of radio ads doing the same.

The state’s comptroller got in on the action as well, bizarrely suggesting that the Hall Tax is bad policy because it is not primarily paid by large families or low-income people lacking health insurance.

But ultimately, sensible concerns that repeal would require damaging cuts in state and local public services eventually won out, and the bill’s sponsor dropped his plan.

This is good news for people concerned with the fairness and adequacy of state tax systems.  As our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explained in a report picked up by The Tennessean, these cuts in public investments would have come with no corresponding tax benefit for the vast majority of households:

“Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the tax cuts would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of Tennessee taxpayers, while another quarter (23 percent) would actually end up in the federal government’s coffers. Moreover, if localities respond to Hall Tax repeal by raising property taxes, some Tennesseans could actually face higher tax bills under this proposal.”

Tennesseans can breathe a sigh of relief that this top-heavy tax repeal plan didn’t make it into law this year.  But you can bet that Grover et al. will try again soon as they attempt to set in motion a national trend away from progressive income taxes.


State News Quick Hits: Maine Cracks Down on Tax Havens and More


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Maine legislators are poised to crack down on corporations that use foreign tax havens to hide income from state tax authorities. The legislation, which has now been passed by both the House and Senate but still faces further votes, requires multinationals doing business in Maine to declare income otherwise attributed to more than thirty countries known to be popular tax havens (like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, not to mention the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which turns out to be an island off the coast of France). Analysts estimate that such a change would increase state revenue by $10 million over the next two years. And U.S. PIRG, among other public interest organizations, has been beating the drum for this sensible reform, which we discussed in our recent report: 90 Reasons We Need State Corporate Tax Reform. Oregon and Montana already have similar laws on their books.

Thanks to a refundable tax credit included in New York’s budget this year, theater companies who launch their productions in upstate New York will enjoy having taxpayers foot the bill for 25 percent of the cost of “their so-called tech periods, the weeks long process in which a production gathers the costumes, tests the sets and choreography and establishes the lighting and musical cues.” Despite the credit’s extreme generosity, we’re still not sure it would have been enough to save Spider-Man.

Tax swap proposals that would trade income rate reductions for sales tax increases have been all the rage in conservative states in recent years. But what if your state doesn’t even have an income tax to begin with? Not wanting to be left out of the tax swap craze, Republican candidate for Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has a solution: completely replace property taxes with an increased sales tax. Texas already has a horribly regressive state tax system (PDF), but eliminating the property tax -- which is at least close to proportional in its distribution across income groups -- would only make matters worse. And while it is “easy to hate” the property tax, without it Texas would need to drastically cut services or more than double the sales tax. Such a trade could also mean less autonomy for localities (PDF) and a revamped school financing system.

Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are continuing to push for eliminating income taxes on investors in Tennessee, and there’s a chance they may succeed.  The state’s tax-writing committees will be voting this week on whether or not to gradually repeal Tennessee’s “Hall Tax” on dividends, interest, and some capital gains.  But repeal would be steeply regressive, as our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) showed in a report cited by The Tennessean.  And on top of that, a spokesman for Governor Bill Haslam explains that “we’re in the middle of dealing with difficult budget realities … and this legislation would automatically put the issue above other priorities when revenues come back.”


State News Quick Hits: EITC Awareness, Grover Norquist's New Target and More


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Community organizations, state tax departments, and editorial pages across the country celebrated National EITC Awareness Day last Friday. Roughly 80% of those eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit take advantage of it each year, a higher participation rate than most other social programs. But keeping this figure high -- and ensuring that busy, working people are also aware of state and local EITCs they may qualify for -- requires continued vigilance. One way to boost participation, and to save beneficiaries from wasting their refund on paid tax preparers, is by joining the volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) program. We also need anti-poverty advocates on the front lines fighting plans in some states to eliminate or weaken their state EITC, as North Carolina did last year.

Like many Americans, Grover Norquist is apparently sick of Congressional gridlock (despite having played no small part in causing it through his inflexible no-new-taxes pledge).  But rather than sit around while federal tax reform continues to stall, Grover has turned his sights toward Tennessee.  Grover wants to see Tennessee repeal one of the few bright spots of its staggeringly regressive tax system (PDF): its “Hall Tax” on investment income.  The Massachusetts native and current DC resident is signaling his intention to push lawmakers to repeal the tax, according to The Tennessean.

With an election just a few months away, Florida Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he wants tax cuts, yet again, to be a top priority in the Sunshine State.  His newest list of ideas includes cutting motor vehicle taxes, cutting sales taxes on commercial rent, cutting business taxes, and cutting business filing fees.  He’d also like to give shoppers a couple of sales tax holidays — a perennial favorite among politicians that like their tax cuts to be as high-profile as possible.

Check out the Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s new blog! Their latest post makes the salient point that two rounds of radical income tax cuts “have failed to create prosperity and are leaving low- and middle- income Kansas families struggling to make ends meet.”


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.


The Road Show's Over, It's Time to Talk Policy


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What could be more lovable than a bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code? A bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code led by a couple of folksy guys in shirtsleeves who call themselves Max and Dave. No matter that they are two of the most powerful members of Congress, they have managed to craft a successful PR campaign playing on the public’s frustration with political partisanship and endemic dislike of the tax code. 

Max and Dave, of course, are Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Representative Dave Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Their aw-shucks, let’s-get-a-beer-and-fix-the-tax-code routine has received friendly media coverage inside the Beltway and outside too, during their recently wrapped up road show, which took the pair to Minnesota, Philadelphia, Silicon Valley and Memphis.

But as we have said many, many times, if these two are serious about reforming the tax code, they need to get serious about revenues. Indeed, they need to get serious period.  Stop putting the cart before the horse, quit with the campaign strategy and get down to policy.

Most recently, we made our point on the opinion pages of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the day before Max and Dave showed up for a friendly roundtable with executives from FedEx, one of the squeakier (PDF) corporate wheels when it comes to tax reform.  Our op-ed, “Most of Us Want Corporate Loopholes Shut,” asked why the Senator and Congressman would visit with FedEx for advice about tax reform.

“The venue is apt because FedEx’s taxpaying behavior is emblematic of the challenges facing anyone seeking to fix the United States’ corporate tax system; it’s awkward because FedEx is a heavy feeder on tax breaks enthusiastically supported over many years by bipartisan majorities in Congress.”

We then explained some of what we’d learned in reviewing FedEx’s latest financial statements.

“For example, my organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, found that between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective federal income tax rate of just 0.9 percent on over $4.2 billion in U.S. profits. With two more years of tax filings now publicly available, we know that over the past five years, FedEx paid an average effective federal income tax rate of just 4.2 percent.”

And we took on that worn-out whine about corporations needing a lower corporate tax rate to be competitive.

“FedEx also demonstrates how the U.S. corporate income tax does not appear to make our companies less “competitive,” despite the insistence of legions of CEOs that it does. Between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective income tax rate of 45 percent in the foreign countries where it does business. That’s about 50 times higher than the 0.9 percent rate they faced in the U.S. In fact, of the Fortune 500 corporations that were consistently profitable and that had significant offshore profits during that same period, we found that two-thirds actually paid higher taxes in the foreign countries where they do business than they paid in the U.S.”

Our op-ed in Tennessee also made reference to FedEx’s vast offshore holdings and how it drives down its taxes using depreciation. You can read the whole thing here. You can also read a small business owner using the Max and Dave visit at FedEx to make a similar point in a Tennessean op-ed.

Our real target, of course, wasn’t FedEx but rather the tax reforming team of Baucus and Camp.  We use individual corporations’ tax payments as case studies – little narratives to show what’s wrong with the corporate tax code.  As these corporations like to say, their tax avoidance practices are generally legal because Congress made them legal, so we like to show Congress exactly how their laws are working when it comes to corporate tax revenues.

Sometimes, though, companies take it personally when we publicize their actual tax payments, (remember our back and forth with GE last year?).  Sure enough, two days after our op-ed ran in Memphis, a FedEx V.P. took to the same opinion page to defend the company, using many of the shell games we’ve come to expect. For example, we had explained that FedEx paid a 4.2 percent effective federal income tax rate on its U.S. profits over five years. FedEx V.P. Michael Fryt retorted with a ten year total tax payments figure in dollars, cited its total bill for state, local and federal taxes over five years, and then wrote that FedEx’s effective tax rate has been between 35.3 and 37.9 percent since 2010 – and was even 85.6 percent in 2009.

Notice how those effective rate figures he cites are all actually higher than the federal statutory rate of 35 percent? There’s a reason for that.  While we focused on the company’s federal corporate income tax as a percentage of its U.S. profits, like we always do, Fryt is trying to divert attention to other taxes and taxes that FedEx has not paid yet, as companies often do.  It’s like CTJ shows the world an apple and these companies jump up and down demanding the world look at their oranges instead.  

We have a full response to those oranges FedEx was pushing last week right here.  Among other things, it’s a case of Fryt including taxes that FedEx paid not just to the U.S. Treasury but to every country and locality everywhere it does business, which is not something that Max Baucus or Dave Camp or any member of Congress has any control over. Members of Congress are debating how to reform federal taxes, and we assume that FedEx is lobbying (and lobbying) Congress to influence the shape of that same federal corporate income tax, not the taxes it pays to states or cities or foreign countries.

What Congress can legislate is the federal corporate tax rate and the loopholes, breaks and other special provisions that are increasingly eroding corporate taxes as a share of revenues.  Senator Baucus has told his colleagues to assume the tax code will be wiped clean of such expenditures, even as he and Camp continue to meet with corporations who unapologetically defend their favorite tax breaks – and demand lower rates on top of that.  Summer is over and with it, Max and Dave’s road trip. When they are ready to get back to work, we are ready to offer constructive ideas for tax reform that generates the revenues we need and delivers the fairness the public wants.

Congress hasn’t even granted states the power to collect sales taxes owed on online shopping, but already Tennessee lawmakers are discussing how they might squander the money.  On the heels of inheritance tax, gift tax, sales tax, and interest and dividend tax cuts, Governor Haslam says he’s open to the idea of cutting taxes even further if the state sees a bump in revenue from passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act.  So far the Governor has said he wants to proceed cautiously, but Tennessee lawmakers have guzzled their share of  tax cut snake oil lately.

Uh oh! Watch out for income tax cuts in Iowa in 2014. Already Governor Terry Branstad is looking to next year and potentially reducing income taxes. He recently said, "I think it’s very likely we’ll be looking at reducing the income tax further. When I became governor, the income tax rate in Iowa was 13 percent. We now have it down to 8.98 percent, plus we have full federal deductibility…Remember, the top federal tax is 38.5 percent, so the effective rate in Iowa is only about 5.5 percent. We’d like to see that go lower."

In refreshing news, late last week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a radical tax package passed by the legislature that included: a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, a 50 percent exclusion for pass-through business income, an additional $1,000 personal and spouse income exemption for individuals earning less than $20,000 in Missouri adjusted gross income, and a reduction in the top income tax rate from 6 to 5.5 percent. The Governor called the legislation an “ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible experiment that would inject far-reaching uncertainty into our economy, undermine our state’s fiscal health and jeopardize basic funding for education and vital public services.” Stay tuned. The legislature is expected to come back in September for a veto session during which it’s likely legislators will try to override the Governor’s veto.  

Last week, the Nevada Legislature passed AB 1 (PDF), a bill that changes how the state will handle tax abatements for new or expanding businesses. Under current law, the state grants partial abatement of property taxes, business taxes, and sales and use taxes to a business that locates or expands in the State and has 75 employees, or invests $1 million in capital into the state (businesses in smaller counties can qualify with 15 employees or a $250,000 investment). The new bill would lower the employee requirements to 50 in larger counties and 10 in smaller counties. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reminds us that these kinds of tax incentives are costly and their real impact hard to measure, to say the least.

The Connecticut House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 6566 (PDF), which would require public disclosure of specific details about state economic assistance and tax credits for businesses. The bill would call for the creation of an online database that lists information such as the name and location of the recipient, the number of jobs created or retained, and the amount and detailed nature of the tax subsidy. This bill came only a few weeks after a report was released by Good Jobs First that documented how costly economic development subsidy programs often lack any kind of public transparency. “Despite its widespread practice, this use of taxpayer funds remains controversial,” the report said, “but the absence of good information makes it impossible for citizens to weigh the costs and benefits to their communities.” The bill now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

 

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s proposal to repeal the state’s top personal income tax bracket is “gaining traction,” according to The Oklahoman.  The plan has already passed the House, and has the support of the state Chamber of Commerce. But the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that this cut is stacked in favor of high-income residents: “the bottom 60 percent of Oklahomans would receive just 9 percent of the benefit from this tax cut, while the top 5 percent would receive 42 percent of the benefit.”  

Texas and Washington State are continuing to search for ways to make it easier to identify and repeal tax breaks that aren’t worth their cost.  The Texas Austin American-Statesman reports on a bill that “would put the tax code under the microscope, examining tax breaks in a six-year cycle similar to the Sunset process that evaluates whether state agencies are performing as intended.”  And the Washington Budget and Policy Center explains in a blog post how “all three branches of state government have taken, or are poised to take, actions that could greatly enhance transparency over the hundreds of special tax breaks on the books in Washington state.”

This Toledo Blade editorial gets it right about Ohio Governor Kasich’s plan to broaden the sales tax base to include more services: “There is merit, in theory, to expanding the sales tax to include more services. But the experience in states such as Florida — which broadened its tax base, then abandoned the effort as unworkable — suggests it should be done slowly and for the right reasons.” Broadening the sales tax base is good policy, but the Kasich plan is bad for Ohioans because overall the plan (according to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis) increases taxes on those who can least afford it while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

ITEP is waiting for full details of Louisiana Governor BobbyJindal’s tax swap plan, but already clergy and ministers in the state are weighing in against the Governor’s plan to eliminate state income taxes and replace the revenue with a broader sales tax base and a higher rate. In this commentary, the Right Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, (bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana), worries: “It is difficult to see how increased sales taxes will pass the test of fairness that we would all insist upon. Our tax system has lots of room for improvement. But relying on increased sales tax will not give us the fair system we need. Raising sales taxes will increase the burden on those who can least afford it.”


Quick Hits in State News: Wynonna Judd's Tax Break, Undocumented Workers' Taxes


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The Iowa Policy Project’s Research Director Peter Fisher is quoted in a Des Moines Register piece where he recommends that Iowa increase it Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as one way to help low- and middle-income children. ITEP has long championed EITCs as a vital anti-poverty tax policy.  

With Halloween just around the corner, Renee Fry of Nebraska’s Open Sky Policy Institute shares the scary news that Nebraska ranks 27th among states for its regressive tax structure. Taxes are expected to be a contentious issue this year and “fiscal guru” Fry says the state’s “tax system is taking its toll in how much Nebraskans invest in schools, roads and communities. Outdated tax codes also complicate state leaders’ ability to plan strategically.”

Here’s a familiar problem, this time from Tennessee.  Big property tax breaks for farmers are reducing local tax bases by up to 20 percent. Worse, a state report says that the break is “being used by some people who clearly aren't farmers.”  Among the so-called “farmers” benefiting from this giveaway are some of the state’s wealthiest residents, like country music stars Billy Ray Cyrus and Wynonna Judd, as well as the founder of Autozone.

With a Maryland version of the DREAM Act on the November ballot, columnist Dan Rodricks at the Baltimore Sun wants readers to be aware of  the taxes that are often paid by undocumented workers, including state income taxes, federal income taxes, Social Security taxes, sales taxes, and fees.


Quick hits in State News: Arthur Laffer Under Scrutiny, and More


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To celebrate the five year anniversary of the first “Rich States, Poor States,” an Arthur Laffer/ALEC publication that ranks states based on how closely their tax and budget policies adhere to conservative economic principles, the Iowa Policy Project put it to the retrospect test and found it lacking.  They write, “The ALEC Outlook Ranking fails to predict economic performance. In fact, the less a state followed ALEC’s prescriptions, the better it did in terms of job growth, and the better it did on change in poverty rate and median income.”

New York just decided to throw even more taxpayer money at filmmakers, despite ample evidence that these giveaways don’t do much for long-term job growth or economic performance.

This Topeka Capital-Journal letter-to-the-editor from a registered Republican laments that the tax plan signed into law by Governor Brownback “will increase Kansas income tax on the poor and reduce taxes predominately for the wealthy.”

On Tuesday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam told the House Judiciary Committee that states need to be able to collect sales taxes on internet purchases. He said plainly, “This discussion isn’t about raising taxes or adding new taxes.” Instead it’s about “collecting taxes already owed.” We couldn’t agree more.

Photo of Art Laffer via  Republican Conference Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced that he will call a special legislative session to start next week.  Lawmakers are widely expected to pass a progressive income tax package in order to avoid massive “doomsday” budget cuts.

Tennessee’s inheritance tax will be eliminated beginning in 2016.  Legislators recently sent Governor Haslam a bill repealing the tax, seduced by bogus claims about the economic benefits of repeal.  Lawmakers also passed two other notable tax cuts: one repealing the gift tax (which The Commercial Appeal says will benefit Gov. Haslam himself, along with other wealthy taxpayers), and another cutting the state sales tax on groceries by a quarter of a percent.

The gubernatorial race in Washington State is heating up and costly tax expenditures are getting long overdue attention from the candidates. But as this piece in the Seattle Times highlights, eliminating spending programs embedded in the tax code is easier said than done.  Read CTJ’s advice for how to do it here.

Finally, check out this timely column describing why Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton should veto a bill passed by the legislature under the guise of job creation. (Hint - it’s really a massive tax cut for business.)


Inching Towards An Online Sales Tax Policy


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This week brought news of a few more states tackling the challenge of taxing purchases made over the Internet in the same way as purchases made in “brick and mortar” stores.  Nevada and Tennessee got agreements from Amazon.com, the mother of all online retailers, to start doing its part to collect those taxes, and it looks like Massachusetts isn’t far behind.

  • In Nevada, Amazon.com will begin collecting sales taxes in 2014 under a new agreement announced on Monday.  The company already has major warehouses and distribution centers in the state.  Amazon’s agreement with Nevada is similar to deals struck in California, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • As in Nevada, Amazon’s deal to begin collecting sales taxes in Tennessee won’t take effect until 2014, but a lesser known part of that agreement has already taken effect.  Amazon is mailing notices to all its Tennessee customers from throughout the past year letting them know that they may owe sales tax on the items they bought from the company, even though Amazon didn’t collect those taxes for them.  Similar annual notices will be sent by February 1st in both 2013 and 2014.
  • The Massachusetts Main Street Fairness Coalition is continuing its calls for the state to require that Amazon collect sales taxes, and The Boston Globe just chimed in to support the idea as well.  As the Globe explains, the company’s new offices in Massachusetts should be enough to bring the company within reach of the state’s sales tax collection laws.

Of course, these efforts are only partial solutions at best.  Amazon.com may be the world’s biggest online retailer, but they’re hardly the only one.  Nevertheless, until the federal government acts to allow all states to enforce their sales tax laws on all purchases, these piecemeal victories are the best news we can hope for.


New Fiction from Arthur Laffer: Estate Tax Killed 220,000 Jobs in Tennessee


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Tennessee lawmakers are seriously considering repealing their state estate tax, in part because of a comically flawed report from supply-side economist Arthur Laffer.  The report’s bottom-line conclusion is that Tennessee would have benefited from 220,000 more jobs in 2010 if lawmakers had simply repealed the Tennessee estate tax one decade earlier.  But as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains in a new brief, while 220,000 jobs is certainly an impressive number, the reasoning Laffer used to arrive at that figure is far from convincing.

Laffer begins his argument by pointing to the “Laffer-ALEC State Competitiveness Index,” which is basically a wish list of fifteen conservative policies he would like to see states enact (low income taxes, low corporate taxes, low minimum wage, etc).  Tennessee ranks 8th overall on the Laffer-ALEC Index, and if the Index has any predictive power whatsoever, that means Tennessee’s economy should be doing pretty well.  But as Laffer admits, the reality is exactly the opposite.

Tennessee’s low economic and employment growth is particularly puzzling to Laffer because in a series of prior reports, he’s argued that states without income taxes (of which Tennessee is one) are outperforming the rest of the country.  So how then does Laffer explain Tennessee’s disappointing growth?  He decides to ignore a slew of factors that affect state economies in today’s complex world, and instead place all of the blame in one place: the state estate tax.

According to Laffer’s reasoning, if Tennessee had jettisoned its estate tax one decade ago, employment and economic growth more broadly would have sped up to a rate exactly equal to the average among all states not levying an income tax.  The natural result of this would be 220,000 more jobs in 2010, as well as $36 billion in additional yearly economic output.

Laffer says he can think of “no reason to believe” that things wouldn’t have played out this way.  But as ITEP explains in its brief, differences in economic growth rates are influenced by a range of factors that don’t appear to have even crossed Laffer’s mind, like differences in natural resource endowments, educational attainment, and infrastructure quality.  The unavoidable conclusion is that Laffer’s choice of scapegoat in Tennessee had a lot more to do with his ideology than with any sort of rigorous economic analysis.

For a closer look at Laffer’s deeply flawed argument in favor of repealing Tennessee’s estate tax, be sure to read ITEP’s full brief.

Photo of Art Laffer via  Republican Conference Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Graphics: State Gas Taxes at Historic Lows, and Dropping


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There are few areas of policy where lawmakers’ shortsightedness is on display as fully as it is with the gasoline tax.  Now, with a series of twenty six new charts from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), you can see the impact of that shortsightedness in most states as shareable graphs.

Overall, state gas taxes are at historic lows, adjusted for inflation, and most states can expect further declines in the years ahead if lawmakers do not act.  Some states, including New Jersey, Iowa, Utah, Alabama, and Alaska, are levying their gas taxes at lower rates than at any time in their history.  Other states like Maryland, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Wyoming will approach or surpass historic lows in the near future if their gas tax rates remain unchanged and inflation continues as expected.

These findings build on a 50-state report from ITEP released last month, called Building a Better Gas Tax.  ITEP found that 36 states levy a “fixed-rate” gas tax totally unprepared for the inevitable impact of inflation, and twenty two of those states have gone fifteen years or more without raising their gas taxes.  All told, the states are losing over $10 billion in transportation revenue each year that would have been collected if lawmakers had simply planned for inflation the last time they raised their state gas tax rates.

View the charts here, and read Building a Better Gas Tax here.

Note for policy wonks: Charts were only made in twenty six states because the other twenty four do not publish sufficient historical data on their gas tax rates.  It’s also worth noting that these charts aren’t perfectly apples-to-apples with the Building a Better Gas Tax report, because that report examined the effect of construction cost inflation, whereas these charts had to rely on the general inflation rate (CPI) because most construction cost data only goes back to the 1970’s.  Even with that caveat in mind, these charts provide an important long-term look at state gas taxes, and yet another way of analyzing the same glaring problem.

Example:


Trending in 2012: Estate and Inheritance Tax Rollbacks


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

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

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

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

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

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


Amazon.com Finds It Harder & Harder to Shirk Its Sales Tax Collecting Responsibilities


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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently announced that Amazon