Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
What do these states have in common?
These are the five states that are most reliant on the energy sector (mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction) for their economic output, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. All of them are also facing budget shortfalls brought on in part by the falling price of energy, and in part by short-sighted tax cuts made by lawmakers that failed to prepare for this decline.
Alaska, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are currently grappling with these issues in contentious legislative sessions. In Alaska, the magnitude of the state’s budget shortfall forced lawmakers to extend their session beyond its scheduled date of completion, while West Virginia lawmakers just returned to their state capital this week for a special session. Lawmakers in North Dakota and Wyoming are not currently in session, but are gearing up to deal with the shortfalls that await them when they return to session in 2017.
In order to close their budget gaps, these states are contemplating whether previous tax cuts should be rolled back, whether new types of tax increases should be enacted, or whether the shortfalls should be closed primarily through deep cuts in public services. On the revenue side, there is also significant variation in the types of tax changes being explored—ranging from progressive income tax reforms to sharply regressive increases in consumption and excise taxes. Each of these five states’ tax and budget debates are discussed below.
In Alaska, lawmakers are facing a budget gap exceeding $4 billion and are currently focused on deep budget cuts and scaling back oil and gas tax credits as part of their extended legislative session. However, those changes alone will not solve the state’s budget problem. Gov. Bill Walker has proposed a broader package of tax policy options, including reinstating a personal income tax for the first time in 35 years and increasing existing taxes on various items and industries. Also on the table are proposals to scale back and restructure the state’s Permanent Fund dividend—an annual cash payment received by the vast majority of Alaskans each year. ITEP analyzed the Governor’s plan in a recent report and found that an equitable solution to the state’s revenue shortfall will require lawmakers to enact a personal income tax.
While Alaska’s tax cutting history is somewhat more distant than in other energy-dependent states, it is also the most dramatic. Following the discovery of oil, Alaska became the only state to ever eliminate a broad-based personal income tax and also started paying out dividends to Alaskans each year from the state’s Permanent Fund. Because Alaska also does not levy a sales tax at the state level, it is forced to rely heavily on oil tax revenues and royalties. For decades, oil revenues filled roughly 90 percent of the state’s general fund, but lower prices and declining production have dramatically reduced the level, and reliability, of those revenues.
West Virginia lawmakers are dealing with a $270 million budget hole this week as part of a special legislative session. During the regular session Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed increasing the state’s tobacco tax and applying the sales tax to telecommunications services. These proposals will be revisited this month, along with a possible increase to the state’s general sales tax rate on either a temporary or permanent basis. Budget cuts and fund sweeps will also be debated, though the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy notes that the state also has plenty of progressive revenue options worthy of consideration. The decision by previous West Virginia lawmakers to slash business taxes is a major contributing factor to the state’s shortfall. Elimination of West Virginia’s business franchise tax took full effect last year, and over the last several years the state’s corporate income tax was reduced as well.
Lawmakers in Oklahoma, facing a $1.3 billion budget hole with only a few weeks remaining in their legislative session, are weighing changes to income, sales, and excise taxes in addition to reductions in public services. Among the most damaging proposals on the table is an effort to eliminate or pare back tax credits for low-income families such as the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and sales tax relief credit. Oklahoma lawmakers have repeatedly cut the state’s income tax over the past decade, with the most recent reduction triggered this January despite an official “revenue failure.” Today this series of cuts comes with an annual price tag exceeding $1 billion in lost revenue. More sensible options under consideration include rolling back the state’s recent personal income tax cuts or repealing the state’s deduction for state income taxes paid.
North Dakota lawmakers, gearing up for their biennial session in 2017, have seen the state’s revised revenue forecast fall short once again. In response to that shortfall Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued budget guidelines requiring state agency heads to hold budget requests to 90 percent of current spending, signaling that most agencies will face budget cuts of up to 10 percent. This request follows a $245 million reduction this February done in an effort to help balance a mid-biennium revenue shortfall exceeding $1 billion. This is the first time since 2002 a North Dakota Governor has taken such measures. But unlike in other energy-dependent states, Gov. Dalrymple is refusing to consider tax increases and many legislators are promising not to raise taxes. Instead they intend to slash state services and withdraw money from their Budget Stabilization Fund. This painful budget tightening follows multiple cuts to the state’s income taxes over the past decade. In 2015, the most recent cuts led to reductions in both the individual and corporate rates costing the state $108 million over the biennium.
Lawmakers in Wyoming, expecting to be short at least $300 million over the coming biennium, last week weighed whether local governments should be able to impose an optional 2-percent tax on groceries. This tax was rolled back in 2006 in the face of criticism that it disproportionately fell on the state’s poorest residents. Lawmakers also considered raising the state property tax and increasing the tax on wind and energy production. However, only draft bills on the wind tax moved out of committee. In addition to these tax proposals, Gov. Matt Mead recently announced that state agencies must cut their budgets by 8 percent for the biennium. Wyoming has not enacted the same level of tax cuts over the years as in other energy-reliant states, largely because it already relies on such a narrow tax system. Wyoming levies no individual or corporate income tax, relying primarily on taxes on minerals, sales and use, and property.
If lawmakers in any of these states are looking for inspiration to take action, Louisiana and Nevada (ranked #7 and #9, respectively, in terms of their economic reliance on energy) stand out for their willingness to at least begin addressing their shortfalls by increasing tax revenue. Louisiana lawmakers this year, after much negotiation, approved a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax rate, removed sales tax exemptions, raised taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, and extended or reinstated taxes on vehicle rentals, cellphones, and landlines. Louisiana’s Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to call a second special session to continue pursuing revenue solutions. Nevada, in 2015, approved tax measures expected to raise up to $1.1 billion through a cigarette tax increase and the continuation of formerly temporary business taxes. These revenue increases have played a vital role in helping to avoid painful cuts in the face of low energy prices and weakened tax receipts.
States’ heavy reliance on their energy sectors has certainly contributed to their recent budget shortfalls. As energy prices plummeted, tax and royalty revenues fell and lawmakers have been forced to make tough decisions to fill the gaps. But not all of the blame for these states’ bleak fiscal outlooks can be assigned to the volatility of the energy sector. Narrow tax structures and repeated tax cuts, often enacted when energy-related revenues were abundant, have also played major roles in these states’ financial debacles.
Looking ahead, the experience of these states should serve as a cautionary tale for lawmakers prioritizing tax cuts over the long-run sustainability of state budgets.