Sales Tax News


Amazon Will Collect Every State Sales Tax by April 1


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For decades, Amazon.com helped its customers dodge the sales taxes they owed to gain an advantage over its competitors. But as the company’s business strategy has changed, so has its tax collection. As recently as 2011, the nation’s largest e-retailer was collecting sales tax in just 5 states, home to 11 percent of the country’s population. Starting next month, when the company begins collection in Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and New Mexico, it will officially collect every state-level sales tax in the nation on its direct sales.

 

Despite this progress, the company’s sales tax collection practices are still not comprehensive. It appears that Amazon is not collecting some local-level sales taxes in states such as Alaska, for instance. And Amazon refuses to require sales tax collection by many third-party sellers using its website, meaning that companies with names such as “Buy Tax Free” are using Amazon.com as a way to allow their customers to evade their sales tax responsibilities. Notably, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed fixing this  problem by requiring “marketplaces” with more than $100 million in annual sales to collect sales taxes on sales made by third-party retailers.

But despite its shortcomings, this expansion in Amazon’s tax collection practices represents a step forward for rational sales tax policy. It is therefore worth taking a look at the variety of factors that led to this reversal.

First, and perhaps most important, is that Amazon’s effort to shorten delivery times caused it to open distribution centers around the country. Whenever a retailer establishes a physical presence in a state, it comes within reach of that state’s sales tax collection laws.

Second, state lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated by the sales tax revenue gap created by e-retail and some have taken matters into their own hands by enacting laws expanding their sales tax collection requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court has placed limits on states’ authority in this area, but creative lawmakers have found ways to encourage some e-retailers to collect nonetheless.

Third and finally, it appears that Amazon’s pivot away from facilitating sales tax evasion may be helpful in building goodwill with lawmakers from whom it is asking for subsidies. Good Jobs First estimates that Amazon could soon surpass Wal-Mart as the largest retail-sector recipient of state and local government aid, meaning that it would have received over $1.2 billion in public subsidies.

While the nature of the debate surrounding Amazon and state and local tax policy may be changing, it’s certainly not coming to an end.


What to Watch in the States: Modernizing Sales Taxes for a 21st Century Economy


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This is the fourth installment of our six-part series on 2017 state tax trends. The introduction to this series is available here.

State lawmakers often find themselves looking for ways to raise revenue to fund vital public services, fill budget gaps, or pay for the elimination or weakening of progressive taxes. Lately, that search has led many states to consider reforming or expanding their sales taxes. 
Sales taxes fall heaviest on lower-income people, but they are an important component of states' revenue streams. Making sure sales taxes keep up with the changing economy and new technologies is essential for states' fiscal stability. The legislative areas we’re watching include taxing personal services, online shopping, streaming services, the sharing economy, and taxes designed to "nudge" consumer behavior.
Services
Purchases of haircuts, lawn care, massages, and other services aren't taxed in many states even though services make up a larger share of consumption than tangible goods. Proposals to expand sales tax bases to some services have come from Louisiana, Maine, and Nebraska this year, among other states. Oklahoma's governor recently proposed extending the state sales tax to an exhaustive list of services while eliminating the tax on groceries. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed increasing the sales tax rate and expanding it to more services while also cutting income taxes. The latest plan in the Illinois Senate would lower the existing sales tax rate and apply the tax to a broader range of goods and services including laundry, lawn care, cable, and satellite services. West Virginia’s governor also included a small service expansion in his budget proposal. 
Expanding the sales tax to some services would create a more sustainable tax base, but the motivations behind most of the proposals introduced so far this year has been either to raise revenue to plug budget gaps (IL, LA,  OK, and WV) or to help pay for top-heavy income tax cuts, shifting responsibility for funding state investments even further onto low- and moderate-income families (OH, ME and NE).
Online shopping
Goods sold online have been caught in a sales tax loophole. Businesses have no obligation to collect sales tax if they are not physically located in a state. Consumers are required to pay sales tax for purchases made online, but most consumers don't know this and don't pay it. State revenue agencies have a hard time collecting these unpaid taxes because they don't know what residents are buying online. States have had some success with large online retailers voluntarily collecting sales tax. In fact, 95 percent of the population currently lives in states where Amazon, the country's largest online retailer, collects sales tax.
A permanent fix to this confusion would require an act of Congress. In the meantime, many cash-strapped states are losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of sales tax revenue they are legally owed. While they wait for Congress to act, states are taking various measures to attempt to recoup some of the missing revenue. 
The most audacious states, such as Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Wyoming, are moving bills that would require large out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales tax. These bills are almost identical to a South Dakota law that is currently embroiled in a legal case, and if passed would likely also face legal challenges from online retailers that do not have a physical presence in the state. The best hope for these bills is that they will draw the attention of Congress and encourage action. 
Other methods are also being pursued to ensure that merchants collect the sales taxes owed under current. Bills in Arkansas and Kansas would require online sellers to notify customers that they owe sales tax and provide a list of consumers to the state revenue department, presumably to ease enforcement. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging legislators to expand the state's online sales tax to online marketplaces such as  Amazon marketplace, Etsy, or eBay (Amazon is not required to collect sales tax for third-party sellers using the Amazon marketplace).  A Missouri bill would add the state to a group of 24 others that could begin collecting online sales tax once federal legislation is passed.
One aspect of tax fairness is treating all consumers similarly. Allowing an online shopper to skip out on sales tax when the same purchase would be taxed in a "brick-and-mortar" store is unfair. But sales taxes fall heaviest on low-income families. It would be nice if there was this much enthusiasm in statehouses for raising revenue in more progressive ways, say by cracking down on corporate tax avoidance.
Streaming services
Streaming services for video and audio content, like Netflix and Spotify, have also grabbed the attention of legislators looking for new sources of revenue. If enacted, Maine would follow the lead of places like Pennsylvania and Chicago in taxing streaming services. And while Pasadena, Calif. officials weigh extending the cable TV tax to streaming services, state legislators have proposed a bill that would prohibit such a tax.
On-demand economy
The emergence of the on-demand economy, with platforms like Airbnb and Uber, presents a host of regulatory questions, and taxation is just piece of that. Airbnb seems to have taken a page from the Amazon playbook and began voluntarily collecting and remitting various state and local hotel taxes,though sometimes as a means of encouraging states and localities to forgo meaningful regulation of the company. So far this year the company has agreed to collect and remit taxes in Arizona, Arkansas, and Colorado.
"Nudge" taxes
Using taxes to discourage perceived bad behavior are nothing new. So-called "sin taxes" on alcohol and cigarettes are the most well known. But evidence from the field of behavioral economics has recently led public health and environmental officials to advocate for excise taxes as a way to nudge consumers away from other potentially hazardous buying habits. Excise, or per unit, taxes on sugary drinks and plastic bags have gained traction, despite criticism of their regressive and paternalistic nature. Illinois lawmakers briefly floated a statewide soda tax as part of an effort to reach a "Grand Bargain" on the state's budget. Montana legislators want to tax newly legalized medical marijuana, which would treat it more like alcohol and tobacco than a prescription drug. And a Maryland bill to legalize recreational marijuana includes an excise tax much like taxes included in other states' legalization plans. While these taxes have the potential to change some behavior, most law-makers are introducing them as a way to raise revenue rather than improve well-being.

State lawmakers often find themselves looking for ways to raise revenue to fund vital public services, fill budget gaps, or pay for the elimination or weakening of progressive taxes. Lately, that search has led many states to consider reforming or expanding their sales taxes.

Sales taxes fall heaviest on lower-income people, but they are an important component of states' revenue streams. Making sure sales taxes keep up with the changing economy and new technologies is essential for states' fiscal stability. The legislative areas we’re watching include taxing personal services, online shopping, streaming services, the sharing economy, and taxes designed to "nudge" consumer behavior.

Services

Purchases of haircuts, lawn care, massages, and other services aren't taxed in many states even though services make up a larger share of consumption than tangible goods. Proposals to expand sales tax bases to some services have come from Louisiana, Maine, and Nebraska this year, among other states. Oklahoma's governor recently proposed extending the state sales tax to an exhaustive list of services while eliminating the tax on groceries. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed increasing the sales tax rate and expanding it to more services while also cutting income taxes. The latest plan in the Illinois Senate would lower the existing sales tax rate and apply the tax to a broader range of goods and services including laundry, lawn care, cable, and satellite services. West Virginia’s governor also included a small service expansion in his budget proposal.

Expanding the sales tax to some services would create a more sustainable tax base, but the motivations behind most of the proposals introduced so far this year has been either to raise revenue to plug budget gaps (IL, LA, OK, and WV) or to help pay for top-heavy income tax cuts, shifting responsibility for funding state investments even further onto low- and moderate-income families (OH, ME and NE).

Online shopping

Goods sold online have been caught in a sales tax loophole. Businesses have no obligation to collect sales tax if they are not physically located in a state. Consumers are required to pay sales tax for purchases made online, but most consumers don't know this and don't pay it. State revenue agencies have a hard time collecting these unpaid taxes because they don't know what residents are buying online. States have had some success with large online retailers voluntarily collecting sales tax. In fact, 95 percent of the population currently lives in states where Amazon, the country's largest online retailer, collects sales tax.

A permanent fix to this confusion would require an act of Congress. In the meantime, many cash-strapped states are losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of sales tax revenue they are legally owed. While they wait for Congress to act, states are taking various measures to attempt to recoup some of the missing revenue.

The most audacious states, such as Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Wyoming, are moving bills that would require large out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales tax. These bills are almost identical to a South Dakota law that is currently embroiled in a legal case, and if passed would likely also face legal challenges from online retailers that do not have a physical presence in the state. The best hope for these bills is that they will draw the attention of Congress and encourage action.

Other methods are also being pursued to ensure that merchants collect the sales taxes owed under current. Bills in Arkansas and Kansas would require online sellers to notify customers that they owe sales tax and provide a list of consumers to the state revenue department, presumably to ease enforcement. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging legislators to expand the state's online sales tax to online marketplaces such as  Amazon marketplace, Etsy, or eBay (Amazon is not required to collect sales tax for third-party sellers using the Amazon marketplace).  A Missouri bill would add the state to a group of 24 others that could begin collecting online sales tax once federal legislation is passed.

One aspect of tax fairness is treating all consumers similarly. Allowing an online shopper to skip out on sales tax when the same purchase would be taxed in a "brick-and-mortar" store is unfair. But sales taxes fall heaviest on low-income families. It would be nice if there was this much enthusiasm in statehouses for raising revenue in more progressive ways, say by cracking down on corporate tax avoidance.

Streaming services

Streaming services for video and audio content, like Netflix and Spotify, have also grabbed the attention of legislators looking for new sources of revenue. If enacted, Maine would follow the lead of places like Pennsylvania and Chicago in taxing streaming services. And while Pasadena, Calif. officials weigh extending the cable TV tax to streaming services, state legislators have proposed a bill that would prohibit such a tax.

On-demand economy

The emergence of the on-demand economy, with platforms like Airbnb and Uber, presents a host of regulatory questions, and taxation is just piece of that. Airbnb seems to have taken a page from the Amazon playbook and began voluntarily collecting and remitting various state and local hotel taxes,though sometimes as a means of encouraging states and localities to forgo meaningful regulation of the company. So far this year the company has agreed to collect and remit taxes in Arizona, Arkansas, and Colorado.

"Nudge" taxes

Using taxes to discourage perceived bad behavior are nothing new. So-called "sin taxes" on alcohol and cigarettes are the most well known. But evidence from the field of behavioral economics has recently led public health and environmental officials to advocate for excise taxes as a way to nudge consumers away from other potentially hazardous buying habits. Excise, or per unit, taxes on sugary drinks and plastic bags have gained traction, despite criticism of their regressive and paternalistic nature. Illinois lawmakers briefly floated a statewide soda tax as part of an effort to reach a "Grand Bargain" on the state's budget. Montana legislators want to tax newly legalized medical marijuana, which would treat it more like alcohol and tobacco than a prescription drug. And a Maryland bill to legalize recreational marijuana includes an excise tax much like taxes included in other states' legalization plans. While these taxes have the potential to change some behavior, most law-makers are introducing them as a way to raise revenue rather than improve well-being.

 


And Then There Were Six: Amazon Expands Its Sales Tax Collection


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UPDATE: After this post was published, Amazon announced that it will begin collecting sales tax in Oklahoma on March 1. This post has been updated to reflect this development.

The nation’s largest Internet retailer has made an about-face on its sales tax policy, making consumers’ ability to evade sales tax on online purchases a little less common. By March 1, the number of states where Amazon.com collects sales tax will have leapt from 29 to 40 in a span of just two months.

On Jan. 1, the company began collecting tax in Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Utah. Starting Feb. 1, the company began collecting sales tax in Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont, and on March 1 it will do the same in Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Five states don’t levy state-level sales taxes, so this means there are only five states left where Amazon will still refuse to collect the taxes owed by its customers: Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and New Mexico.

This is a dramatic reversal in the company’s tax collection practices. As our animated map shows, as recently as 2011 Amazon was only collecting sales tax in five states.

Many of the changes in Amazon’s sales tax collection practices are rooted in its opening of distribution centers around the country. When Amazon, or any retailer, establishes a “physical presence” in a state it unquestionably falls within reach of that state’s sales tax collection laws.

In other cases, it appears that Amazon’s decision to collect sales tax might be related to state-level laws seeking to expand the scope of state sales tax collection statutes. But in Mississippi and Vermont, for example, those laws were not scheduled to go into effect until July and Amazon did not respond to journalists’ questions regarding why the company is beginning tax collection five months early.

Amazon is the nation’s largest e-retailer and its decision to collect, or not collect, sales tax has a meaningful impact on states’ sales tax revenues. But it is worth remembering that Amazon is just one of many e-retailers. As our policy brief on this topic concludes: “Until either Congress or the Supreme Court acts to allow states to require that all Internet retailers collect sales taxes … there is no doubt that the preferential treatment of e-commerce will continue, and that ‘brick and mortar’ retailers, law-abiding taxpayers, and state tax collections will suffer.”


At Amazon.com, Sales Tax Evasion is No Longer an Option for Most Shoppers


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UPDATE: A new post on this topic is available here.

This holiday season, the media will cover throes of consumers who will wait in line for door-buster specials, but a large and growing number of shoppers will opt to avoid the crowds by making their purchases over the Internet. 

For Amazon.com customers, this used to mean additional “discounts” because while shoppers have always owed sales taxes on their online purchases, the company didn’t bother to collect the tax in most states.  In fact, as recently as 2012, the bulk of American consumers lived in states where Amazon.com refused to collect sales tax.  The practical result was an automatic price advantage of around 5 or 10 percent (depending on each state’s sales tax rate) for the e-retailer, and less money in the coffers of state and local governments.

But Amazon.com’s sales tax collection practices have changed dramatically in the last five years.  As of 2016, the company collects sales tax from its customers in 29 states, including 19 of the 20 most populous states in the country.  Altogether, about 86 percent of the U.S. population lives in states where Amazon.com collects sales tax.

This change, unfortunately, isn’t due to the company seeing the error of its ways.

Thanks to a decades-old Supreme Court case, e-retailers operating outside of a state’s borders cannot be compelled to collect the sales taxes owed by their customers.  For years, Amazon.com took advantage of this provision.  In fact, in 2011, the nation’s largest e-retailer collected sales taxes from its customers in just five states, home to 11 percent of the country’s population. 

This recent change in Amazon.com’s tax collection practices is a side effect of its effort to cut down on delivery times by opening distribution centers near its customers.  As the company expanded its physical footprint to more states, it has increasingly lost the ability to hide behind its out-of-state status as a way of avoiding sales tax collection requirements.  The result is a somewhat more rational application of the sales tax in most states: today most Amazon.com shoppers are paying the same sales taxes as their neighbors who prefer to shop at local “brick and mortar” stores.

But the march toward a more reasonable sales tax is far from over.  Online shoppers can still evade the sales tax by buying from smaller e-retailers that lack a physical presence in their state.  And even Amazon.com, despite proving itself capable of collecting sales tax from the vast majority of its customers, is refusing to participate in the sales tax collection systems of 17 states where it lacks a physical presence: Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming.  (The company also does not collect tax in Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon since these states lack a state or local-level general sales tax.)

As we explain in an updated policy brief, the sales tax collection practices of e-retailers will remain a messy patchwork until the federal government gets involved.  That involvement could take the form of legislation allowing states to require sales tax collection by out-of-state e-retailers.  Or it could come through a future decision by the Supreme Court to expand the circumstances under which states can require sales tax collection.  While some holiday shoppers may not like it, either of these outcomes would bring about a major improvement in the enforcement of our state and local sales tax laws.

Read ITEP’s policy brief on the sales tax issues associated with online shopping

  1.  
    1. UPDATE: Amazon began collecting sales tax in four additional states on January 1, 2017: Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Utah. In total, the company now collects sales tax in 33 states that are collectively home to almost 90 percent of the US population. The map below has been updated to reflect these changes.

Mississippi's Proposed "Consumption Tax" Would Dramatically Lower Taxes for the Wealthy, Increase Taxes for the Poor


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Mississippi’s proposal to move to a user-based tax system is a euphemism for increasing regressive sales and consumption taxes that will ultimately result in higher taxes for the poorest Mississippians and lower taxes on the wealthy.

Currently, Mississippi legislators are reviewing the state's tax code with a goal, according to Lt. Gov. Reeves, to "move toward a user-based system rather than an income-based system."

 And now that the study has begun, one outlet recapped the first day of study proceedings with the blunt headline "Mississippi Would Benefit from Consumption-Based Tax System" (paywall). With the Mississippi legislature's recent history of cutting taxes and seeming desire by many to continue with more of the same, it is important to add data to this conversation showing who would benefit – or not – from the sort of tax shift the Mississippi Tax Policy Panel is considering.

As Hope Policy Institute succinctly pointed out last week, there is no reason to expect cutting taxes and shifting reliance away from income toward sales taxes will bring economic growth and benefit Mississippians. Additionally, a look at whose taxes would rise and fall if the state moves to a “user-based’ system is striking.

ITEP examined the impact of carrying the tax-shift goal to its logical extreme: completely replacing the state's $1.9 billion of personal income tax revenues with higher sales taxes. Our analysis found that the lowest-income Mississippians (bottom 20 percent of taxpayers), who already pay nearly twice the effective tax rate paid by the highest-income 1 percent, would see an additional 3.3 percent of their incomes go toward taxes, while the highest-income 1 percent in the state would see tax cuts averaging 2.9 percent of their incomes – a tax cut of more than $21,000 on average for that group (See graph).  The change would result in a massive shift of the responsibility for paying state taxes away from the highest-income Mississippians and onto low- and middle-income families. Furthermore, to do this without broadening the sales tax base would require a state sales tax rate of about 10.78 percent, which would be easily the highest rate in the nation and an increase of more than 54 percent over the state's current 7 percent rate.

While this type of wholesale elimination of the personal income tax has not been explicitly proposed this year, it was proposed in 2015 and is illustrative of what it means to "move toward a user-based system rather than an income-based system," and it is crucial for the tax policy panel and Mississippians generally to understand that any significant shift from income taxes to sales taxes will take on these same highly regressive contours. When it is claimed that “Mississippi would benefit” from such a shift, it is important to ask which Mississippians.


Sales Taxes Should Apply to Services, but Politics Keeps Getting in the Way


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Few proposals generate as much agreement among economists and tax reform advocates as expanding state and local sales tax bases to include purchases of personal services.  While sales taxes typically apply quite broadly to tangible goods, purchases made in the nation’s growing service sector are all too often left out of the tax base.  As things currently stand, most states do not collect tax on sales of haircuts, carpet cleaning, massages, and swimming pool maintenance, to name just a few.  And as we explain in an updated policy brief, these wide ranging exemptions make sales taxes less adequate, less sustainable, and less fair.

Sales taxes should treat all consumers similarly regardless of whether they prefer to spend their money on goods or on services.  But implementing this ideal has proven difficult.  Only a few states—including Hawaii, New Mexico, and South Dakota—currently apply their sales taxes broadly to purchases of both goods and services.  Elsewhere, efforts to tax services have often been met with formidable resistance from exempt industries looking to preserve their preferential treatment.  In Florida and Michigan, for example, lawmakers who approved sales tax base expansions quickly backtracked and repealed those laws following a coordinated pushback from the business community.  Years later in Maine, a legislative attempt to expand the sales tax base was eventually overridden by a voter referendum supported by many businesses.

Even worse than these failures, however, are those cases where sales tax base expansion has been used to fund personal income tax cuts that have worsened the unfairness of state and local tax systems.  On this front, North Carolina is the poster child.  Lawmakers in the Tar Heel State recently managed to extend their sales tax to include more than 40 previously untaxed services such as car repairs and appliance installation, but only as part of a broader shift away from the income tax that loses revenue overall and exacerbates the regressive nature of the state’s tax system.  If an expanded sales tax base represents one step forward for North Carolina, the income tax cuts it partially funded represent at least two steps back.

But the news on the sales tax front hasn’t been all bad.  In 2012, Rhode Island expanded its sales tax base to include pet grooming and taxi fares.  In 2014, the District of Columbia (DC) updated its sales tax to cover bowling alleys, car washes, carpet cleaning, and health clubs, among other services.  The city’s successful inclusion of health clubs within the tax base was a particularly encouraging victory given the high-profile lobbying effort launched in opposition to this so-called “yoga tax.”  And finally in Maine, the sales tax was improved just last year by adding cable TV and satellite radio services to the base.

Progress toward more rational sales taxes is continuing to take place, even if it may not be happening as quickly as some of us would like.

Read ITEP’s Policy Brief: Why Sales Taxes Should Apply to Services 


The Shifting Landscape of Sales Tax Bases


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Springtime has traditionally been a fertile period for state tax proposals. This year, some important debates have flourished regarding the scope of state sales tax bases.

In their purest form, sales taxes apply to nearly all of the goods and services purchased by final consumers. Maintaining a broad base and low rate helps these taxes bring in relatively steady revenues and minimizes any interference they may have with the economy. The real world, however, is much more complicated as most state sales tax bases are riddled with special exemptions.

Some of those exemptions have been crafted to advance important policy goals such as limiting the disproportionate impact that sales taxes typically have on low-income families. Others have more to do with the political influence of a given constituency than with principled tax policy. And still others are essentially historical accidents—as the economy and consumption patterns have changed, sales tax laws haven't always kept up and initially inconsequential tax exemptions have sometimes ballooned in size. 

Shifting Ground 

It's well-known that the nation's service sector has grown significantly in recently decades. Today as much as two-thirds of consumer spending is on services rather than goods, and spending on services is the fastest growing area of consumption. But when lawmakers initially designed most state sales taxes in the 1930s, services were a relatively small part of the economy and were typically left out of tax bases. States have been slow to adapt to this change, though there have been some modest steps toward sales tax modernization in places such as North Carolina, as well as ongoing discussions of similar reforms in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

While few developments in sales tax policy are as important as the service sector's growing prominence, the recent growth of online shopping has created another high-profile challenge to state sales tax systems. Under current federal law, states can only force e-retailers to collect the sales taxes their customers owe if those retailers have some kind of "physical presence" in the state. To take just one example, this means that Amazon.com (the nation's largest e-retailer) is only collecting sales tax from customers in about half the states. For the other half, customers are supposed to be paying the sales taxes they owe directly to the state, but this requirement is unenforceable and very few do so in practice. Ultimately, the sales tax only functions if sellers are collecting and remitting the tax. For years, states have searched for ways to bring a larger number of e-retailers within their sales tax collection systems, and 2016 has been no exception in this regard. Bills taking steps to rein in the untaxed nature of online purchases have moved in Utah and in Oklahoma this year, and a recent federal court case has given states new hope of collecting these taxes as well.

Compared to the growth of the service sector and of online shopping, the rise of websites like Airbnb and apps like Uber and Lyft are extremely new developments with sometimes unclear implications for state and local tax policy. For example, it is not always clear whether Airbnb room rentals are subject to state and local hotel and lodging taxes, or whether Uber and Lyft rides are subject to sales taxes and airport pickup taxes, nor who is responsible for collecting and remitting those taxes if they are due. To their credit, some states and cities are attempting to be pro-active in updating their tax laws and regulations to account for these changes. Gov. Ducey of Arizona took executive action to help ensure that the state's regulations adapt to the rise of the "sharing sector," and other jurisdictions such as ClevelandPhiladelphiaSan Francisco, Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, and the state of Alabama have begun grappling with this issue as well.  

Exemptions old and new 

In contrast to the above attempts to ensure that sales tax bases can grow in line with the economy, states are also considering creating new exemptions from their sales taxes. Most state sales taxes already exempt some items deemed to be necessities, such as groceries and prescription drugs. This year has seen many calls to create similar exemptions for other necessities, particularly tampons. Tampon exemptions have already been enacted in a few states and have been the subject of vigorous debate around the country, including a lawsuit in New York, legislative proposals in CaliforniaConnecticutTennessee, and Wisconsin, and stories in The New York TimesWashington Post, and National Public Radio

But determining which items are truly necessities deserving of a tax exemption is not an easy task. As some lawmakers seek to broaden these exemptions, others are arguing that the exemptions already on the books for items such as groceries are too broad because they exempt not just bread and milk, but candy bars and soda pop as well. Last year Vermont removed soda from its broad exemption for groceries and California is considering removing its exemptions for candy and snack food. At the same time, lawmakers in Louisiana and Philadelphia have discussed implementing special excise taxes on soda.          

Healthy debates 

Ensuring that sales tax bases are not eroded as the economy changes is vital to securing adequate revenues for public services such as schools and public safety. But sales taxes are far from perfect, particularly in the way that they tend to hit lower- and moderate-income families the hardest. One tool for lessening sales tax regressivity is to exempt more necessities from the tax, but doing so can also force rates up and increase revenue volatility if the tax collects a larger share of its revenue from "unnecessary" items that people are less likely to buy during economic downturns. With that in mind, lawmakers should keep in mind that there are many tax policy solutions aside from sales tax exemptions that can benefit low-income families in more targeted ways.  


Internet Tax Ban is a Defeat for Good Tax Policy


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Yesterday Congress passed a bill, which President Obama is expected to sign, that will ban states from imposing taxes on Internet access.  The so-called “Internet Tax Freedom Act” (ITFA) was originally enacted in 1998 as a temporary measure meant to assist an “infant industry.”  Now, however, it is being made permanent for exactly the opposite reason: because the Internet is “a resource used daily by Americans of all ages, across our country,” according to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  The bill effectively forces a tax cut onto the states, without any direct cost to the federal government.  It’s Congress’ favorite kind of tax cut: one that it does not need to pay for.

The most tangible effect of ITFA will come in 2020 when the seven states that began applying taxes to Internet access prior to 1998—Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin—will lose their “grandfathered” status and be forced to enact special Internet tax exemptions costing a total of $563 million per year.  But Michael Mazerov at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains that the impact on existing state taxes may not stop there.  According to Mazerov, this sweeping new ban could provide Internet access providers with a legal basis for arguing that all of their purchases, from computer servers to fiber-optic cable and even gasoline, must be exempted from tax in order to avoid any “indirect tax” on Internet access.

For years, permanent enactment of the ITFA had been stopped short by members of Congress who insisted that it be packaged with a measure that could actually improve state sales tax systems: the Marketplace Fairness Act (or similar legislation) that would allow states to require online retailers to collect the sales taxes owed by their customers.  Today, enforcement of sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet remains a messy patchwork, with many e-retailers enjoying an inequitable and distortionary price advantage over brick and mortar stores.  In order to secure passage of ITFA, Sen. McConnell pledged to hold a vote on the Marketplace Fairness Act later this year—though if history is any guide, that may not mean much.  The Senate already passed the Act once, in 2013, before watching it languish in the House.

Regardless of what happens to the Marketplace Fairness Act, the permanent extension of ITFA marks a step backward for state tax policy.  ITFA narrows state sales tax bases, makes them less economically neutral, and damages the long-run adequacy and sustainability of state revenues.  Limiting states’ ability to apply their consumption taxes in a broad-based way is antithetical to sound tax policy.


The Truth about Sales Tax Holidays


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Everyone loves a bargain (and a holiday), so it’s no surprise that sales tax holidays are hugely popular in the 17 states that will hold them in the coming weeks.

Most state sales tax holidays will coincide with back to school season to help consumers save on school clothes and supplies, but a subset of states also hold separate sales tax holidays to help consumers save on purchases tied to hurricane and hunting season. State lawmakers reap public relations benefits from these “holidays”, and media tend to cover them favorably.

But taxpayers would be wise to look beyond political talking points, long lines and bargains. The truth about sales tax holidays is that they are a costly gimmick. While they may provide taxpayers some savings on necessary purchases, they are a distraction from the bigger picture problem with regressive state tax systems.

Virtually every state’s tax system takes a much greater share of income from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families. Nationwide, the poorest 20 percent of households pay 10.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes on average, compared to just 5.4 percent for the top 1 percent. States’ heavy reliance on sales taxes exacerbates this problem.

In theory, sales tax holidays should help mitigate this problem. But temporary reprieves from taxes on back to school items aren’t well targeted. In fact, temporarily suspending sales taxes often benefits wealthy families more than low- to moderate-income families.  Better-off families are positioned to time their big purchases to occur during sales tax holidays–a luxury that often isn’t available to folks living paycheck to paycheck. One study found that households earning more than $30,000 per year are more likely to shift the timing of their clothing purchases to coincide with sales tax holidays compared to lower-income households. Further, low-income seniors and families without children who have no need to purchase “back to school” items get nothing from sales tax holidays.

Sales tax holidays will collectively cost states more than $300 million this year. This is money states can ill afford to lose. The revenue lost through sales tax holidays will ultimately have to be made up somewhere else, either through spending cuts or increasing other taxes.

Instead of expending resources planning, promoting and implementing sales tax holidays, policymakers would do better to focus on long-term solutions with real benefits for working families.  They could implement policies such as sales tax credits for low-income taxpayers, expand or implement a state earned income tax credit, or permanently reduce sales taxes rates and shift toward a progressive personal income tax.

If lawmakers really want to help families’ bottom lines, they should look to these more thoughtful and permanent reforms. To read ITEP’s full brief on this issue click here.

 


Dueling Tax Reform Proposals Take Shape in Maine


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MaineStateHouse.JPGDespite its setting among rugged coastlines and quaint lighthouses, there will be nothing picturesque about the coming tax battle between Gov. Paul LePage and legislative leaders in Maine. The current debate is the latest in a string of Maine tax reform efforts; in 2013 the “Gang of 11” proposed an ambitious bipartisan plan that was dashed like a fishing boat along a rocky shore, and in 2009 lawmakers passed a tax package that was soundly rejected by voters at the polls.

LePage unveiled his budget proposal back in January, and it included a package of changes that would fundamentally change the way Maine taxes its residents. The governor wants to cut income taxes through across-the-board rate reductions. The threshold for the zero income tax bracket would increase from $5,200 to $9,700. Any income between $9,700 and $50,000 would be taxed at a reduced rate of 5.75 percent, and income between $50,000 and $175,000 would be taxed at 6.5 percent. Income beyond $175,000 would be taxed at just 5.75 percent – an outrageous concession to the already well-off.. His plan also increases the exclusion for pension income from $10,000 to $30,000, introduces a refundable sales tax credit (though the state’s nonrefundable Earned Income Tax Credit is axed under the plan), and boosts the state’s targeted property tax fairness credit.

LePage has gone on record as wanting to eliminate Maine’s income tax – most recently at a Tax Day press conference – calling it “an obsolete form of taxation.” If the state income tax were eliminated, half of Maine’s annual $3 billion in revenue would go with it.

LePage wants other provisions that would inordinately benefit wealthy Mainers as well. His plan would eliminate Maine’s estate tax at a cost of $85 million over four years, and the top corporate income tax rate would fall from 8.93 percent to 6.75 percent.

To pay for his proposed cuts, Gov. LePage wants to increase the sales tax rate to 6.5 percent and expand the sales tax base to include personal and professional services. He makes further changes to the personal income tax as well, including eliminating itemized deductions. He would also end the state’s practice of sharing revenue with municipalities, while allowing cities and towns to implement a new tax on large nonprofit organizations in their jurisdictions. Lawmakers and local officials fear this will upend municipal budgets and force property tax increases at the local level.

The governor’s plan would shift revenues from progressive income taxes to regressive sales and property taxes, and the state will net a revenue loss of $300 million if all changes take effect. The shift would also make state finances more volatile over the long run; as this ITEP brief explains, the income tax displays more robust growth over time than do sales and property taxes.

Last week, legislative leaders in the Maine House and Senate unveiled an alternative to Gov. LePage’s plan entitled “A Better Deal for Maine.” The alternative proposal would also cut income taxes and increase sales taxes, but the benefits would be targeted to middle-income Mainers rather than the wealthy. The average taxpayer with income under $167,000 would get an income tax cut, but the top personal income tax rate would remain untouched and many of the state’s richest residents would see a modest tax increase under the plan. Rather than increasing the 0 percent bracket, the alternative plan boosts the state’s standard deduction and phases out the benefit for upper-income taxpayers. 

The sales tax rate would remain at 5.5 percent, but the base would be expanded to include services, as it would under LePage’s plan. Like the governor’s plan, the alternative introduces a new refundable sales tax credit and increases the property tax fairness credit, but it retains the current pension exclusion amount.

The Better Deal alternative proposed by legislators does not eliminate revenue sharing with municipalities, as the governor would. Under the alternative plan, the Homestead Exemption property tax benefit would be doubled to $20,000 for all homeowners; under the plan proposed by LePage, the homestead exemption was doubled only for homeowners over 65 years of age. Unlike the governor’s plan, the alternative plan is revenue neutral.

An ITEP distributional analysis found that the “Better Deal for Maine” plan would provide bigger tax cuts for more Mainers while protecting investments in critical services like education. Under Gov. LePage’s plan, the average taxpayer in the top 5 percent of Mainers would see significant cuts, while the alternative plan would see taxes increase modestly for most in the same group. Overall, the alternative plan would make Maine’s tax system more fair.

The “Better Deal for Maine” plan has already won an opening salvo, garnering the support of many of the state’s major newspapers. The Bangor Daily News praised the alternative for its focus on reducing property taxes, which fall more heavily on the bottom of the income scale, than income taxes that are felt more heavily at the top. The Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal said in a joint editorial that the alternative plan would “boost demand and lead to economic growth” because it targets middle-class consumers rather than wealthy businesses.

 


Gov. Kasich's Tax Proposal Promises to Make Ohio's Tax System Less Fair


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kasich.pngThe tax plan recently proposed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich would be a massive tax shift away from well-off taxpayers to the middle-class and working poor, according to a new report released by Policy Matters Ohio that incorporates ITEP data. His plan follows similar tax shift proposals from Maine and South Carolina and shows that plenty of governors around the country are doubling down on regressive tax “reform,” despite arguments to the contrary.

Taking into account the governor’s proposed changes to income and consumption taxes, the top one percent of Ohio taxpayers will receive an average tax break of $12,010, while the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers will actually see their taxes go up by about $50. Gov. Kasich has touted his plan as a measure to boost small businesses, but in reality his policy will benefit the wealthy and leave working families in Ohio further behind.

Gov. Kasich has proposed slashing income taxes for the second time in his administration. His new plan would cut rates by 23 percent over two years, with an immediate 15 percent cut in 2015. These cuts would cost an estimated $4.6 billion in revenue over the biennium. Kasich also wants to eliminate the income tax for business owners with $2 million or less in annual receipts at a two-year cost of $700 million dollars, and increase the personal exemption allowed for those with $80,000 or less in annual income. The benefits of the governor’s income tax proposals would put, on average, $13,000 back into the pockets of the top one percent of Ohio taxpayers annually, while those at the bottom would see an average $16 tax cut. Those in the middle would see a $219 tax cut on average.

Worse than the lopsided benefits that would accrue to the rich are the regressive tax increases Gov. Kasich proposes to pay for his cuts. The governor wants to increase the sales tax rate from 5.75 to 6.25 percent and broaden the sales tax base to include a number of additional services. He also wants to increase excise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. These measures hit low-income households the hardest and explain why overall tax rates will increase for the bottom 40 percent. While wealthier households will pay a higher dollar amount under the sales tax increase, low-income households will have to pay a larger percentage of their income. Similarly, the cigarette and tobacco tax increase will have a larger impact on low-income households. ITEP’s recent Who Pays report shows that states that rely disproportionately on consumption taxes rather than income taxes are less fair and more unequal in the distribution of tax obligations. 

Kasich’s proposal also includes other measures meant to help pay for his tax cuts or reduce taxes for businesses. He would means test three tax provisions geared toward income earned by senior citizens, raise the rate of the Commercial Activity Tax while reducing the minimum paid by some companies, and increase the severance tax on oil and gas.

A number of legislators have balked at the governor’s plan. Rep. Kevin Boyce argued that the increase in the income tax personal exemption for lower-income taxpayers would be negated by the increase in sales taxes, while Rep. Denise Driehaus questioned whether the measures for business owners would be enough to spur job growth.

The governor could actually help working Ohioans by expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). While Gov. Kasich often highlights his expansion of the EITC from 5 to 10 percent, this is not nearly enough to truly make a difference for low-income families – as Policy Matters Ohio and ITEP have previously argued. The bottom 20 percent of tax filers receive an average of just $5 in savings from the EITC, while the next 20 percent receive an average $60 in savings. These meager savings would be wiped out by the governor’s proposed sales tax increases. A truly progressive tax proposal would increase the EITC further and make the credit refundable so that working families would receive the full benefit.

What Ohio needs is a tax policy that will help low-income and working families get a leg up, not reward the well-off with lower taxes. We hope the governor will make fairness a part of his economic agenda. 

 


Why Now May Be the Time to Implement Higher Gas Taxes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Realities of Governing Will Put Candidates' Anti-Tax Rhetoric to the Test


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electionnight.jpgThe outcome of Tuesday’s election surely will shape the direction of state tax policy in 2015 as tax shift proposals appear to be looming in a number of states. In states with budget shortfalls, it may be difficult for elected officials who campaigned on tax-cutting platforms  to balance that rhetoric with the realities and priorities of governing.

As a recent Standard & Poor’s study revealed, worsening income inequality makes it harder for states to pay for needed services (e.g. education, roads and bridges, public safety and public health) over time. Campaigns consist of soaring rhetoric on what candidate will do for the people. Governing puts that rhetoric to the test. State lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, should focus on reckoning the reality of their constituents’--ordinary working people--daily lives rather than claim the outcome of the Tuesday’s election is license to impart policies that overwhelming benefit corporations and the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

In coming weeks, ITEP will provide a comprehensive overview of state tax policy trends to anticipate in 2015 as well as a look at other states where tax policy will be a dominant issue.  For now, here’s a glance at some of the most important states to watch where the outcome of Tuesday’s election will surely shape tax policy decisions next year:

Arizona: Former ice cream magnate Doug Ducey cruised to victory over opponent Fred DuVal on a promise to eliminate the personal and corporate income tax. Ducey appeared to back away from his tax pledge in the waning days of the campaign, but it is likely that he will claim a mandate to push an anti-tax agenda, financed with drastic spending cuts. “If anyone needs to cut back,” he declared in his victory speech, “it will be government.” The state’s anemic economy and yawning budget gap could prove an obstacle to his plans.

Arkansas: Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson was elected governor besting former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross. This means that both the Arkansas legislative and executive branches will now be under one-party control. Hutchinson campaigned on a costly plan to cut the personal income tax by lowering tax rates for all but low-income households. News outlets have  quoted him saying that income tax reduction would be his “top and possibly only tax cutting priority.” Given one party control in Arkansas government, legislators will likely feel more inclined to push through tax cuts and potentially pursue more aggressive tax shift legislation (which has been on their agenda for years) that would eliminate income taxes and replace the lost revenue with regressive sales taxes.

Georgia: Gov. Nathan Deal won his campaign for reelection over challenger Jason Carter. Given that Republicans will continue to control both the House and the Senate, top state lawmakers are expected to pursue a tax-cutting agenda that will likely include extreme tax shift proposals.  Late last year, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published  a report (using ITEP data) showing that as many as four in five taxpayers would pay more in taxes if the state eliminated its income tax and replaced the revenue with sales taxes.  Georgia voters also approved the “Income Tax Straightjacket” a ballot initiative that amends the state’s constitution to keep the top income tax rate at 6 percent.

Illinois: Gov. Pat Quinn lost his bid for reelection to businessman Bruce Rauner. Taxes were a big issue in this campaign. Rauner’s position on how to handle the state’s temporary 5 percent income tax rate changed through the campaign. (The state’s temporary 5 percent income tax rate is set to fall to 3.75 percent in January). Initially he proposed allowing the temporary income tax hike to immediately expire, but he changed his position once the reality set in that as governor he would need to fill the $2 billion budget hole created by allowing the tax rate to fall. More recently, Rauner has said that he will allow the temporary tax increase to expire over four years and will keep property taxes at their current level. Rauner would make up $600 million of lost income tax revenue by broadening the sales tax base to include many business services such as advertising, printing and attorney fees. The Illinois House and Senate, which remain under Democratic control, may tackle the temporary income tax rate before Rauner takes office. Regardless, Illionois will be a state to watch in 2015 given the governor’s stand on taxes, divided government and  overwhelming voter approval of a referendum showing support for a millionaire’s tax.

Kansas - Given Kansas’s recent fiscal woes, the race between  Gov. Sam Brownback and House Minority Leader Paul Davis was thought to be a toss-up right until the polls closed. Ultimately, Gov. Brownback prevailed. Gov. Brownback’s record on taxes has made national headlines and the race was largely viewed as a referendum on his controversial tax cuts that benefited wealthy Kansans disproportionately, resulted in a bond rating downgrade, and left the state with a huge budget shortfall. Now that Kansans have re-elected Gov. Brownback,  he’ll be forced to deal with a budget shortfall through rolling back his tax cuts, raising other taxes, or reducing services. All eyes will continue to be on Kansas into 2015.

Maryland: Larry Hogan’s stunning upset over Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the gubernatorial race will likely result in gridlock rather than significant changes on tax policy. Hogan used outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley’s tax increases as an effective cudgel against Brown, hammering away at his support among Democrats. Though Hogan has pledged to repeal as many of O’Malley’s tax policies as possible, he is unlikely to find support for his agenda in the Maryland state legislature, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic. A similar dynamic plagued his former boss, Republican Gov. Bob Erlich (2002-2006), who found himself stymied by a combative General Assembly. The likely result of divided government is gridlock.

Pennsylvania: Tom Wolf unseated Pennsylvania’s incumbent governor, Tom Corbett, in Tuesday’s election.  Corbett’s unpopularity stemmed from a number of his policy choices including cutting more than $1 billion in education spending and allowing a significant budget shortfall to develop in the state.  So, the top job of the newly elected governor will be determining how to close the budget gap (estimated to be between $1.7-$2 billion) while reinvesting state dollars in public education.  Look to Wolf to put forth several revenue raising ideas he first proposed on the campaign trail.  For starters, Wolf promised to enact a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas drilling to help fund education (Corbett opposed such a tax).  Wolf also wants to raise revenue through changes to the personal income tax which will also improve the fairness of the state’s tax system. Pennsylvania has a flat income tax rate of 3.07 percent and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the constitution bars the adoption of a graduated income tax. Wolf’s plan would raise the income tax rate but exempt income below a certain level. Wolf has said he intends  to use the extra revenue generated by his tax reform to increase the level of state aid to public schools and reduce Pennsylvanians’ property taxes.  While Wolf may face opposition to his progressive personal income tax plan, many Republican lawmakers could get on board with the idea of the state taking on a greater share of school funding if it would result in lower property taxes.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won reelection by besting Trek Bicycle Executive Mary Burke. Gov. Walker ran on his record of cutting taxes. (During his time in office Governor Walker passed three rounds of property and personal income tax cuts). As a candidate Gov. Walker pledged that property taxes wouldn’t increase through 2018. Even more worrisome, Gov. Walker has said he wants to discuss income tax elimination. While telling voters that he’d like to eliminate their state income tax bills may sound good on the campaign trail, Wisconsinites should know that most taxpayers, especially middle- and low-income households, would likely pay more under his plan. An ITEP analysis found that if all revenue lost from income tax repeal were replaced with sales tax revenue the state’s sales tax rate would have to increase from 5 to 13.5 percent.  ITEP also found that the bottom 80 percent of state taxpayers would likely see a net tax hike if the sales tax were raised to offset the huge revenue loss associated with income tax elimination.


Taxing Toking: The Tax Implications of Marijuana Ballot Initiatives


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In addition to a number of tax proposals on the ballot this election, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia will vote on ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. These measures could also have future revenue implications. If these initiatives pass, they would set these jurisdictions on the path of Colorado and Washington, which already allow production and sale of marijuana to adults for recreational as well as medical purposes.

While Colorado and Washington marijuana markets are still a work in progress, both states have proven that taxes on marijuana can generate revenue. For example, since recreational marijuana sales began in January, Colorado has collected over $45 million in revenue from marijuana taxes and fees. Washington has collected $5.5 million in excise tax revenue from July 8 (the first day of sales) through October 7.

Here's a breakdown of each state's potential plan to tax marijuana and what level of revenues these states could expect to collect:

Oregon

Oregon's marijuana ballot initiative would place a $35 per ounce excise tax on all marijuana flowers, a $10 per ounce excise tax on all marijuana leaves, and a $5 excise tax per immature marijuana plant. The revenue generated from these taxes would be earmarked such that 40 percent would go to the Common School Fund, 20 percent for mental health/alcohol/drug services, 15 percent for state police, 20 percent for local law enforcement, and 5 percent for the Oregon Health Authority. The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office estimates that this measure would raise $41 million from 2017 to 2019 , while the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest estimated that revenue would hit a much higher  $79 million over the same time period.

Alaska

Alaska's marijuana ballot initiative would place a $50 per ounce excise tax on the sale of marijuana with the option of allowing the Department of Revenue to exempt or apply lower tax rates to certain parts of the marijuana plant. While the Alaska Department of Revenue has chosen not to issue a formal revenue estimate, a Colorado-based organization, the Marijuana Policy Group, has estimated that the measure would raise $73 million  from 2016 to 2020.

District of Columbia

Unlike the initiatives in Alaska and Oregon, Washington, D.C.'s ballot initiative does not explicitly lay out a taxation regime in the initiative text. The assumption, however, is that the D.C. Council will follow-up with legislation that puts in place a regulatory and taxation system for recreational marijuana. To this end, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso has proposed the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act, which would place a 6 percent excise tax on medical marijuana and a 15 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana.

Although there has been no official score of the bill, an estimate of a similar hypothetical marijuana tax in D.C. predicted it could raise $8.8 million. Whatever the amount raised, the proposed D.C. legislation would direct all of it into a dedicated marijuana fund, which would fund anti-drug abuse programs across D.C. agencies. 


The Truth about Sales Tax Holidays


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Everyone loves a bargain, so it’s no surprise that sales tax holidays are hugely popular in the 17 states hold them.

Over the past few weekends, 13 states temporarily suspended their sales tax, and four more will do so in the coming weeks.  Most state sales tax holidays will coincide with back to school season, but a subset of these 16 states also hold separate sales tax holidays to help consumers save on purchases tied to hurricane and hunting season. State lawmakers reap public relations benefits from these “holidays”, and media tend to cover them favorably.

But taxpayers should look beyond political talking points, long lines and bargains. The truth about sales tax holidays is that they are a costly gimmick. While they may provide taxpayers some savings on necessary purchases, they are a distraction from the bigger picture problem with regressive state tax systems.

Virtually every state’s tax system takes a much greater share of income from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families. Nationwide, the poorest 20 percent of households pay more than 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes on average, compared to just 5.6 percent for the top 1 percent. States’ heavy reliance on sales taxes exacerbates this problem.

In theory, sales tax holidays should help mitigate this problem. But temporary reprieves from taxes on back to school items aren’t well targeted. In fact, temporarily suspending sales taxes often benefits wealthy families more than low- to moderate-income families.  Better-off families are positioned to time their big purchases to occur during sales tax holidays–a luxury that often isn’t available to folks living paycheck to paycheck. One recent study found that households earning more than $30,000 per year are more likely to shift the timing of their clothing purchases to coincide with sales tax holidays than lower-income households. Further, low-income seniors and families without children who have no need to purchase “back to school” items get nothing from sales tax holidays.

Another problem is sales tax holidays often apply to an arbitrary assortment of items that may have more to do with lobbying power than consumer needs.  Maryland, for example, continues to tax wedding veils, but it exempts bridal gowns and tuxedos during its sales tax holiday.  Diapers are also exempt, but don’t expect to buy any diaper bags or receiving blankets tax-free. In New Mexico, ice skates are taxed, but not ski boots; chalkboards are taxed, but not chalk or erasers.  In Texas, golf cleats and football pads are taxed but not swim suits or tennis shoes.

Sales tax holidays will collectively cost states more than $300 million this year. This is money states can ill afford to lose. The revenue lost through sales tax holidays will ultimately have to be made up somewhere else, either through spending cuts or increasing other taxes.

Instead of expending resources planning, promoting and implementing sales tax holidays, policymakers would do better to focus on long-term solutions with real benefits for working families.  They could implement policies such as sales tax credits for low-income taxpayers, expand or implement a state earned income tax credit, or permanently reduce sales taxes rates and shift toward a progressive personal income tax.

If lawmakers really want to help families’ bottom lines, they should look to these more thoughtful and permanent reforms.


Sales Tax Holidays = Not Worth Celebrating


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Consumers in 16 states this year will be given the opportunity to participate in a sales tax holiday (most of which will happen this weekend). These so-called holidays are a temporary break on paying sales tax on purchases of clothing, computers and other select items. These holidays are normally heavily promoted, but really they aren’t worth the hype. Sales tax holidays are poorly targeted, costly and represent a lost opportunity to get tax fairness right.

Sales tax holidays are advertised as a way to give people a break from paying the sales tax. On the surface, this sounds good given that sales taxes fall most heavily on low-income families. However, a two- to three- day sales tax holiday for selected items does nothing to provide relief to low- and moderate-income taxpayers during the other 362 days of the year. In the long run, sales tax holidays leave a regressive tax system basically unchanged. For more on why sales tax holidays aren’t all they're cracked up to be, read ITEP’s brief “Sales Tax Holidays: An Ineffective Alternative to Real Sales Tax Reform.”


Quick Hits, Redux: Bloody Kansas, Bleeding North Carolina


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

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

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

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


State News Quick Hits: Kansas Budget Woes, Absurd Ohio Tax Cuts


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In an astonishing shift, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has moved beyond calling his tax cuts a great “real live experiment” and is instead likening the state to a medical patient, saying, "It's like going through surgery. It takes a while to heal and get growing afterwards.” Clearly the Governor is feeling the heat of passing two years of regressive and expensive tax cuts. Here’s a great piece from the Wichita Eagle highlighting the state’s fiscal drama.

File this under absurd. Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed his most recent tax cut bill at a food bank touting tax cuts to low-income taxpayers included in the legislation, but in reality the bill actually doesn’t do much to help low-income taxpayers. In fact, the poorest 20 percent of Ohioans will see an average tax cut of a measly $4, hardly enough to buy a box of cereal, while the wealthy will be showered with big tax breaks.

Faced with a giant budgetary hole, New Jersey lawmakers are being offered two very different solutions: State Sen. Stephen Sweeney’s proposed “millionaire tax” and Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to renege on earlier promises to adequately fund the state’s beleaguered pension system. Critics of the governor’s plan argue that Christie is failing to honor the state’s promise to make bigger payments to the pension fund as part of a 2010 agreement, which also required beneficiaries to contribute more in an effort to shore up the fund. Sweeney would instead impose higher tax rates on those earning more than $500,000 to bridge the gap - a proposal that Christie already has vetoed several times but is supported by a majority of voters.

The three Republican candidates running to replace Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (she is not running due to term limits) are campaigning on promises to eliminate the state’s income tax. But, Gov. Brewer has made it clear she does not support such extreme ideas. From the Arizona Daily Star: “I think that you need a balance,” she said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. Beyond that, Brewer said it’s an illusion to sell the idea that eliminating the state income tax somehow would mean overall lower taxes. She said the needs remain: “It’s going to come from all of us, one way or the other.”

 


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


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Voters in 36 states will be choosing governors this November. Over the next several months, the Tax Justice Digest will be highlighting 2014 gubernatorial races where taxes are proving to be a key issue. Today’s post is about the Wisconsin race.

During his first term in office,  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker passed three rounds of property and personal income tax cuts, and now he is on the campaign trail touting the so-called benefits.

But the truth is that Gov. Walker’s tax cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Wisconsinites while lower-income people received little to no benefit. The Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP), using ITEP data, concluded that Gov. Walker’s tax cuts will give the bottom 20 percent – those earning an average of $14,000 a year – an average tax break of just $48 in 2014. In contrast, the top 1 percent of earners, or those whose average income is $1.1 million, will receive an average tax cut of $2,518.

If Gov. Walker is re-elected, tax cuts will likely remain a priority. He’s already pledged that property taxes won’t increase through 2018.  Even more worrisome, Gov. Walker has said he wants to discuss income tax elimination. While telling voters that he’d like to eliminate their state income tax bills may sound good on the campaign trail, Wisconsinites should know that most taxpayers, especially middle- and low-income households, will pay more under his plan. An ITEP analysis found that if all revenue lost from income tax repeal were replaced with sales tax revenue the state’s sales tax rate would have to increase from 5 to 13.5 percent.  ITEP also found that the bottom 80 percent of state taxpayers would likely see a net tax hike if the sales tax were raised to offset the huge revenue loss associated with income tax elimination.

Challenger Mary Burke, a Trek Bicycle Corporation executive and former state Commerce Department secretary, has yet to put out her own tax plan, but she recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she would not take a pledge to not increase taxes, saying, “I'd want to look at the totality. We collect revenue in a lot of different ways. I certainly wouldn't look at raising (taxes), but I'd also want to look at it in the context of our finances, our budgets ….”

When asked specifically about her tax plan she remained vague, “My focus would be tax cuts targeted to the middle class and working families instead of breaks to businesses and those at the top that don’t create jobs….I’m particularly concerned about the very high property taxes across the state.”

As with every election, there’s a lot at stake in the upcoming Wisconsin governor’s race. Tax revenue funds every level of government not to mention vital programs and services. Low- and middle-income Wisconsinites pay a disproportionately higher percentage of their income in state taxes than the rich. Voters deserve to know details about each candidate’s plan for the state. In the coming months, let’s hope Burke provides more details about her tax plan, especially since the direction Gov. Walker wants to take the state seems particularly clear.  

 


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


State News Quick Hits: Transformers and Tax Breaks for the Rich in Disguise


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Editorial boards at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal have both (rightly) responded to Governor Walker’s property and income tax cut proposals by encouraging lawmakers to instead curb the state’s growing structural deficit, or put any surplus revenue toward serious problems like poverty reduction and enhancing K-12 education. Perhaps the editorial boards were persuaded by Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) findings that wealthier folks benefit more from the tax cuts than low-and middle-income families. For more on ITEP’s analysis read this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece.

Idaho’s House Speaker has proposed dramatically scaling back the state’s grocery tax credit in exchange for a regressive $70-80 million cut to the individual and corporate income tax rates. But economist Mike Ferguson of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy points out that the Speaker’s plan would amount to a giveaway to the rich, while further squeezing the middle class.  An Idahoan making $50,000 per year, for example, could expect to see about $305 tacked on to their state tax bill under this change. Governor Butch Otter has been saying the right things about taking a break from tax cuts (kind of) and instead making education spending a priority this year. But the Governor recently said he was open to the Speaker’s idea, and the Idaho Statesman provided a partial endorsement. Idaho legislators should tread carefully: raising taxes on the middle class to pass another trickle-down tax cut is bad public policy and even worse politics.

A Wichita Eagle editorial, “Pressure on sales tax”, shares our concerns about one of the major consequences of the tax cuts and “reforms” enacted in Kansas over the past two years.  With the gradual elimination of the state’s personal income tax and pressure on local governments to raise revenue, it is inevitable that the state’s sales tax rate will continue to rise at the detriment of low- and moderate-income working families who are stuck footing the bill. And, in order to have sufficient revenue to fund services over the long-run, Kansas lawmakers will need to make the politically difficult decision to broaden the sales tax base, something they’ve shown little stomach for so far. The editorial states, “as Kansas strains to deal with declining tax collections and reserves according to Brownback’s plan to become a state without an income tax, the sales tax will be one of the only places to go for more revenue.”

Indiana lawmakers want to get a better handle on whether their tax incentives for economic development are actually doing any good.  Last week, the House unanimously passed legislation that will require every economic development tax break to be reviewed ov

er the course of the next five years.  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), recommends that all states implement these kinds of ongoing evaluations.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is pushing back against a string of bad publicity regarding film tax credits. Quinn says that an entertainment boom is occurring in Illinois in part because of the Illinois Film Services Tax Credit, an uncapped, transferable credit that was extended in 2011. What Governor Quinn fails to mention, however, is how much taxpayers lost in the process. The credit costs roughly $20 million a year, requiring higher taxes or fewer public services than would otherwise be the case. Research from other states indicates that only a small fraction of that amount would be recouped via higher tax receipts. Moreover, film subsidies often waste money on productions that would have located in the state anyway and are unlikely to do much good in the long-term since the industry is so geographically mobile. Indeed, one of the producers of Transformers 3 admitted that he would have filmed in Chicago even without the credit, which cost taxpayers $6 million. Instead, the decision was based on “the skyline, the architecture and the skilled crews here, among other factors.”


Beware of the Tax Shift (Again)


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Note to Readers: This is the second of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014. Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This post focuses on tax shift proposals.

The most radical and potentially devastating tax reform proposals under consideration in a number of states are those that would reduce or eliminate state income taxes and replace some or all of the lost revenue by expanding or increasing consumption taxes. These “tax swap” proposals appeared to gain momentum in a number of states last year, but ultimately proposals by the governors of Louisiana and Nebraska fell flat in 2013. Despite this, legislators in several states have reiterated their commitment to this flawed idea and may attempt to inflict it on taxpayers in 2014. Here’s a round-up of where we see tax shifts gaining momentum:

Arkansas - The Republican Party in Arkansas is so committed to a tax shift that they have included language in their platform vowing to “[r]eplace the state income tax with a more equitable method of taxation.” While the rules of Arkansas’ legislative process will prevent any movement on a tax shift this year, leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson has made income tax elimination a major theme of his campaign.  

Georgia - The threat of a radical tax shift proposal was so great in the Peach State that late last year the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published this report (using ITEP data) showing that as many as four in five taxpayers would pay more in taxes if the state eliminated their income tax and replaced the revenue with sales taxes. This report seems to have slowed the momentum for the tax shift, but many lawmakers remain enthusiastic about this idea.

Kansas – In each of the last two years, Governor Sam Brownback has proposed and signed into law tax-cutting legislation designed to put the state on a “glide path” toward income tax elimination.  Whether or not the Governor will be able to continue to steer the state down this path in 2014 may largely depend on the state Supreme Court’s upcoming decision about increasing education funding.

New Mexico - During the 2013 legislative session a tax shift bill was introduced in Santa Fe that would have eliminated the state’s income tax, and reduced the state’s gross receipts tax rate to 2 percent (from 5.125 percent) while broadening the tax base to include salaries and wages. New Mexico Voices for Children released an analysis (PDF) of the legislation (citing ITEP figures on the already-regressive New Mexico tax structure) that rightly concludes, “[o]n the whole, HB-369/SB-368 would be a step in the direction of a more unfair tax system and should not be passed by the Legislature.” We expect the tax shift debate has only just started there.

North Carolina - North Carolina lawmakers spent a good part of their 2013 legislative session debating numerous tax “reform” packages including a tax shift that would have eliminated the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and replaced some of the revenue with a higher sales tax. Ultimately, they enacted a smaller-scale yet still disastrous package which cut taxes for the rich,hiked them for most everyone else, and drained state resources by more than $700 million a year. There is reason to believe that some North Carolina lawmakers will use any surplus revenue this year to push for more income tax cuts.  And, one of the chief architects of the income tax elimination plan from last year has made it known that he would like to use the 2015 session to continue pursuing this goal.

Ohio - Governor John Kasich has made no secret of his desire to eliminate the state’s income tax. When he ran for office in 2010 he promised to “[p]hase out the income tax. It's punishing on individuals. It's punishing on small business. To phase that out, it cannot be done in a day, but it's absolutely essential that we improve the tax environment in this state so that we no longer are an obstacle for people to locate here and that we can create a reason for people to stay here." He hasn't changed his tune: during a recent talk to chamber of commerce groups he urged them “to always be for tax cuts.”  

Wisconsin - Governor Scott Walker says he wants 2014 to be a year of discussion about the pros and cons of eliminating Wisconsin’s most progressive revenue sources—the corporate and personal income taxes. But the discussion is likely to be a short one when the public learns (as an ITEP analysis found) that a 13.5 percent sales tax rate would be necessary for the state to make up for the revenue lost from income tax elimination. 


What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy


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Note to Readers: This is the first of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This post provides an overview of key trends and top states to watch in the coming year.  Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight state tax proposals and take a deeper look at the four key policy trends likely to dominate 2014 legislative sessions and feature prominently on the campaign trail. Part two discusses the trend of tax shift proposals. Part three discusses the trend of tax cut proposals. Part four discusses the trend of gas tax increase proposals. Part five discusses the trend of real tax reform proposals.

2013 was a year like none we have seen before when it comes to the scope and sheer number of tax policy plans proposed and enacted in the states.  And given what we’ve seen so far, 2014 has the potential to be just as busy.

In a number of statehouses across the country last year, lawmakers proposed misguided schemes (often inspired by supply-side ideology) designed to sharply reduce the role of progressive personal and corporate income taxes, and in some cases replace them entirely with higher sales taxes.  There were also a few good faith efforts at addressing long-standing structural flaws in state tax codes through base broadening, providing tax breaks to working families, or increasing taxes paid by the wealthiest households.

The good news is that the most extreme and destructive proposals were halted.  However, several states still enacted costly and regressive tax cuts, and we expect lawmakers in many of those states to continue their quest to eliminate income taxes in the coming years.  

The historic elections of 2012, which left most states under solid one-party control (many of those states with super majorities), are a big reason why so many aggressive tax proposals got off the ground in 2013.  We expect elections to be a driving force shaping tax policy proposals again in 2014 as voters in 36 states will be electing governors this November, and most state lawmakers are up for re-election as well.

We also expect to see a continuation of the four big tax policy trends that dominated 2013:

  • Tax shifts or tax swaps:  These proposals seek to scale back or repeal personal and corporate income taxes, and generally seek to offset some, or all, of the revenue loss with a higher sales tax.

    At the end of last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made it known that he wants to give serious consideration to eliminating his state’s income tax and to hiking the sales tax to make up the lost revenue.  Even if elimination is out of reach this year, Walker and other Wisconsin lawmakers are still expected to push for income tax cuts.  Look for lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina to debate similar proposals.  And, count on North Carolina and Ohio lawmakers to attempt to build on tax shift plans partially enacted in 2013.  
  • Tax cuts:  These proposals range from cutting personal income taxes to reducing property taxes to expanding tax breaks for businesses.  Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering using the revenue rebounds we’ve seen in the wake of the Great Recession as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts.  

    Missouri
    lawmakers, for example, wasted no time in filing a new slate of tax-cutting bills at the start of the year with the hope of making good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year.  Despite the recommendations from a Nebraska tax committee to continue studying the state’s tax system for the next year, rather than rushing to enact large scale cuts, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Dave Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.  And, lawmakers in Michigan are debating various ways of piling new personal income tax cuts on top of the large business tax cuts (PDF) enacted these last few years.  We also expect to see major tax cut initiatives this year in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

    Conservative lawmakers are not alone in pushing a tax-cutting agenda.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates are making tax cuts a part of their campaign strategies.  
  • Real Reform:  Most tax shift and tax cut proposals will be sold under the guise of tax reform, but only those plans that truly address state tax codes’ structural flaws, rather than simply eliminating taxes, truly deserve the banner of “reform”.

    Illinois and Kentucky are the states with the best chances of enacting long-overdue reforms this year.  Voters in Illinois will likely be given the chance to convert their state's flat income tax rate to a more progressive, graduated system.  Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has renewed his commitment to enacting sweeping tax reform that will address inequities and inadequacies in his state’s tax system while raising additional revenue for education.  Look for lawmakers in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Utah to consider enacting or enhancing tax policies that reduce the tax load currently shouldered by low- and middle-income households.
  • Gas Taxes and Transportation Funding:  Roughly half the states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, so there’s little doubt that the lack of growth in state transportation revenues will remain a big issue in the year ahead. While we’re unlikely to see the same level of activity as last year (when half a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, enacted major changes to their gasoline taxes), there are a number of states where transportation funding issues are being debated. We’ll be keeping close tabs on developments in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, and Washington State, among other places.

Check back over the next month for more detailed posts about these four trends and proposals unfolding in a number of states.  


Governor Walker's 13.5% Problem


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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants 2014 to be a year of discussion about the pros and cons of eliminating Wisconsin’s most progressive revenue sourcesthe corporate and personal income taxes.  But Wisconsinites may not need a full year to see the folly of this approach.

It took mere months for Louisiana and Nebraska to abandon their misguided efforts toward income tax elimination. And the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) recently found that if Wisconsin were to go this route, the state sales tax rate would need to rise to a whopping (highest in the nation) 13.5 percent if cuts in public investments are to be avoided. Wisconsin taxpayers will likely come to the conclusion rather quickly that nearly tripling their sales tax rate isn’t in their best interest.

In terms of how this sort of shift would affect real Wisconsinites, this post from the Wisconsin Budget Project sums it up: “Governor Walker’s Tax Shift Plan Would Raise Taxes for Most.” In fact, ITEP found that the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution would likely see a net tax hike if the sales tax were raised to offset the huge revenue loss associated with income tax elimination.


State News Quick Hits: 2014 Off to Rocky Start


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2014 is just a few days old, and already it’s not off to such a happy start in terms of tax fairness:

This editorial in the Kansas City Star predicts that in Missouri, “[m]any state lawmakers, and their constituents, found 2013 to be a taxing legislative session. But it may pale in comparison to what’s ahead in 2014.” Republican legislators aren’t going to give up on “tax reform” after their failure to override Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of an extreme tax plan last year. Instead, those lawmakers are pledging to propose another round of income tax cuts and potentially a ballot initiative if the tax cuts can’t be passed through the legislative process.

The proliferation of state film tax incentives among states seeking to siphon off Hollywood production spending has been widely criticized. But the fact that some in California are now contemplating enacting film tax breaks to prevent a home-grown industry from leaving the state is a stark reminder that the “race to the bottom” in state corporate income taxes will leave every state poorer.

January 1st marked the beginning of a new, highly regressive era in North Carolina tax policy.  An array of tax changes went into effect which will further shift the responsibility for paying for North Carolina’s public investments away from wealthy households and profitable corporations onto the backs of middle- and low-income families.  Most notable among the changes includes the collapse of the state’s graduated personal income tax structure which was replaced with a flat rate of just 5.8% and allowing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to expire. Lawmakers who championed the tax package have falsely claimed for months that every North Carolina taxpayer will benefit from the changes.  As  ITEP and the NC Budget and Tax Center have repeatedly pointed out (and NC fact-checking reporters and the NC Fiscal Research division have substantiated), many families will pay more.  

This week, the Small Business Development Committee in the Wisconsin Assembly heard a bill about two proposed sales tax holidays. The first two-day holiday would be held in early August and would suspend the state’s 5 percent sales tax on computers and back-to-school items. The other two-day holiday would take place in November and be available for Energy Star products. Thankfully the proposal seems to be getting mixed reviews. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald views the proposal as a gimmick and he couldn’t be more right. For more information read ITEP’s Policy Brief.


Supreme Court Won't Rule on New York's "Amazon Law"


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This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear the e-commerce industry’s challenge to New York’s trend-setting “Amazon law.”  The law, which was upheld by New York’s highest court, successfully expanded the number of online retailers collecting New York sales taxes.  It did this by requiring any e-retailer to collect the tax if they partner with New York based “affiliates” to generate over $10,000 in sales.  Because of the law, Amazon.com has been collecting sales taxes from its New York customers for more than 5 years, generating millions in revenue for public services and making the state’s sales tax base slightly more rational.

In the wake of the Court’s refusal to hear Amazon.com and Overstock.com’s appeals, some observers are already predicting that more states will be tempted to follow New York’s lead.  And follow it they should.  More than a dozen states have “Amazon laws” patterned after New York’s and while they’re not a panacea for the tax base erosion that online shopping has caused, they are the best option states have available to them right now.

If anybody needs to pay attention to the Court’s ruling, though, it’s the U.S. House of Representatives.  Almost seven months ago the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would have made New York’s law irrelevant by empowering all states to apply their sales tax collection laws more broadly to all e-retailers above a certain size.  The bill has widespread support among traditional retailers and a broad coalition of state-level lawmakers, but has so far been stopped—like many other reforms—by the House’s aversion to virtually anything that would improve tax collections at any level of government.


State News Quick Hits: Amazon's Esoteric Tax Dodge, and More


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Iowa Senator Jack Hatch is one of three Democratic candidates running to unseat Governor Terry Branstad. If elected, the Senator intends to pursue a package of tax changes that would cost the state $415 million in Fiscal Year 2015 and $300 million in the following years. Most components of his plan are quite progressive: eliminating the flawed deduction for federal income taxes paid and asking the wealthiest Iowans to pay more overall.  But we wonder if permanently reducing tax revenues is the best approach when (for example) food insecurity in the state is rising.

Interested in how college textbooks are taxed in your state? Check out this New York Times piece which also explains why Amazon is telling its customers not to carry the textbooks they “rent” from Amazon across state lines. It’s one of the many convoluted steps the company takes in efforts to dodge its sales tax collection responsibilities.

The Kansas City Star explains in an editorial why the gas tax is a better tool for funding infrastructure than the sales tax.  As the Star notes, relying on a general sales tax to pay for roads “is a big leap away from the “user pays” world in which motorists help finance road repair and construction … [and] many drivers from outside the state who use the state’s roads would pay little if anything in sales taxes to maintain them.”  Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) makes a similar point in its 50-state report on the gas tax.

Nebraska’s Tax Modernization Committee, which we have been following, has moved on from taking public comment and is now back to deliberating potential changes to the Cornhusker state’s tax system.  At the suggestion of the Committee’s Chairman, members are focusing first on how they would pay for any proposed tax cuts – which could include fully exempting social security from the personal income tax and providing state aid to help reduce property taxes. While tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund and reserves is one option under consideration, many lawmakers wisely cautioned against using one-time money to pay for permanent tax changes. We are also happy to see that some Committee members are making tax fairness an important part of the debate. To this point, State Senator Jeremy Nordquist said, “There's a number of options for us to address the regressivity of our state and local tax system, and that's certainly what my goal will be."

 

 

 

 


Illinois Ruling Strengthens Case for a Federal Solution to Online Tax Collection


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Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down a state law (commonly called the “Amazon law”) that would have helped solve some of the sales tax enforcement problems surrounding online shopping.  As things currently stand in Illinois (and most other states), traditional retailers with stores, warehouses, or actual employees in Illinois are required to collect  state sales taxes from their customers, while online retailers who don’t employ any Illinois residents (or have any other “physical presence”) are given a free pass.  Online shoppers are supposed to pay the sales tax directly to the state when e-retailers fail to collect it, but few shoppers actually do this in practice.

Illinois, along with nine other states, had tried to strengthen its sales tax enforcement by requiring more online retailers to collect the tax (specifically, those retailers partnering with Illinois-based “affiliates” to market their products).  But this court ruling strikes down Illinois’ law on the grounds that it treats companies partnering with online affiliates differently than companies who advertise in Illinois through traditional media.  According to a majority of the justices, this feature of Illinois’ “Amazon law” violates a federal law enacted in 2000 that bars “discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

In his dissent, Justice Lloyd Karmeier points out that Illinois’ “Amazon law” didn’t actually impose any new taxes—it simply required a larger number of retailers to be involved in collecting and remitting sales taxes that are already due.  Karmeier went on to say that he would have upheld the law – in much the same way that New York’s highest court did with a similar law in that state earlier this year.

With Illinois’ and New York’s courts disagreeing on this issue, legal observers seem to think there’s a growing chance that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case next year.  But it’s a shame it’s come to this.  The Supreme Court already made clear over two decades ago that Congress has the authority to set up a more rational, nationwide policy for how states can tax purchase made over the Internet.  The U.S. Senate did exactly that this May with a bipartisan vote in favor of the Marketplace Fairness Act, but so far the U.S. House of Representatives has yet to act on it.  We presume it’s the political disagreements among activists and lobby groups that’s prevented the House from acting so far, but it’s increasingly urgent that states finally be allowed to resolve the mess that is tax collection for online shopping.

Cartoon by Monte Wolverton, available at and courtesy Cagle Cartoons.


Washington Post Owner Jeff Bezos Does Not Believe in Taxes


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The news that Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is going to buy the Washington Post for $250 million is shining the light on Bezos’ politics and Amazon's corporate behavior for obvious reasons. The Washington Post is the paper of record in the nation's capital and exerts extraordinary influence over political debates.  As an organization that follows tax policy, we went looking for the track record on taxes and, as it turns out, Bezos and his company have consistently demonstrated a contempt for taxes and an aggressive interest in avoiding them. Here's what you need to know:

1. Bezos personally donated $100,000 to an anti-income tax initiative group in Washington state.
In 2010, Initiative 1098 would have created a five percent tax on income exceeding 200,000 and a nine percent rate on income exceeding $500,000 for individuals in Washington State. It was designed to pay for a cut in the property and business taxes as well as an increase in education spending, but it was defeated with the help of a $100,000 donation from Bezos to the group Defeat I-1098. Passing I-1098 would have not only helped Washington state get on a more sustainable fiscal footing, but it would have gone a long way to improving the fairness of the nation's most regressive (PDF) state tax system.

2. Amazon bullies states to avoid its responsibility to collect state sales taxes.
In late June, Amazon decided to cut ties with all its affiliates in Minnesota to dodge a new law that would have forced it to begin collecting sales tax in the state. This move made Minnesota just the latest casualty among a whole slew (PDF) of states to feel Amazon’s wrath in its relentless pursuit of preserve its tax advantage over local retailers. Fortunately, the federal Marketplace Fairness Act, which would eliminate this tax advantage by allowing states to require Amazon and other websites collect sales taxes, has passed the Senate and could realistically be enacted in the not-too-distant future.

3. Amazon is a notorious international tax dodger.
Amazon has become infamous for its international tax dodging over the last year since the United Kingdom discovered that it "immorally" paid almost no taxes on over £4.2 billion in sales by routing its operations through Luxembourg (a well-known tax haven country). The happy irony is that Amazon’s audacity helped prompt the recent unprecedented international effort to crack down on this sort of international tax dodging.

4. Bezos could reap substantial tax benefits from the purchase of the Washington Post.
Although it is unclear how much time Bezos plans to spend working at the Washington Post, a report by Reuters notes that if he spends about 10 hours each week on it he could realize substantial tax benefits from the purchase of the newspaper. The reason is that business owners like Bezos are able to deduct any losses (of which the Post has tens of millions) from operating the business they own, thus reducing their overall tax bill.

5. Bezos wanted to start Amazon.com on an Indian reservation to avoid taxes.
Illustrating a particularly brash anti-tax philosophy, in an interview almost 17 years ago, Bezos said that he "investigated whether we could set up Amazon.com on an Indian reservation near San Francisco."  He explained the idea was to get "access to talent without all the tax consequences."  Bezos went on to lament that this was not possible because, "[u]nfortunately, the government thought of that first." In other words, Bezos wanted to fully exploit all the "talent" of  Silicon Valley without having to pay for the public investments that nurture that talent and draw the human and other capital that make businesses profitable and industries blossom. 

Front page photo via Dan Farber Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 


Sales Tax Holidays Are Silly Policy


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18 states across the country are gearing up for their 2013 Sales Tax Holiday season, but these tax-free shopping sprees are also increasingly under fire.  Designed to offer a temporary sales tax exemption for specific consumer items, these holidays typically last two to three days and most take place in time for back-to-school shopping. An updated policy brief (PDF) from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), however, lays out why there is so little to celebrate this Sales Tax Holiday season.

For starters, the economic benefit of sales tax holidays is unclear at best. While one commonly cited rationale for such holidays is that they increase local consumer spending, boosting sales for local businesses, available research concludes this “boost” in sales is primarily the result of consumers shifting the timing of their already planned purchases.

But not all consumers. And that’s one of the other problems with sales tax holidays as policy: they are poorly targeted. Advertised as a way to give hard-working families a break from paying the regressive sales tax, they actually end up benefiting wealthier taxpayers, who have more liquidity and therefore flexibility to shift the timing of their purchases and take advantage of the tax break.  (And that goes for more affluent consumers in neighboring states, too, who can easily make a road trip of a tax-free shopping weekend next door.)

What else is wrong with them? Sales tax holidays also cost states upwards of $230 million each year. Why, one may ask, do state lawmakers continue to approve these holidays year-after-year if they are ineffective and expensive? Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick offered a candid answer, saying he’d support his state’s 2011 holiday “not because it is particularly fiscally prudent, but because it is popular.”

And that’s the thing. Sales tax holidays make great politics but they don’t solve real problems in regressive state tax codes.  They fall far short of accomplishing what advocates claim, that is, helping hard-pressed consumers and local retailers. In fact, those retailers would benefit more from the requirement that out-of-state Internet retailers be required to collect the same sales taxes as brick and mortar stores (that is, if the Marketplace Fairness Act became law).

More important, however, is that lawmakers who really want to help struggling consumers have smart alternatives. Popular tax holidays aside, good tax policy would be targeting tax credits for working families.


Amazon.com Bails on Minnesota, Shows Congress Must Act on Online Sales Taxes


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Throughout most of its existence, online retailer Amazon.com aggressively avoided having to collect state sales taxes from its customers.  Its 5 to 10 percent price advantage relative to local retailers who have to collect the tax wasn’t something that Amazon was willing to give up.

More recently, however, Amazon’s business strategy seems to have shifted.  In order to provide faster delivery times to more of its customers, Amazon has opened up warehouses and distribution centers in a growing number of states (Florida being the most recent example), even though doing so means the company will be subject to the same sales tax collection requirements as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, mom-and-pop bookstores and every other brick and mortar retailer.

But recent events in Minnesota confirm that while sales tax dodging is less central to Amazon’s business strategy than in years past, the company still thinks that not collecting the tax is an advantage.  A new law just passed by Minnesota’s legislature redefines what constitutes a “physical presence” in the state, and it means that Amazon has enough affiliates in Minnesota to have to begin collecting the state’s sales tax this month. So in order to save some nickels and dimes, Amazon has decided to cut its ties with businesses based in the Gopher State so it can keep selling to Minnesotans tax-free.

This development points toward a need for Congressional action for lots of reasons, including these two:

First, it reinforces the point that local retailers are being harmed by their online competitors’ ability to dodge sales tax collection requirements. Why would Amazon bother cutting ties with Minnesota businesses if it didn’t think its market share would suffer from having to play by the same rules as companies with actual stores and employees in Minnesota?

Second, it highlights the degree to which online shopping sales tax laws have become an indefensible patchwork. In geographically large and heavily populated states like Florida and Texas, Amazon has little choice but to have a “physical presence” in the state (and collect sales tax) if it wants to offer reasonably fast delivery times. In other states, however, shipping products from outside the state’s borders is much less of a logistical problem.

There’s no question that Amazon is capable of collecting sales taxes in Minnesota, particularly since the state has already taken steps to simplify its sales tax system by adhering to the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement.  In fact, Amazon said it plans to begin collecting Minnesota sales taxes as soon as the federal Marketplace Fairness Act (which it supports and which has passed the U.S. Senate) is enacted into law.  In the meantime, however, Minnesota is out of options for getting Amazon to play by the same rules as other businesses selling to its residents.  Amazon’s recent actions make clear that just because the company can do what’s right, that doesn’t mean it will do so voluntarily.


FACT: Online Sales Tax Does Not Violate Grover's "No Tax Pledge"


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There’s been some confusion in recent days about whether the 258 members of Congress who have signed Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” are allowed to vote in favor a bill that lets states collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.  There is no reason for any confusion on this point.  Anybody with 15 seconds of free time and the ability to read the one sentence promise contained in the national pledge can see it’s completely irrelevant to the debate over online sales taxes:

I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Since federal income tax rates, deductions, and credits are altered exactly zero times in the online sales tax legislation set to be voted on by the Senate, Grover’s federal affairs manager is being less than truthful when she says that “there’s really not any way an elected official [who signed the pledge] can vote for this.”

There’s no doubt that Grover would be tickled pink to have gotten 258 of our elected officials to pledge opposition to improving states’ ability to limit sales tax evasion over the Internet.  For that matter, he would probably be even more excited to have gotten those officials to promise to vote against any increase in the estate tax, gasoline tax, or cigarette tax, as well as the creation of a carbon tax or a VAT.  But none of these things fall within the scope of the pledge, either, and it’s a shame that Grover and his spokespeople have shown no interest in being truthful on this point.


Online Sales Tax: Norquist vs. Laffer and Other Bedfellow Battles


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By now you've probably heard that the U.S. Senate is close to approving a bill that would allow the states to collect the sales taxes already owed by shoppers who make purchases over the Internet.  Currently, sales tax enforcement as it relates to online shopping is a messy patchwork, with retailers only collecting the tax when they have a store, warehouse, headquarters, or other “physical presence” located in the same state as the shopper.  In all other cases, shoppers are required to pay the tax directly to the state, but few do so in practice.  The result of this arrangement is both unfair (since the same item is taxed differently depending on the type of merchant selling it) and inefficient (since shoppers are given an incentive to shop online rather than locally).

Unsurprisingly, two of the strongest proponents of a federal solution to this problem have been traditional “brick and mortar” retailers that compete with online merchants and state lawmakers struggling to balance their states’ budgets even as sales tax revenues are eroded by online shopping.  But this issue has also turned anti-tax advocates, states without sales taxes, and even online retailers against one another in surprising ways, for reasons of ideology and self interest. 

Ideological Frenemies, Norquist and Laffer

Supply-side economist Arthur Laffer recently argued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that states should be allowed to enforce their sales taxes on online shopping as a basic matter of fairness, so that “all retailers would be treated equally under state law.”  We completely agree with this point, but Laffer makes clear that his larger aim is to shore up state sales taxes in order to make cuts to his least favorite tax—the personal income tax. It’s no secret that Laffer wants states to shift toward a tax system that leans heavily on regressive sales taxes, but it’s harder to advocate for such a shift if the tax can be easily avoided by shopping online.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform stands in direct opposition to Laffer on this issue.  Norquist has been “making the case on the House side of either seriously amending it or even stopping” federal efforts to allow for online sales tax enforcement.  But Norquist reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue when he argues that out-of-state retailers should be free from having to collect sales taxes because “you should only be taxing people who can vote for you or against you.”  In reality, retailers aren’t being taxed at all—they’re simply being required to do their part in making sure their customers are paying the sales taxes already owed on their purchases.

Delaware vs. The Other No-Sales-Tax States

Four states levy no broad-based sales tax at either the state or local level: Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon and Senators from these last three states are generally not interested to helping other states enforce their sales tax laws. After all, why vote for a “new tax” if there’s no direct benefit to their own states’ coffers?

But Delaware’s senators see the issue differently, as both Sen. Carper and Sen. Coons voted in favor of the bill.  In fact, Carper introduced his own bill for collecting tax on e-purchases years ago, explaining it this way: “The Internet is undermining Delaware's unique status” because “part of Delaware's attraction to tourists is that people can come and shop until they drop and never have to pay a dime of sales tax.”

Amazon vs. Other Internet Retailers

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that online retailers as a group have opposed legal requirements that their customers pay sales taxes on their purchases since it means these e-retailers would have to charge and collect that tax.  Some companies, however, like Netflix, have long collected (PDF) those sales taxes, even without a legal requirement to do so. But most have clung to online sales tax evasion as a way to undercut traditional retailers by up to 10 percent (or more, depending on the sales tax rate levied where the buyer is located).

One recent exception is eBay, which appears to have seen the writing on the wall and has pivoted from opposing the bill to watering it down – and it’s deploying its 40 million users as an army of online lobbyists to that end.

But it is Amazon that stands apart from other online retailers in fully supporting a federal solution to the patchwork of state laws and the growing number of deals it has finally had to strike with states. The company’s reason is likely two-fold.

First, Amazon has a “physical presence” in a growing number of states and plans to continue its expansion in order to make next-day-delivery a reality for more of its customers. As a result, Amazon will be legally required to remit sales taxes in more states in the future and will find itself at a competitive disadvantage if other online retailers remain free from sales tax collection requirements.  Second, Amazon processes a large number of sales for other merchants through its website and collects sales taxes on behalf of some of them – for a fee.  Amazon’s sales tax collection services could become much more lucrative in the future if more of the merchants it partners with are required to collect sales taxes.

 


This Just In: Louisianans Still Don't Trust Governor Jindal's Tax Plan


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Since January, we’ve brought you updates as best we could about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s controversial tax swap plan, but details remained elusive. Finally, late last week, the Governor released enough information – including a newly calculated, bigger sales tax rate increase – and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) was able to complete a full analysis of the Governor’s tax plan. The centerpiece of the Jindal plan is the outright repeal of the state’s personal and corporate income and franchise taxes. These tax cuts would be paid for primarily by increasing the state sales tax rate from 4 percent to 6.25 percent, and expanding the base of the tax to include a wide variety of previously untaxed services and goods.

ITEP’s analysis shows that, if fully implemented in 2013, the plan would increase taxes on the poorest sixty percent of Louisianans overall, while providing large tax cuts for the best-off Louisiana taxpayers. In fact, ITEP found that the poorest 20 percent of Louisianans would see a net tax increase averaging $283, or 2.4 percent of their income, while the very best-off Louisianans would see a tax cut averaging almost $30,000, or 2.5 percent of this group’s total income.

Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) Executive Counsel Tim Barfield continues to insist that all Louisianians will be better off under the Governor’s plan. But, as ITEP’s report points out, DOR’s estimates are flawed: they only include the impact of taxes paid directly by individuals and they ignore the impact of taxes paid initially by businesses. This approach presents an incomplete picture of how the Jindal plan would affect Louisianans, though, because a substantial share of the current sales tax, and the large majority of the expanded sales tax base the Governor proposes, would be paid initially by businesses. Economists generally agree that these business sales taxes are ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Louisianans themselves aren’t buying the Governor’s numbers either. His tax swap plan has the support of only 27 percent of Louisianans – and that was before he upped the sales tax increase even further.

Read ITEP’s full analysis of Govenor Jindal’s tax plan here.


Jindal Leaves Inconvenient Details Out of His Tax Plan


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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal today announced some details of his long-awaited “tax swap” plan. He proposes to repeal the state’s personal and corporate income taxes in a “revenue-neutral” way—that is, the revenue loss from repealing these taxes would have to be entirely offset by tax hikes in other areas.

We know the Governor’s so-called reform plan would increase the state sales tax rate from 4 to 5.88 percent—which in local-tax-heavy Louisiana means the average combined state and local sales tax rate statewide would shoot up from about 8.75 percent to a whopping 10.6 percent.

Since the sales tax rate hike would only pay for about a third of the revenue lost from repealing the income and corporate taxes, Jindal’s plan also relies heavily on expanding the state sales tax base to make up the remaining difference. Acccording to the Governor, he’d do it by eliminating close to 200 currently-existing sales tax exemptions. Jindal would also raise the cigarette tax by over $1 per pack.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the plan (which was the case with his earlier plan, too). Jindal has said he will provide tax relief to seniors and low-income families to offset the impact of these potentially huge sales tax hikes. But how that would be implemented—and, critically, how much it would cost—remains unknown.

Still, the specific details we’ve heard so far are enough to raise several important concerns about the plan’s plausibility—and its impact on tax fairness and sustainability if it is enacted.

Eliminating sales tax exemptions is perhaps the most politically difficult tax reform challenge for state lawmakers – as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is the most recent to discover. Sure, every state tax commission for decades has identified expanding the sales tax base, mainly to services that account for more consumer dollars every year, as a way of making the sales tax a more sustainable revenue source for the long haul. But the fact is that the potentially devastating impact of this move on low-income families, coupled with the entrenched opposition of lobbyists for the many industries that would be newly taxed under these proposals, have generally meant that these proposals die a quick death in legislatures.

And even if the Louisiana Legislature could achieve what virtually no other state has ever done—wiping the slate clean by broadly erasing sales tax exemptions from the books—it seems inevitable that the plan as a whole would result in a massive tax shift onto middle- and low-income families—and a giant tax cut for the best-off Louisianans. Unless, that is, Louisiana is prepared to enact a low-income tax credit, one so generous it would dwarf anything offered by other states. But it appears that Governor Jindal's plan would only provide a tax rebate only to families earning less than $20,000, which does nothing to offset the sales tax increases facing a large group of middle-income Louisianans.

In recent months, Jindal has also made it clear that his motivation for this tax plan is to be more “competitive” and more like Texas and other “low tax” states. (Never mind that Texas is a high tax state for its poorest residents.)  Jindal has bought into a talking point crafted by Arthur Laffer (and disseminated by groups like ALEC and the Tax Foundation) about job growth resulting from low taxes.  But Laffer’s argument is a house of cards, entirely unsupported by the evidence, as ITEP has shown.  Early news reports of Jindal’s plan are that anti-tax groups love it and it boosts his odds of getting the Republican presidential nomination. But unless a tax plan is well received by ordinary constituents and boosts the state’s odds of economic success, it isn’t worthy of the word “reform.”


Virginia Raises the Wrong Taxes to Pay for Roads


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UPDATE: On April 3, 2013 Governor McDonnell signed the package described below with only minor changes.  Those changes are discussed at the end of this article.

If Governor Bob McDonnell signs the transportation bill just passed by his state’s legislature, as he is expected to do, Virginia will join Wyoming as the second Republican-led state in less than a month to raise taxes to pay for transportation.  Virginia Delegate David Albo, one of Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge signers, explained his vote in favor of the bill by saying, “I looked at every single way to raise money for roads, and it is literally impossible to do without raising revenue.”

But as encouraging as it is to see opposition to taxes waning in some circles, the tax bill passed by Virginia’s legislature is far from perfect. The bill will shift the responsibility for paying for roads away from the drivers who use them most, and its reliance on sales taxes will shift Virginia’s already regressive (PDF) tax system even more heavily toward lower-income families.  Here’s a quick rundown of the bill’s major components:

Gasoline tax:  The 17.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax will be cut, at least in the short-term, by replacing it with a tax based on 3.5 percent of the wholesale price of gasoline.  At the current wholesale price of $3.30 per gallon, the new tax should be about 11.5 cents—the lowest in the country outside of Alaska—but it will rise over time as the price of gas climbs. Virginia will become the 15th state to levy a gas tax that grows automatically over time, which allows the tax to better keep pace with the rising cost of construction.  But wholesale gas prices will have to rise to $5.00 per gallon before the tax returns the 17.5 cent level that Virginians have been paying for the last quarter centuryThe bill amounts to a gas tax cut that lets frequent and long-distance drivers off the hook for paying for the transportation enhancements that benefit them the most.

Diesel tax:  Taxes on diesel fuel will increase both in the short- and long-term, as the 17.5 cent per gallon tax is replaced by a 6 percent tax based on the wholesale price of diesel.  Diesel prices are generally higher than gasoline prices, so at a wholesale price of $3.50, for example, the new tax should equal 21 cents per gallon and will grow over time as diesel prices rise. 

Remote sales tax:  The bill assumes that Congress will enact legislation empowering Virginia to require online retailers to collect the sales taxes owed by their customers (PDF), but it also puts in place a stopgap measure in case that doesn’t happen.  If Congress hasn’t acted by 2015, the wholesale gasoline tax rate will rise from 3.5 percent to 5.1 percent.  At current prices, this would bring the gas tax to16.8 cents per gallon.  Virginia should raise its wholesale gas tax rate to at least this level, regardless of the outcome of the federal debates over taxing online purchases.

Sales tax:  The largest single revenue-raiser in the bill is an increase in the state sales tax rate from 5 percent to 5.3 percent in most parts of the state. In the densely populated and congested areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, residents will see their sales tax rates rise to 6 percent, and will be forced to dedicate the additional revenue to transportation.

General fund raid:  Following the unfortunate precedent set by Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and the federal government, the bill also prioritizes roads over other areas of government by shifting $200 million away from the general fund every year.  The Roanoke Times previously blasted a similar proposal from Governor McDonnell by pointing out: “The highway program is starved for money because the gas tax rate has not changed since 1987. Are teachers and their students to blame? No, they are not. Did doctors and mental health workers cause the problem? Absolutely not. Did sheriff's deputies and police officers? No.”

Motor vehicle sales tax:  The sales tax break on motor vehicle purchases will be reduced, but not eliminated.  The rate will rise from 3 percent to 4.3 percent – still short of the 5.3 percent general sales tax rate.

Hybrid tax:  Hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles will have to pay an additional $100 in registration taxes every year.  So, while drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles are receiving a break in the form of a lower gas tax, fuel-efficient hybrid owners will actually pay more.

Low-income offsets: The state and local sales taxes used to raise the bulk of new road funding under this plan will hit lower- and moderate income families hardest.  And yet, the bill lacks any kind of targeted tax relief for those families.  In-state analysts urged the creation of a sales tax rebate or the enhancement of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), but the final bill did not include either of these measures.

UPDATE: The version of this package that was signed into law is slightly different than the one originally passed by the legislature: the motor vehicle sales tax is raised to 4.15 percent instead of 4.3 percent, the hybrid tax is $64 per year instead of $100, miscellaneous local tax increases in northern Virginia were scaled back, and technical changes were made to local taxes in order to avoid a constitutional challenge.


It's a Fact: Undocumented Workers Pay Taxes


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After a year in which tax issues dominated national policy debates, President Barack Obama has signaled that immigration issues will be at the forefront of his legislative agenda in 2013. With immigration reform evidently gaining momentum, some old tax-related bugaboos are sure to resurface as the debate gets underway: in particular, some have argued that undocumented immigrants pay no taxes to states or to the federal government.

A couple of years ago, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) worked with the Immigration Policy Center to assess the truth of this claim. Our finding? Far from being tax avoiders, undocumented families pay many of the same regressive taxes that hit all low-income families at the state and local level. We estimated that nationwide, undocumented families paid about $11 billion in state and local taxes in 2010.

The main reason for this is that the sales and excise taxes that fall most heavily on low-income taxpayers don't depend on your citizenship status. Anytime you buy a cup of coffee, a pair of jeans or fill up your tank up with gas, you're paying state and local sales and excise taxes. There are also property taxes, including for renters, who pay them indirectly because landlords frequently pass some of their property tax bills on to their tenants in the form of higher rents. And, many undocumented taxpayers have state income taxes withheld from their paychecks each year.

The bottom line? Even if there were 47 percent of the population paying no taxes (and there isn’t), undocumented immigrants would not be among them. In fact, to find people who don’t pay taxes, take a closer look at the wealthiest among us.

 

 


Quick Hits in State News: Wisconsin's Income Gap, the Brownbacks' Values Gap


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Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback has been appointed an unofficial advisor to a task force addressing childhood poverty in the state. The Hays Daily News predicts that this could lead to some uncomfortable conversations between Governor Sam Brownback and his wife, especially regarding the tax package he recently signed into law that raised taxes on low-income families. The editors suggest, “[m]aybe the first lady can ask why the governor and state legislature agreed to an unprecedented reduction in income tax rates while at the same time eliminating various tax credits, such as the food sales tax rebate and breaks for child care and renters.”

Monday was the biggest day ever for online shopping. “Cyber Monday” shoppers spent 30 percent more this year than last. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association and other brick-and-mortar business groups used Monday’s online shopping surge to remind shoppers and policymakers alike that sales taxes should be collected on Internet purchases just as on items purchased in traditional stores: “The tax is supposed to be paid. If someone orders something from an online retailer or a catalog retailer that doesn’t collect the tax, the customer owes the money to the state.”

It appears that the gap between Wisconsin’s rich and poor continues to widen. The bottom two fifths of the state’s residents actually saw their incomes decline while the top fifth – and especially the top one percent – saw theirs climb over the last 25 years. One solution to this problem, identified by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Wisconsin Budget Project, is to reform the state’s regressive tax structure because currently, “state and local taxes in Wisconsin increase income inequality rather than reduce it.”

A recent policy brief from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center identifies eight strategies to rebuilding the state’s economy. One of the goals identified is implementing a “Productive, Equitable Revenue System” through modernizing the tax structure and making it more fair. Washington has the most regressive state tax structure in the country; low income people pay far more of their income in taxes compared to wealthy Washingtonians. If state policymakers want to rebuild their economy, improving their tax structure is a good place to start.


Governor Brownback Considers Sales Tax as Band-Aid for Broken Budget


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When Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a $4.5 billion (over six years) tax cut package ealier this year, he told Kansans, “I think we are going to be in good shape.” He promised tens of thousands of new jobs and insisted “[w]e will meet the needs of our schools ... Our roads will be built.”  But after claiming as recently as July that the state was in “an excellent fiscal position,” the Governor is conceding that even across-the-board spending cuts may not be enough to make up for the massive revenue losses (projected to be $2.5 billion over six years) from these tax cuts – that will go disproportionately to the state’s most affluent.  

The Governor received national praise from conservative quarters for the tax package he signed into law in May. The plan included income tax rate reductions, elimination of several low-income credits, completely eliminating taxes on some business income, and was supposed to put the state “on a road to faster growth.” But the reality is that tax cuts cost money and Governor Brownback is now indicating he is open to a sales tax hike to pay for them.

The current 6.3 percent sales tax (a temporary revenue fix from 2010) is scheduled to drop back to 5.7 percent in July.  The Governor’s own original tax package, proposed in January, would have permanently held that sales tax rate steady, and thus cost much less than the tax legislation he eventually signed.  His plan was also seriously flawed: the bottom 80 percent of Kansas taxpayers would have seen a tax hike under the Governor’s plan because it reduced reliance on the state’s income tax in exchange for a higher sales tax. But once again, Governor Brownback finds himself relying on a higher sales tax (even though he ran against it in his 2010 campaign) because of income tax cuts that gut his state’s budget.  He rationalizes the need for a sales tax increase by saying, “There's going to be a two-year dip. That's the nature of these, when you cut taxes. If you cut them right, you get growth on the other side, but there's a dip first."

Unlike a progressive income tax, sales taxes (PDF) require low and middle income taxpayers to pay more of their income in taxes than wealthier taxpayers. This way of handling what Brownback euphemistically calls a “dip” that results from radical tax cuts actually falls hardest on the Kansas families who can least afford it.

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

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