Georgia News

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.

Georgians Set to Vote on Income Tax Straightjacket

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By Wesley Tharpe, Policy Analyst
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI)

Georgians will vote Nov. 4 whether to permanently enshrine the state’s top income tax rate of 6 percent in the state constitution.

The so-called “tax-cap” amendment sounds American as apple pie. No one looks forward to the day their income tax bill comes due, and the prospect of capping the rate understandably sounds appealing at first. But Georgia voters who take a second look at the proposal will see it for what it truly is:  an attempt to keep taxes for the wealthiest Georgians low and to block future generations from meeting the needs of a rapidly growing state.

States across the country face questions of how to raise enough revenue to meet basic needs, from infrastructure to education and health care. It’s a public policy question that, unfortunately, all too often becomes a political question. Georgia would be the first state to cap income taxes through its constitution, if voters approve. But states like California, Colorado and Illinois have passed other restrictive tax measures in the past and come to regret it later. State governments need flexibility to make course corrections when their needs outweigh available funds. Georgia’s proposed amendment is one example of efforts to prevent states from doing so by tying their hands for the future. 

In the 2014 legislative session, Georgia lawmakers placed Senate Resolution 415 on the ballot for voters to decide in November. The ballot question asks, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to prohibit the General Assembly from increasing the maximum state income tax rate?” If voters approve, Georgia’s top income tax rate will never surpass its current 6 percent, barring the unlikely removal of the cap in a future vote.

Here’s the problem. Income taxes are one of the main tools for state lawmakers to meet taxpayers’ needs, and Georgia’s needs have exploded in recent decades. The state’s population more than doubled in the past half century, rising from 15th most populous in 1970 to 8th most today. If Georgia’s growth continues apace, it could break into the top five by the middle of this century. Georgia is no longer a small, sleepy, agricultural corner of the South. It is a complex modern economy that needs a qualified workforce, world-class transportation and adequate health infrastructure to compete.

Meeting these challenges requires public investments with an eye on the future, and those investments require tax revenue. Georgia’s current leadership is unwilling to confront that essential truth, choosing instead to further erode the state budget through new tax cuts and business tax breaks. Lack of public investment has consequences. Georgia today is plagued by overcrowded classrooms, congested roads and one of the most underfunded health systems in the country. That trifecta scares away high-wage businesses and makes Georgia less attractive for workers, families and entrepreneurs.

Future generations of Georgians might be willing to forge a better path. Twenty, 50 or 100 years from now, state lawmakers might want to consider, say, adding a 7 percent top rate to fund universal pre-kindergarten or a modern transportation system. They might want to temporarily raise income taxes to confront some extraordinary need like a natural disaster or deep recession. If the amendment is approved, making those choices will be off the table.

That raises the second problem. Georgia will inevitably need a way to raise more revenue in the future, but capping the state’s income tax will shield the wealthiest Georgians from paying their fair share. Other sources of revenue, such as sales taxes and fees, fall disproportionately on low-wage and middle-class workers, whereas income taxes fall more on the wealthy. That means deemphasizing income taxes will likely raise taxes on most Georgia families long-term.

It could also worsen the growing gap between the wealthiest Georgians and regular working families. The share of Georgia’s yearly income taken home by the top 1 percent nearly doubled to 18.7 percent in 2007 from 9.5 percent in 1979. And evidence already suggests that rising inequality makes it harder for states to fund the people’s business, since the wealthy are often able to shield much of their income from taxes.

Georgia voters will soon make a pivotal choice. Voting to cap the state income tax might seem like a no brainer to many. But if voters gave it more thought, they’d realize capping Georgia’s income tax does nothing to clear a path to prosperity for Georgia businesses or families. Instead, it will put future generations in a financial straightjacket, unable to solve our most pressing problems. It is a shortsighted and unnecessary restriction that could haunt Georgia down the road. 

Tax Proposals on the Ballot this Election Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: State Policy Makers Need a Tax History Lesson

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer provided a helpful history lesson in its recent editorial on Governor John Kasich’s State of the State speech. In the speech, Kasich predictably called for yet another round of tax cuts to fix all that ails the state, but as the editorial board smartly points out, “if tax cuts were the key to rebirth, Ohio's troubles should have ended long ago.” The paper goes on to chronicle six substantial state income tax cuts implemented since 1985, none of which generated the economic boom promised by proponents. If state legislators unwisely go along with Kasich’s attempt to repeat history, they shouldn’t expect a different result.

The Idaho Trucking Association has come out in favor of a six-cent increase in the state’s 25-cent gas tax, adding Idaho to a list of states considering long-overdue gas tax hikes this year. If passed, the bill (PDF) would raise the state fuel tax two cents a year for the next three years, and would be the first such increase in 18 years. A gas tax increase is needed to close a $262 million hole in the state’s transportation budget, according to the Governor’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding. Republican Governor Butch Otter has been a vocal advocate of a gas tax increase, but was rebuked by the legislature on the issue in the past. AAA Idaho has come out against the bill in part because they don’t think it asks enough of the long-haul trucks that produce a disproportionate amount of wear and tear on the state’s roads. We will continue to monitor developments.

The Georgia Senate passed a constitutional amendment last week that would cap the state’s individual income tax rate at the current six percent level. As the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has previously explained, this is an immensely silly idea, tying the hands of future policymakers by arbitrarily locking in current tax rules. The amendment’s key sponsor has described the effort as a “first step toward moving Georgia away from taxing income.” But personal income taxes are the fairest of the main revenue sources relied on by state governments. Senate Resolution 415 must now win a two-thirds vote in the House and then, if successful, approval by the voters in November.

In the 36 states where Governors are up for election, campaign season is well underway. This is especially true in Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker isn’t likely to fulfill his 2010 campaign pledge of creating 250,000 jobs, but that isn’t stopping him from making a whole new promise. This time he is pledging that property taxes won’t be increased over his next term. Details about how he will keep property taxes at current levels aren’t available yet, but it’s likely he will recommend some kind of ill-advised property tax cap, as well as an increase in state aid to localities.

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.  

    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.  

State News Quick Hits: Return of the "Fair Tax", Business Tax Cuts and More

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Some Indiana legislators aren’t too excited about Governor Mike Pence’s plan to take a major revenue source away from local governments.  Instead of prohibiting localities from taxing businesses’ equipment and machinery, House Speaker Brian Bosma has a more modest plan that would give local governments the option of eliminating those taxes on new investments.  But the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns doesn’t think Bosma’s plan is likely to do much good, explaining that “the more we slice the revenue side the less opportunity we have to create those kind of things which are just as big an economic development tool as reducing taxes.”

After cutting taxes for businesses and wealthy individuals these last couple years, Idaho Governor Butch Otter has changed his tune--at least slightly.  While the Governor wants to continue the state’s tax cutting race to the bottom, he says that boosting funding for education is actually his top priority this year.  Otter’s realization that public services matter to Idaho’s economic success is certainly welcome.  But rather than setting aside $30 million for tax cuts in his current budget, he may want to address the fact that “he’s not proposing any raises for teachers … nor is he proposing funding raises for any of Idaho’s state employees, despite a new state report showing state employee pay has fallen to 19 percent below market rates.”

Jason Bailey, Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy gets it right in this op-ed describing how desperately the state needs tax reform and what the goals of tax reform should be. He notes that first and foremost “tax reform should raise significant new revenue now to begin reinvesting in Kentucky's needs.” He goes on to make the case that the tax reform should also improve the state’s tax structure in terms of fairness. He cites an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analysis which found that  currently ”low- and middle-income people pay nine to 11 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in Kentucky while the highest-earning one percent of people pay only six percent.” Thankfully it looks like Governor Steve Beshear is on board with at least some of the principles outlined in this piece. During last week’s State of the Commonwealth (PDF) address he called for “more resources” to help restore cuts to vital services. The Governor’s own tax reform plan is scheduled to be unveiled later this month.

This piece in the Marietta Daily Journal discusses the radical “fair tax” proposal in Georgia. Some lawmakers are interested in eliminating the state’s income tax and replacing the revenue with a higher sales tax. When the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) analyzed this proposal we found that this tax shift, despite not raising a dime of new revenue for the state, would actually increase taxes on most families.

Economists agreed last week that Michigan is set to see a nearly $1 billion revenue surplus over the next three years.  But, deciding on what to do with the boost in revenue will not be quite so easy.  There is some agreement amongst lawmakers that at least a portion of the surplus should be spent on tax cuts, some even calling tax cuts “inevitable.” Proposals vary greatly from lowering the state’s flat income tax rate (a permanent change) to handing out one-time rebate checks to taxpayers (recognizing that most of the surplus is one-time money) to restoring cuts to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (targeting tax cuts to low- and moderate-income taxpayers).   

State News Quick Hits: Where Is Virginia's Gas Tax Cut? And More

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Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recently announced his support for converting the state’s flat rate income tax into a more progressive, graduated tax with a top rate of 5.9 percent.  This reform would raise $950 million per year for public schools and would make the state’s regressive tax system (PDF) somewhat less unfair.

Georgia is shaping up to be a major tax policy battleground in 2014, and lawmakers appear to be setting their sights on the personal income tax (as state lawmakers are wont to do).  
According to the Associated Press, officials are considering either cutting the personal income tax, amending the state constitution to ban any increase in the tax, or simply eliminating the tax entirely.  For some context on why these are all bad ideas, see the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) primer on progressive income taxes (PDF).

Martin Sullivan at Tax Analysts asks whether Virginia drivers actually benefited from the gas tax cut that went into effect earlier this month.  On July 1, gasoline taxes fell in Virginia and rose in North Carolina, but gas prices actually increased in both states alongside crude oil prices.   Moreover, while North Carolina saw the larger price increase, the difference between the two states was just 1.8 cents - which raises the question of where the rest of Virginia’s 6.4 cent tax cut ended up going.  Sullivan concludes that “Virginia drivers [have] good reason to question whether gas tax cuts are primarily for their benefit.”

This week, California reported that tax revenues came in $2.1 billion over expectations during Fiscal Year 2013. The additional revenue - largely stemming from unexpectedly high income tax collections - will be directed to schools through the state’s education funding formula. While the extra revenues are a promising change of pace after years of multibillion-dollar deficits, state officials have warned that the surge might not represent a trend.

Good News for America's Infrastructure: Gas Taxes Are Going Up on Monday

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The federal government has gone almost two decades without raising its gas tax, but that doesn’t mean the states have to stand idly by and watch their own transportation revenues dwindle.  On Monday July 1, eight states will increase their gasoline tax rates and another eight will raise their diesel taxes.  According to a comprehensive analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), ten states will see either their gasoline or diesel tax rise next week.

These increases are split between states that recently voted for a gas tax hike, and states that reformed their gas taxes years or decades ago so that they gradually rise over time—just as the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure inevitably does.

Of the eight states raising their gasoline tax rates on July 1, Wyoming and Maryland passed legislation this year implementing those increases while Connecticut’s increase is due to legislation passed in 2005California, Kentucky, Georgia (PDF) and North Carolina, by contrast, are seeing their rates rise to keep pace with growth in gas prices—much like a typical sales tax (PDF).  Nebraska is a more unusual case since its tax rate is rising both due to an increase in gas prices and because the rate is automatically adjusted to cover the amount of transportation spending authorized by the legislature.

On the diesel tax front, Wyoming, Maryland, Virginia (PDF) and Vermont passed legislation this year to raise their diesel taxes while Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina are seeing their taxes rise to reflect recent diesel price growth.  Nebraska, again, is the unique state in this group.

There are, however, a few states where fuel tax rates will actually fall next week, with Virginia’s (PDF) ill-advised gasoline tax cut being the most notable example. Vermont (PDF) will see its gasoline tax fall by a fraction of a penny on Monday due to a drop in gas prices, though this follows an almost six cent hike that went into effect in May as a result of new legislation. Georgia (PDF) and California will also see their diesel tax rates fall by a penny or less due to a diesel price drop in Georgia and a reduction in the average state and local sales tax rate in California.

With new reforms enacted in Maryland and Virginia this year, there are now 16 states where gas taxes are designed to rise alongside either increases in the price of gas or the general inflation rate (two more than the 14 states ITEP found in 2011).  Depending on what happens during the ongoing gas tax debates in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, that number could rise as high as 19 in the very near future.

It seems that more states are finally recognizing that stagnant, fixed-rate gas taxes can’t possibly fund our infrastructure in the long-term and should be abandoned in favor of smarter gas taxes that can keep pace with the cost of transportation.

See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st gasoline tax increases.
See ITEP’s infographic of July 1st diesel tax increases.

Louisiana Tax Overhaul Collapse as Bellwether? We Can Only Hope.

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Last week we brought you news that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was abandoning his plan to eliminate the state personal and corporate income taxes and replace the revenue with an expanded sales tax. Instead, the Governor asked the legislature to “Send me a plan to get rid of our state income tax.” But now the legislature is denying the Governor’s request.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Representative Robideaux has asked his colleagues to “defer” the bills they already had in the works to repeal the state income tax, and he’s said that he won’t allow hearings on any income tax repeal bill, closing the door on any attempt to eliminate the state’s income tax. Robideaux said, “I think it’s probably dead for the session, right now, there’s probably income tax fatigue.”  Importantly, he also asks, “Is there a constituent base out there demanding repeal of the income tax?” The answer is that two thirds of Louisianans actually opposed the Governor’s plan for this tax swap, which happens to be about the same percentage of Louisianans who stand to lose the most if any such tax plan gets implemented.

Jindal’s failure is a victory for tax justice advocates and a may serve as a lesson for lawmakers in other states entertaining similarly radical tax ideas.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch, for instance, editorialized, “Louisiana's lawmakers realize what Missouri's don't: Income tax cuts are suicidal.” Missouri lawmakers are debating their own draconian tax plan that would roll back income taxes. The Post Dispatch continues, “What Louisiana has recognized is that the supposed benefits of cutting state income taxes are vastly overstated. The impact of service cuts is vastly understated. The effect is that rich people and corporations get richer. Everyone else gets poorer.”  

In another state, Georgia, income tax elimination has been debated for years, but this columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution is hopeful that the tax justice victory in Louisiana will lead to Georgia lawmakers reconsidering their own proposal, which eliminates the personal and corporate income tax for no good reason.

Tax plans similar to Jindal’s have hit road blocks in Nebraska and Ohio this year. Among the many reasons these plans fail, it seems, is that when people realize that they amount to unwarranted tax cuts for the rich that raise taxes for everyone else and probably bust the budget, too, common sense prevails and these ideas are defeated. 

We know that Louisianans dodged a bullet when the Governor’s plan fell apart.  And while it’s good news that a big reason was widespread concern over its fundamental unfairness, the fact is Bobby Jindal is not the only supply-sider committed to eliminating the income tax. So we savor the victory, yes, but also prepare for the next battle as similar plans are winding their ways through other state capitals.

A story in the Arkansas News show why all citizens should be concerned about the bad design (PDF) of state gasoline taxes. Arkansas’ gas tax hasn’t been raised in over a decade, during which time it has lost about a quarter of its value due to rising construction costs alone. In order to offset those losses, lawmakers are debating a bill that would transfer $2.3 billion away from other areas of the state budget in order to pay for roads and bridges over the next 10 years.  At a rally protesting the idea, Rich Huddleston of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families ticked off just some of the state services that would have to be cut: “education, higher education, Medicaid and health services for vulnerable populations, services for abused and neglected children, juvenile justice services for kids … public safety and corrections and pre-K and child care for our youngest populations.”

Girl Scouts in Idaho are seeking out a special sales tax loophole for selling their cookies so that they can keep an extra 22 cents on every box sold. There is no tax policy reason to exempt Girl Scout cookies from the sales tax. If enacted, this break would be a true “tax expenditure” -- a state spending program grafted onto the tax code (PDF) in a way that exempts it from the normal processes used to manage state spending year in and year out.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is traveling the state on a “Meetings with Mark” tour to discuss his budget and tax plans with voters. Last week the Governor unveiled a revised tax plan, but minus the sales tax base expansion from his original proposal.  Wayne Cox of Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice supports the new proposal as it retains two crucial pieces of the original – an income tax hikes for wealthy Minnesotans and a cigarette tax hike. “Gov. Mark Dayton’s new budget is a blueprint for fairer taxes and a brighter future for Minnesota families.  His reforms pave the way for new jobs, healthier lives and a better-educated workforce. Education and health experts around the state have praised Gov. Dayton’s reforms. Future economic growth depends on these changes.”

In response to Ohio Governor John Kasich’s regressive proposal to expand the state sales tax base and lower income taxes, Policy Matters Ohio (using ITEP data) released a paper reminding Ohioans how beneficial an Earned Income Tax Credit (PDF) could be to low-income families hit hardest by an increased sales tax.

Here’s a powerful column from the Atlanta Journal Constitution citing ITEP data. Advocating against a state Senator’s proposal to raise the Georgia sales tax and freeze revenues into the future, Jay Bookman writes: [h]e has proposed two amendments to the state constitution that, if approved by voters, would lead to significantly higher taxes on the vast majority of Georgia households, while sharply reducing taxes on the wealthiest. That ought to be controversial under any circumstances. As it is, lower- and middle-income Georgia households already pay a significantly higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes than do the wealthy. The Shafer amendments would make that disparity considerably worse.”

Need further proof that the poor are often taxed more heavily than wealthier folks? Take a look at this recent New York Times piece by sociologist Katherine Newman based on her book. She writes that “tax policy is particularly regressive in the South and West, and more progressive in the Northeast and Midwest. When it comes to state and local taxation, we are not one nation under God. In 2008, the difference between a working mother in Mississippi and one in Vermont — each with two dependent children, poverty-level wages and identical spending patterns — was $2,300.” Newman concludes with suggestions for offsetting the regressive impact of state taxes.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution is doing an investigative series on tax breaks and incentives, and here’s their latest article – a look into “the Georgia Agricultural Tax exemption program, [designed] to allow farmers and companies that produce $2,500 in agricultural services or products a year to receive sales tax breaks on equipment and production purchases.” What they found, however, is that construction firms, mineral companies, horse ranches and even dog kennels have applied for the breaks, along with hundreds of out-of-state businesses, with addresses as far afield as Texas and Colorado.” The newspaper found very few requests for this tax break were being rejected, and the governor is imploring businesses to police themselves. The newspaper concludes that it was the absence of clear criteria and lack of resources for screening and evaluating applications that’s resulted in the fiscal and logistical chaos.

Washington State lawmakers are trying to get a better handle on the numerous special tax breaks (PDF) being added to the state’s tax code every year. Under a bill that passed the state senate unanimously, new tax breaks would have to include a statement of purpose against which to judge their subsequent success, and an expiration date that would force lawmakers to vote on them again after a certain number of years.  Both of those reforms (along with others) have been recommended by our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick cited a recent report from ITEP’s “Debunking Laffer” series while testifying in favor of his proposed income tax increase: “Last month, the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy issued a report evaluating the economic growth per capita of several states. The report compared nine states with relatively high income taxes to nine states with low or no income tax. The analysis made clear that the nine states with “higher” income taxes actually saw considerably more economic growth per capita than the nine states with low or no income tax. The states with no income tax have seen a decline in median income.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a new analysis of Ohio Governor Kasich’s “tax swap” plan that “suggests lower and middle income families would not do as well as higher earners under the new system.”  The Plain Dealer notes that its findings bolster a new report by Policy Matters Ohio and our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Online retailer just struck a deal with yet another state to begin collecting sales taxes.  The new agreement with Connecticut will go into effect in November, just in time for the holiday shopping season.  The company also announced that it plans to build an order-fulfillment center in the state – a move which would have clearly established a “physical presence” (PDF) and therefore required the company to begin collecting sales taxes anyway.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia may soon join Connecticut on the long list of states that have struck deals with Amazon.  According to the paper, “the world’s largest online retailer has not collected the tax [this year], despite a new state law requiring online retailers to charge it at the start of the year.”  But the Georgia Retail Association expects that Amazon will build a distribution center in the state soon, which would make it impossible for the company to continue ignoring this legal requirement.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton reaffirmed his support for progressive, comprehensive and revenue-raising tax reform in his State of the State address last week and mentioned our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) when referring to the upside down nature of his state’s tax structure:

“Thanks to the excellent work of Minnesota 2020, I recently became aware of a new study, by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which confirms the Department of Revenue’s analysis. It found that middle-class Minnesotans pay 26 percent more state and local taxes per dollar of income than do the top one percent of our state’s income earners. When people who have the most pay the least, this state and nation are in trouble. When lobbyists protect tax favors for special interests at the cost of everyone else’s best interests, this state and nation are in trouble. My goal is to get us out of trouble.”

Quick Hits in State News: Wisconsin Billionaires Go Tax Free, and More

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Politifact highlights an increasingly common complication for those who sign Grover Norquist’s “no tax” pledge.  On July 31, Georgia voters will decide on a referendum to increase the sales tax to fund transportation, a measure that’s backed by Republican Governor Nathan Deal.  But having signed Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge, the Governor is struggling to justify supporting a “new tax” that he believes will benefit his state’s economy.

More evidence that Wisconsin’s tax structure is unfair: two of the state’s billionaires paid no state income taxes in 2010.

Here’s a compelling read by former Congressman Berkley Bedell of Iowa, championing the “ability to pay” principle of taxation that he says accounts for the Great Prosperity period in post-war America.

An investigative series in the Toledo Blade reveals the Ohio Finance Agency isn’t properly overseeing the state’s low-income housing tax credit program.  Many of the beneficiaries of the credits are “large corporations such as banks, insurance companies, and tech firms [that] receive tax breaks even as the low-income rental homes for which they received the credits fall apart.”


Are States Really "Racing" To Repeal Income Taxes?

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Arthur Laffer recently teamed up with Stephen Moore, his friend on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, to pen yet another opinion piece on the benefits of shunning progressive personal income taxes.  Most of the article’s so-called “analysis” is ripped from Laffer reports that we’ve already written about, but there was one new claim that stands out.  According to Laffer and Moore, “Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are now racing to become America's 10th state without an income tax.”  If this is true, it’s news to us.  So let’s take a look at the most recent reporting on these states’ tax policy debates.

In Georgia, the state’s legislative session ended almost a month ago with the passage of a modest tax package.  Last year, Georgia lawmakers debated levying a flat-rate income tax, but that effort (which should have been easy compared to outright income tax repeal) failed and left lawmakers with little interest in returning to the issue.

The debate over the income tax debate in Kansas isn’t quite done yet, but the most recent news from The Kansas City Star is that “lawmakers say the tax reform package they'll consider next week almost certainly will fall far short of the no-income-tax goal.”

In Missouri, a number of media outlets are reporting that the push to get income tax repeal on the November ballot is all but over because a judge ruled that the ballot initiative summary that proponents of repeal proposed to put before voters was “insufficient and unfair.”

And in Oklahoma, what started as an enthusiastic push for big cuts or even outright repeal of the income tax has since been watered down into something less ambitious.  The most likely outcome is a cut in the top rate of no more than one percent, although lawmakers are still toying with the idea of tacking on a provision would repeal the income tax slowly over time (so the hard decisions about what services to cut won’t have to be made for a number of years).  But in any case, budget realities have left lawmakers in a position where they’re hardly “racing” to scrap this vital revenue source.

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

Clunker of a Tax Package Races Through Georgia Legislature

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GA cap dome.gifA tax bill that flew through the Georgia House and sped through the Senate is now on its way to the Governor's desk for a signature. The package (which took hits from the left and right) is the equivalent of baby steps in terms of the real tax reform the state needs.  Georgia’s tax structure is regressive and outdated and this bill won’t do much to change that;it is a cobbled together set of proposals that includes industry specific tax exemptions, increased tax benefits for married couples and a restructuring of car taxes.

There are, however, two bright spots in the legislation: a tax on retirement income above $65,000 (instead of allowing all retirement income to be excluded from the tax base) and a so-called Amazon law which means that some internet sales transactions will be taxed. The Amazon tax would bring the state about $81 million in revenues over three years.  

Even though the Georgia rep for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform called the Internet sales tax “stupid” and the larger package “disappointing,” it still passed the House by 155 to 9 votes, with Republicans boasting that on the whole, it’s a net tax cut.

This is the second year in the row that tax reform was on the table in Georgia. Last year the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians held extensive hearings and came up with recommendations that proved too far reaching and controversial to be adopted. This year, lawmakers aimed much lower and passed the narrower legislation, partly by rushing it through before anyone could slow it down.

Georgia Budget and Policy Institute published a brief (using ITEP figures) describing the nuances of the legislation and sum it up nicely when they say the work for policymakers on tax reform is anything but over. “To provide Georgians with a modern tax system capable of funding the state’s ever-growing needs, lawmakers must return to the well in coming years and address the issue once again. The work is not done and requires the political will to pass comprehensive reform.”

Quick Hits in State News: Tax Victory in Iowa, and More

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Here’s a huge tax fairness victory in Iowa. The state Senate voted unanimously to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit from 7 to 13 percent of the federal credit to help working families make ends meet.

Matt Gardner, Executive Director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), blogs about lessons for Georgia from a new ITEP report on the economies of states with and without income taxes.  Gardner writes that Georgia lawmakers “wanting to join the non-income tax club are simply idolizing the wrong states.  Most states without income taxes are doing worse than average … and the states with the highest top tax rates are actually outperforming them.”

Also in Georgia, anti-tax guru Grover Norquist is weighing in on collecting taxes on internet sales, warning that it is a violation of his group’s “no new tax” pledge to vote for legislation requiring online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases.  But the fact is, Georgians who shop online do, by law, have to pay the sales tax on those purchases if the e-retailer does not collect the tax, but the requirement is basically unenforceable.  Collecting taxes legally due is not a tax increase.

Missouri lawmakers are falling all over themselves to come up with revenues without “raising taxes” because the trust fund that pays for veterans’ services in the state is insolvent.  Silly “non tax” ideas being floated by legislators include casino entrance fees and a special lottery, which have already proven to be unsustainable revenue sources for veterans’ and other programs.  Missouri is notorious for its failure to tackle serious tax reform; will a backlog of military veterans in need of care give lawmakers incentive to do the right thing?

Bills in both the Iowa House and Senate are advancing that would finally raise the state’s long stagnant gas tax rate.  ITEP recently found that Iowa hasn’t raised its gas tax rate in 22 years, and that since that time the tax has lost $337 million in yearly value relative to rising transportation construction costs.

Trending in 2012: Destroying the Personal Income Tax

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Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, ITEP will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country. This week, we’re taking a closer look at proposals which would lessen a state’s reliance on progressive income taxes, often by shifting to a heavier reliance on regressive sales taxes. 

Georgia – A legislative proposal gaining traction in Atlanta would undercut the state’s reliance on the personal income tax – its only major progressive revenue source.  It would make up those revenues by raising the sales tax – every state’s most regressive source of revenue.  The plan also includes two other components that hit the poorest Georgians the hardest: taxing groceries and adding a dollar to the cigarette tax.  A sensible, comprehensive proposal from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute is the template lawmakers should be following. It starts with fairness, ends with increased revenues and is all about modernization and reform. 

Kansas – If the expectations about Governor Sam Brownback’s proposed income tax changes are right, Kansas could have a hard time balancing its books. Tonight, the Governor, (who has received technical assistance from supply side guru Arthur Laffer), is expected to propose drastic reductions to state income tax rates.  Details on how the governor plans to make up the lost revenue haven’t been revealed, but his sidekick Laffer was recently quoted as saying, “It’s a revolution in a cornfield. Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing. Truly revolutionary.”

Kentucky –  Fresh off his reelection to the Governor’s office, Steve Beshear is expected to propose his own tax reform plan, but Representative Bill Farmer, who’s been itching to change Kentucky’s tax code for years, has already pre-filed his own tax overhaul bill, which would slash the state income tax, expand the sales tax base to include more services and lower the sales tax rate.  ITEP conducted an in depth analysis of an earlier Farmer proposal and found that his proposal would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and raise taxes on the poorest 20 percent of Kentuckians by an average of $138. We expect that his current proposal won’t do much to fix the state’s regressive tax structure either.

Missouri – Perhaps the most destructive proposal of this type gaining traction is Missouri’s mega-tax proposal, so called because it amounts to a massive consumption tax hike for ordinary Missourians. Proponents of the related ballot initiative that would eliminate the state’s personal income tax and replace that revenue by adding goods and services to the sales tax base are currently collecting signatures in an attempt to place the initiative on the ballot this November. Show-Me-Staters would be unwise to provide their signatures for this kind of campaign, however, because its passage would result in higher overall taxes for working families. Click here to see ITEP testimony on a similar proposal.

Oklahoma – Two seriously bad proposals that would increase the unfairness of Oklahoma’s tax system are currently under consideration. Working with (the aforementioned supply side guru) Arthur Laffer, the free-market Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is proposing to eliminate the state income tax altogether. An ITEP analysis found that the bottom one-fifth of Oklahoma taxpayers -- those earning less than $16,600 per year -- would be paying on average $250 a year more in taxes, or about 2.5 percent more of their income. Similarly, the Tax Force on Comprehensive Tax Reform (dominated by business interests) suggests lowering the state’s top income tax rate and eliminating a variety of tax credits, many of which are designed to help low and middle income families. David Blatt, director of the non partisan Oklahoma Policy Institute recently said of the proposal, "This would hit hardest the poor and middle class families who are struggling most to make ends meet in a tough economy.”

Photo of Governor Steve Beshear via Gage Skidmore and photo of Art Laffer via Republican Conference Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Can Georgia's Tax Reformers Overcome Grover Norquist?

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Just weeks after a six-month effort by Georgia lawmakers to enact ambitious tax reform legislation fell apart, Governor Nathan Deal is signaling that lawmakers may be asked to continue their deliberations on this issue when they return for a special legislative session on redistricting this August.

But if Deal's views on the shape of "tax reform" are any indicator, a special session could run into the same difficulties encountered during this year's tumultuous regular legislative session.

The failure of this year's tax reform effort was due to an inexorable rule of tax accounting: when you design a tax plan that is revenue-neutral overall and gives big tax cuts to the wealthiest families, someone else has to pay higher taxes.

But Deal's stated goal of shifting to a "consumption-based approach" to revenue-raising would necessarily reserve the biggest tax cuts for the very best-off Georgians, and the Republican leadership's Grover Norquist-inspired refusal to raise any new revenues through tax reform means inevitably that middle- and low-income families will foot the bill for these high-end tax cuts.

Lawmakers who correctly found this "Robin Hood in reverse" swap unpalatable this spring will presumably feel the same way come August.

The sad part of the story is that this year's tax battles began as an honest discussion of important tax reform principles. When an appointed Georgia tax reform commission issued its recommendations in January, the focus of the plan was on achieving a more sustainable Georgia tax system by eliminating unwarranted tax loopholes — and the original proposal would have done a decent job of achieving this important goal.

But in the hands of Republican leaders in the state legislature, the plan's loophole-closing provisions gradually fell by the wayside under pressure from special interests, which meant that this formerly revenue-neutral plan ended up being a revenue loser that missed important opportunities to modernize the state's tax system.

In their zeal to satisfy Grover Norquist and his no-new-taxes acolytes by removing provisions that would have hiked taxes on anyone at all, legislative leaders lost sight of the broad tax-reform principles that had motivated the reform commission in the first place.

More than anything, this outcome shows the utter incompatibility of the "no new taxes" mantra with the type of sustainable tax reforms that are needed at both the federal and state level. If lawmakers insist that tax reform can't involve tax hikes on anyone, but must include substantial tax cuts for the best-off Americans, sustainable tax reform simply can't happen.

Tax Reform Debate in Georgia So Heated that Tea Partiers and Grover Norquist Can't Agree

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Georgia’s Special Council on Tax Reform recently released recommendations to overhaul Georgia’s tax structure in a way that would improve the state's finances but also shift taxes to Georgians who are less able to pay.

As anticipated, the recommendations were quite sweeping and dealt with every major tax the state levies.  The recommendations included a lot of good base-broadening measures, like repealing the state’s generous pension exclusion, eliminating itemized deductions from the personal income tax, and including more services in the sales tax base. The Council also recommended regressive changes, like replacing the state’s progressive income tax with a flat 4 percent rate, adding groceries back to the sales tax, and increasing the cigarette tax.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) offered improvements to the Council’s proposal to prevent tax increases on those who could least afford them.

A House committee came up with their own proposal as a substitute to the Council’s initial recommendations. This new plan includes a 4.5 percent flat income tax rate, no corporate income tax rate changes, and no changes to the cigarette tax. Read GBPI’s complete analysis of this substitute proposal.

The substitute hit a snag too. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, “A clunky but effective coalition of Democrats, tea partiers and Baptists forced state Republican lawmakers into a desperate attempt to save their troubled tax reform bill.” The bill even caused infighting between an unlikely cast of characters: Georgia tea partiers and the national leader of the anti-tax movement, Grover Norquist.

Now we are hearing that another set of tweaks to the original recommendations from the Special Council on Tax Reform is in the works and will be unveiled next week. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, this latest iteration ensures that more Georgians get a tax cut, but the price tag for such “reform” according to the official fiscal note is $220 million.  This latest and presumably final attempt (because of the legislative calendar constraints) at reform is expensive and makes the state’s tax structure even more unfair for low-income families.

GBPI concludes, “It is better to do nothing this session and come back next year with true tax reform than pass a bill that gives large tax cuts to the wealthiest Georgians and a few favored businesses interests, resulting in further cuts to what is most needed for the broad business sector to prosper—education and basic infrastructure.” Read the full GBPI statement.

There were high hopes that the Council’s efforts would produce tax reform that would improve the state’s already flawed tax structure, but if the legislation that stems from these efforts doesn’t ensure fair and sustainable tax reform, then it’s not worth passing.

The Debate Isn't Over: Georgia Brief on Alternatives to Council's Recommendations

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Debate over the recommendations from Georgia’s Special Council on Tax Reform continues. Should the state flatten its income tax rates? Should the state broaden the income tax base? Folks are likely still making up their minds about how they feel about adding groceries back to the sales tax base, among other possible changes.

Georgians concerned about tax fairness should read the new brief from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. It offers several alternatives (using ITEP data) that would tweak the Council’s recommendations and would improve the tax fairness implications of the Council’s initial proposal.

In a recent op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sarah Beth Gehl of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute makes the case that the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness hit a triple when they came out with their policy recommendations for modernizing the state’s tax structure. The Council emphasized sales tax base expansion to include more services and broadening the state’s income tax base. 

Triples are good, but home runs are better and Gehl makes the case that the Council missed out on a homerun because they overlooked a key tax policy principle when devising its recommendations — tax fairness.  Citing ITEP data, she writes, “The best-off 1 percent of Georgians, those making more than $389,000 in 2010, would receive an almost $7,800 average yearly tax decrease. In the case of a Georgian making around $40,000, taxes would rise by about $400 a year.” 

Gehl identifies several sensible alternatives that the legislature could tack onto the Council’s recommendations that would take into account tax fairness, including more generous low-income tax relief and exempting groceries from the sales tax base.

There seems to be a contingent that is steering away from the debate and instead focusing on what Grover Norquist would approve of. In fact, to appease Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, the Council actually reconvened earlier this week to vote on a resolution which claimed that the intent of the Council’s recommendations was that they were to be “revenue-neutral.” Because, of course, Norquist’s group would never give the thumbs up to a proposal that actually raised revenue to meet the needs of Georgians.

The Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure met this week to debate the Council’s recommendations. We’ll be watching their actions closely and it sounds like Grover will be too.

State-Based Coalitions Fight for Budget Fairness

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Faced with huge budget deficits, many state lawmakers are eyeing dangerous short-sighted budget cuts that threaten to gut essential services and state infrastructure.  In response, dedicated advocacy organizations, service providers, religious communities, concerned citizens, and professional associations have formed coalitions in more than 35 states to battle for smart fiscal policies that will protect core services and ensure that states have the resources to meet current and future needs. 

Here’s a brief overview of the newest of these coalitions:

In Georgia, the coalition 2020 Georgia officially launched on January 18th to promote a balanced approach to their budget that adequately addresses the long-term needs of the state instead of pursuing damaging cuts to services that can hurt the state’s economy.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of partners, including AARP, the League of Women Voters of Georgia, and the Georgia Public Health Association.  2020 Georgia hopes to maintain smart investments in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

In Texas, a wide coalition of organizations have created Texas Forward, a group that hopes to spur continued investment in vital public services instead of devastating budget cuts.  Texas Forward believes that smart investment now can prevent future generations from shouldering the burden of the lasting damage caused by disinvesting in services during this time of financial need.  Recently, Texas Forward urged state lawmakers to seek new revenue sources and federal funding to minimize the impact of the projected $24 billion deficit.

In Iowa, the Coalition for a Better Iowa was formed with the express mission “to maintain and strengthen high quality public services and structures that promote thriving communities and prosperity for all Iowans.”  The Coalition for a Better Iowa includes organizations representing children, seniors, human service providers, environmental organizations, and politically engaged citizens.  The coalition is committed to creating a balanced solution to the budget shortfalls while protecting vital services and investing sustainably in the state’s future.

In Montana, a group called the Partnership for Montana’s Future offers an extensive list of revenue-raising mechanisms to solve the state’s budge crisis.  The list has many specific proposals, generally categorized as collecting new revenue through improved tax compliance, closing tax loopholes, targeted tax increases, and other miscellaneous options.  The coalition consists of a wide variety of health, education, environmental, labor, and policy organizations.

In Pennsylvania, Better Choices for Pennsylvania is a coalition of health, education, labor, and religious organizations that recognize that all Pennsylvanians benefit from the services and infrastructure provided by state government.  Like the other coalitions featured, Better Choices for Pennsylvania refutes the proposition that deep tax cuts can solve the state’s budget problems.  Instead, BCP is pushing for closing special tax breaks and loopholes.  The coalition believes that helping working families through hard times will put the state in a better position towards long-term financial stability.

In Michigan, the revenue coalition, A Better Michigan Future recently issued a press release reviewing Governor Snyder’s budget proposal.  The group supports smart revenue-raising tactics like eliminating redundant and wasteful loopholes and modernizing the state sales tax to reflect the changing marketplace.

While not a new coalition, North Carolina’s revenue coalition, Together NC, recently launched a web ad.  The ad is meant to remind North Carolinians about the smart budget choices the state has made in the past that allowed it to prosper and spur citizens to take action to protect their state from falling behind (or, as the ad says, to keep North Carolina from becoming its neighbor to the south).

A Tale of Two Tax Commissions: Georgia vs. Vermont

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In recent weeks, tax commissions in Georgia and Vermont issued reports recommending a major overhaul of their states' tax systems.  The recommendations share many things in common, including sensible proposals to broaden the bases of major taxes and to make the changes revenue-neutral. In fact, when ITEP staff testified before each of these commissions over the last year, our testimony highlighted the importance of base-broadening as a first step towards sustainable tax reform. However, it’s clear that only one commission was concerned about the general welfare of its low-income taxpayers while the other seemed to have little interest in ensuring that a major tax overhaul doesn't disproportionately impact working families.  

Georgia’s Special Council on Tax Reform Releases Recommendations

Earlier this month Georgia’s Special Council on Tax Reform released its recommendations for how Georgia’s tax structure should be changed. CTJ has been following the Council's work closely over the past few months.  

As anticipated, the recommendations are quite sweeping and deal with every major tax the state levies.  Among the recommendations are broadening the income tax base by repealing the state’s generous pension exclusion and broadening the sales tax base by including more services and groceries. The Council also recommends replacing the state’s progressive income tax with a flat 4 percent rate, increasing the corporate income tax rate and increasing the cigarette tax. (Read the Council’s full recommendations.)

Unfortunately, no thought was given to how these sweeping changes impact low and middle-class working families. Broadening tax bases is sound tax policy, but base-broadening must be coupled with targeted measures to ensure that the brunt of this tax modernization isn’t borne by the most vulnerable.

Vermont’s Tax Commission Releases Final Report

On the heels of Georgia, Vermont’s Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission released its final report last week after more than a year of review, research, outreach and discussion about the state’s tax system.  The report offers a clear path forward for Vermont to “strengthen its tax system for the 21st century” which means “questioning critically every assumption in the tax system.” 

If enacted as a comprehensive package, which Commission members have requested lawmakers to consider, the recommendations would indeed make the state’s tax system more sustainable, adequate, and fair over the long run. 

The Public Assets Institute issued a statement on the report, saying it “was badly needed and long overdue…a  good first step in strengthening our revenue system so it can support the essential public services that all Vermonters deserve.”

The recommended income tax changes include basing Vermont’s taxes on federal adjusted gross income (AGI) and eliminating itemized and standard deductions.

The personal exemption would be replaced with a $350 non-refundable per-filer credit, plus an additional $150 for each spouse or dependent, which is capped at $800 and only available to taxpayers with AGI below $125,000.

The revenue gained from broadening the income tax base would be used to lower income tax rates.

The Commission recommended expanding the sales tax to most consumer-purchased services in order to bring their sales tax in line with current consumer patterns which favor services rather than goods.  They also suggested that all consumer-based sales tax exemptions should be eliminated with the exception of food and prescription drugs.  The revenue gained from broadening the sales tax base would be used to lower the sales tax rate from 6 percent to 4.5 percent.

Additionally, the Commission wants more scrutiny of the state’s tax expenditures and called for the state to develop the capacity to conduct tax incidence studies to better inform policymakers on tax policy changes.

One criticism of the Commission is that their recommendations were revenue-neutral, meaning the changes would not increase or decrease current state revenues.  Given that Vermont must fill a $150 million budget gap next fiscal year, some advocates and lawmakers have suggested that the plan should raise some new revenue, at least temporarily, to fill the gap. 

The good news, however, is that if taken as a comprehensive package, the recommended changes would maintain the state’s reliance on a progressive income tax and would use revenue gained from broadening the sales tax base to lower the sales tax rate rather than moving to a greater reliance on consumption-based taxes.

Commission members asked state leaders to give serious consideration to their findings and recommendations. There is a good chance their request will be answered, because Vermont policymakers are making tax reform a priority during this legislative session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia Tax Exemptions Under the Microscope

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This week the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) released a new issue brief detailing the impact of taxing groceries. In it, they recommend that “all exemptions, credits, and deductions should be examined and weighed against each other and against the principles of tax reform.” 

Loophole-closing reform is a vital step toward a more sustainable sales tax, to be sure. But there are many other exemptions in Georgia’s tax code that should be studied closely and potentially eliminated before Georgians pay sales taxes on food. For example, Georgia offers one of the nation’s most generous exemptions for retirement income, and the state also offers an unusual and regressive tax deduction for state income taxes paid.

The debate over exemptions is heating up because the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians will make their tax reform recommendations soon, and the media is reporting that one potential “reform” would be to add food back to the sales tax base. Let’s hope their recommendations take aim at other exemptions that wouldn’t so dramatically raise taxes on low-and middle-income families.

State Tax Code Spending Under Fire

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For years, both state and federal lawmakers have opted to forgo the hassles of the appropriations process in favor of enacting tax breaks — or “tax expenditures” — aimed at exactly the same goals.  The result has been a steady rise in tax code spending, and a corresponding decline in transparency and fiscal responsibility.  Recent developments in Missouri, Georgia, New Mexico, and Maine, however, indicate that at least some lawmakers are interested in getting a grip on this type of out-of-control spending.

In Missouri, the Tax Credit Review Commission, created by Governor Jay Nixon in July, finally issued its recommendations this week.  In addition to recommending the elimination of 28 tax credits and the reform of 30 more, the Commission also took the commendable step of proposing some broader reforms to the way Missouri lawmakers deal with tax credits.  Most notably, the Commission suggested sunsetting every state tax credit in order to force their review, and even proposed a schedule for sunsetting them in waves two, four, and six years from now.  This proposal closely resembles a reform enacted by Oregon in 2009.

In addition to sunsets, the Missouri Commission also proposed capping tax credits in order to reverse the explosion in tax credit spending the state has experienced in recent years.  In support of this proposal, the Commission notes that “as State revenues have declined and spending for other programs has been reduced, spending on the State’s tax credit programs has continued to grow.”  Finally, the Commission also recommends eliminating and/or reducing the ability of businesses to carry-back their tax credits to prior years’ tax bills, and enacting additional “clawback” provisions to ensure that companies only benefit from tax credits if they consistently meet all of the eligibility requirements.

The Georgia Council on Tax Reform and Fairness seems to be contemplating a similar path.  While the group’s report won’t be out until early January, the chairman has suggested sunsetting most tax exemptions on a five year schedule.  Hopefully, the final report from the Council will include this recommendation and enhance it further by bringing all tax expenditures — not just tax exemptions — within its scope.  The Council would also be wise to offer some specific ideas for ensuring that the debate over expiring tax provisions is sufficiently rigorous (like by implementing a complementary tax expenditure review system).

In Maine, a working group comprising various state agency heads recently came out with recommendations that are quite similar to those being considered in Missouri and Georgia.  While not advocating the use of sunset provisions, the group has suggested the creation of a review system similar to the one that exists in Washington State.  Multiple lawmakers have voiced support for the idea, though Maine’s recent switch from all-Democratic to all-Republican control could complicate things.

Finally, in New Mexico, the drive to review state tax code spending is coming not from a commission or working group, but from lawmakers themselves.  Back in 2007, New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill enacting a tax expenditure reporting requirement, only to be thwarted by Gov. Richardson’s veto.  As a result, New Mexico is one of just seven states without a legal requirement that tax expenditure reports be released on a regular schedule.  Now, the Albuquerque Journal reports that some lawmakers — including the Governor-elect — are pushing for enhanced disclosure and review of the state’s film tax credit, among other tax expenditures.

Hopefully, the difficult budgetary situations confronting each of these states will spur lawmakers to do what’s long overdue: finally get a grip on out-of-control tax code spending.

Georgia Gubernatorial Candidates Dueling (Bad) Tax Cut Proposals

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Georgia’s gubernatorial candidates are touting competing tax plans which they claim will stimulate the state's economy and help businesses create and maintain jobs.  Neither plan is likely to do that, but both would deprive the state of revenue that is sorely needed to address the state’s short- and long-term budget shortfalls.

Democrat Offers Capital Gains Tax Break

Roy Barnes, the Democratic candidate, recently released his "Jobs Plan" to "revive Georgia’s economy."  The main element of his plan to "stimulate business growth and reduce the burdens on Georgians" is a proposal to exempt capital gains income from taxation for two years for investors who reinvest their gains in Georgia-based companies.  Barnes believes his plan will increase investments, incentivize companies to rehire, and lead to new job creation.  He has also suggested that the plan will more than pay for itself.

Capital gains tax breaks are costly, inequitable, and ineffective and thus there are a lot of problems with Barnes' plan and his assertions that it will stimulate Georgia’s economy.    

First, Georgia simply cannot afford to lose revenue when facing a projected budget shortfall of close to $2 billion next year.  State officials estimate that taxes on capital gains income under the current laws will raise an estimated $433 million next fiscal year.

ITEP State Tax Policy Director Meg Wiehe was quoted in an Atlanta Journal Constitution story on Barnes’ plan, saying, "The idea of losing any sort of revenue source seems pretty nonsensical to me when we know the things that revenue pays for — like education, teachers’ jobs and public safety — are really important for stimulating the economy." 

Second, and not surprisingly, the benefits of Barnes’ proposed capital gains break will go almost exclusively to the state’s wealthiest residents, not to the low-income households who are struggling the most to make ends meet. 

Furthermore, the idea that reducing taxes on capital gains will lead to a more robust economy is not supported by the evidence.  An array of experts agree there is little connection between lower capital gains taxes and higher economic growth, in either the short-run or the long-run.  A 2002 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study concluded that capital gains tax breaks "would provide little fiscal stimulus" in the short-run, since most of the benefits of such cuts would accrue to high-income households, households that are more likely to save than spend, when the very aim of such short-term stimulus is to boost consumption. As for the long-term economic effects, there is no correlation between investment and economic growth and the marginal tax rate on capital gains income.

The tide has actually been turning against this type of tax break.  In just the past year, Rhode Island eliminated their preferential rates for capital gains income. And, of the eight states that currently offer some sort of significant capital gains tax break, two of them — Vermont and Wisconsin — have both recently acted to reduce their exclusions for capital gains income.  It seems like Barnes has missed the boat entirely with his proposal.

Republican Offers Corporate Tax Break

Nathan Deal, the Republican candidate, is promoting his "Real Prosperity Plan" as the best means to maintain and grow jobs in Georgia.  The core component of the plan is a cut in the corporate income tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent. Deal thinks such a cut will make Georgia more competitive with its neighbors and help the state attract potential new businesses that will bring new jobs with them.  As critics have pointed out, most local businesses will not even benefit from Deal’s plan because they are structured as S-corporations or limited liability companies and are not subject to the corporate income tax.   

The corporate income tax is one of the fairest taxes a state can levy.  Just as working families and individuals benefit from the services that state and local governments provide, so too do corporations. At a time when Georgia is facing yet another significant budget shortfall, losing revenue from a progressive tax such as the corporate income tax is a bad prescription for fixing the state’s ailing economy, especially when the evidence suggests cutting the corporate income tax will not have the positive impact on the economy that Deal claims to seek.

A recent report  from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers an excellent explanation for why proposals to cut corporate income taxes offer "false hope" and are "unlikely to have a positive impact on a state's rate of economic growth or the pace at which it generates private-sector jobs."  CBPP notes that "cutting corporate tax rates may be politically appealing, but neither logic nor evidence suggests that doing so will stimulate significant economic growth. The fact that no state has enacted such cuts in the past two or three years suggests that many policymakers already doubt the proponents’ claims."

On a side note, Deal is also an avid supporter of the so-called Fair Tax, another indicator that he is no friend of sensible tax policy.

New 50 State ITEP Report Released: State Tax Policies CAN Help Reduce Poverty

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ITEP’s new report, Credit Where Credit is (Over) Due, examines four proven state tax reforms that can assist families living in poverty. They include refundable state Earned Income Tax Credits, property tax circuit breakers, targeted low-income credits, and child-related tax credits. The report also takes stock of current anti-poverty policies in each of the states and offers suggested policy reforms.

Earlier this month, the US Census Bureau released new data showing that the national poverty rate increased from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent in 2009.  Faced with a slow and unresponsive economy, low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to find decent jobs that can adequately provide for their families.

Most states have regressive tax systems which exacerbate this situation by imposing higher effective tax rates on low-income families than on wealthy ones, making it even harder for low-wage workers to move above the poverty line and achieve economic security. Although state tax policy has so far created an uneven playing field for low-income families, state governments can respond to rising poverty by alleviating some of the economic hardship on low-income families through targeted anti-poverty tax reforms.

One important policy available to lawmakers is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The credit is widely recognized as an effective anti-poverty strategy, lifting roughly five million people each year above the federal poverty line.  Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide state EITCs, modeled on the federal credit, which help to offset the impact of regressive state and local taxes.  The report recommends that states with EITCs consider expanding the credit and that other states consider introducing a refundable EITC to help alleviate poverty.

The second policy ITEP describes is property tax "circuit breakers." These programs offer tax credits to homeowners and renters who pay more than a certain percentage of their income in property tax.  But the credits are often only available to the elderly or disabled.  The report suggests expanding the availability of the credit to include all low-income families.

Next ITEP describes refundable low-income credits, which are a good compliment to state EITCs in part because the EITC is not adequate for older adults and adults without children.  Some states have structured their low-income credits to ensure income earners below a certain threshold do not owe income taxes. Other states have designed low-income tax credits to assist in offsetting the impact of general sales taxes or specifically the sales tax on food.  The report recommends that lawmakers expand (or create if they don’t already exist) refundable low-income tax credits.

The final anti-poverty strategy that ITEP discusses are child-related tax credits.  The new US Census numbers show that one in five children are currently living in poverty. The report recommends consideration of these tax credits, which can be used to offset child care and other expenses for parents.

Convening a Georgia tax reform commission in the summer of 2010 is a bit like tightening environmental regulations after an oil spill — a fine idea, but one that would have been more helpful earlier in the game. Only months ago, the state legislature enacted a costly new income tax giveaway for the best-off seniors and paid for it, in part, by gutting the only refundable credit available to low-income Georgians. This week, the "Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians," which is charged with revamping the state's tax code, convened and heard testimony from ITEP staff and others. 

ITEP's testimony describes the long-term structural challenges facing Georgia's main revenue sources, and surveys the most creative (and most dangerous) responses to these structural threats. By focusing on options that have been implemented or seriously discussed in other states, the testimony provides a very practical working guide for moving Georgia's tax system into the 21st century.
ITEP's testimony focuses on four major categories of state taxes levied in Georgia: sales taxes, corporate income taxes, personal income taxes, and gas taxes. It identifies workable reforms (and unworkable red herrings) of which Council members should be aware as they formulate their recommendations. In each case, the testimony spotlights efforts to raise needed revenues and eliminate tax inequities by broadening the tax base to eliminate loopholes for various special interests.
On the income tax front, ITEP's testimony focused on the surprising, but laudable growth in the number of states that have pared back excessive tax breaks for capital gains, itemized deductions, and retirement income in recent years. In discussing the sales tax, ITEP noted that while relatively few states have succeeded in meaningfully expanding the sales tax base to include more services in recent years, a growing number are considering sensible plans to do so in 2010. The testimony also took note of the growing use of so-called "Amazon taxes" designed to ensure that e-commerce sales should be at least partially taxable.
The testimony also noted the folly of "racing to the bottom" to provide industry-specific or even company-specific tax breaks for businesses as a relocation incentive, and discussed how Georgia could enhance its long-inadequate transportation revenue streams by bolstering its gas tax. Numerous states have recently increased their gas taxes, and many more have seriously discussed gas tax increases or gas tax restructuring aimed at improving revenue sustainability.
More so than is usually the case with tax reform commissions, the Special Council's recommendations could carry some weight when the legislature convenes next year, not only because its high-powered roster includes Governor Sonny Perdue but also because its recommendations are required to be introduced, "without significant changes," for a vote in the legislature next year. Hopefully, the growing number of sensible base-broadening measures enacted by other states will provide the Council with a template for reform.

New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions

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The vast majority of the attention given to the Bush tax cuts has been focused on changes in top marginal rates, the treatment of capital gains income, and the estate tax.  But another, less visible component of those cuts has been gradually making itemized deductions more unfair and expensive over the last five years.  Since the vast majority of states offering itemized deductions base their rules on what is done at the federal level, this change has also resulted in state governments offering an ever-growing, regressive tax cut that they clearly cannot afford. 

In an attempt to encourage states to reverse the effects of this costly and inequitable development, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) this week released a new report, "Writing Off" Tax Giveaways, that examines five options for reforming state itemized deductions in order to reduce their cost and regressivity, with an eye toward helping states balance their budgets.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia currently allow itemized deductions.  The remaining states either lack an income tax entirely, or have simply chosen not to make itemized deductions a part of their income tax — as Rhode Island decided to do just this year.  In 2010, for the first time in two decades, twenty-six states plus DC will not limit these deductions for their wealthiest residents in any way, due to the federal government's repeal of the "Pease" phase-out (so named for its original Congressional sponsor).  This is an unfortunate development as itemized deductions, even with the Pease phase-out, were already most generous to the nation's wealthiest families.

"Writing Off" Tax Giveaways examines five specific reform options for each of the thirty-one states offering itemized deductions (state-specific results are available in the appendix of the report or in these convenient, state-specific fact sheets).

The most comprehensive option considered in the report is the complete repeal of itemized deductions, accompanied by a substantial increase in the standard deduction.  By pairing these two tax changes, only a very small minority of taxpayers in each state would face a tax increase under this option, while a much larger share would actually see their taxes reduced overall.  This option would raise substantial revenue with which to help states balance their budgets.

Another reform option examined by the report would place a cap on the total value of itemized deductions.  Vermont and New York already do this with some of their deductions, while Hawaii legislators attempted to enact a comprehensive cap earlier this year, only to be thwarted by Governor Linda Lingle's veto.  This proposal would increase taxes on only those few wealthy taxpayers currently claiming itemized deductions in excess of $40,000 per year (or $20,000 for single taxpayers).

Converting itemized deductions into a credit, as has been done in Wisconsin and Utah, is also analyzed by the report.  This option would reduce the "upside down" nature of itemized deductions by preventing wealthier taxpayers in states levying a graduated rate income tax from receiving more benefit per dollar of deduction than lower- and middle-income taxpayers.  Like outright repeal, this proposal would raise significant revenue, and would result in far more taxpayers seeing tax cuts than would see tax increases.

Finally, two options for phasing-out deductions for high-income earners are examined.  One option simply reinstates the federal Pease phase-out, while another analyzes the effects of a modified phase-out design.  These options would raise the least revenue of the five options examined, but should be most familiar to lawmakers because of their experience with the federal Pease provision.

Read the full report.

A new report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), Advancing Georgia's 1930s Tax System to the Modern Day, puts forth recommendations for tax reform that will help the state raise enough money to meet its growing needs, bring the revenue system in line with the 21st century economy, and improve fairness if adopted.

The report was delivered to the 11 members of the 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians who met for a second time this week.  The Council is charged with providing recommendations to the state legislature in January 2011 when the General Assembly meets to amend the fiscal year 2011 budget and create the FY 2012 budget.  The GBPI provides the Tax Council with a set of reform recommendations including:

- Lowering the state sales tax rate and simultaneously broadening the tax base to mirror 21st century spending habits.
- Modernizing income tax brackets, rates, and standard deductions to better reflect current income levels.
- Creating an earned income tax credit (EITC) to offset the highly regressive sales taxes for the state's lowest earners.
- Scaling down tax preferences, both for individuals and corporations, to avoid shifting taxes onto fewer individuals and businesses as they do now.
- Closing corporate loopholes and updating the corporate net worth tax to prevent profitable corporations from avoiding paying their fair share.
- Updating cigarette and motor fuel excise tax rates.

Using data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy's Microsimulation Tax Model, the report provides beginning revenue estimates and distributions among income groups to demonstrate how recommended combined tax reforms would improve fairness while also enhancing adequacy. An overview of similar actions taken by other states, as well as potential federal tax changes, are also included in the report.
As the Tax Council members embark on numerous “fact-finding” sessions across the state later this month, they should start by giving the GBPI report a serious look.

Sales Tax Holidays: Good for Little More than a Laugh

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

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

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

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

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


Georgia Begins Tax Reform Discussions

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Georgia is the latest state to formally join the tax reform debate with the creation of the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness.  The 11-member Council, which met for the first time this week, has been charged with conducting  a comprehensive study of the current state and local tax system and must offer a set of final recommendations for modernizing the system to state lawmakers by January for an up or down vote.

The goals of the Council are still a bit vague, but by all accounts it is certain the members will pay special attention to closing loopholes, expanding sales taxes to services, restoring the sales tax on groceries, and lowering personal and corporate income taxes.  The Council’s Chairman, A.D. Frazier, announced this week that the members plan to seek input from constituents and stakeholders through a series of statewide meetings and will accept comments via the Council’s website.

Georgia’s House Speaker, David Ralston, who is not on the Council, asked members this week to create a tax system that is “more stable, more fair, more flat, and more job-friendly.”  

The Council should be concerned with increasing stability, fairness, and jobs, but flattening the tax system, particularly the personal income tax, has nothing to do with those goals.   ITEP’s 2009 report, Who Pays?, found that the poorest Georgia families pay an average of 11.4 percent of their income in Georgia taxes, twice as high as the 5.7 percent of income that the very best-off 1 percent of Georgians must pay.  While this upside-down pattern is common in state tax systems, Georgia is somewhat more unfair than the typical state due to its relatively flat income tax structure and reliance on the sales tax. And, as ITEP has already noted, legislation enacted this year would only make this worse.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) and ITEP will be monitoring the Council meetings throughout the summer and fall.  When asked about the direction the Council should follow, GBPI’s Deputy Director Sarah Beth Gehl, said she hopes “the council members will consider the tax system from all perspectives, including how it affects low- and moderate-income Georgians and its effect on funding for essential services.  This shouldn't be an exercise in who can protect their special-interest tax break or carve out a new one."

It's Nearly that Time of the Year... Sales Tax Holidays in the News

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Back-to-school time is just around the corner and with that comes the annual debate about sales tax holidays. States offering sales tax holidays typically won't collect sales tax for a specific number of days on items considered to be back-to-school items like school supplies, clothes, or even shoes. Of course, sales tax holidays do nothing to offset the regressivity of the sales tax the rest of the year, they are an administrative headache, costly for state governments, and very low-income people usually don't have the flexibility to shift their spending to take advantage of the holiday.

Despite recent headlines like "Illinois: Our very own Greece?" Governor Quinn signed legislation that allows the state to offer its first ever sales tax holiday for a ten day period in early August. The holiday is projected to cost the state between $20 and $67 million, which the state could certainly use right about now. It's hard to understand how offering this sales tax holiday is good fiscal policy.

In brighter news, Georgia is not having a sales tax-free holiday weekend this year. In a state facing its own budget crunch, the Speaker of the House said earlier this year, "What I hear Georgians say is they’d rather have their classroom teachers in the classroom teaching than have that sales [tax] holiday." This move is likely to save the state about $12 million.

Georgia Governor Slashes Low-Income Credit -- But Vetoes Capital Gains Break for Wealthy Investors

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Among the dozens of bills and a $17.9 billion budget signed into law by Georgia Governor Perdue on Tuesday is a law eliminating low-income tax credits for hundreds of thousands of individuals in Georgia — cutting the size of the credit overall by about two-thirds. The legislation signed by Gov. Perdue did not, however, include the 50 percent reduction in the tax on long-term capital gains that was passed by the state’s legislature for the second year in a row.

Specifically, Governor Perdue approved the legislature’s decision to eliminate the “refundability” of the state’s low-income tax credit.  As a result, those low-income Georgians hit hard by sales, excise, and property taxes will no longer be able to receive refunds through the income tax system to offset these burdens.  

Overall, this change amounts to a $20 million tax increase on those in Georgia who are suffering most, and least able to pay during the current recession.  A recent ITEP analysis of this change to the low-income credit shows that 61 percent of the tax hike will fall on the poorest 20 percent of Georgia individuals and families—a group with incomes averaging $9,700 a year—and that virtually all of the tax hike will be paid by the poorest 40 percent of Georgians.

Refundable Credits Still OK for Corporations, but Not Families

While the refundability of Georgia’s low-income tax credit has been eliminated, this same feature of many of Georgia’s corporate tax credits will remain intact. As a report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) points out, the refundable portion of corporate tax credits provided by the state are actually similar in cost to the recently repealed refundable portion of the low-income credit.  It’s more than a little surprising, to say the least, that Georgia’s lawmakers believe low-income individuals to be less worthy of tax breaks than corporations.

Governor Vetoes Capital Gains Cut

Fortunately for Georgia residents, Governor Perdue vetoed for the second time an effort by Republican legislative leaders to cut capital gains taxes by an estimated $340 million.  According to an ITEP analysis, 77 percent of the tax reductions resulting from this change would have gone to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers in the state, while the 80 percent of taxpayers earning less than $76,000 per year would have received just 1 percent of the overall capital gains tax break.

Proponents of the capital gains tax break touted the effort as a sort of economic and jobs stimulus legislation, despite the consensus that exists among a wide array of economists that capital gains tax cuts are among the least effective stimulus efforts and have no connection to long-term growth.

As ITEP’s recent report “Who Pays?” points out, the poorest fifth of families in Georgia already pay nearly twice as much in taxes as a percentage of their income as the top 1 percent of Georgians. The legislature’s clear desire to shower the wealthy in additional tax breaks while forcing low-income Georgians to pick up the tab would only make this stark regressivity even worse.

Instead of continuing down this road, Georgia lawmakers could make their budget fairer and more sustainable by passing reforms like repealing the deduction for state income taxes along with a whole variety of reforms.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed, Kathy Floyd of AARP Georgia sums up our feelings about the budget this year by saying, frankly, “Georgia deserved better.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonny Perdue is enjoying his last year as the Governor of Georgia and all signs indicate that he's going out with a bang that, depending on how he uses his veto pen, could have enormous implications for Georgia's tax system and revenue stream for years to come. The Governor has already signed legislation that removes retirement income from the income tax base and repeals the state portion of the property tax. Tax and budget fairness advocates are watching to see what action he'll take on a capital gains tax cut and a proposal that would eliminate the refundable portion of a low-income tax credit.

Last week, Governor Perdue made good on a campaign promise to entirely remove retirement income from the tax base for seniors. Georgia seniors already enjoy some of the highest exemptions in the country on retirement income. Fully exempting this income, especially as the boomer population ages, means that the cost of this legislation will only grow in the future.

But even if one can (for some reason) ignore the fiscal implications, the fairness implications are eye-popping. Under this legislation, income seniors receive from work would continue to be taxed the same as before. If you're a senior who can't afford to retire, you still get taxed on most of your income (seniors would still get the existing $4,000 exemption on earnings). But if you can afford to retire, your income is not taxed. The most basic principle of tax fairness — that taxes should be based on ability to pay — seems to have disappeared in Georgia.

The Governor also signed a law that completely eliminates the state portion of property taxes. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates that this cut alone will cost the state $63 million in 2013, with the cost increasing each year.

Once again, the idea that taxes should be based on ability to pay would justify very different measures. For example, if policymakers are truly concerned about the impact that property taxes are having on the state's most vulnerable residents, they should just institute a property tax circuit breaker, rather than eliminating the tax altogether.

Governor Perdue may not be done yet. Two new bills currently sitting on the Governor's desk would be even more regressive.

The first one is HB 1023, the so-called JOBS Act, which would allow individuals to exclude 50 percent of their capital gains from their income when the state's rainy day fund reaches $1 billion. An ITEP analysis found that "low- and middle-income families would see virtually no benefit from the new exclusion for capital gains." In fact, those Georgians who would benefit from this tax change are overwhelmingly in the top five percent of the income distribution.

Second, the Governor will decide whether to remove the refundable portion of the state's Low Income Tax Credit (LITC). Currently, the credit is available to Georgians with incomes less than $20,000, and if the filer's tax credit is larger then their tax bill, then they get a small refund of between $5 and $26 dollars (or more, depending on family size).

As Laura Lester from the Atlanta Community Food Bank wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "While eliminating the refundable portion of the LITC may appear to be a simple line-item adjustment, the result will increase the tax burden on those who struggle most in the current economy. This will have consequences well beyond the budget. The current recession has reduced work hours and wages for hundreds of thousands of Georgians, and the LITC helps to ease this hardship and stabilize incomes."

Slashing a tax credit for low-income families while offering enormous tax cuts for the wealthy investor class seems like a strategy to confirm the most cartoonish stereotype of right-wing lawmakers that can be imagined. Let's hope this is not the legacy Governor Perdue prefers to leave for his state.

Bad Tax Reform Ideas? Georgia's Got 'Em

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Will Georgia earn the dubious reputation of passing the most misguided state tax changes of 2010? With the state's legislative session coming to a close, Peach State lawmakers are building an impressive body of work. After sending the governor bills that will cut the capital gains tax by 50 percent and exempt all retirement income for better-off seniors, the legislature this week is moving to take away the state's sole refundable low-income credit and authorize a statewide sales tax increase.

As a new ITEP report shows, the net impact of these changes would be to make the state's already-unfair tax system dramatically more unfair. The ITEP report shows that the current tax system actually redistributes income away from low-income families into the pockets of the best-off taxpayers — and that the proposed changes would make this inequity even worse.     

This week the Oklahoma Policy Institute released a report urging, among other things, that one of the state’s more ridiculous tax breaks be eliminated — specifically, the state income tax deduction for state income taxes.  This deduction was created not as a result of careful consideration and debate among Oklahoma policymakers, but rather as an accidental side-effect of the state’s “coupling” to federal income tax rules.  And as the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee politely points out, while the deduction may make some sense at the federal level, the rationale for providing it at the state level is “less clear.”

Citing figures provided by ITEP, the Oklahoma Policy Institute notes that only one out of four Oklahomans would be affected by eliminating this deduction, and roughly 58% of the overall tax hike would be borne by those richest 5% of Oklahomans.  This is a predictable result of the deduction only being available to itemizers.  In total, the state could collect an additional $118 million in revenue each year by eliminating the deduction — revenue that could go a long way toward preserving important public services.

State income tax deductions for state income taxes have been receiving a growing amount of attention.  Last year, Vermont limited its deduction to a maximum of $5,000, while just last week New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a budget eliminating his state’s deduction entirely.  The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) also highlighted the benefits of eliminating this deduction in a policy brief released just a few weeks ago.

In total, seven states currently offer this deduction: Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  Eliminating the deduction in each of these states is long overdue.

Georgia Lawmakers Propose Cut in the Low Income Credit

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Georgia's Republican leaders, facing a deficit pinch, want to save $20 million a year by eliminating the refundability on the Low Income Credit offered on the state's income tax forms. (This is an alternative to a state EITC, and gives a per-person credit up to $26 for each low-income Georgia family member.)

ITEP estimates that making the credit nonrefundable would take away about three-quarters of the value of this credit, and that most of the tax hike would fall on the poorest 20 percent of Georgians.

As it happens, Georgia's current tax system offers an important reminder of why refundability is such an important feature in low-income tax credits. The poorest 20 percent of Georgians pay an average of 11.7 percent of their income in Georgia state and local taxes — and taxes other than the income tax represent 11.2 percent. (The personal income tax on this group averages 0.5 percent of their income.) This means that lawmakers seeking to make the state's tax system somewhat less regressive can only do so through tax credits that can be applied against not only the income tax, but against sales and excise taxes as well.

A new report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) points out that many of the recipients of the refundable Low Income Credit are seniors, and suggests that if lawmakers are intent on balancing the state's budget on the backs of seniors, a more sensible approach would be to reduce the state's very generous retirement income exclusion, which allows seniors at all income levels to enjoy $35,000 (per spouse) of retirement income tax-free. Reducing this cap from $35,000 to $32,000 would raise just as much money as the Low Income Credit proposal, without affecting a single fixed-income senior.

The report also makes some interesting points about refundable tax credits. For example, the state also offers refundable tax credits to corporations, and these cost the state about as much as the refundable credits for low-income families. As the report explains, "This raises the question of why refundable credits are appropriate for Georgia's corporate community but not residents with the lowest incomes."

Truth and Nonsense about Progressive Solutions to State Budget Crises

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As the current economic storm continues to batter state budgets, policymakers in numerous states are continuing to talk of raising taxes to help mitigate cuts in state services.  In Maryland, lawmakers are debating an extension of the state’s temporary “millionaires’ tax,” while a new policy brief out of Georgia proposes to eliminate an unwise (and rare) deduction currently only offered in just seven other states — Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Maryland's legislature is currently considering whether to extend a temporary "millionaires’ tax" enacted as part of a major 2007 tax reform effort. ITEP staff testified Thursday at a hearing of the state House Ways and Means Committee. ITEP's testimony highlighted several important details, such as the fact that the millionaires’ tax modestly reduces the overall unfairness of Maryland's tax system. With the tax in place, low-income families still pay more of their income in Maryland taxes than millionaires must pay — and if the tax is repealed, this inequity will become even worse.

The testimony also explains why claims by anti-taxers that millionaires have fled the state in response to the millionaires’ tax are unfounded. As ITEP's analyses have shown, the primary cause of the decline in the number of Maryland millionaires in the past year is that they stopped being millionaires due to the recession.  The claim that the decline in the number of millionaires is due to the high income tax would be news to lawmakers in Utah (the only other state in which there is publicly available data on the change in the number of millionaires between 2007 and 2008). In the same year that Maryland lost 30 percent of their millionaires, Utah lost 60 percent of theirs. And while Maryland hiked their income tax on wealthy taxpayers the previous year, Utah cut theirs.

In Georgia, some attention is beginning to be paid to a progressive idea passed by the New Mexico legislature just last week.  On Thursday, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) released a brief explaining why the state’s deduction for state income taxes paid — which costs the state $450 million each year — should be eliminated to help fill the state’s budget gap.  The vast majority of states already disallow this deduction (which originates from federal tax rules) in order to avoid the bizarre, circular situation in which one’s state tax payment can be used to reduce their state taxes.  

Finally, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) helps put these developments in Maryland and Georgia into perspective.  The report notes that states have increased taxes by a combined $32 billion during the current recession.  In total, thirty three states have raised taxes to help fill their budget gaps, with twenty two of those having enacted “significant” tax increases, meaning increases that total more than 1 percent of their total revenues.  The report’s appendices provide an excellent summary of the multitude of state tax changes that have been enacted during these difficult budgetary times.

State Tax Cuts Are Not Stimulus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Budget Deficits Drive Greater Interest in Examining Tax Breaks

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State budget woes appear to be spurring an increasing amount of interest in re-examining state tax breaks.  The Governors of both Michigan and Idaho have taken steps to ramp up the scrutiny directed at their state’s tax breaks, while a new report out of Oklahoma and an editorial highlighting legislation in Georgia this week have urged similar actions.

In Michigan, the Detroit Free Press urged the adoption of Governor Granholm’s proposal to thoroughly analyze the merits of every tax break, and to saddle most breaks with sunset provisions that would force lawmakers to either debate and renew these breaks, or to let them expire.  This proposal would help to remedy the lack of scrutiny given to tax breaks because of their exclusion from the appropriations process.  Notably, the proposal’s use of sunsets as a mechanism for forcing review seems to resemble a law enacted in Oregon just last year.

In Georgia, the need for additional scrutiny of tax breaks is even more desperate.  Because the state lacks a tax expenditure report, Georgia lawmakers are not even aware of the full range and cost of special breaks that their tax system provides.  SB 206, which was endorsed by a Macon Telegraph editorial this week, would remedy this problem by finally requiring the creation of such a report.  The editorial rightly points out that the bill could be strengthened by requiring an analysis of each tax break’s effectiveness, but at this point, even simply producing a list of tax breaks and their costs would be a major step forward.  The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has been pushing for the creation of such a report for many years.

Idaho governor Butch Otter has also shown some tentative interest in figuring out whether his state’s tax breaks are worth their cost.  While Governor Otter continues to hold out hope that the state’s revenues will rebound soon, he also recently directed the state’s Tax Commission to study sales tax exemptions in the event that closing some of those exemptions becomes necessary to fill the state’s budget gap next year.  If done carefully, the studies produced by the Tax Commission could provide a wealth of information on breaks that have so far received a relatively small amount of scrutiny.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute has also added to the progress being made on this issue with a new report outlining what should be done to scrutinize tax breaks in a systematic fashion.  Their report, titled “Let There Be Light: Making Oklahoma’s Tax Expenditures More Transparent and Accountable,” provides twelve specific recommendations for realizing this vision.  Among those recommendations are: improving the state’s existing tax expenditure report, sunsetting all tax incentives, requiring the extension of a sunsetting incentive to undergo a “performance review,” and developing a unified economic development budget.

New Jersey Finally Joins Majority of States Producing Tax Expenditure Reports

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

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

The report must, among other things:

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

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

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

VERMONT & GEORGIA: This Time, Use a Wooden Stake

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If nothing else, 2009 certainly saw its share of movies featuring the undead – New Moon, Zombieland, and Daywalkers all spring to mind.  Now, that trend seems to be infecting state legislative debates, as tax policies or tax policy proposals thought to be dead seem to be springing back to life to terrorize unsuspecting citizenries.  

In Georgia last May, Governor Sonny Perdue rightly vetoed a measure that would have cut in half the taxes businesses and individuals pay on long-term capital gains, costing the state as much as $400 million per year, largely to the benefit of the most affluent of Georgians.  This past week, though, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle announced his intention to resurrect the measure in an attempt to spur economic growth.  

The undead are also threatening Vermont.  As part of its FY 2010 budget agreement, the Vermont Legislature enacted a variety of tax changes, including a reduction in the state’s capital gains exclusion from 40 percent of such income to an exclusion capped at $5,000.  While the Legislature was forced to enact such changes over the veto of Governor Jim Douglas, it’s worth noting that, as recently as 2008, the Governor had backed repealing the deduction outright and using the influx of revenue to reduce marginal tax rates, which the legislature did, to some degree, via the FY10 budget agreement.  Yet, in his State of the State address earlier this month, Governor Douglas proposed restoring that 40 percent exclusion to life.

Given the nation’s economic woes, it’s only natural for elected officials to seek ways to boost employment and to foster economic development.  Still, capital gains tax cuts are not the elixir of life for state economies.  As ITEP observed in its examination of state capital gains preferences last year, “extensive economic research demonstrates that there is little connection between lower taxes on capital gains and higher levels of economic growth, in either the short-run or the long-run.”

For more on tax and budget debates in Georgia and Vermont, visit the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and the Public Assets Institute.

Our Prediction: Property Taxes Will be Debated (Again!) in Georgia

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Our crystal ball tells us that Georgia legislators will spend a lot of time in the new year debating property taxes. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has responsibly studied this issue with several in-depth articles that dig through property tax data and look to nationally respected experts for their opinions.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers recently revealed portions of the reform package that is expected from the Senate committee he chairs. The proposed reforms include: overhauling the appeals process and prohibiting county assessors from setting a property's value higher than the sales price. The latter proposal would likely deal a tremendous financial hit to local governments, given the housing downturn.

In slightly brighter news, there doesn't seem to be much political will to actually eliminate the property tax altogether despite proposals put forward in recent years by prominent politicians, including former Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson. Stay tuned...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this week, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Columbus and against, an online travel company (“OTCs”) that charges customers one rate for booking a hotel room but pays local governments a lodging tax based on cheaper, wholesale room rates.  The Court’s finding mirrors its decision in a case decided in June against  In both instances, the Court held that the tax for which the OTCs were liable should be based on the retail room rate paid by their customers.

OTCs contract with local hotels to provide rooms for a discounted or wholesale rate.  When a customer books a room online, the OTC charges the customer a “marked-up” rate along with taxes and service fees.  Under Georgia law, municipalities may impose hotel occupancy and excise taxes on the furnishing of any room, lodging, or accommodation.  The Court noted that state law allows cities to impose a tax on the lodging charges actually collected. 

The high court’s decisions are binding across Georgia, so the two Columbus cases could affect other suits filed by governments seeking to collect the proper amount of lodging taxes from OTCs.  The cases have been remanded to the lower courts to determine how much money the online services owe in back taxes and penalties. 

Importantly, numerous other cities – including Houston, San Antonio, and Miami have sued or initiated administrative proceedings against OTCs, asserting that they owe back taxes on their price mark-ups.  While many cases have yet to be fully adjudicated, one other recent case yielded much the same verdict as Columbus’ suit against  In February, multiple OTCs, including Orbitz and Travelocity, were ordered to pay the city of Anaheim, California, $21 million in back taxes, fees and penalties related to the payment of hotel occupancy taxes.

Rulings such as these have motivated OTCs to seek enactment of federal legislation that would ban state and local taxation of hotel room rentals when booked by such a company.  However, as these rulings demonstrate, there is no justification for limiting the base for such a tax to the wholesale price of a hotel room, let alone eliminating taxation altogether.  Hotel taxes are consumption taxes, which should be measured by the value of the consumption to the customer.  Therefore, the tax should be imposed on the retail amount.  For more on this subject and on the OTC’s push for federal legislation, see this helpful report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Gubernatorial Hopefuls Talk about Income Tax Elimination Rather Than Real Solutions

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When someone demands that Congress abolish the federal income tax, we typically consider that a fairly extreme position. But then again, we don't run in the same circles as Georgia gubernatorial candidate John Oxendine, who feels that his peers in the anti-tax community are too wishy-washy if they don't also call for a repeal of state income taxes. 

He recently said, "I think it's very hypocritical for state officials to be running around bad mouthing the federal government for having an income tax when the state of Georgia does the same [thing]. As governor, I want to get rid of the state income tax." Oxendine thinks that states like Georgia must lead the way and eliminate their state income taxes.

In Georgia, inadequate tax revenue is a threat to justice -- quite literally, in the sense that the state is not able to carry out the basic administration of justice through its court system. As the Wall Street Journal reports, "the wheels of justice in Georgia are grinding more slowly each day" because "Cuts in spending for the state court system have led to fewer court dates available for hearings and trials, creating a growing backlog of cases."

Now, just three months into the state's fiscal year, already under-funded state agencies are being asked to cut another 5 percent from their 2010 budget. Now is likely not the time to eliminate the state's largest source of revenue.

Former Ohio Congressman John Kasich is running for Ohio Governor and is also promising to repeal the state's income tax. However, the severity of Ohio's budget situation has apparently provoked some caution. The Columbus Dispatch recently reported "Kasich also said that the state's dire budget situation would make it difficult to begin phasing out the state income tax in his first term." He apparently assumes that the state's current budget crisis is the last the state will ever face, freeing it to abolish a major source of revenue in the future.

Of course, abolishing a state's income tax is a terrible idea even in times of surplus because income taxes are fairer than any other type of revenue source. A recent ITEP report makes this point in analyzing a recent proposal in Missouri to eliminate corporate and individual income taxes and replace the revenue with an enormously expanded sales tax. The Missouri proposal (which was not enacted) would have effectively slashed state taxes for wealthy residents while sending the bill to working families who spend most of their income purchasing necessities.  

Experts Say States' Economies Will Suffer If Budgets Are Balanced Solely by Cuts in Spending

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States policymakers across the country are looking to the future and anticipating another year of tough budget decisions about whether to cut services or increase taxes. Two recent pieces from research groups in Georgia and North Carolina make excellent points about the importance of considering tax increases and their impact on economic development.
Last week, the Macon Telegraph published an editorial by Alan Essig, Executive Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Essig notes that there "is more to economic development policy than having the lowest tax rate. Economic development depends on, at the least, adequate public structures; without them, it is difficult to recruit and grow businesses in Georgia, no matter how low taxes are." Racing to the bottom in terms of tax rates is hardly the best economic development decision a state can make.
North Carolina legislators did take a balanced approach to filling their state's budget shortfall by passing both tax increases and budget cuts. Yet, this hasn't stopped anti-taxers from crying "job killing taxes." The North Carolina Budget and Policy Center recently released a report debunking the myth that state tax increases cause job losses. Read the Center's report, Wishful Thinking: Claims That State Tax Increases Cause Job Loss are Unfounded.


Regressive Tax Cut Vetoed in Georgia

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Governor Concedes Supply-Side Tax Cuts Are Not Workable, But Still Insists He Likes Them

Georgia's Governor Sonny Perdue ended a month of speculation this week when he decided to veto a capital gains tax cut -- but seemed to equivocate on the outrageous claim that capital gains tax cuts can actually result in increased revenue.

As reported here, the Georgia legislature in early April passed a budget for fiscal year 2010 that included a major tax cut for the wealthy (an exclusion for long-term capital gains income). The proposal was roundly criticized by opinion leaders in the state, including the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Macon Telegraph, because the vast majority of the benefits would go to the richest state residents and because of its potential revenue impact during a state budget crisis.

Uncertainty surrounded the outcome because it was unclear what Governor Perdue, a proponent of "supply-side" tax cuts, would decide. Supply-side economics is a school of thought associated with conservative politicians (but not many mainstream economists) that tax cuts for investment or for those who invest can yield huge increases in economic growth. Most incredibly of all, this resulting economic growth is often argued to result in so much new tax revenue that the tax cut can be cost-free or can even lead to increased revenues. Proponents of this idea believe that cuts in the capital gains tax are especially likely to lead to increased revenues.

On Monday, the Governor issued a veto statement saying that, "While some argue these tax reductions will ultimately generate more revenue, the constitutional restraint of a balanced budget prevents policymakers the luxury of time to allow that growth to overcome the short-term loss of revenue." In other words, the Governor seemed to imply that cutting taxes on capital gains income could actually result in increased revenue, but the increased revenue simply would not come soon enough to meet the requirement that the state budget be balanced each year. To make clear that he was not opposed to such tax cuts in principle he added, "Should the General Assembly choose to enact a budget next session that incorporates the estimated revenue reductions caused by large tax cuts, I would entertain such cuts at that time."

The Governor should be thanked for vetoing a regressive and irresponsible tax cut in the middle of a budget crisis, but he should be called to task for entertaining the absurd idea that tax cuts (of any sort) can actually lead to increased revenues.

Middle-income Georgians are still waiting for their Governor to decide whether to increase their property taxes and use the revenue to slash capital gains taxes for the rich. Legislation making both of these changes (HB 481 and HB 261) continues to sit on Governor Sonny Perdue's's desk even as it's roundly criticized by opinion leaders, including the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Macon Telegraph.

The editorial boards of both papers cite ITEP's recent report on the legislation. The analysis describes the impact across income groups of eliminating a property tax relief program in combination with cutting taxes on capital gains income. The Atlanta Journal Constitution points out, "So who will see a boon from a capital gains tax break? A very wealthy few. People in the top 10 percent of the income spectrum own about 70 percent of taxable stocks. In its analysis of the capital gains tax break, the Washington-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy concluded that 77 percent of the tax cut would go to the very richest 1 percent of Georgians."

Sadly, bad news for the Georgia economy may be what it takes to convince the Governor that tax cuts for the rich, even if they are partially offset by tax increases on somebody else, are simply unaffordable. As Charles Richardson at the Macon Telegraph writes, "There is more bad news on the economic front. On May 7, the governor should get the revenue report for April. It is not expected to be good. March's numbers were down 14 percent. However, that dark cloud may hold a silver lining. The dismal income report may spur Gov. Perdue to veto HB 481 and HB 261. That would be fiscally prudent, and move the state closer to fiscal responsibility and away from ideological, get-out-the-vote rhetoric that is leading us to disaster."

Georgia: Piling on the Pain

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A new report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute highlights the shocking decision on the part of Georgia legislators to actually cut taxes in the face of an immense budget deficit. According to the report's analysis of official state fiscal notes, if the Governor signs all tax bills passed by the legislature, state revenues will fall by $116 million in fiscal 2010, and by over $1.2 billion in fiscal 2012.

The bill with the biggest cost includes a pricey and regressive exclusion for 50% of all long-term capital gains income, analyzed by ITEP earlier this month. In addition, a $1,800 tax credit for home buyers, as well as a dozen other tax cuts would dig the state deeper into debt if approved by the Governor.

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

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

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

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

Last Friday, the Georgia General Assembly passed a budget for fiscal year 2010 that includes a major tax cut for the wealthy (an exclusion for long-term capital gains income) and a substantial tax increase for the middle-class (eliminating a state-funded property tax relief program). A new report from ITEP concludes that if this proposal was fully implemented in 2008, the poorest 95 percent of Georgia taxpayers would pay, on average, higher state taxes than they do now.

The proposed capital gains tax break would allow investors to exclude 50 percent of their long term capital gains income from the state income tax when fully implemented in 2012. If the capital gains tax cut had been fully implemented in tax year 2008, Georgia residents would have seen a total tax cut of about $340 million, and the very richest 1 percent would receive an incredible 77 percent of that. (For more on flaws of capital gains tax breaks at the state level, see ITEP's report A Capital Idea.)

The property tax increase used to offset the costs would eliminate the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant (HTRG). Through the grant, the state of Georgia currently pays most property taxes on the first $8,000 of a Georgia homestead's assessed value. Since Georgia homes are assessed for tax purposes at 40 percent of their market value, this is equivalent to exempting $20,000 of a home's market value from property taxes.

While there are certainly flaws with any homestead exemption, there are plenty of alternatives for making property tax relief fairer. For example, a property tax circuit breaker can ensure that, for homeowners and renters earning below certain income levels, property taxes do not exceed a certain share of a family's income. (For more on the benefits of property tax circuit breakers, see ITEP's policy brief.)

The repeal of the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant should, in theory, have given lawmakers an important opportunity to rethink its approach to property tax relief. But the budget plan squanders most of the tax savings from HTRG repeal on a poorly-conceived long-term capital gains tax cut for a small number of the wealthiest Georgians. Governor Sonny Perdue should know that approving these changes would amount to a blatant shifting of state taxes from the rich to the middle-class.

Sneaky and Unethical Travel Sites...

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This week Columbus, Georgia won an important victory against (an online travel service) in Columbus Superior Court.

First some background: Expedia can keep their prices so low because they negotiate with local hotels to pay discounted/wholesale rates for the rooms, and then they charge customers for the actual cost of the room. The tax charged by Expedia and paid by customers is on the room's actual cost. Here's the kicker: Expedia pockets the difference in tax between the wholesale cost and the room's actual cost.

This obviously leaves localities that levy lodging taxes like Columbus, Atlanta, and San Antonio out in the cold because they aren't collecting needed revenue on the actual cost of hotel stay, but the wholesaler's price. Not to mention the ethical implications of telling customers you are collecting a tax, but then pocketing a portion of it to line company's pockets. Expedia isn't the only travel site spending time in court. A lawsuit before the Georgia Supreme Court targets Orbitz, Travelocity, and fourteen other online travel sites.

Georgia Group Promotes Sensible Options for Budget Troubles

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This week the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) issued a report, Deficit Reduction Step Two: Bringing Other Voices Into the Planning Process which calls for a special legislative session to deal with a projected $1.6 billion deficit, and details a sensible approach for addressing the state's budget situation.

According to the GBPI report, "The state has suspended or eliminated the hiring of new and replacement positions, all out-of-state and non-essential travel, all purchases of motor vehicles, and the purchase of supplies, materials, equipment, and printing." But cutting government services isn't the only option available to cure the state's budget woes. Policymakers should hold a special session to consider the revenue-raising options that this report discusses, like a temporary income tax increase, eliminating special tax breaks, increasing the cigarette tax and reinstating the estate tax.

Some States Need Special Sessions to Address Fiscal Problems

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With summer in full swing and state fiscal years largely underway, most state legislators probably think that they're done with the heavy lifting, at least policy-wise, for the year. Yet, due to the poor condition of the nation's economy, tax revenue in a number of states is falling well short of expectations, reopening budget gaps that policymakers thought they had closed. For instance, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute this week issued a report that estimates that the deficit for the current fiscal year (FY09) could reach as much as $2 billion, due to weak sales and personal income tax collections. The report calls for legislators to return in September to address the shortfall. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill has already indicated that a variety of options for resolving any potential deficit will be considered, including undoing recent tax cuts.

In New York, where the fiscal year begins in April, the problem may be more prospective than retrospective, but that didn't stop Governor David Paterson from calling this week for a special legislative session to address the Empire State's burgeoning budget deficit. According to the latest analysis from the state's budget office, the expected budget gap for FY 2010 has risen from $5 billion to $6.4 billion in the span of three months, with a three-year deficit now exceeding $26 billion. With his request for legislative action, particularly with the entire Legislature up for election this November, the Governor would appear to be a paragon of fiscal responsibility, except that he is simultaneously demanding a property tax cap that would make matters worse. For more on alternatives to the Governor's property tax plan and on the state's fiscal condition generally, visit the Fiscal Policy Institute's web site.

Sales Tax Holidays: Free Swirlies for Everyone

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As we mentioned last week, this is the season for fiscally irresponsible sales tax holidays to purportedly give relief to working people on their back-to-school shopping. Sales tax holidays are a bad idea for the states' budgets and tax-payers alike. Low-income families probably cannot time their purchases to take advantage of a sales tax holiday, and it can be an administrative headache for retailers and government. Sales tax holidays are also poorly targeted to low-income individuals compared to other policy solutions such as low-income tax credits.

Now another group of states is ready to forgo needed tax revenue in exchange for a few dollars off the purchase price of various goods. These states include Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia among others with holidays scheduled Friday through Sunday.

Meanwhile, a Birmingham News editorial points out that the sales tax holiday is a "gimmick" that has allowed state lawmakers to divert attention from their outrageously regressive tax code. Alabama is one of only two states that doesn't exempt or provide a low-income credit for its sales tax on groceries. If that were done, Alabama consumers would save far more money than they do on a three-day sales tax holiday (an average family of four would save about seven times as much). But instead of exempting groceries from sales taxes or raising the state's second-lowest in the nation income tax threshold, lawmakers pretend to help low-income Alabamians with a few tax-free shopping days a year.

Georgia's sales tax holiday began on Thursday and exempts articles of clothing costing less than $100, personal computers cheaper than $1500, and school supplies under $20. This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mentioned some of the more amusing exemptions covered by that state's sales tax holiday. These exemptions include corsets, bow ties and bowling shoes. As the author noted, guys headed to their first day back in school "might combine the bow ties and bowling shoes, then just head straight for the restroom to collect their free swirlie." The article also mentions ski suits, highly unlikely to be big sellers in Georgia, and adult diapers, seemingly unrelated to the average family's back-to-school needs. Georgia lawmakers may want to revise their list of exemptions to concentrate on discounting necessities, or better yet, end this farce once and for all.

Attack of the 50 Foot Tax Breaks

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Conservative commentators frequently depict Hollywood as ridden with leftists, but the reality is that, when it comes to tax policy, the movie industry is no different from any other. Take recent legislative activity in Michigan and Georgia, for example. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is on the verge of signing a bill that would, among other things, provide a refundable tax credit equal to 42 percent... 42 percent!... of a film production's costs. The Georgia Senate has adopted a measure - also expected to be signed into law - that will more than double that state's current film production credit.

Yet, as an important new report from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DoR) documents, states may receive precious little in return for these enormous investments. According to the report, Massachusetts will lose upwards of $140 million between 2006 and 2008 due to its film tax credit, but may receive only about $20 million in new revenue from the economic activity associated with the credit. What's more, as the report notes, "any estimate of the net economic and tax revenue impact of tax incentives needs to take into account the reduction in state government spending" associated with such credits. In such tight budgetary times, that "reduction in government spending" is sure to occur if policymakers keep trying to lure the latest blockbuster to their state.

Georgia Legislature: Tax Cutting Frenzy Part II

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We told you last week the Georgia House was all in a flutter over property tax cuts including caps and repeal of the state's car tax. With only a handful of working days left on the legislative calendar, Senate Republican leaders this week pushed through a tax cut package of their own which includes a 10 percent cut in income tax rates over five years. Estimates are that eventually the state would lose more than $1.2 billion a year. Despite mountains of evidence that tax cuts don't pay for themselves or stimulate the economy (one need only look at the fiscal situation on the federal level to understand this) Senators are billing the income tax changes as a "stimulus plan." The Georgia Budget and Policy Center has a new analysis showing the damaging impact this cut would have on the state.

Poorly Reasoned and Poorly Targeted Property Tax Reductions are Gaining Steam

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This week in the Georgia House, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly (166-5) to approve property tax cuts, including the elimination of the state's car tax, that will cost the state more than $750 million when fully phased in. Republican Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter doesn't seem concerned with offsetting the lost revenue. Responding to concerns about the plan's price tag, he says, "It's very simple. You cut taxes, the economy grows. The economy grows, Georgians prosper. The best way to stem off any recession is to cut taxes. Not to clam up, go home and wait for the storm to pass." We've learned on the federal level that tax cuts simply don't pay for themselves, but clearly legislators in Georgia want to try their own experiment with this flawed (and dangerous) economic myth. The House-passed bill contains another misguided property tax change... a 2% cap on annual increases in a home's value for tax purposes (the cap would be 3% for businesses).

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute issued a report adding up the costs of the state House's handiwork related to taxes this year and found that the tax bills passed this session would cost as much as $113 million in FY 2009, $473 million in FY 2010, and $798 million in FY 2011.

Coincidentally, the Oklahoma Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment last week also dealing with caps on increases in a home's taxable value. In this case, the cap would be decreased from 5% to 3% (the 5% cap would remain intact for businesses). Assessment value caps of this sort have recently received much attention in Florida. The unfair way in which these caps provide the greatest relief to long-time residents (creating vastly different property tax bills between neighbors with similar houses) recently drove Florida residents to amend their constitution to patch over the problem in a very imperfect way.

Rounding out the recent trend in debating poorly reasoned property tax cuts is Arizona, where the House narrowly approved a measure to permanently repeal a portion of the property tax that is currently suspended. Allowing the tax to take effect again would raise about $250 million annually for the state, significantly reducing the projected $1.2 billion revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year. If the plan passes, cuts in public services could be the result.

Victory in Georgia: The So-Called GREAT Plan Is Defeated

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Georgia taxpayers dodged a substantial bullet this week. We've been following for months now Georgia's GREAT Plan and its various modifications. Originally the "Georgia Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax" would have repealed virtually all Georgia property taxes and replaced the lost revenues by expanding the state's sales tax base. The tax fairness and budget implications of such a regressive and costly plan did not sit well with many observers and lawmakers.

The bill's main proponent, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, eventually gave up the fight for the original bill. The bill then morphed into a cluster of property tax proposals including the freezing of assessed property values and capping local property tax revenues. (For more on the specific provisions take a look at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute's fact sheet here). Recently, GBPI's Director Alan Essig had an editorial in the Atlanta Journal Constitution titled, "Have Responsible, Not Reckless, Tax Reform."

It seems that more than a few lawmakers agreed with Essig.In a victory for tax justice advocates, the newer version of the GREAT Plan was defeated in the Georgia House this week by a vote of 110 to 62, ten votes short of the 120 needed to pass.

Plea for Reasoned Reform in Georgia

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For many tax justice advocates, Georgia has been a state to watch. House Speaker Glenn Richardson's "Georgia Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax" (GREAT) Plan, which would have repealed the state's property tax and replace the lost revenues by expanding the state's sales tax base, appeared to be doomed to fail this legislative session. The Plan faced numerous political road blocks and would have caused an $8.6 billion budget hole for the state according to Georgia State University's Fiscal Research Center. Yet there were many remaining questions regarding how much political capital the Speaker was willing to invest to make his plan a reality. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Speaker is now moving full speed ahead with a Plan-B.

His new proposal would eliminate just the state portion of the property tax in favor of an expanded sales tax base. The legislation also includes a troubling property assessment cap. (Residential assessed values will only be allowed to increase by 2 percent annually.)

A new report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) explains the problems with the legislation, which would create a budget shortfall of $827 million and increase the regressivity of the state's tax structure. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed, GBPI executive director Alan Essig writes, "Low- to middle-income Georgians already pay a higher percentage of their income in state and local taxes. Swapping property taxes for more sales taxes will only make it worse." He goes on to plead for a reasoned approach to property tax reform while simultaneously making the case for investment in public services. "The speaker's proposals won't keep Georgia moving forward. In fact, his risky ideas for reform would set the state back for generations. What we need is a reasoned plan for reform that adds up and provides adequate revenue while putting in place a fair tax system for all Georgians." We couldn't agree more.

States React to Economic Turmoil

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Many states are in a fiscal crunch and the number of states facing budget shortfalls may be growing. This week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a state fiscal update saying that, "At least twenty-five states, including several of the nation's largest, face budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2009." A sluggish economy, bursting housing bubble, and the decline of tax revenues have all had a significant impact on states and their ability to keep budgets balanced.

It's not always clear that states can act as effectively as the federal government to kick start a sluggish economy, but that doesn't stop them from trying. For any legislation to be effective as a stimulus to counteract a recession, it must be "temporary, timely and targeted," as argued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the stimulus initiatives being proposed on the state level meet these goals better than others. Tax cuts that are not temporary can do more harm to states in the long-run, and provisions that will not have any benefit until after a recession has passed are useless as a stimulus. Most importantly, those tax cuts not targeted towards low- and middle-income people are not likely to result in new spending that immediately spurs the economy, but will go largely towards savings, which takes much longer to have a positive effect.

Stimulus Plans in the States: Connecticut, Iowa, Georgia, and Ohio

In Connecticut, Governor Jodi Rell has asked legislators to reconsider their economic stimulus proposals, arguing that there is no money available to pay for tax cuts. Senate Democrats there proposed increasing the state's property tax credit by $250 and House Republicans proposed offering tax credits to offset medical and energy costs. It's certainly not obvious that an increased property tax credit is well-targeted, since property-owners tend to have higher incomes than everyone else. Depending on how it's implemented, it may not be timely either.

Policymakers in Georgia have proposed legislation to expand the state's personal exemptions temporarily. The legislation is targeted to the degree that it benefits middle-income people, but it doesn't reach those too poor to pay state income taxes. It's also flawed because it's not entirely timely. A lot of people won't benefit until next year.

Some Iowa lawmakers have adopted a completely different approach to providing economic stimulus by proposing a five-year property tax break for Iowans who improve their homes. According to one state senator, the tax break "really rewards all homeowners that have pursued the American dream of owning their own home." But a five-year tax break does not qualify as temporary, at least for the purpose of responding to a recession. It's also hard to believe that it would be targeted to those who need help and will spend the extra money right away, and it's not clear that any home improvements that result will happen quickly enough to qualify this as timely. Another idea being tossed around is a proposal that would expand the state's sales tax holiday to include all items subject to the sales tax. ITEP has long argued that sales tax holidays are not good policy. In this context it's worth noting that they are usually not targeted well at all, since the benefits go to everyone who shops during the sales tax holiday and because people who need help the most are less capable of shifting the timing of their consumption to take advantage of it.

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland isn't proposing increased tax credits. Instead, his plan includes borrowing $1.7 billion in an attempt to stimulate the state's economy and create 80,000 jobs. If approved by voters, more money would be available for transportation, renewable energy technologies, and local infrastructure projects. Borrowing to fund important investments makes sense in some contexts, but as a stimulus it's unclear whether these investments will give a timely boost to the economy to counteract a recession that is occurring now.

State of the States Roundup

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Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue is singing the same old tired song in this year's State of the State address. In this year's rendition he proposed eliminating the state portion of property taxes levied and removing the tax on retirement and investment income for seniors. Georgia already has a large exemption for retirement income on the books and the state portion of property taxes levied is so small that Georgians would likely see an average tax cut of $30. On a positive note, the Governor didn't endorse House Speaker Richardson's plan to eliminate the portion of property taxes levied to fund schools -- a step in a dangerous direction that Richardson says will eventually lead to the elimination of all property taxes.

Proposal to Abolish Property Taxes Scaled Back in Georgia

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In Georgia, the radical plan to abolish property taxes and hike sales taxes, proposed earlier this fall by House Speaker Glenn Richardson, is shrinking by the day. Last week, Richardson pared back his proposal so that instead of repealing all property taxes, the plan would "only" repeal all homeowner property taxes for schools (plus the annual "car tax" Georgians pay on their motor vehicles), and would pay for the change by taxing personal services.

The plan still raises worrisome questions, however. Georgia already allows large state-funded (and local-option) homestead exemptions and other tax breaks for fixed-income families. If further residential property tax relief is necessary, a state-funded "circuit breaker" tax credit would be a better-targeted (and less expensive) option than outright repeal of all homeowner school property taxes. (Circuit breakers are provisions that prevent property taxes from exceeding a certain percentage of a family's income.) And expanding the sales tax base to include services, while a shot in the arm for a sustainable sales tax, would make Georgia taxes even more regressive unless accompanied by low-income tax breaks of some kind. As the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has pointed out, a state Earned Income Tax Credit could be an important part of this mix.

Plan to Abolish Georgia's Property Taxes Faces New Roadblock

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Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson's plan to repeal all Georgia property taxes and make up the lost revenue by expanding the state and local sales tax base ran into a roadblock last week. Two new reports from Georgia State University's Fiscal Research Center (FRC) show that repealing property taxes would dig an annual $8.6 billion budget hole for the state -- and that under any reasonable scenario for expanding the sales tax base, a property-for-sales tax swap would fall at least $2 billion short of filling that hole. Since Richardson has described his plan as "revenue neutral" without actually providing detailed revenue estimates, the new reports cast doubt on whether this tax swap can be accomplished.

As the FRC report's detailed revenue estimates make clear, the only way such a plan could even approach revenue neutrality would be to tax items that (to put it mildly) wouldn't find much support among the public or tax analysts, including purchases by the federal, state and local government ($2.2 billion), health care ($600 million), and rent ($405 million).

Richardson helpfully suggested this week that the authors of the reports "should sharpen their pencils," but didn't offer more substantive criticism of the FRC analysis.

Even worse for advocates of this tax swap, the latest data show that Georgia sales tax collections in September were down 10% from last September's collections, which is not a good sign for those who want to use sales taxes to pay for property tax repeal.

Georgia's GREAT Plan is Anything But...

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Georgia Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson's Georgia Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax (GREAT) Plan would eliminate the state's property tax and replace the lost revenues by expanding the state's sales tax base. The plan is receiving lots of attention that Rep. Richardson probably doesn't like. For starters, media around the state are asking hard questions including this one from the Athens-Banner Herald, "How long is he willing to hold on to an idea that is already all but doomed to fail?" According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution Governor Sonny Perdue also has doubts about the GREAT Plan becoming law.

The Speaker has been traveling around the state discussing his plan and advocates for tax fairness and adequacy aren't letting his tour go unanswered. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute along with AARP Georgia, the Georgia Association of Educators, The Georgia Municipal Association, the Georgia School Boards Association, and the Georgia Coalition United for a Responsible Budget are also touring the state and visiting nine cities to educate the public about the state's tax and budget situation.

Singing the Same Old Tune... and He's Still Tone Deaf

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It seems that every time the waves splash against Georgia's shores another Georgia policymaker is singing the praises of eliminating one tax or another. This time Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson says that eliminating property taxes will be his main legislative priority for the 2008 session. He would replace the lost revenue by broadening the sales tax base to include groceries and services. He'd also implement a rebate for taxpayers with incomes less than $40,000. Georgia's tax structure is regressive and taxes some families living in poverty. Speaker Richardson's proposal will likely do nothing to improve those basic facts. Let's hope before the legislative session begins he changes his tune.

Georgia Budget and Policy Institute: HB 195: Senior Citizen Income Tax Cut

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Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Report

The report analyzes the legislative proposal to eliminate taxes wealthy seniors pay on retirement income, based solely on age. Since Georgia already exempts that vast majority of retirement income from taxes, this bill would help only 10 percent of seniors while doing nothing for other low-income Georgians.

Multi-State Focus: Senior Tax Cuts

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Legislators in Missouri, Kansas, and Georgia are debating reducing taxes on seniors in their state. Lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas introduced legislation that would eliminate income taxes on Social Security benefits. On the surface, eliminating taxes on Social Security sounds like a wonderful idea. However, only a handful of states levy a tax on Social Security benefits and the Social Security Administration estimates that nationally about a third of current beneficiaries pay federal taxes on their benefits. Those who stand to gain the most from these proposals are better off seniors.

An ITEP analysis of the Missouri bill found that 72 percent of Missourians would receive no benefit from the proposal. Also, the bill carries a price tag of $100 million and the cost is likely to increase as Missourians age. For more on the Missouri proposal read the testimony presented by ITEP staff to the Missouri House of Representatives' Tax Reform Committee.

The Peach State already exempts Social Security benefits from their income tax and offers generous retirement income exclusions (totaling $35,000 of retirement income in 2009). But recently Governor Purdue introduced legislation that would completely eliminate tax on retirement income for Georgians 65 and over. Instead of turning to these poorly targeted tax cuts, legislators would do better to provide tax relief to those state residents with the least ability to pay - regardless of age considerations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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