Mississippi News


State Rundown, 9/5: Gun Holiday in Mississippi, Shortfall in Wisconsin, and a Showdown in Washington


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Elmer-fudd-pictures.jpgAdd Mississippi to the list of states adopting shortsighted and impractical sales tax holidays. This week marks the state’s first tax-free weekend for sportsmen, also touted as the “Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday.” Individual sales of ammunition, firearms, archery equipment and rifle scopes, among other hunting gear, will be exempt from the state sales tax, presumably to help working hunters afford basic necessities. In what is surely no coincidence, Mississippi’s tax-free weekend is the same week as that of neighboring state Louisiana. The two states have long used fiscal policy to compete for jobs and economic development.

In an unsurprising development, Wisconsin’s state tax collections fell short of projections by $281 million last year after Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature enacted irresponsible tax cuts. Walker and Republican legislators enacted a $320 million tax cut in July 2013, another $100 million property tax reduction last October, and yet another $500 million tax cut in March of this year. Also unsurprising is that the majority of the tax cuts went to the state’s wealthiest residents. According to Wisconsin Budget Project, Wisconsin workers making $14,000 or less got an average tax cut of $48, while those making above $1.1 million got an average tax cut of $2,518. 

In Kansas, another state run into the ground with ruinous tax cuts, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over the definition of what a tax increase is. Republicans claim that gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis (D) wants to raise taxes on low-income families because Davis has proposed freezing income tax rates at current levels to increase school funding, rather than letting the rates fall lower under a plan pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback. The accusation by Republicans is bold, particularly since Brownback actually raised taxes on low-income families when he raised the state sales tax rate, cut the standard deduction, and eliminated several low-income credits (the sales tax rebate was reinstated as non-refundable credit in 2013).

Washington state’s Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing the state’s legislature this week in the ongoing saga over the McCleary school funding case. In 2012, the court ruled in McCleary v. State of Washington that state lawmakers are violating the constitutional rights of schoolchildren by failing to provide them a basic education, as required by the state constitution. The court called for the hearing this past April after legislators failed to craft a funding plan by the end of the legislative session. If the court finds the legislature in contempt, lawmakers could face fines, defunding of non-educational programs, or even the sale of state property. According to ITEP’s Who Pays report, Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation, and the need for education funding is severe.


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

If you’re looking for some summer reading, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is in the process of updating its collection of policy briefs.  In the last couple weeks, ITEP has released updated briefs on sales tax holidays, state gasoline taxes, and efforts to collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.

Bad tax ideas have already entered Arkansas’ 2014 race for governor.  After claiming that the personal income tax cuts signed this year by Governor Beebe aren’t “significant enough … to make us competitive with our surrounding states,” Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson announced that he would like to phase-down the personal income tax even further.  But ITEP has shown that the personal income tax is vital to both tax fairness and sustainability, and that the states with the highest top personal income tax rates are experiencing economic conditions at least as good, if not better, than those states without income taxes.

The Commonwealth Institute in Virginia writes that the state’s gubernatorial candidates shouldn’t assume it will be easy to pay for their tax cut promises by simply eliminating “wasteful” tax breaks.  According to the Institute, “When you exclude tax breaks that would disproportionately hit low-income and middle class families or those that are clearly not politically feasible, [eliminating] the rest would raise only about $850 million.”  Compare that with the $1.4 billion per year candidate Ken Cuccinelli proposes in personal and corporate income tax rate cuts alone.

Mississippi’s struggling infrastructure budget is in the news now that a new task force is beginning to study how the state can better fund its transportation system.  The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) says that asphalt costs have tripled in recent years while fuel taxes--which haven’t been raised since the 1980’s--have predictably failed to keep pace.  So far MDOT is responding by forgoing new construction in favor of simply maintaining the current system, but if taxes aren’t raised soon, Mississippi may run the risk of becoming yet another state that opts to siphon money away from education, human services, and other priorities to fill its growing infrastructure funding gap.

 

The Pennsylvania legislature just sent a bill to Governor Corbett that would allow most companies to keep the income tax payments they withhold from their employees as a kind of reward for having hired them. Normally, of course, those tax dollars would go to pay for the public services all Pennsylvanians, including the workers, rely on.  As Sen. Jim Ferlo argues, “All of sudden we're waylaying those employees' wages, almost akin to Jesse James robbing a bank, and we're going to put it back in the pockets of one company, in one locale, in one county, in one jobsite.”  This type of tax break is not uncommon, and it’s explained in Good Jobs First’s “Paying Taxes to the Boss.

The Olympian editorializes against Washington State’s Initiative 1185, the newest attempt by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman to empower a small minority of legislators to block the closing of any tax loophole.  The proposal is known as a “supermajority requirement,” since it would require approval by two-thirds of each legislative chamber to enact any revenue-raising tax change.  But as the editorial explains, “A supermajority gives unprecedented and undemocratic powers to the minority in just one area: tax increases. Lawmakers who oppose a tax proposal get twice the voting power of those who support it.”

Iowa tax revenues appear to be on the rise, but instead of using that money to fill in gaps after years of “starv[ing] state government” or, say, restoring anti-poverty tax credits like the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC),  Governor Terry Branstad is pushing for proposals that will “dramatically” reduce both personal and corporate income tax rates. This is par for the course with Governor Branstad. He has a history of prioritizing the wrong tax cuts while vetoing those for working families, like an expanded state EITC.

Looking for evidence that states shouldn’t heavily depend on cigarette tax (PDF) revenues as a stable source of revenue? Check out this Clarion Ledger article which reports that “per capita consumption of cigarettes — 67.9 packs a person in 2011 — is the lowest it’s ever been in Mississippi.” Thanks to federal and state tax increases, tax revenues have actually increased, but as fewer and fewer Mississippians smoke, those cigarette tax revenues are bound to decline as well.

In a recent survey, conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, Kansans said they would rather see property tax cuts than income tax cuts. This finding isn’t surprising given the unpopularity (PDF) of regressive property taxes. Earlier this year, however, Kansas lawmakers did the opposite and passed sweeping reductions to the income tax.  The Institute’s Director said it was clear that, “the tax structure [Kansans] want seems to be completely the opposite of the tax policies coming from the Legislature.”

  • The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute just unveiled a “Doomsday Clock” on their website.  The countdown shows how many days are left until massive budget cuts take effect on July 1.  The Institute explains that these cuts can be avoided if Governor O’Malley calls a special session and lawmakers pass the progressive income tax package agreed to in conference committee.
  • Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour continues to lobby for taxing internet sales even after leaving the Governor’s mansion. In fact, in his farewell address to Mississippians the Governor said, “It is time for the federal government to allow Mississippi and every other state to choose to enforce our laws and to collect these taxes. They are owed us today, and there is no longer any public policy reason to keep us from collecting. Indeed, good public policy says it is past time that our brick-and-mortar merchants on Main Street and in our shopping centers get a level playing field with Amazon and the Internet. That they get fair treatment for paying our taxes.”
  • Thanks to an obscure tax loophole which offers Iowans the ability to write off all of their federal income taxes paid, Governor Terry Branstad had a 2011 tax bill of just $52. One state senator is pondering whether or not the state needs a “Branstad rule” to ensure that upper income Iowans pay more in state taxes. The Governor’s lack of a tax bill illustrates just how preposterous the loophole is – and why there are only six states that allow it.
  • Now that the rush to make sure our taxes are filed on time is over, here’s a downright beautiful essay from a priest in Kansas reminding us the good that comes from all the frenzy.
  • Here’s a thoughtful editorial from the St. Cloud Times describing Minnesota’s need to fund important transportation projects. Lawmakers there are looking into toll roads because the political will to raise gas taxes doesn’t exist – yet the editors rightly conclude, “It’s not that we oppose building this bridge or expanding roads. It’s just that the fairest revenue stream to do so is the gas tax. Legislators just need the courage to adjust it as needed.” To see how Minnesota’s gas tax has effectively shrunk over time, check out this chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Are Amazon.com's Sales Tax Avoidance Days Coming to an End?


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Last week Illinois joined New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island by enacting legislation requiring Amazon.com and other online retailers working with in-state affiliates to collect sales taxes.  Arkansas’s Senate and Vermont’s House recently passed similar legislation, and Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Mississippi, and New Mexico are considering doing the same.  Interestingly, lawmakers in each of these states are being spurred to do the right thing by major retailers like Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble.

In most states, Amazon and other online retailers are not currently required to collect sales taxes unless they have a “physical presence” in the state, though consumers are still required to remit the tax themselves.  Unfortunately, very few consumers actually pay the sales taxes they owe on online purchases — in California, for example, unpaid taxes on internet and catalog sales are estimated to cost the state as much as $1.15 billion per year.

The so-called “Amazon laws” recently adopted in Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are all designed to limit this form of tax evasion by broadening the class of online retailers that must pay sales taxes.  Specifically, under these new laws, any retailer partnering with in-state affiliate merchants is required to pay sales taxes on purchases made by residents of that state.

Up until recently, the reaction to these laws has been mostly hostile.  Grover Norquist has branded them a (gasp) “tax increase,” despite the fact that they’re designed only to reduce illegal tax evasion.  More importantly, Amazon has challenged the New York law in court, and has ended relationships with affiliates in North Carolina and Rhode Island in order to avoid having to pay sales taxes on sales made within those states.  Amazon has also promised to severe ties with its Illinois affiliates, and has threatened to do the same in California if a similar law is adopted there.  These tactics mirror a recent decision by Amazon to shut down a Texas-based distribution center in order to avoid having to remit taxes in that state as well.

But Amazon may not be able to bully state lawmakers for much longer.  Since New York passed its so-called “Amazon law” in 2008, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and now Illinois have already followed suit despite all the threats.  And it appears that Arkansas and Vermont may very well do the same — as proposals to enact Amazon laws in each of those states have already made it through one legislative chamber.  In addition, at least seven other states (listed in the opening paragraph) have similar legislation pending.

According to State Tax Notes (subscription required), Wal-Mart, Sears, and Barnes & Noble are each attempting to partner with affiliate merchants recently dropped by Amazon.  Even more importantly, several of the large retail companies (like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot) are joining forces to lobby in favor of Amazon laws. These companies’ interest is in large part due to the fact that they already have to remit sales taxes in the vast majority of states because of the “physical presence” created by their large networks of “brick and mortar” stores.  If more traditional retailers begin to voice support for Amazon laws, the progress already being made on this issue is likely to accelerate.

For more background information on the Amazon.com tax controversy, check out this helpful report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


Super Bowl Ad about Taxes from Corporate Astroturf Group


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.


Mississippi Think Tank Calls for Balanced Approach to Revenue Shortfall


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Mississippi's State Tax Commission recently reported that revenue collections for the month of January fell by 12.2% (the worst showing of the current fiscal year). That made January the 17th consecutive month of lower-than-expected revenues. In response to these figures, Governor Haley Barbour said, "I will soon be forced to look at whether additional cuts will be necessary in the current fiscal year beyond the $437 million in cuts already made."

Instead of looking to rely solely on cuts to vital services, Mississippi lawmakers should strike a balance between budget cuts and new revenue. In a recent Clarion Ledger column citing ITEP estimates,  Ed Sivak of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center makes the point that there are many ways that Mississippi could ease its fiscal shortfall by increasing taxes, such as a sales tax base expansion or modernizing the income tax.

At some point, Mississippi lawmakers must acknowledge that it's simply impossible to slash their way out of the state's fiscal crisis. They need to seriously consider the options Sivak discusses.


States Get Serious About Transportation Funding


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though it seems like most legislative sessions just ended after laborious budget battles, many lawmakers are looking to the future and one word is coming to mind -- grim. In many states, revenue isn't keeping up with projections. As a result, this week alone, lawmakers in Illinois, Mississippi, and Washington State have said revenue-raisers must be on the table.

Spending cuts have their consequences and there is only so much cutting that is possible or reasonable. A recent Peoria Journal Star editorial calls on lawmakers to respond to a report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The report discusses various revenue-raisers, including a sales tax base expansion. The Journal Star says, "This structural deficit is not going away by itself. To declare discussion about alternative revenue options DOA would just be foolish."

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Mississippi are likely to review lists of fee increases put together by state agencies to show how some revenue could be increased. 

In Washington, Governor Chris Gregoire earlier this week said that she would consider tax increases, saying that Washingtonians may have had their fill of cuts, "At some point, the people, I assume, don't want us to take any more spending cuts. I mean, I'm already hearing about, 'Why did you cut education?' Well, there weren't any options. We're without options.''


Mississippi Lawmakers Urged to Take Balanced Approach to Budget Woes


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Policymakers across the country are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the budgets they recently passed depended on revenue that may never materialize. The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) reports that state revenue for the first two months of the fiscal year that started July 1 is already $31.5 million below projections. Governor Barbour, anticipating further reductions in available revenue, announced $171.9 million in cuts -- the vast majority of which are cuts to the state's education budget (this despite Education Week giving the state a D+ in terms of overall education in their Quality Counts report.)

In their latest budget brief, MEPC urges a balanced approach to solving the state's upcoming fiscal shortfall, "To rely solely on cuts would further hurt the economy... Furthermore, cuts – especially to the state’s educational systems - jeopardize the state’s ability to prepare its workforce to compete in today’s economy." We couldn't agree more.

 


Transportation Funding in the News


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

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

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

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

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

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


Conservative Governors of Two Southern States Approve Increasing Cigarette Tax Rates


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For over two decades, Mississippi and Florida have bucked the national trend of increasing cigarette taxes. But now, staring down massive budget deficits, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently signed a 50 cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist appears ready to do the same with a $1 per pack hike. Given that each is a conservative governor with at least some national aspirations, the result is a bit surprising to say the least.

In the case of Governor Barbour, his approval was especially unexpected in light of his status as a former tobacco industry lobbyist. Governor Crist's support was likewise unanticipated, largely because he has signed pledges to oppose tax increases as both a Governor and as a candidate for federal office. Crist was careful to frame his support as entirely focused on the public health aspects of cigarette tax increases, though it's hard to believe that his desire to avoid forcing a special session to balance the budget had nothing to do with his decision. Thus is the responsibility of governing. Sometimes tax increases cannot be kept off the table.

While reports such as those out of Iowa and Virginia (see "Budget Fixes Worth Embracing", in this week's Digest) highlight some of the best ways for states to dig themselves out of their current budgetary nightmares, in many cases it appears that the cigarette tax is continuing to hold on to its title as the single most popular tax to increase among the states. Policy advocates and even many legislators are often careful to frame their support of cigarette tax hikes in terms of fighting smoking or reducing health care costs, but in times as desperate as these, it's hard not to suspect that revenue needs may be the driving force. The fact is that revenue from the cigarette tax is almost never sustainable over time because the U.S. smoking population is constantly on the decline. It's therefore difficult to get excited about the cigarette tax as a budget-fix for any period of time beyond the very short-term -- and even then, states should never be excited about raising revenue through such a regressive tax. But in states that have held their cigarette taxes constant at low levels for a number of years, it's also hard to get too upset over such proposals. Five states in particular made news this week in their debates over the cigarette tax: Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.

The three states with the most intense cigarette tax debates at the moment are Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon. Florida and Mississippi haven't increased their cigarette tax rates in 18 and 23 years, respectively, and therefore have some of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation. Hikes in the range of 50 cents to $1 per pack are being proposed in Florida, while Mississippi's debate appears to be over a range of 24 cents to $1 per pack. In Oregon, the governor recently proposed a 60 cent hike as part of his budget. The intent of that hike is use the new revenue as part of a package to expand health care in the state -- such an arrangement is likely to result in tensions down the road as cigarette revenues fall and health costs continue to rise.

South Carolina provides another example of a state with a cigarette tax debate worth following. In this past year's session, the legislature approved a cigarette tax hike, only to eventually be vetoed by the governor, ostensibly out of concern over linking such an unsustainable revenue source to a permanent expansion of Medicaid. As the appearance of a recent op-ed praising the benefits of hiking SC's lowest-in-the-nation rate suggests, this debate is not yet over.

Utah provides another example of a potential budding cigarette tax debate. With the American Cancer society enthusiastically seeking to capitalize on what appears to be a favorable climate for a cigarette tax hike, one has to expect the idea to pick up steam during discussions over how to close the state's looming budget gap.


Encouraging News on the Mississippi Tax Commission Report


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The Mississippi Tax Commission, appointed by Governor Haley Barbour, recently produced a promising draft report of recommendations for Mississippi's tax code. Even more importantly, all indications are that the final version will be even better.

Among the major recommendations: Increase the standard deduction, as well as the personal and dependent exemptions. Eliminate numerous sales tax exemptions, and expand the tax to include more services. Hike the state's third-lowest in the nation cigarette tax rate, but don't dedicate those likely unsustainable revenues to any specific program. Participate in the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement. Consider combined reporting. And finally, undertake steps to make the state's gas tax a more sustainable source of transportation revenues.

The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) worked closely with the Commission throughout the process of drafting its recommendations, and has offered some additional recommendations (both in this formal statement, and in this policy brief) to which the Commission has been receptive. Among the ideas floated by MEPC and not already included in the draft report: Implement a state EITC. Cut the state's grocery tax rate (Mississippi is one of only two states that provides no relief from the sales tax on groceries). Index the standard exemptions and deductions to inflation. Broaden the state's low and narrow income tax brackets. Develop a capacity for tax incidence analysis. And improve data collection on the effectiveness of state tax credits.

It will certainly be exciting to see the final version of this report, and how it influences state tax policy in Mississippi.


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.


Good Idea in Mississippi


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As we reported in a recent digest Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has appointed members to a commission to consider tax reform. The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) this week published an op-ed that hopefully legislators and members of the Commission will take very seriously. Ed Sivak, Director of MEPC, says the Magnolia State has "been given the opportunity to strengthen the tax code by making it less regressive." The state has a tax structure that ensures that low and middle income families pay a far higher share of their income in state and local taxes than do the wealthiest Mississippi families.

Policymakers would do well to follow Sivak's advice and follow in the footsteps of 22 other states (plus DC) by enacting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC helps lift working families out of poverty and would go long way to ensure that Mississippi's tax structure is fairer. For more on the EITC read here.


Studying Mississippi's Tax Structure


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This week Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour named 37 members of the state's newly formed Tax Study Commission. The business community is heavily represented on the Commission, which is hardly surprising given the Governor's experience as a K Street lobbyist in Washington. Barbour tries to be reassuring by pointing out that the members of the new group "share a common bond in that they are all Mississippi taxpayers." The group's recommendations are due August 31. This comes shortly after Barbour announced in his State of the State address that he would like to complete an overhaul of the state's tax system by the end of his term in office. Let's hope this close look into Mississippi's tax structure takes into account the state's outdated income tax and overall regressive tax structure.


Report on Mississippi Tax System Finds the Poor Pay More


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A new report from the Mississippi Economic Policy Center provides a great primer on that state's budget process, with a concise summary of how the state raises and spends revenue. "Putting the Pieces Together: A Taxpayer's Guide to the Mississippi Budget" highlights the chronic unfairness of the current Mississippi tax system, and discusses the shortcomings of the state's revenue structure in a highly readable way. Governor Haley Barbour says that Mississippi needs a tax structure in which "everybody pays a fair share." Let's hope that Governor Barbour reads this report and gains a better understanding of who really pays taxes in Mississippi.


Cigarette Tax Update


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Wednesday, Iowa Governor Chet Culver signed into law a bill that raises cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and also increases taxes on various other tobacco products. The Governor predicts that the new $1.36 tax will cause 20,000 Iowans to quit smoking and prevent twice as many from ever picking up the habit. The tax increase goes into effect immediately and revenues generated are expected to be used for healthcare. Unfortunately, evidence from other states shows that revenues generated from this regressive tax will decline over time.

In Mississippi, a proposal to swap a cigarette tax hike for a sales tax cut appears to be dead for the second time. While promising to propose a "serious tax cut" in the future, Governor Haley Barbour refused to support a bill that would increase the state's cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 and cut the tax on groceries by half. The problems with Mississippi's tax code go beyond sales and excise taxes, so perhaps now is the time for discussing a complete overhaul of Mississippi's tax structure.


Reducing Grocery Taxes: "Yes, but how?"


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Four states - Mississipi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Idaho - are currently debating ways to reduce the sales taxes paid on food. But how (or whether) to pay for the cuts and who should benefit remain key sticking points.

On Thursday, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed (91-27) a "tax swap" bill that would cut the state's sales tax on groceries in half and raise the tax on cigarettes to $1 per pack. The bill still faces significant challenges before becoming law, however, since key members of the Senate oppose it and Governor Haley Barbour vetoed a similar bill last year. Although the plan's reliance on revenue from cigarette taxes is not a long-term solution, it does offer a temporary mechanism to make up the revenue that would be lost from a cut on the sales tax on food.

In Tennessee, a similar "tax swap" is under consideration. However Gov. Phil Bresden has expressed reluctance to link a cigarrette tax increase with a grocery tax reduction, and has instead proposed using revenue from a cigarette tax increase for education funding.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe signed a grocery tax reduction into law on Thursday that will reduce the state's sales tax on groceries from 6% to 3% effective July 1st. However, no funding mechanism was enacted to make up for the decreased revenue, as lawmakers instead decided to rely on a projected surplus to pay for the proposal.

In Idaho, Gov. Butch Otter continues to struggle with the state legislature over how best to enact a grocery tax credit. Otter's proposal would target low-income Idahoans with a credit of up to $90, while the House's newly passed version would give a smaller grocery tax credit (up to $50) to a broader range of residents.


Property Taxes: What to Do About Rising Home Values?


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A New York Times article reports that for many homeowners, property taxes are growing much faster than income. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine blames this trend on the property tax being "imposed without any regard to income or ability to pay." This isn't quite true, of course: a well-administered property tax will be based on a homeowner's actual home value, which is a decent, if imperfect, measure of ability to pay for most people. And for lower-income families, an income-sensitive circuit-breaker credit can make the property tax even more responsive to ability to pay considerations. Unfortunately, state lawmakers typically respond to rising property values by freezing or capping assessed values, which further warps the relationship between property taxes and ability to pay. A gubernatorial candidate in Alabama wants to put an end to a recently adopted reform requiring annual reassessment of properties, and at least one county in South Carolina has taken the step of throwing out the results of its most recent reassessment. The likely outcome of this misguided tax deform is a tax shift away from homes that are appreciating rapidly and toward homes whose values are stagnant or declining. Facing a localized home-value boom of its own, Mississippi policymakers are discussing imposing another, equally misguided approach: capping the allowable annual growth in homeowner property taxes. Find out more about why tax caps are counterproductive here.

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