New Hampshire News



State News Quick Hits: Don't Expect Much from Congress



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Reuters reports that state lawmakers shouldn’t expect Congress to act anytime soon to close the enormous hole in their sales tax bases created by online shopping. Sales tax enforcement on purchases made over the Internet is a messy patchwork right now because states can only require retailers with a store or other “physical presence” within their borders to collect the tax. (Amazon, for example, is only required to collect the tax in 20 states). This uneven treatment of online retailers versus brick-and-mortar stores is nothing new, but the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee insists that more debate is needed before his chamber will act on the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last spring.

 

Hawaii lawmakers are giving serious consideration to enhancing a number of tax credits for low-income working families, but the state’s worsening revenue outlook is going to make paying for the credits a bit more difficult. Moreover, Honolulu Civil Beat reports that lawmakers are also debating whether to give out more tax credits for things like charter school donations, backup generators, and building renovations. But reducing the very high state and local tax rate being paid by Hawaii’s poor should be a higher priority than these initiatives.

Last year’s trend toward raising state gasoline taxes seems to be continuing this year. In just the last week, the Kentucky House approved a 1.5 cent per gallon increase and the New Hampshire Senate gave preliminary approval to a 4 cent increase. These increases would allow for valuable investments in both states’ infrastructure, and would reduce the likelihood that lawmakers will eventually cut other areas of the budget to fund those investments.

This week the Wisconsin General Assembly approved Governor Scott Walker’s tax cut proposal which includes $404 million in across-the-board property tax cuts and $133 million in income tax cuts that result from lowering the bottom income tax rate from 4.4 to 4.0 percent and reducing the Alternative Minimum Tax. The legislation is now sent to Governor Walker’s desk where it is all but guaranteed he will sign the bill into law. For more on the flaws of this bill check out this Wisconsin Budget Project’s blog post.

 



Gas Tax Remains High on Many States' Agendas for 2014



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Note to Readers: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014.  This series, written by the staff of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), highlights state proposals for “tax swaps,” tax cuts, and tax reforms.  This post focuses specifically on proposals to increase or reform state gasoline taxes.

Six states and the District of Columbia enacted long-overdue gas tax increases or reforms last year, despite the tough politics involved in raising the price drivers pay at the pump.  Will 2014 bring the same level of legislative activity on the gas tax?  Maybe not; but there are a number of states where the issue is receiving serious attention.

Delaware: Governor Jack Markell of Delaware is pushing for a 10 cent increase in his state’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in over 19 years.  The idea faces an uphill battle in the legislature, but without the increase the Delaware Department of Transportation’s capital budget will have to be slashed by about 33 percent next year.  Delaware’s House Minority leader would rather raid the state’s general fund budget (most of which goes toward education and health care) as opposed to addressing the state’s transportation revenue problems directly through reforming the gas tax.

Iowa: Governor Terry Branstad isn’t going to lead the fight for a gas tax increase, but he won’t veto one, either, if it makes it to his desk. Last week, an Iowa House subcommittee unanimously passed a 10 cent gas tax hike just a few hours before Branstad made clear his intention to remain on the sidelines during this important election-year tax debate.

Kentucky: Governor Steve Beshear wants to reverse a 1.5 cent gas tax cut that went into effect last month as a result of falling gas prices (Kentucky is one of eighteen states where the tax rate changes alongside either gas prices or inflation).  Doing so would raise about $45 million in additional funds to invest in the state’s transportation infrastructure.  And putting a “floor” on the gas tax to prevent further declines in the tax rate could avoid up to $100 million in funding cuts in the next two years.

New Hampshire: The chair of New Hampshire’s Senate Transportation Committee wants to raise the gas tax and index it to inflation.  The tax has been stuck at 18 cents per gallon for over twenty-two years, and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation is optimistic that could finally change this year.  Governor Maggie Hassan hasn’t been a major player in the push for a higher gas tax, but it seems likely she would sign an increase if it made it to her desk.

Utah: Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser is rightly concerned about the fact that “more and more money is coming out of the state's general fund for transportation,” and would like to reform the state’s gas tax to provide transportation with a sustainable revenue stream of its own.  Familiar concerns about not wanting to hike the gas tax in an election year have been raised, but Governor Gary Herbert seems to realize that some kind of change to the gas tax is needed.  To provide some context to this debate, we recently found that Utah’s gas tax is currently at an all-time low, after adjusting for inflation.

Washington: Last year’s unsuccessful push to raise the gas tax in Washington State has spilled over into the current legislative session.  Governor Jay Inslee still supports raising the tax, and House and Senate leaders have spent a significant amount of time trying to cobble together an acceptable compromise.

But while these six states are the most likely to act this year, they’re hardly the only places where the gas tax is generating a lot of interest.  In Oklahoma, both of the state’s largest newspapers have urged lawmakers to consider gas tax reform, as has the Oklahoma Policy Institute and the Oklahoma Academy.  In Minnesota, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation wants to see the gas tax rise on a yearly basis, and a coalition has been formed seeking more revenue for transportation.  The chairman of the South Carolina Senate Finance Committee supports a gas tax hike, as does the chair of New Mexico’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, some members of New Jersey’s legislature, and the editorial boards of both New Mexico’s and New Jersey’s largest newspapers.  And in Michigan, Governor Snyder’s laudable attempt to raise the gas tax last year has stalled, though it remains a topic of discussion in the Wolverine State.

Altogether, thirty-two states levy unsustainable flat-rate gas taxes, twenty-four states have gone a decade or more without raising their gas tax, and sixteen of those states have gone two decades or more without an increase.  With so many states reliant on outdated gas tax structures, there’s little doubt that reforming the tax will remain a major topic of discussion for the foreseeable future.

Photo via herzogbr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 



What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



New Hampshire Court Agrees: Tax Breaks Cost Public Dollars



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Last year we wrote about an unwelcome mini-trend in state corporate tax policy: the creation of “neo-vouchers,” tax breaks for businesses that donate money to private-school scholarship funds. At the time, advocates for these neo-vouchers were making the (not very convincing) case that these programs shouldn’t be counted as government spending since the programs were quite specifically designed such that “the money would never go into public accounts, making it less susceptible to court challenges.” (The legal challenges are often based on the argument that most private schools are religious in nature and the First Amendment prohibits public funds from supporting religion.) In other words, the argument went, if a company gets a million dollar tax break for donating money to private school scholarship funds, those million dollars never got collected by the state, so they remain somehow private dollars, outside the grasp of the state government.

At the time, a number of states were contemplating enacting tax breaks of this kind, (available to individuals, corporations or both), and New Hampshire subsequently did enact neo-vouchers in June of 2012, overriding a veto by Governor John Lynch, and took effect in January 2013. The law gives New Hampshire corporations a tax credit equal to 85 percent of any contributions they make to private school foundations. The law’s authors also attempts to codify the “private dollars” argument and inoculate it against constitutional challenges by asserting (PDF), “[c]redits provided under this chapter shall not be deemed taxes paid.” If the money was never handed over to the public treasury, it was never the public’s money, right?

Wrong, at least according to a lower court in the Granite State that just ruled the new tax credit is unconstitutional, explicitly rejecting the “private dollars” charade. The judges wrote:

“The phrases ‘public funds,’ or ‘money raised by taxation,’ focuses the Court’s inquiry not on when the government’s technical ‘ownership’ of funds or monies arises, but on when, or at what point, the public’s interest fairly arises in how funds or monies are spent. The Court concludes that the interest of New Hampshire taxpayers in regard to challenging the legality of legislation such as the program at bar does not arise only after money is deposited in the New Hampshire treasury….”

The Court sensibly notes that if “money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted” for private ends, that is essentially the same as direct government spending. This shouldn’t be news to anyone familiar with the “tax expenditure” concept—the notion that a $1 million tax break for a specific business is not meaningfully different from government writing a $1 million check to the same business.

Of course, it’s not hard to see that the neo-voucher idea is bad policy whether it’s constitutional or not. It erodes corporate tax revenues, takes money away from already-strapped public schools, and (in the case of the New Hampshire laws) sharply limits state policymakers’ oversight of the private schools receiving these state-funded scholarships. But the New Hampshire court’s finding underscores the absurdity of the fiction that neo-vouchers subsidized by corporate tax credits can be thought of as “private dollars” outside the purview of state governments—and offers a helpful precedent for advocates seeking to repeal neo-vouchers in other states.

 



Mid-Session Update on State Gas Tax Debates



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In a stark departure from the last few years, one of the most debated state tax policy issues in 2013 has been the gasoline tax (PDF).  Until this February, it had been almost three years since any state’s lawmakers approved an increase or reform of their gasoline tax.  That changed when Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax hike passed by his state’s legislature.  Since then, Virginia has reformed its gas tax to grow over time alongside gas prices, and Maryland has both increased and reformed its gas tax.  By the time states’ 2013 legislative sessions come to a close, the list of states having improved their gas taxes is likely to be even longer.

Massachusetts appears to be the most likely candidate for gas tax reform.  Both the House and Senate have passed bills immediately raising the state gas tax by 3 cents per gallon, and reforming the tax so that its flat per-gallon amount keeps pace with inflation in the future (see chart here).  In late 2011, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) found that Massachusetts is among the states where inflation has been most damaging to the state transportation budget—costing some $451 million in revenue per year relative to where the gas tax stood in 1991 when it was last raised.  Governor Deval Patrick has expressed frustration that legislators passed plans lacking more revenue for education—in sharp contrast to his own plan to increase the income tax—but he has also signaled that there may be room for compromise.

Vermont lawmakers are also giving very serious consideration to gas tax reform.  At the Governor’s urging, the House passed a bill increasing the portion of Vermont’s gas tax that already grows alongside gas prices.  The bill also reforms the flat-rate portion of Vermont’s gas tax to grow with inflation.  The Senate is now debating the idea, and early reports indicate that the package may be tweaked to rely slightly more on diesel taxes in order to reduce the size of the increase on gasoline.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has also proposed raising and reforming his state’s gasoline tax.  While Pennsylvania’s tax is technically supposed to grow alongside gas prices, an obsolete tax cap limits the rate from rising when gas prices exceed $1.25 per gallon.  Corbett would like to remove that cap in order to improve the sustainability of the state’s revenues, and members of his administration have been traveling the state to explain how doing so would benefit Pennsylvanians.  While the legislature has yet to act on his plan, the fact that it has the backing of the state’s Chamber of Business and Industry is likely to help its chances.

In New Hampshire, the Governor has said she is open to raising the state gas tax and the House has passed a bill doing exactly that.  But there are indications that lawmakers in the state Senate might continue procrastinating on raising the tax, as the state has done for over two decades.

Nevada lawmakers are discussing a gas tax increase following the release of a report showing that the state’s outdated transportation system is costing drivers $1,500 per year.  ITEP analyzed a gas tax proposal receiving consideration in the Nevada House and found that even with the increase, the state’s gas tax rate (adjusted for inflation) would still remain low relative to its levels in years past.

Iowa lawmakers have been debating a gas tax increase for a number of years, and there may be enough support in the legislature to finally see one enacted into law.  The major stumbling block is that Governor Branstad will only agree to raise the gas tax if it’s part of a larger package that cuts revenue overall—particularly revenues from the property tax.  As we’ve explained in the past, such a move would effectively benefit the state’s roads at the expense of its schools.

Earlier this year, Washington State House lawmakers unveiled a plan raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon and increasing vehicle registration fees.  Senate leaders are reportedly less excited about the idea of a gasoline tax hike, though there are indications they would consider such an increase if it were to pass the House.  While talk of a 10 cent increase has since quieted down, there are rumors that a smaller increase could be enacted.

Unfortunately, some states where the chances of gas tax reform once appeared promising have since begun to move away from the idea.  In Michigan, while the Governor and the state Chamber of Commerce have voiced strong support for generating additional revenue through the gas tax, neither the House nor the Senate appears likely to vote in favor of such a reform this year.  Meanwhile, the chances for a gas tax increase in Minnesota seem to have faded after the Governor came out against an increase and the House subsequently unveiled a tax plan that leaves the gas tax untouched.

Overall, 2013 has already been a significant year for state gas tax reform.  Both Maryland and Virginia have abandoned their unsustainable flat gas taxes in favor of a better gas tax that grows over time, just like construction costs inevitably will.  Hopefully, within the next few months, more states will have followed their lead.



Gas Tax Gains Favor in the States



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Note to Readers: This is the fifth of a six part series on tax reform trends in the states, written by The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).  Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swaps,” personal income tax cuts and progressive tax reforms under consideration in the states.  This post focuses on one of the most debated tax issues of 2013: raising state gasoline taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements.

States don’t tend to increase their gas tax rates very often, mostly because lawmakers are afraid of being wrongly blamed for high gas prices.  The result of this rampant procrastination is that state gas tax revenues are lagging far behind what’s needed to pay for our transportation infrastructure.  Until last week, the last time a state gas tax increase was signed into law was three and a half years ago—in the summer of 2009—when lawmakers in North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia all agreed that their gas tax rates needed to go up, albeit modestly in some cases.  (Since then, some state gas taxes have also risen due to provisions automatically tying the tax to gas prices or inflation.)

But Wyoming was the state that ended the drought when Governor Matt Mead signed into law a 10 cent gas tax increase passed by the state’s legislature.  And Wyoming is not alone.  In total, lawmakers in nine states are seriously considering raising (or have already raised) their gas tax in 2013: Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. And until recently, Virginia appeared poised to increase its gas tax, too.In addition to Governor Mead, Republican governors in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Democratic governors in Massachusetts and Vermont have proposed raising their state gas taxes despite the predictable political pushback that such proposals seem to elicit.  The plans under discussion in these four states are especially reform-minded since they would not just raise the gas tax rate today, but also allow it to grow over time as the cost of asphalt, concrete, machinery, and everything else the gas tax pays for grows too.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Governor Hassan has said that the state needs more funding for transportation and is open to the idea of raising the gasoline tax, among other options.  The state House is debating just such a bill right now.  The situation is similar in Maryland where Governor O’Malley, who pushed for a long-overdue gasoline tax increase last year, recently met with legislators to discuss a gas tax increase proposed this year by Senate President Mike Miller.  Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has also not ruled out an increase in the gas tax—an idea backed by the state Senate majority leader and the House Transportation Committee chair.  And in the Hawkeye State, Governor Branstad once described 2013 as “the year” to raise Iowa’s gas tax (which happens to be at an all-time low, adjusted for inflation), although he has since said that he would support doing so only after lawmakers cut the property tax.

Other states where gas tax increases have gotten a foothold so far this year include Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, though it’s not yet clear how far those states’ debates will progress in 2013.

Across the country, no state has received more attention this year for its transportation debates than Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell kicked off the discussion by actually proposing to repeal the state’s gasoline tax.  But while Governor McDonnell’s idea was certainly attention-grabbing, it also failed to gain traction with most lawmakers, and the Virginia Senate responded by passing a bill actually increasing the state gasoline tax and tying it to inflation.  Since then, the preliminary details of an agreement being negotiated between House and Senate leaders are just now emerging, but early indications are that the legislature will try to cut the gas tax in the short-term, but allow the tax to rise alongside gas prices in the future.  The size of the cut will also depend on whether Congress enacts legislation empowering Virginia to collect the sales taxes owed on online purchases.

It’s good to see Virginia lawmakers looking toward the long-term with reforms that will allow the gas tax to grow over time.  But asking less of drivers through the gas tax today—when the state is facing such serious congestion problems—is fundamentally bad tax policy.  For more on the merits of the gas tax and the reforms that are needed to improve its fairness and sustainability, see Building a Better Gas Tax from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).



Ballot Measures in Eleven States Put Taxes in Voters' Hands



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California is not the only state this election season taking taxing decisions directly to the people on November 6.  The stakes will be high for state tax policy on Election Day in nine other states with tax-related issues on the ballot. With a couple of exceptions, these ballot measures would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both).

Arizona

  • Proposition 204 would make permanent the one percentage point sales tax increase originally approved by voters in 2010.  The increase would provide much-needed revenue for education, particularly in light of the worsened budget outlook created by a flurry of recent tax cuts.  But it’s hard not to be disappointed that the only revenue-raising option on the table is the regressive sales tax (PDF), at a time when the state’s wealthiest investors and businesses are being showered with tax cuts.
  • Proposition 117 would stop a home’s taxable assessed value from rising by more than five percent in any given year.  As our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains (PDF), “Assessed value caps are most valuable for taxpayers whose homes are appreciating most rapidly, but will provide no tax relief at all for homeowners whose home values are stagnant or declining. As a result, assessed value caps can shift the distribution of property taxes away from rapidly appreciating properties and towards properties experiencing slow or negative growth in value - many of which are likely owned by low-income families.”

Arkansas

  • Issue #1 is a constitutional amendment that would allow for a temporary increase in the state’s sales tax to pay for large-scale transportation needs like highways, bridges, and county roads. If approved, the state’s sales tax rate would increase from 6 to 6.5 percent for approximately ten years, or as long as it takes to repay the $1.3 billion in bonds issued for the relevant transportation projects. Issue #1 would also permanently dedicate one cent of the state’s 21.5 percent gas tax (or about $20 million annually) to the State Aid Street Fund for city street construction and improvements. It’s no wonder the state is looking to increase funding for transportation projects. ITEP reports that Arkansas hasn’t increased its gas tax is ten years, and that the tax has lost 24 percent of its value during that time due to normal increases in construction costs. Governor Beebe is supporting the proposal, and his Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr recently said, “No one hates taxes more than me; however, one of the primary functions of government is to build roads and infrastructure and this act does just that. My two primary reasons for supporting Ballot Issue #1 are the 40,000 non-government jobs that will be created and/or protected and the relief of heavy traffic congestion.”

California

  • Thus far overshadowed by the competing Prop 30 and 38 revenue raising proposals, Proposition 39 would close a $1 billion corporate tax loophole that Governor Brown and other lawmakers have tried, but failed to end via the legislative process.  Currently, multi-national corporations doing business in California are allowed to choose the method for apportioning their profits to the state that results in the lowest tax bill.  If Prop 39 passes, all corporations would have to follow the single-sales factor apportionment (PDF) method.  Half of the revenue raised from the change would go towards clean energy efforts while the other half would go into the general fund.

Florida

  • Amendment 3 would create a Colorado-style TABOR (or “Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) limit on revenue growth, based on an arbitrary formula that does not accurately reflect the growing cost of public services over time.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, Amendment 3 is ““wolf in sheep’s clothing” because it would phase in over several years, which obscures the severe long-term damage it would cause.  Once its revenue losses started, however, they would grow quickly. To illustrate its potential harm, we calculate that if the measure took full effect today rather than several years from now, it would cost the state more than $11 billion in just ten years.” The Orlando Sentinel's editorial board urged a No vote this week writing that voters “shouldn't risk starving schools and other core government responsibilities that are essential to competing for jobs and building a better future in Florida.”
  • Amendment 4 would put a variety of costly property tax changes into Florida’s constitution, including most notably an assessment cap (PDF) for businesses and non-residents that would give both groups large tax cuts whenever their properties increase rapidly in value.  Moreover, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains, “Amendment 4’s biggest likely beneficiaries would be large corporations headquartered in other states, with out-of-state owners and shareholders,” including companies like Disney and Hilton hotels.

Michigan

  • Proposal 5 would enshrine a “supermajority rule” in Michigan’s constitution, requiring two-thirds approval of each legislative chamber before any tax break or giveaway could be eliminated, or before any tax rate could be raised.  As we explained recently, the many flaws associated with handcuffing Michigan’s elected representatives in this way have led to a large amount of opposition from some surprising corners, including the state’s largest business groups and its anti-tax governor. Republican Governor Rick Snyder wrote an op-ed in the Lansing State Journal opposing the measure saying it was a recipe for gridlock and the triumph of special interests. Proposal 5 is also bankrolled by one man to protect his own business interests.

Missouri

  • Proposition B would increase the state’s cigarette tax by 73 cents to 90 cents a pack. The state’s current 17 cent tax is the lowest in the country.  Increasing the state’s tobacco taxes would generate between $283 million to $423 million annually. The Kansas City Star has come out in favor of Proposition B saying, “It’s not often a single vote can make a state smarter, healthier and more prosperous. But Missourians have the chance to achieve all of those things on Nov. 6 by voting yes on Proposition B.”

New Hampshire

  • Question 1 would amend New Hampshire’s constitution to permanently ban a personal income tax.  The Granite State is already among the nine states without a broad based personal income tax and proponents want to ensure that will remain the case forever. As Jeff McLynch with the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute explains, a Yes vote would mean that “you’d limit the choices available to future policymakers for dealing with any circumstances, and by extension, you’re limiting choices for future voters.”

Oklahoma

  • State Question 758 would tighten an ill-advised property tax cap (PDF) even further, preventing taxable home values from rising more than three percent per year regardless of what’s happening in the housing market.  As the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains, “Oklahomans living in poor communities, rural areas, and small towns would get little to no benefit, since their home values will not increase nearly as much as homes in wealthy, suburban communities.”  And since many localities are likely to turn to property tax rate hikes to pick up the slack caused by this erosion of their tax base, those Oklahomans in poorer areas could actually end up paying more.  
  • State Question 766 would provide a costly exemption for certain corporations’ intangible property, like mineral interests, trademarks, and software.  If enacted, the biggest beneficiaries would include utility companies like AT&T, as well as a handful of airlines and railroads.  The Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that the exemption, which would mostly impact local governments, would have to be paid for with some combinations of cuts to school spending and property tax hikes on homeowners and small businesses.  And the impact could be big.  As one OK Policy guest blogger explains: “In 1975, intangible assets comprised around 2 percent of the net asset book value of S&P 500 companies; by 2005, it was over 40 percent, and the trend is likely to continue. If SQ 766 passes, Oklahoma will find itself increasingly limited in its ability to tax properties.”

Oregon

  • Measure 84 would gradually repeal Oregon’s estate and inheritance tax (PDF) and allow tax-free property transfers between family members.  If the measure passes, Oregon would lose $120 million from the estate tax, its most progressive source of revenue.   According to many legal interpretations of the measure, the second component - referring to inter-family transfers of property - would likely open a new egregious loophole allowing individuals to avoid capital gains taxes (PDF) on the sale of land and stock by simply selling property to family members.  Oregon’s Legislative Revenue Office released a report last week that showed 5 to 25 percent of capital gains revenue could be lost as a result of the measuring passing. The same report also found no evidence for the claim that estate tax repeal is some kind of millionaire magnet that increases the number of wealthy taxpayers in a state.
  • Measure 79, backed by the real estate industry, constitutionally bans real estate transfer taxes and fees.  However, taxes and fees on the transfer of real estate in Oregon are essentially nonexistent, prompting opponents to refer to the measure as a “solution in search of a problem.”
  • Measure 85 would eliminate Oregon’s “corporate kicker” refund program which provides a rebate to corporate income taxpayers when total state corporate income tax revenue collections exceed the forecast by two or more percent. Instead of kicking back that revenue to corporations, the excess above collections would go to the state’s General Fund to support K-12 education. Supporters of this measure acknowledge that a Yes vote will not send buckets of money to schools right away since the kicker has rarely been activated.  But, it is a much needed tax reform that will help stabilize education funding and peak interest in getting rid of the Beaver State’s more problematic personal income tax kicker.

South Dakota

  • Initiative Measure #15 would raise the state’s sales tax by one cent, from 4 to 5 percent. The additional revenue raised would be split between two funding priorities: Medicaid and K-12 public schools. As a former South Dakota teacher writes, “[w]hile education and Medicaid are important, higher sales tax would raise the cost of living permanently for everyone, hitting struggling households the hardest, to the detriment of both education and health.”  This tax increase is the only revenue-raising measure on the horizon right now; South Dakotans deserve better choices.

Washington

  • Initiative 1185 would require a supermajority of the legislature or a vote of the people to raise revenue. A similar ballot initiative, I-1053, was already determined to be unconstitutional. As the Washington Budget and Policy Center notes about this so called “son of 1053” initiative:  “Limiting our state lawmakers with the supermajority requirement is irresponsible, and serves only  to limit future opportunity for all Washington residents.”

 



Quick Hits in State News: Business Tax Breaks Get Panned in PA, Neo-Vouchers Take Hold in NH



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While Kansas recently repealed its only form of grocery tax relief (a credit for low-income families), West Virginia is moving in the opposite direction.  That state’s sales tax rate on groceries will drop by one percentage point starting on July 1 this year, and be repealed entirely midway through next year.

West Virginia revenue officials aren’t too enamored with any suggestion to increase the state’s already generous property tax breaks for senior citizens.  Using a $300,000 home as an example, the state’s deputy secretary of revenue explained how under today’s rules, a homeowner under 65 would pay $2,334 on that house while a homeowner over age 65 using the credit could pay as little as $764. Moreover, with the state’s eligible senior population expected to grow by 37 percent over the next decade, the cost of any tax breaks for older West Virginians is going to grow dramatically.

After much debate, South Carolina lawmakers appear to have come to an agreement on a regressive tax change that allows “pass-through” business income (which tends to go mainly to wealthy individuals rather than businesses) to be taxed at three percent instead of the five percent currently levied.

After the legislature overrode Governor John Lynch’s veto, New Hampshire became the latest state to adopt neo-vouchers: tax credits for corporations who contribute money to private school scholarship funds which end up diverting taxpayer dollars into corporate coffers.  In his veto message, the Governor wrote: "I believe that any tax credit program enacted by the Legislature must not weaken our public school system in New Hampshire, downshift additional costs on local communities or taxpayers, or allow private companies to determine where public school money will be spent.”

Tax experts asked by the Associated Press couldn’t find anything nice to say about Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed $1.7 billion tax break for Shell Chemicals – the largest-ever financial incentive offered by the state – for the company to build an oil refinery. David Brunori from George Washington University said, “There's absolutely nothing good about what the governor is proposing" and a libertarian policy expert pointed out that government shouldn’t be covering the cost of risk for businesses through tax subsidies.



Quick Hits in State News: Tax Policy in New Hampshire's Constitution, The Arts as Economics, and More



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  • Last night’s Washington Gubernatorial debate did not answer the call  to shift their focus to the state’s broken revenue system.  Instead, the Republican candidate, Attorney General Rob McKenna said that the Democrats “just keep insisting we need higher taxes.”  Whoever wins, they will have to contend with the fact that Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the nation.
  • Last week we reported on public scrutiny of a $336 million “small business” tax break in North Carolina that is, in fact, going to benefit some of the state’s wealthiest individuals. Yesterday, Senate Republicans - torn between public outrage and affluent constituents - successfully wiggled out from under having to vote on a measure to modify it so it targets truly small businesses, as intended.  
  • New Hampshire voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether the state’s lack of a personal income tax should be enshrined in the constitution. In better news, the state’s lawmakers heeded the advice of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute and defeated a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority to pass any tax or fee increase.
  • Here’s an interesting read on the economic development impact of the arts. A new study contends that not only do the arts make Nebraska (for example) a better place to live, but they also contribute to state and local coffers to the tune of $18 million. For more on the impact of the arts in other states check out the study, Arts & Economic Prosperity IV.
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Quick Hits in State News: Taxes Take Center Stage in New Hampshire Politics, and More



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  • Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is voicing support for federal legislation that would allow states to collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet, but he has little interest in pursuing a state-level law that would allow Michigan to begin chipping away at the problem.
  • The Gazette has an article about the failure of Maryland legislators to raise the gas tax during their recently concluded regular session.  It cites research from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) showing that the state’s gas tax rate would need to rise by 15.8 cents just to offset the last two decades of construction cost inflation.  In the article, Governor O’Malley explains the obvious: high gas prices caused lawmakers to delay this overdue reform, again.
  • Legislators in New Hampshire were well on the way to eliminating a tax on internet access, until a flap between the House and Senate over other provisions in the legislation derailed it. Still, leadership in both chambers remain committed to eliminating the tax that appears on consumers’ broadband and wireless bills.  But the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute (NHFPI) warns against eliminating the tax in a recent report which explains that $12 million in annual revenues are a stake, and that better, more targeted options for reducing taxes on New Hampshire families are available.
  • This week, New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Bill Kennedy came out with his own proposal to reduce property and businesses taxes and make up for the loss of those revenues by introducing a personal income tax in the state, which is one of nine states that doesn’t levy one. At the same time, the Granite State’s Senate is about to take up a radical and constraining proposal to amend their constitution to make sure no personal income tax can ever be levied. Stay tuned.

 



Quick Hits in State News: Supermajorities Aren't All That Super, Valentine's Dinner With Tax Dodgers, & More



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  • In this upside down world where closing a corrupt tax loophole is called a tax hike (like that’s a bad thing), some states are moving towards amending their constitutions to require a two thirds supermajority to raise taxes or borrow money. This is a shame. New Hampshire Senators, for example, are expected to vote on a supermajority proposal later this week. Here’s an excellent editorial from the Idaho Statesman and a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities about the perils of supermajorities.
  • It’s been just over a month since Kansas Governor Brownback unveiled his tax plan and the criticism continues. His plan, which would raises taxes on the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution, was recently called “radical and troubling.” Attention is shifting to the House, where leaders are now introducing their own tax proposal which includes the most costly and regressive elements of the Governor’s proposal.
  • Kudos to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear for appointing his 23 member blue ribbon commission to study the  state’s tax system and propose ways to reform it.  Let’s hope they heed the governor’s call for "a tax system that produces adequate revenue that meets the needs of our people," and his admonition that there comes a time "when slashing programs and services starts a downward spiral from which recovery is too difficult and too steep."
  • Good news from Nebraska, where it looks like support is weak for the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the inheritance tax.  Legislators know that revenue from this tax goes directly to counties, which would have to cut services or make up the revenues with regressive tax increases.
  • Finally, in planning your Valentine’s dinner, you might think twice about eating at a Yum Brands restaurant (KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) or serving Campbell Soup, H.J. Heinz or ConAgra Foods products.  Our Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, 2008-2010 found that, despite being profitable, these companies didn’t pay any federal corporate income taxes in at least one year between 2008-2010.

 



New Hampshire: Tobacco Tax Cut Will Force Deeper Budget Cuts in 2012



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New Hampshire joins the majority of states that have patched next fiscal year’s budget gaps with a cuts-only approach.  Democratic Governor John Lynch will allow the budget to go into effect Friday, July 1 without his signature, fearing a veto would only lead to a more austere budget than the one presented to him last week (the Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate).

The budget contains a long list of spending reductions including cutting higher education funds in half (which will lead to higher tuition), state worker layoffs, and cuts to agency funds. 

The most nonsensical cut included in the New Hampshire budget is a 10 cent reduction in the state’s cigarette tax (dropping from $1.78 to $1.68) and lower taxes on other tobacco products.  Proponents of this tax change argued that a decrease in taxes on tobacco would lead to greater revenue as smokers from neighboring states would be incentivized to cross the border to purchase cigarettes. 

However, as the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute (NHFPI) points out, this change is likely to reduce tax revenue by at least $14 million and as much as $30 million over the next two years.  Their analysis points to data from the state’s Department of Revenue Administration that shows even an increase in the sale of tobacco products would lead to the lower end estimated revenue loss.  NHFPI also questions whether or not a drop in taxes would lead to greater tobacco sales given that the long-term trend in cigarette sales is down.

Based in part on the flawed logic of the tax cut’s proponents and in part to the rushed process to include this provision in the final budget bill, lawmakers failed to account for any revenue loss from the tax cut.  This means that New Hampshire’s new budget is likely already out of balance before the year starts and more spending cuts are likely to come mid-year.



New Hampshire Lawmakers Discuss Business Tax Breaks After Slashing Childcare and Higher Education



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Like most states, New Hampshire is faced with yet another budget shortfall to close in the upcoming fiscal year, this one at roughly half a billion dollars.  The New Hampshire House of Representatives approved a budget in March that closed the gap almost entirely through cuts in spending ($489 million total) including reductions in child-care assistance for low-income families and funding for the state’s university system.  Yet, incredibly, New Hampshire lawmakers are still considering a variety of proposals to cut business taxes.

This week, the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute (NHFPI) published an informative brief explaining how various proposals to reduce the state’s two main business taxes would result in millions of dollars more in spending cuts. 

The brief also debunks myths that lawmakers have promoted to justify cutting business taxes. One is that the state’s business taxes are extremely high. (They are comparable to the national average.) Another is that business taxes influence business location decisions, and that lowering taxes on businesses would fuel economic growth. 

NHFPI also points out that the two business taxes lawmakers are considering reducing, the Business Profits Tax (BPT) and Business Enterprise Tax (BET), make up a relatively small share of the total taxes New Hampshire businesses pay.  The tax that represents the largest share, the property tax, could in fact increase as a direct result of cutting the BPT and BET.  

A state tax cut of any size would likely lead to reductions in funding for local aid, which would in turn force local governments to increase property taxes to pay for local services.

 

 



New Hampshire Hops on Supermajority Bandwagon



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A few weeks back, we surveyed efforts to impose new restrictions mandating that a supermajority of legislators vote in favor of a tax increase before it can become law.   The good news is that most of these efforts appear to have made little progress so far (though Wisconsin did pass a temporary version of this requirement in February).  The bad news, however, is that this idea has now surfaced in New Hampshire.

As we’ve argued before, supermajority requirements are anti-democratic, as they empower a small minority of legislators to block the will of the majority.  These requirements also reduce the ability of elected officials to deal with new challenges as they arise — such as a massive revenue shortfall caused by an economic recession, or an increase in government health care costs.  

Supermajority requirements also make it much more difficult to enact meaningful tax reform since they prevent a majority of legislators from closing a tax loophole unless they either enlarge another loophole, or find a way to reduce tax rates in order to offset the revenue gain.  Simply put, these requirements expand on the already enormous incentives lawmakers have to stuff state tax codes full of special interest goodies.

At the end of the day, voters have the ability to remove their representatives from office if they’re unhappy with their decision to raise taxes.  Lawmakers considering supermajority requirements in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and other states should put some trust in democracy, and forgo enacting cumbersome limitations on the power of future elected officials.



New Hampshire: GOP Lawmakers Respond to Budget Gap with Tax Cuts



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New Hampshire lawmakers reconvened this week in Concord and one of the top orders of business is closing a budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute (NHFPI) suggests that the magnitude of the state’s fiscal challenges presents lawmakers an opportunity to examine and propose changes to the state’s tax system rather than simply slashing public services.  The group recently released a report that examines the state’s current tax structure and puts forth considerations for improvement.  The report finds two major shortcomings of New Hampshire’s current tax system: the responsibility for paying taxes falls disproportionately on low- and moderate-income households and the tax system does not generate an adequate amount of revenue to pay for the state’s essential public services.
 
Unfortunately, it appears that the GOP-controlled state legislature is poised to propose several tax cuts this year heavily tilted towards businesses and wealthy households that will only serve to make the system even more unfair and inadequate.

Using information from the NHFPI report, including Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy data, an editorial in the Concord Monitor argued against any proposal to cut taxes in a time of fiscal crisis, especially when the result would mean more cuts to core services and higher taxes on low-income households.
 
Moving forward, New Hampshire lawmakers should use the NHFPI report as a tool in determining meaningful policy responses to their state’s fiscal woes.



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.



ITEP Figures Used to Explain Need for Tax Reform



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Last weekend, Jon Peacock from the Wisconsin Budget Project wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that raised some important issues about the need to consider tax fairness in any tax reform discussions in Wisconsin. This issue is especially relevant given recent data from the Census Bureau showing that poverty rates are rising. (Read ITEP's most recent report on this issue.)

The op-ed cited findings in ITEP's Who Pays? that Wisconsin has a regressive tax structure. As the debate over tax reform continues, Wisconsin lawmakers should heed Peacock's advice and improve the state's tax collection process, ensure corporate tax loopholes remain closed, consider broadening the sales tax base, apply the sales tax to products purchased online, and capture a larger share of federal aid.

Taxes are also a hot issue in New Hampshire right now. A forum on tax issues was held by the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth and the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition and featured panelists from non-profits, think-tanks, and local government. ITEP's Who Pays? data was discussed during the forum to make the case for real tax reform in the state.

Cathy Silber from the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition summed it up when she said, "We can cut back on services when the need goes up or costs rise, we can raise revenue sources, we can combine these two options, or we can do nothing."

The decision is important given what's happening to families in the state now. The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute's (NHFPI) recent analysis of the new Census Bureau's data finds that in New Hampshire "the poverty rate appears to have climbed 1.8 percentage points over the course of the economic downturn."



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.



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.



New Hampshire: Get the Children Out of the Room, They Might Mention an Income Tax



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Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means held a two-day information session for its members and other interested legislators on the state’s revenue structure, its ability to finance public services, and its relationship with the state’s economy. 

ITEP was one of three national organizations invited to participate and offered its views on the shortcomings of the current system.  In particular, ITEP's Jeff McLynch discussed the consequences that New Hampshire’s imbalanced tax system has for both individual taxpayers and for the state’s budget. (The Granite State and Alaska are the only two states to levy neither a sales tax nor a broad-based income tax.) McLynch explained that adopting an income tax would help not only to mitigate the inequities that low- and moderate-income residents now face but also to address the state’s long-standing structural deficit. 

The purpose of the session was straightforward enough. Legislators nationwide regularly meet to receive testimony from analysts and constituents alike on topics ranging from agriculture to zero-based budgeting. But some opponents of sound and fair taxation reacted as though it were one part of a much larger conspiracy, leading to a couple dozen protestors outside the session and a volley of press releases decrying the involvement of groups from outside the state in the days leading up to the event. 

Indeed, as the Concord Monitor noted, “The committee was careful to ensure that the representatives of both sides of the issue had a chance to air their views. That didn't quiet critics who treat the state's unfair tax structure like previous generations treated suicide, cancer and divorce, something that should not be discussed in public.  But silence allows ignorance to prevail and problems to worsen.” 

To learn more about the various perspectives presented at the session, visit the Ways and Means Committee website.



A Crack in the Granite? New Hampshire Moving Ahead on Progressive Tax Changes



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New Hampshire has long been an outlier in state tax policy. It shares the dubious distinction of lacking both an income and a sales tax with only Alaska. Unsurprisingly, it now faces a serious budget deficit. In response, the state's House Ways & Means Committee has chosen a course of action that deviates from the well-worn public policy path in the Granite State, approving a pair of bills that would generate $95 million in revenue over the next two years and do so in a very progressive manner. Specifically, legislation endorsed by the Committee would impose a 5 percent tax on income from capital gains and would revive the state's estate tax, albeit with a larger exemption and lower rate than existed prior to the tax's repeal in 2002. Needless to say, a comprehensive, broad-based income tax should remain the goal in New Hampshire, but these changes would certainly be steps in the right direction.



ITEP Testifies in Favor of New Hampshire Income Tax Proposal



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One of the few benefits of a crisis as severe as the recession in which the United States now finds itself is that it may lead some to question long-established practices and to ask whether there might be a better way of doing things. In New Hampshire, which faces a budget deficit of several hundred million dollars over the coming biennium, that might mean reconsidering its status as one of only nine states without a broad-based income tax. Indeed, the New Hampshire House Ways & Means Committee last week held a hearing on a bill (H.B. 642, introduced by Representative Jessie Osborne in January) that would both establish an income tax and reduce state property taxes for a large number of homeowners. Consequently, the bill would not only generate close to $500 million per year in new revenue, but it would also make New Hampshire's tax system much fairer.

For more details, read ITEP's testimony on HB 642 here.



New Hampshire: Tax Fundamentalism Threatens Fundamental Functions



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People of different political leanings often have quite different views about the proper and necessary role of government in society. Most would agree though (probably almost unanimously, in fact) that one of the essential functions of government is the administration of justice. Yet, in New Hampshire, the state's budget shortfall is so severe -- and the traditional hostility to taxes is so great -- that officials announced this week that the state will suspend jury trials for the month of February. It also will likely leave open one pending vacancy on the Supreme Court and seven existing trial court vacancies (out of a total of 59 such judgeships).

Needless to say, when government begins to falter in performing its most fundamental responsibilities, it is clearly time to re-examine some of the fundamental beliefs, such as the state's long-standing opposition to an income or sales tax, that contribute to such difficulties. Without new thinking, can announcements that local police and fire departments have been disbanded or that school children have been sent home for the year be far behind?



Transportation Funds: The Other State Deficit



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As we've argued in past Digest articles, there are good reasons for relying on gas tax revenues to fund transportation -- at least when an effort is made to offset the tax's stark regressivity. To the extent that the gas tax falls most heavily on those people who drive the furthest distances, or who drive the heaviest vehicles, there are certainly some advantages to the gas tax. But when the people driving the furthest distances are doing so because they can't afford to live near their places of work, for example, that advantage becomes much less appealing. In this light, recent news regarding the funding of transportation has been both good and bad. While states are seemingly beginning to come around to the idea that gas taxes will need to be raised to provide an adequate transportation infrastructure, interest in offsetting the tax's regressivity has yet to pick up steam.

Support for increasing the gas tax has gained some notable momentum in New Hampshire and Massachusetts as of late, and in Oregon, the Governor even included a small gas tax hike in his recent budget proposal. Utah has taken the idea to another level, as top officials are reportedly considering both increasing and restructuring the state's gas tax. In Vermont, however, while raising the gas tax has gotten some attention, the more prominent proposal has been to simply obtain permission from the federal government to continue using federal highway dollars without having to match that money with state funds (of which it has none). But while there are persuasive reasons for considering aid to the states as one form of stimulus for our troubled economy, one has to wonder why some Vermonters are apparently more averse than these other four states to the idea of paying for their own transportation network.

Unfortunately, while there has been an increasing acceptance of the fact that existing gas tax revenues are inadequate in many states, little notice has been given to the idea of offsetting the stark regressivity of gas tax hikes with low-income refundable credits. This idea was recently made a reality in Minnesota, and has been proposed by the Commonwealth Institute in Virginia as well. Notably, eight states already offer similar credits to offset the regressivity of the sales tax (usually designed specifically to offset the tax on groceries). Nineteen states and D.C. offer refundable EITC's, which while not designed specifically to offset regressive taxes, could perhaps be used in a similar matter. In states in need of additional transportation dollars, coupling any transportation related tax increases with the enactment of a low-income refundable credit, or the enhancement of an existing credit, should be a top priority.



The Elephant in the Room



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As the fiscal contagion spreads among the states, policymakers are clearly casting about for ways to close large and growing budget deficits. In Nevada, Governor Jim Gibbons may be open to tax increases in light of a shortfall that is projected to reach $1.8 billion over the next two and half years, but he has also floated the idea of 'voluntary' payroll reductions of 5 percent. New Hampshire faces an approximately $600 million budget gap over the same period, with lawmakers weighing such options as selling state properties, legalizing gambling, or deferring needed payments to the state pension fund. Florida may have to confront an eye-popping deficit of $6 billion over just 18 months, driving elected officials to think about raiding a variety of trust funds and imposing a 4 percent across-the-board cut in agency budgets.

Of course, these three states have more in common than difficult days ahead. They also share a steadfast refusal to levy a personal income tax. Rather than continue to cast about for half-measures and temporary fixes -- or, worse, policies that would undermine working families' already precarious economic situations -- policymakers in states like Nevada, New Hampshire, Florida, Washington, and Tennessee need to acknowledge the elephant in the room and consider whether the tax policies that brought them to this point are the ones that will carry them to a better future.



New Hampshire Smokers Didn't Smoke Enough



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Last month we brought you word of a brewing controversy in New Hampshire. Retailers in the state were lobbying hard to delay a cigarette tax hike in hopes that more people would come to the state to purchase cigarettes proving that it wasn't necessary to raise the tax. Unfortunately for retailers, people in New Hampshire and surrounding states seem to have become aware that smoking is bad for their health. Cigarette tax revenues didn't hit the revenue target state officials identified and last week the state's cigarette tax rose by 25 cents to $1.33 a pack. But despite this increase in the tax, smokers who purchase cigarettes in New Hampshire will still pay a lower tax than smokers in neighboring states.



Cigarette Taxes: Another State Seeking the Path of Least Resistance



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Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius this week again voiced support for a 50 cent cigarette tax hike, proposing that the revenue be dedicated to expanding health care coverage to more low-income Kansans. This story should sound familiar, as numerous tax-phobic states in search of ways to pay for popular government services have recently turned to the cigarette tax.

The benefits that a higher cigarette tax would produce in terms of reduced smoking deaths and improved public health are well-documented in the recommendations included in a recent report from the Kansas Health Policy Authority. But it's the tension such an arrangement would create between efforts to reduce smoking, and efforts to fund health care, that is controversial.

Arkansas this year attempted to pass a similar cigarette tax hike dedicated to funding a new health trauma system. South Carolina pursued similar legislation (eventually vetoed by the Governor) that was designed to direct new cigarette tax hike revenues into a popular health-care expansion.

In each of these cases, legislators were seeking to fund vital programs (each of which naturally increases in cost over time) with a revenue source that is sure to decline with time. South Carolina briefly considered one interesting approach to this problem (indexing the amount of its tax to a measure of medical cost inflation) but that proposal was ultimately dropped from the final bill.

Sustainability issues arise not only from inflation, however, but also from decreases in the popularity of smoking, and increases in the incentives to purchase cigarettes in low-tax areas. This latter component of the sustainability problem, in particular, has received a good bit of attention as of late.

With cigarette tax rates having increased substantially in many parts of the country, the rewards to smokers associated with shopping in low-tax areas have grown. A recent study by Howard Chernick entitled "Cigarette Tax Rates and Revenue" found that a 10% increase in the cigarette tax rate of one state can boost the revenue collections of a neighboring state by about 1%. Maryland provides one stark example of this phenomenon, where a recent tax hike has yielded significantly less than expected as a result of cross-border cigarette purchases and smuggling. The experience of New Hampshire, however, may suggest that this point has only limited applicability (see next story).



New Hampshire: Smoke More, Or We'll Hike Your Taxes!



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Here's the headline: "Tobacco Retailers Pressed to Sell More to Stop Tax Hike." Odd isn't it? New Hampshire retailers are in a panic, hoping to sell enough cigarettes to avoid a quarter cigarette tax increase from taking effect. Last year grocers lobbied hard against an increase in the state's cigarette tax, saying that they "could bring in the same revenues if given a chance to market the state's lower cigarette prices to neighboring states." Lawmakers heard their pleas and agreed to put the tax increase on hold to see if sufficient revenues were raised. In fact, a marketing campaign was said to be in the works.

You'd have to be living under a rock to not know that smoking can kill, but New Hampshire residents are being encouraged to purchase more cigarettes. Meanwhile, legislators cannot take action to improve health by discouraging smoking because they depend on this tax revenue to fund necessary services. This is what happens when states depend on excise taxes that don't grow with the economy and refuse to raise money in progressive ways. The government is placed in the odd position of encouraging whatever is being taxed, even if it's harmful.



Michigan Group Offers Creative Approach for Addressing Budget Shortfalls



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With state budget shortfalls having recently become so prevalent, it has been interesting to watch how different states have chosen to address their budgetary woes. Fortunately, a collection of influential groups in Michigan, including the Michigan League for Human Services, is seeking to fill their state's budget gap with a combination of policy changes much better thought-out than the regressive band-aid fixes proposed in New Hampshire (cigarette tax hikes) or California (lottery revenues). The plan, proposed by the Michigan League for Human Services and backed by a slew of influential groups, proposes to raise roughly $400 million through a series of relatively small changes, each of which already gained approval at some point from either the Governor or the legislature in the 2005 or 2007 legislative session.

Among the proposed list of reforms is the elimination of numerous unjustified sales tax exemptions. Vending machine snacks, international phone calls, and purchases made at prison stores are among the items that would be subject to the sales tax under the proposal. Another major component of the proposal would decouple state business depreciation rules from the federal rules, as was advocated in an earlier Digest piece.

While certainly not a comprehensive list of what could be done, the proposal is notable for its eclectic approach that simultaneously aims to improve efficiency and boost state revenues. States considering unimaginative hikes in consumption tax rates or damaging cuts in public services would do well to instead follow the lead of this proposal and seriously examine what kind of needed tweaks to their tax systems could boost revenues.



Spring Thaw in New Hampshire?



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Several weeks ago, we told you of a potentially interesting development in New Hampshire-- an effort by the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition to have voters in nearly a hundred towns call upon their elected officials to forego the so-called "Pledge." The Pledge is a vow many New Hampshire lawmakers have taken to oppose the creation of a broad-based income or sales tax.

The effort to have voters voice opposition to the Pledge has met considerable success. As the New York Times reported last week, resolutions sponsored by the Fair Tax Coalition passed in close to 70 percent of the towns in which they appeared. This hardly means that New Hampshire is about to leap past its New England neighbors in terms of tax fairness, but making sure that policymakers keep an open mind is an important first step.



Something New in New Hampshire?



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Despite a school funding debate that is now a decade old, New Hampshire remains one of just two states in the nation that lacks both a sales tax and a broad-based income tax, instead relying principally on property taxes to support vital services. (The other state in that pairing, Alaska, can at least rely on revenues generated from its energy resources.

This absence of alternatives to the property tax is perpetuated by the so-called "pledge", a vow to oppose income and sales taxes to which numerous candidates for public office in the Granite State have committed themselves. In the weeks ahead, though, many New Hampshire voters will have an opportunity to instruct local officials to forego such misplaced promises. Due to the efforts of the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition, residents of 88 of New Hampshire's 221 cities and towns will have a chance at upcoming town meetings to approve resolutions calling on legislators to reject the "pledge" and to keep an open mind about all revenue raising options.

Conservative critics say that the resolutions are a veiled attempt to impose an income tax, while others maintain that a more direct approach would yield more tangible results. Still, it's hard to argue against something that simply suggests doing what anyone would do when confronting a major problem... keeping all of one's options open.

Click here to learn more about the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition.

While the coalition isn't advocating an income tax, some state lawmakers are discussing far-reaching tax reforms that would lead to a fairer and more sustainable tax system in the Granite State. Rep. Jessie Osborne explains her approach to a "tax swap" here.



Corporate Tax Reform in New Hampshire Friendlier to In-State, Mom-and-Pop Businesses



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Late last month, New Hampshire adopted legislation that could serve as a model for other states seeking to modernize their corporate income taxes. As part of their biennial budget process, Granite State lawmakers approved a change in the way they decide which multi-state companies are subject to the state's business enterprise tax, moving from a standard based on "physical presence" to one based on "economic presence." This change may sound esoteric, but it's important because the "physical presence" standard leads to all sort of strange outcomes, including advantages for huge out-of-state corporations that do business with state residents over the locally owned businesses that operate entirely within the state.

Changing this standard (also known as "nexus") to one based on economic presence will help New Hampshire ensure that corporations that take advantage of the economic market the state fosters - its transportation infrastructure, judicial system, and educated workforce - will pay their fair share in taxes, even if they don't have offices or factories in the state. In fact, as we previously noted in our Talking Taxes blog, the US Supreme Court earlier this year declined to hear two cases - Lanco and MBNA - in which New Jersey and West Virginia had subjected companies to business taxes because they had substantial economic presence in the state. For more information on the "physical presence" standard and how it can harm state residents, see the ITEP paper on this topic.



Tobacco Tax Hikes... A Lesser Evil?



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People who follow tax issues know that cigarette taxes are regressive, meaning they take a larger percentage of a poor person's income than a wealthy person's income. This is generally true of other consumption taxes such as sales taxes and gasoline taxes because poor people consume a larger percentage of their income than wealthy people, who have the luxury of saving and investing a large percentage of their income.

So cigarette taxes are not the best way to raise revenues from a fairness perspective. But there seem to be situations in which the only tax increases politicians will tolerate are the unfair ones. The state legislature in Delaware wanted revenue to address health and school construction, and just raised $48 million by increasing cigarette taxes from 55 cents to $1.15 a pack. Raising progressive taxes (for example, state income taxes) would be a fairer alternative, but tobacco taxes may be a second-best option when lawmakers refuse to increase other taxes.

New Hampshire just enacted a budget that includes a cigarette tax increase of 28 cents to $1.08 a pack as well as several other regressive fee hikes. While this is unfortunate, the budget also expands children's health insurance by as many as 10,000 kids, which might be hard to do in tax phobic New Hampshire. In Connecticut, the legislature recently approved a budget that raises the cigarette tax 49 cents to $2 per pack in a compromise between Republican Governor Jodi Rell and the Democratic-controlled Assembly. (Rell had earlier suggested increasing income taxes but quickly changed her mind about that.)

Now members of Congress are eyeing an increase in the federal tobacco tax from 39 cents to $1 a pack to fund an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Some members of both parties on the Senate Finance Committee have come to a tentative agreement to raise $35 billion over 5 years (less than the $50 billion envisioned in the Senate budget passed several months ago). One can imagine many more progressive ways of raising federal revenues. But if the Senate lacks the leadership and courage to fight for more progressive funding sources, this may be the best chance to expand children's health care this year.



Face-Off Over Taxes in New England



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Policymakers in New England saw several budgetary showdowns this week. On Wednesday, members of the Connecticut General Assembly missed an end-of-session deadline for adopting their state's budget for the next two years. One of the most contentious issues in the debates surrounding the spending measure is, not surprisingly, taxes.

Both chambers of the Assembly recently approved bills that would make Connecticut's personal income tax more progressive and that would yield revenue needed to address structural budget shortfalls and to support new initiatives. While there are differences between the bills backed by the two chambers, conflict is much more likely with Governor Jodi Rell, who has already suggested that she would veto any such tax increase.

Interestingly, just four months ago, Rell herself proposed raising the state's top personal income tax rate. She now argues that anticipated budget surpluses are sufficient to meet the state's needs.

In New Hampshire, some substantial differences will likely have to be hammered out within the legislature. The House of Representatives previously passed a budget that relied on an increase in the state's real estate transfer tax and a 45-cent jump in the cigarette excise. The Senate this week was expected to vote on a version of the budget that abandons the transfer tax increase and that would push the cigarette excise up by just 28 cents.



Should the People Appointed to Interpret the State Constitution Be Allowed to Interpret the State Constitution?



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New Hampshire courts have ruled that the state's school funding system is unconstitutional, and has given the legislature until July to remedy this. Predictably, some anti-tax advocates are making noise about amending the state constitution to bar the state's supreme court from ruling on this matter. A new Concord Monitor poll takes the public's pulse on this question. The good news: 53 percent of New Hampshire residents think it would be a bad idea to take away the court's ability to monitor the constitutionality of education funding. The bad news: 40 percent think it's a great idea.



New Hampshire Legislators Seek to Stop Courts from Considering Education Funding



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For advocates seeking equitable funding of K-12 education, state court decisions have been crucial for over a quarter century. From Arkansas to New York, many states have improved their education funding systems, in part, because state supreme courts have told them they have to. (Unlike the US Constitution, virtually every state constitution includes language guaranteeing a basic education to its residents ... and many states have failed to comply with this basic guarantee.) In the states, as in Washington DC, this is exactly what courts are supposed to do: rap lawmakers on the knuckles when they pass laws that violate fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

But some New Hampshire lawmakers don't see it that way. Senate President Ted Gatsas has introduced a constitutional amendment that would actually prevent state courts from determining whether New Hampshire is living up to its constitutional responsibility to adequately fund schools. In a series of court decisions collectively known as the Claremont cases, New Hampshire courts have ruled that the state does have a constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools ... and that the state is not currently doing so. Four Republican ex-governors got together last week to voice their support for "return[ing] control of education policy to the legislature."

The cause of the latest ruckus? A September court decision ruling that the state must take steps to determine what an "adequate" education really means. If the legislature fails to act by next summer, the court has said it may step in. Constitutions are generally thought of as sets of rules that legislators cannot violate, in order to protect citizens, so it's peculiar that the interpretation of these rules would be given to the legislators. No word yet on whether the state legislature would be in charge of safeguarding all other fundamental rights in the Granite State.



Tax and Budget Reform in the States



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In South Dakota, property tax reform became a hot topic this week when schools brought a suit against the state over education funding. In New Hampshire, where the role of property taxes has been debated for a while now, the State Supreme Court is hearing a case to determine and define the cost of adequate education. The districts bringing the suit argue that statewide property tax is geared to give wealthy towns a break compared to poor towns.

Meanwhile, another state looks to passively let its problem slide by. In response to an executive order by Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a 15-member panel will study property tax reform. Some speculate that the panel was formed for purely political reasons and that during an election year a study of this magnitude means that legislators can put off making politically difficult decisions.

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