South Carolina News


Quick Hits, Redux: Bloody Kansas, Bleeding North Carolina


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

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

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

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


Governor Haley Leaves South Carolinians in the Dark


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Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a fix for the state’s sorry highway finances, but she can’t let us in on the secret until after Election Day. 

Haley’s state has more than 66,000 miles of public roads, “one of the highest per capita totals in the nation,” according to The Herald, and 40 percent of them are in poor or mediocre condition. More than a fifth of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. South Carolina leads the nation in fatalities on rural roads, due in part to their appalling maintenance. State officials estimate that an additional $1.5 billion is needed each year for the next 20 years just to make the roads adequate. 

Infrastructure funding is a pressing topic, with the federal Highway Trust Fund set to run out and states struggling to keep up with road repairs. You don’t have to be a motorist to realize that our infrastructure is crumbling around us, even as gas prices continue to rise – conjuring images of Mad Max dystopia and collapsing bridges.

Mad Max in the ThunderdomeCome to think of it, replacing elections with Thunderdome-style cage matches might not be a bad idea.

Enter Governor Haley, stage far-right, with a scheme to save the roads (and perhaps some motorists’ lives). The catch is she won’t reveal the plan until January, two months after the end of her reelection campaign. This, of course, is the opposite of how campaigns usually go, where candidates make their proposals public so that voters can judge them on their merits.

Unsurprisingly, South Carolinians have been slow to praise the governor’s political courage. For one, Haley has insisted she will veto any increase in the state’s gas tax – even though it’s one of the lowest in the country (half of what’s charged in neighboring states Georgia and North Carolina).

Furthermore, South Carolina’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. As ITEP has reported, inflation has eroded the purchasing power of many state gas taxes over time; in fact, South Carolina would have to more than triple its current gas tax to have the same purchasing power it did in 1968. Put simply, sixteen cents doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to.

In a reversal, Haley has also ruled out shaking the state’s “money tree,” a budgetary accounting scheme which is as ridiculous as it sounds.

The Giving Tree “Thanks for the fruit! Also, do you have a billion dollars for necessary road repairs?”

 

In the absence of any concrete proposals, there has been wild speculation. Some think the governor’s plan will involve new casinos in Myrtle Beach; others think she’ll revive a plan to divert some sales tax revenue to highway maintenance. Whatever the truth is, ruling out any increase in the gas tax makes little sense. South Carolina motorists pay an extra $811 million every year in vehicle repairs and operating costs; surely they would be willing to pay a little more at the pump for better roads.

So far, the only gubernatorial candidate willing to endorse a hike in the gas tax is independent candidate Tom Ervin, an attorney and former judge.* “Nobody likes a tax increase,” notes Ervin. “But we want our highways to be safe. And we also want to continue to attract quality industry to our state, and you can't get products to market when the highways are falling apart.” It’s always refreshing, if all too rare, when a candidate tells the truth before the election.


*Haley’s Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen declined to endorse a gas tax increase, but said all options should be on the table.


State News Quick Hits: Red Ink Mounting in Tax Cutting States


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News we cannot make up from our friends at the NC Budget and Tax Center: The North Carolina Senate wants to take a sacred public trust, the education of our children, and subject it to the whims of a voluntary funding system. After frittering away precious resources for schools by giving millionaires – among the only people who have prospered much in recent years – an income tax cut they didn’t need, the Senate now wants North Carolinians to voluntarily give back part or all of their income tax refunds so teachers can get a pay raise. A better, saner solution would be for the Senate to acknowledge reality: the tax plan that it and the House passed last year and the governor signed into law is failing the people of North Carolina – and their kids. Read more about this ridiculous plan here.

Kansas lawmakers should be prepared to see lots of red ink within the next year. Former state budget director Duane Goossen has said the state simply won’t have enough money to pay its bills. One reason Kansas is going down this path is because the state no longer taxes pass-through business income, and the price tag of the deduction is largely unknown.  Perhaps this is the evidence Kansans need to prove that Governor Brownback’s experiment has failed.

Tax Fairness advocates take heart! Kudos to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon for coming out against a sales tax hike for transportation. The governor said, “The burden of this ... sales tax increase would fall disproportionately on Missouri's working families and seniors.” The need for increased transportation funding is real, but it makes little sense to hike the sales tax almost immediately after cutting income taxes.

Perhaps South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley hasn’t closely watched the income tax elimination debate that has sputtered to a halt in other states. If she were paying attention she would see that each of these proposals has gone  nowhere, yet she is proposing that very same thing in the Palmetto State.


States Can Make Tax Systems Fairer By Expanding or Enacting EITC


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On the heels of state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansions in Iowa, Maryland, and Minnesota and heated debates in Illinois and Ohio about their own credit expansions,  the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released a new report today, Improving Tax Fairness with a State Earned Income Tax Credit, which shows that expanding or enacting a refundable state EITC is one of the most effective and targeted ways for states to improve tax fairness.

It comes as no surprise to working families that most state’s tax systems are fundamentally unfair.  In fact, most low- and middle-income workers pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the highest income earners. Across the country, the lowest 20 percent of taxpayers pay an average effective state and local tax rate of 11.1 percent, nearly double the 5.6 percent tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of taxpayers.  But taxpayers don’t have to accept this fundamental unfairness and should look to the EITC.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia already have some version of a state EITC. Most state EITCs are based on some percentage of the federal EITC. The federal EITC was introduced in 1975 and provides targeted tax reductions to low-income workers to reward work and boost income. By all accounts, the federal EITC has been wildly successful, increasing workforce participation and helping 6.5 million Americans escape poverty in 2012, including 3.3 million children.

As discussed in the ITEP report, state lawmakers can take immediate steps to address the inherent unfairness of their tax code by introducing or expanding a refundable state EITC. For states without an EITC the first step should be to enact this important credit. The report recommends that if states currently have a non-refundable EITC, they should work to pass legislation to make the EITC refundable so that the EITC can work to offset all taxes paid by low income families. Advocates and lawmakers in states with EITCs should look to this report to understand how increasing the current percentage of their credit could help more families.

While it does cost revenue to expand or create a state EITC, such revenue could be raised by repealing tax breaks that benefit the wealthy which in turn would also improve the fairness of state tax systems.

Read the full report


A New Wave of Tax Cut Proposals in the States


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

Tax cut proposals are by no means a new trend.  But, the sheer scope, scale and variety of tax cutting plans coming out of state houses in recent years and expected in 2014 are unprecedented.  Whether it’s across the board personal income tax rate cuts or carving out new tax breaks for businesses, the vast majority of the dozen plus tax cut proposals under consideration this year would heavily tilt towards profitable corporations and wealthy households with very little or no benefit to low-income working families.  Equally troubling is that most of the proposals would use some or all of their new found revenue surpluses (thanks to a mostly recovering economy) as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts rather than first undoing the harmful program cuts that were enacted in response to the Great Recession.  Here is a brief overview of some of the tax cut proposals we are following in 2014:

Arizona - Business tax cuts seem likely to be a major focus of Arizona lawmakers this session.  Governor Jan Brewer recently announced that she plans to push for a new tax exemption for energy purchased by manufacturers, and proposals to slash equipment and machinery taxes are getting serious attention as well.  But the proposals aren’t without their opponents.  The Children’s Action Alliance has doubts about whether tax cuts are the most pressing need in Arizona right now, and small business groups are concerned that the cuts will mainly benefit Apple, Intel, and other large companies.

District of Columbia - In addition to considering some real reforms (see article later this week), DC lawmakers are also talking about enacting an expensive property tax cap that will primarily benefit the city’s wealthiest residents.  They’re also looking at creating a poorly designed property tax exemption for senior citizens.  So far, the senior citizen exemption has gained more traction than the property tax cap.

Florida - Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he intends to propose $500 million in tax cuts when his budget is released later this month.  The details of that cut are not yet known, but the slew of tax cuts enacted in recent years have been overwhelmingly directed toward the state’s businesses.  The state legislature’s more recent push to cut automobile registration fees this year, shortly before a statewide election takes place, is the exception.

Idaho - Governor Butch Otter says that his top priority this year is boosting spending on education, but he also wants to enact even more cuts to the business personal property tax (on top of those enacted last year), as well as further reductions in personal and corporate income tax rates (on top of those enacted two years ago). Idaho’s Speaker of the House wants to pay for those cuts by dramatically scaling back the state’s grocery tax credit, but critics note that this would result in middle-income taxpayers having to foot the bill for a tax cut aimed overwhelmingly at the wealthy.

Indiana - Having just slashed taxes for wealthy Hoosiers during last year’s legislative session, Indiana lawmakers are shifting their focus toward big tax breaks for the state’s businesses.  Governor Mike Pence wants to eliminate localities’ ability to tax business equipment and machinery, while the Senate wants to scale back the tax and pair that change with a sizeable reduction in the corporate income tax rate. House leadership, by contrast, has a more modest plan to simply give localities the option of repealing their business equipment taxes.

Iowa - Leaders on both sides of the aisle are reportedly interested in income tax cuts this year. Governor Terry Branstad is taking a more radical approach and is interested in exploring offering an alternative flat income tax option. We’ve written about this complex and costly proposal here.

Maryland - Corporate income tax cuts and estate tax cuts are receiving a significant amount of attention in Maryland—both among current lawmakers and among the candidates to be the state’s next Governor.  Governor Martin O’Malley has doubts about whether either cut could be enacted without harming essential public services, but he has not said that he will necessarily oppose the cuts.  Non-partisan research out of Maryland indicates that a corporate rate cut is unlikely to do any good for the state’s economy, and there’s little reason to think that an estate tax cut would be any different.

Michigan - Michigan lawmakers are debating all kinds of personal income tax cuts now that an election is just a few months away and the state’s revenue picture is slightly better than it has been the last few years.  It’s yet to be seen whether that tax cut will take the form of a blanket reduction in the state’s personal income tax, or whether lawmakers will try to craft a package that includes more targeted enhancements to provisions like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which they slashed in 2011 to partially fund a large tax cut (PDF) for the state’s businesses. The Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) explains why an across-the-board tax cut won’t help the state’s economy.

Missouri - In an attempt to make good on their failed attempt to reduce personal income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents last year, House Republicans are committed to passing tax cuts early in the legislative session. Bills are already getting hearings in Jefferson City that would slash both corporate and personal income tax rates, introduce a costly deduction for business income, or both.

Nebraska - Rather than following Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman into a massive, regressive overhaul of the Cornhusker’s state tax code last year, lawmakers instead decided to form a deliberative study committee to examine the state’s tax structure.  In December, rather than offering a set of reform recommendations, the Committee concluded that lawmakers needed more time for the study and did not want to rush into enacting large scale tax cuts.  However, several gubernatorial candidates as well as outgoing governor Heineman are still seeking significant income and property tax cuts this session.

New Jersey - By all accounts, Governor Chris Christie will be proposing some sort of tax cut for the Garden State in his budget plan next month.  In November, a close Christie advisor suggested the governor may return to a failed attempt to enact an across the board 10 percent income tax cut.  In his State of the State address earlier this month, Christie suggested he would be pushing a property tax relief initiative.  

New York - Of all the governors across the United States supporting tax cutting proposals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been one of the most aggressive in promoting his own efforts to cut taxes. Governor Cuomo unveiled a tax cutting plan in his budget address that will cost more than $2 billion a year when fully phased-in. His proposal includes huge tax cuts for the wealthy and Wall Street banks through raising the estate tax exemption and cutting bank and corporate taxes.  Cuomo also wants to cut property taxes, first by freezing those taxes for some owners for the first two years then through an an expanded property tax circuit breaker for homeowners with incomes up to $200,000, and a new tax credit for renters (singles under 65 are not included in the plan) with incomes under $100,000.  

North Dakota - North Dakota legislators have the year off from law-making, but many will be meeting alongside Governor Jack Dalrymple this year to discuss recommendations for property tax reform to introduce in early 2015.  

Oklahoma - Governor Mary Fallin says she’ll pursue a tax-cutting agenda once again in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling throwing out unpopular tax cuts passed by the legislature last year.  Fallin wants to see the state’s income tax reduced despite Oklahoma’s messy budget situation, while House Speaker T.W. Shannon says that he intends to pursue both income tax cuts and tax cuts for oil and gas companies.

South Carolina - Governor Nikki Haley’s recently released budget includes a proposal to eliminate the state’s 6 percent income tax bracket. Most income tax payers would see a $29 tax cut as a result of her proposal. Some lawmakers are also proposing to go much farther and are proposing a tax shift that would eliminate the state’s income tax altogether.


State News Quick Hits: Myth of the Tax-Fleeing Millionaire, and More


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In 2011, Michigan lawmakers enacted a huge “tax swap” that cut taxes dramatically for businesses and raised them on individuals – especially lower-income and elderly families. Given that many of these changes went into effect at the beginning of 2012, and that many Michiganders are just now beginning to file their 2012 tax forms, the Associated Press provides a rundown of the ways in which the tax bills of typical Michiganders will look different from previous years. Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), estimated (PDF) that changes in the personal income tax would result in tax increases of $100 for a poor family, $300 for a middle income family and $7 from a rich one.

South Carolina is considering jumping onto a bandwagon heading the wrong way: supplementing the state’s transportation revenues by taking money away from schools and other state services. If enacted, the plan under consideration would raid $80 million from the state’s general fund every year and use it for roads instead. ITEP estimated, however, that South Carolina could raise more than $400 million for transportation every year just by updating its stagnant gasoline and diesel taxes to catch up to over two decades of inflation.

There’s some good news on the gas tax issue in Iowa. This week, an ad hoc transportation lobby will rally to support the “It’s Time for a Dime” campaign. These builders, farmers and contractors are urging lawmakers to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for needed infrastructure repairs. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) Building a Better Gas Tax concludes that Iowa hasn’t raised its gas tax in over two decades and has lost 43 percent of its value since the last increase.

In case you missed it, here’s a great read from the New York Times about how we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that millionaires are ready to pack up their bags and move at the slightest increase in their tax bills. In “The Myth of the Rich Who Flee From Taxes,” the Times cites ITEP’s work on the Maryland millionaire tax: “a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington, found that nearly all the decline in millionaires was the result of a drop in incomes largely attributable to the stock market plunge and recession, and not to migration — “down and not out,” as the study put it.”

Good news: Wisconsin appears to be  gearing up for serious income tax reform. Bad news: the legislator heading up the effort is a flat tax proponent.

Illinois Governor Quinn began the legislative session in February proposing a variety of loopholes be closed, but the budget he signed on June 30 didn’t close those loopholes.

Think state budgets don’t have an impact on what services localities can provide? Read this article about eight South Carolina school districts facing cuts.

Millionaires don’t flee taxes. With help from ITEP, the millionaire migration myth takes a hit in this Baltimore Sun letter to the editor.

Illinois’ pension system is in crisis.  This insightful column by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability’s Ralph Martire argues that the state’s tax policy is at least partially to blame:  “For decades, Illinois’ antiquated, poorly designed tax policy created an ongoing structural deficit.”

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.

Months after cutting the state income tax for wealthy taxpayers, Idaho’s budget situation isn’t looking good.  The Associated Press reports that “earlier this year it looked like the state had sufficient revenue to provide a $36 million tax cut, as well as give state employees a 2 percent raise” but that surplus has already evaporated. In fact, there was never real consensus about the state’s revenue projections in the first place.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback admits his radical tax cut package is a “real live experiment.”

The South Carolina House approved a measure to keep the state running if it doesn’t have a budget by July 1 when the new fiscal year begins.  The Senate and House are currently bickering over how to implement a (regressive) tax cut for so-called "small" business owners.

It’s back! New Jersey Assembly Democrats are once again planning to introduce a millionaire’s tax into the budget debate.  Proponents of the tax on the wealthiest New Jerseyans want to use the $800 million in revenue it would raise to boost funding to the state’s current property tax credit program for low and middle-income homeowners and renters.  Governor Chris Christie has already vetoed a millionaire’s tax twice. 

The clever folks at Together NC, a coalition of more than 120 organizations in North Carolina, held a Backwards Budget 5K race this week to “to shine a spotlight on the legislature’s backwards approach to the state budget.” 

California Governor Jerry Brown’s revenue raising initiative (which temporarily raises income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and increases the sales tax ¼ cent) has officially qualified for the state’s November ballot. Two additional tax measures will join Brown’s plan on the ballot: a rival income tax measure pushed by a billionaire lawyer to fund education and early childhood programs; and an initiative to increase business income tax revenues by implementing a mandatory single-sales factor (PDF backgrounder) formula.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorializes in favor of capping Pennsylvania’s “vendor discount,” a program (PDF) that allows retailers to legally pocket a portion of the sales taxes they collect in order to offset the costs associated with collecting the tax.  The Gazette explains that a handful of big companies are taking in over $1 million per year thanks to this “antiquated” giveaway.  Computerized bookkeeping takes the effort out of tax collecting and a cap would only impact the national chain stores who disproportionately benefit from the program.

  • Kansas Governor Brownback’s insistence on steep tax cuts has met more resistance.  A group called Traditional Republicans for Common Sense has come out against  even a watered down version of Brownback’s vision in the legislature. One of the group’s members (a former chair of the state’s GOP) said, “Now is not the time for more government intervention. Topeka needs to stay out of the way and make sure proven economic development tools – like good schools and safe roads – remain strong so that the private sector can thrive.” 
  • Stateline writes about the problems with “the spending that isn’t counted” – meaning special breaks that lawmakers have buried in state tax codes.  The article highlights efforts in Oregon and Vermont to develop more rational budget processes where tax breaks can’t simply fly under the radar year after year.  CTJ’s recommendations for reform are in this report.
  • In this thoughtful column, South Carolina Senator Phil Leventis writes, "I have been guided by the principle that government should invest in meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. This principle has been undermined by an ideology claiming that government is the cause of our problems and, accordingly, must be starved.” He praises tax study commissions and says being “business friendly” cannot be the only measure of state policy.
  • An op-ed from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) calls on lawmakers to address the issue of rampant corporate tax avoidance, and to do so responsibly. It raises concerns that legislation currently under consideration to close corporate loopholes could be a “cure worse than the disease.”  The legislation takes some good steps but is paired with business tax cuts that could cost as much as $1 billion over the next several years.  PBPC argues for a stronger and more effective approach to making corporations pay their fair share such as combined reporting, which makes it harder for companies to move profits around among subsidiaries in different states.
  • Just four days after Amazon agreed to begin collecting sales taxes in Nevada in 2014, the company announced a similar agreement with Texas that will take effect much sooner – on July 1st.  As The Wall Street Journal reports, “With the deal, the Seattle-based company is on track to collect sales taxes in 12 states, which make up about 40% of the U.S. population, by 2016.”

Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.


South Carolina House Pulls Its Punch, Preserves Costly Exemptions to Sales Tax


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We’ve long advocated for taxes that have a broad base. Tax structures that abide by this principle don’t pick winners and losers and, importantly, they keep revenues more stable in the long run.  In South Carolina earlier this week, a House subcommittee took a positive step in this direction when it voted to eliminate several exemptions to the sales tax, including the sales tax holidays for guns and back-to-school purchases.  The increased revenues would allow an overall reduction in the sales tax rate.

But when the legislation went to the full House Ways and Means Committee, it was amended. Instead of the $250 million worth of exemptions the original bill contained, the amended version only returns about $15 million in revenues to the state’s budget.

Among the unwise exemptions restored were the two sales tax holidays, which do little to help the taxpayers they’re supposed to help and don’t seem to boost local economies, either.  The Republican sponsor of the original legislation, Rep. Tommy Springer, said of sales tax holidays, “We researched tax analysis, tax reports and the evidence does not suggest they actually save money.” But as an astute Carolinian told the local news, had they ended those holidays, even if it meant a lower year round tax rate, “I don't think your typical citizen is going to see it as anything other than taking something away from them, because they've become accustomed to it.”  

Though the bill has been pared back considerably, Springer is hopeful that a fundamental piece of the legislation will be approved: the requirement that any sales tax exemptions be automatically re-evaluated every five years.  Mandating evaluation of tax expenditures is a good idea; too often these loopholes become permanent features of budgets – and sources of deficits – long after their usefulness has passed.  They aren’t the same as real tax reform that broadens the base and lowers the rate, but the transparency they afford helps build the case for progressive reform.

Photo of South Carolina State House via Richard Boltin Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Whatever comes of rumors that Governor Haley might face tax fraud charges, a modified income tax cut has passed out of South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee. Perhpas due to ITEP’s analysis, which found that the poorest South Carolinians would see their taxes increased under the legislation, it was modified to at least spare the poorest South Carolinians from new taxes.

Check out yesterday’s post from the Wisconsin Budget Project showing that diminishing revenues are a "purple problem" because taxes keep getting cut no matter who's in power.

The personal income tax has been under threat of repeal for most of this year in Oklahoma, but the Oklahoman reported yesterday that the Chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee says it’s unlikely full repeal will come to fruition.  A cut in the top tax rate, however, still appears likely so they’re still buying the economic snake oil.

Here is a commonsense editorial from the Kansas City Star advocating for the taxing internet purchases and the streamlined sales tax agreement.  

This week, Progressive Maryland came out with their compromise plan designed to bridge the gap between the personal income tax increases passed by the state House and Senate.  The plan was analyzed with the help of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), and would raise needed revenues while actually reducing the unfairness of the state’s regressive tax system.

 


Quick Hits in State News: Indiana Kills Its Inheritance Tax, and More


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Indiana’s inheritance tax will soon be no more.  Under a bill signed by Governor Mitch Daniels this week, the state inheritance tax will be gradually eliminated over the next decade.  Of course, this will further benefit the state’s wealthiest taxpayers even as the state’s poorest residents already pay an effective state and local tax rate more than twice that paid by the rich.  

Connecticut lawmakers are seriously considering capping the state’s gasoline tax rate, due to the political pressures created by high gas prices.  A permanent cap, as some lawmakers prefer, would be extremely poor policy because it would flat line the gas tax as a revenue source for years to come.  A temporary cap would be preferable, but the best solution would be one that ITEP recommended for North Carolina last summer: design a cap that limits volatility. This protects consumers from price spikes and stabilizes state budgets without undermining a key source of revenue.

A new ITEP analysis finds that under a South Carolina House Republican plan, poor South Carolinians would see their income tax increase while wealthy taxpayers would pay less. The effect on individual taxpayers in any bracket are not substantial, but the revenue implications for the state are enormous and depend on the working poor to pick up the tab. The Ruoff Group policy shop does a nice job here of explaining why the plan is neither flat nor fair, as its advocates claim.

An outstanding news analysis in the Cincinnati Inquirer describes Ohio Governor John Kasich’s longstanding desire to eliminate the personal income tax altogether, and his current (failing) effort to pay for it with a fracking tax. The story cites a wide range of policy sources, including ITEP’s report debunking the myth that states without income taxes do better, and concludes that low income taxes alone do not make for stronger economies.

 


Trending in the States: Cutting Corporate Taxes Because Lobbyists Say You Should


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Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, ITEP will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country.  This article takes a look at efforts to roll back business taxes in states based on the shopworn, erroneous argument that tax cuts are good for the economy.

Robust corporate income taxes ensure that large and profitable corporations that benefit from publicly subsidized services (transit that delivers customers, education that trains workers, electricity that powers industry, etc.) pay their fair share towards the maintenance of those services. But, as ITEP’s recent report, Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, 2008-2010, found, twenty profitable Fortune 500 companies paid no state corporate income taxes over the last three years, and 68 paid none in at least one of those three years, even as state budgets are stretched to the point of breaking.  

As a new legislative season gets underway, too many political leaders are bashing taxes in general and business taxes in Governor Nikki Haleyparticular.  Here are some states to watch for more bad business tax policy (followed by a few glimmers of hope).

South CarolinaSouth Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is following through on her misguided campaign promise and recently proposed eliminating the state’s corporate income tax over four years. This despite the fact that South Carolina’s corporate income taxes as a share of tax revenue are among the lowest in the country, at a mere 2.4 percent.

KentuckyState Representative Bill Farmer has filed legislation that, instead of strengthening the tax, would repeal the state’s corporate income tax entirely. Farmer worked as a “tax consultant” and has been an anti-tax crusader in the Kentucky legislature since 2003.

Nebraska – Governor Dave Heineman recently unveiled his plan to reduce the top corporate income tax rate from 7.81 to 6.7 percent (and eliminate other key state revenue sources, too).

Florida Governor Rick ScottFloridaIn his recent State of the State address, Governor Rick Scott said that taxes and regulations were “the great destroyers of capital and time for small businesses.”  And – no surprise here – he also called for lowering business taxes.

IdahoGovernor Butch Otter has called for $45 million in tax cuts but is leaving the details to the legislature.  Of course, when a lobbyist from the Idaho Chamber Alliance of businesses calls the governor’s position “manna from heaven,” there’s a good chance some of those cuts will be given to business.

A few signs of sanity. In Connecticut , the governor is looking to improve the return on tax-break investment for the Nutmeg state. Perhaps he’s learned from states like Ohio, where a recent report issued by the attorney general showed that fewer than half of all companies receiving tax subsidies actually fulfilled their commitments in terms of job creation or economic growth.   We also see combined reporting getting attention in a couple of states.  It’s smart policy that discourages companies from creating multi-state subsidiaries to shelter their profits from taxes. We will report on other positive developments as warranted – so watch this space.

Photo of Rick Scott via Gage Skidmore and Photo of Nikki Haley via Mary Austin Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


State Tax Battles with Amazon.com Continue to Make Headlines


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Sales tax laws would be essentially meaningless if retailers were not required to collect the tax every time a purchase is made.  The opportunities for customers to evade the sales tax (either on accident, or on purpose) would be overwhelming.  Every state with a sales tax knows this — and as a result, the vast majority of retailers are legally required to collect and remit sales taxes.

Amazon.com and many other online retailers, however, are the major exception to this broad rule.  A 1992 Supreme Court case carved out a special exemption for any “remote sellers” that don’t have a “physical presence” in a state — like a store or warehouse.  The ruling has allowed the Internet to become an open highway for tax evasion. While customers shopping online owe the same sales tax they would if they shopped in a store, very few actually take the time and effort necessary to pay that tax.

This week, four states (California, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont) made headlines for their attempts to limit the amount of sales tax evasion occurring through “remote sellers,” while a fifth state (Illinois) will soon have to defend its efforts to do the same in court.  By contrast, South Carolina lawmakers were recently bullied into granting Amazon an exemption from having to collect sales taxes for five years, despite the fact that it will soon have a “physical presence” in the state.

In Vermont, Governor Shumlin recently signed a so-called “Amazon law” that will eventually require all remote sellers partnered with affiliate companies physically based in the state to collect and remit sales taxes (see this ITEP report for more on “Amazon laws”).  Unfortunately, the bill was written so that it won’t take effect until 15 other states have enacted similar laws. 

Six states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — have enacted such laws so far, and many more have given the issue serious consideration.  In the meantime, remote sellers like Amazon will be required to notify Vermont residents of the taxes they owe when making a purchase.

The California Assembly easily passed an Amazon law last week.  That legislation now goes back to the Senate, where a similar bill gained narrow passage last month.  Even if the Senate approves the Assembly’s version of the bill, however, it’s unclear whether Governor Brown will sign the measure.

Louisiana can now be added to the long list of states giving serious consideration to enacting an Amazon law.  The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed such a law in late-May, though opposition by Gov. Jindal makes it unlikely that it will be enacted any time soon.

In Texas, Gov. Perry recently vetoed a measure that would have required Amazon.com to collect sales taxes in the state, though the legislature may still try to enact the measure by inserting it into a larger bill that Perry is unlikely to veto. 

Unlike the true “Amazon laws” discussed above, the measure in Texas was designed to prevent Amazon from continuing to skirt its sales tax responsibilities by claiming that its Texas distribution center is actually owned by a subsidiary, and therefore does not amount to a “physical presence.”  The nearby photo is the actual sign in front of the Texas-based distribution center that Amazon claims it does not own.  

In Illinois, the Performance Marketing Association (PMA) has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Amazon law.  The lawsuit is similar to one being pursued by Amazon against New York State.

And in South Carolina, Amazon.com has demanded, and received, a five year exemption from having to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolinians, despite the fact that it plans to open a distribution center in the state (and will therefore meet the Supreme Court’s definition of having a “physical presence”). 

The granting of this exemption represents a stark reversal from just one month ago, when it was soundly defeated 71-47 in the House. 

Brian Flynn of the South Carolina Alliance for Main Street Fairness accurately summed up the unfortunate reality of this situation when he said that “with this economy, [Amazon was] in a good position to strong-arm legislators.”  Fortunately, the exemption is only supposed to last five years — though judging from Amazon’s past behavior, it’s reasonable to expect that the company will undertake an aggressive campaign to extend that five-year window.


Amazon Throws Temper Tantrum, Leaves South Carolina


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Very few businesses allow taxes to shape their business strategy as much as Amazon.com.  Amazon has shuttered a Texas warehouse, ended partnerships with businesses in at least three states, and sued the state of New York — all because of state tax laws it doesn’t like.  When the South Carolina House rejected a massive tax break package designed to lure Amazon.com within its borders last week, that state became just the latest victim of one of Amazon’s tax-induced temper tantrums.  

The drama in South Carolina all started when former Governor Mark Sanford and his Commerce Department told Amazon that they would try to score the company a lucrative tax break package in return for Amazon’s promise to build a distribution center in the state.  The most important component of that proposed package was an agreement that, despite having a physical presence in the state, Amazon.com would not be required to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolina residents. 

Unsurprisingly, this proposal angered virtually every other retailer in the state, from “mom and pop” shops to Wal-Mart, all of which are quite sensibly required to assist South Carolina in collecting the sales tax owed on each sale they make.  

Last week, these retailers, working in combination with Tea Party activists (who, for once, actually recognized that “big government” can indeed extend its influence through new tax breaks), were able to defeat the legislation in the House in a lopsided 71-47 vote.  Gov. Nikki Haley helped contribute to the proposal’s defeat, rightly announcing that its passage would be “a slap in the face to every small business we have.”

Amazon responded by canceling millions in procurement contracts, removing South Carolina job postings from its website, and announcing that the million-square-foot distribution center currently under construction will probably be “put into mothballs” after its completion. 

Reaction to news of Amazon’s departure in the Palmetto State has understandably been mixed.  But South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, did run a nice editorial pointing out that “this doesn’t have to be a loss for our state in the long or even medium term.”  The editorial rightly argues that lawmakers should build on this development by limiting narrow tax giveaways, evaluating existing economic development programs, and investing in a skilled workforce and other broad-based quality-of-life initiatives that employers value.

South Carolina might get the last laugh if it follows the advice contained in this editorial.  Amazon is currently pursuing a business strategy that is far more concerned with state tax law than logic would dictate.  The vast majority of businesses very sensibly do not regard taxes as the be-all and end-all of a good business climate.  Many other factors, like the quality of a state’s workforce, roads, and public safety measures, are often much more important to a company’s bottom line. 

With more states growing tired of Amazon’s bullying and temper tantrums, it appears unlikely that a business strategy that regards taxes as an unbearable burden with no upside will remain profitable for long.


South Carolina Considers Turning its Property Tax into Something Else Entirely


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Under any reasonable property tax system, a property’s tax bill should be tied fairly closely to the actual value of that property.  Sure, some modest exemptions and credits can (and should) be used to reduce the property tax’s regressivity, but the basis for the tax should remain the property’s actual market value.  Oddly, a proposal currently being considered in South Carolina would depart drastically from this fundamental principle.

Back in 2006, South Carolina raised its state sales tax rate in order to pay for a property tax cap that limits growth in a home’s taxable assessed value to no greater than 15% every 5 years — or a little under 3% per year, on average.  Under this arrangement, changes in one’s property tax bill have very little to do with changes in the value of one’s property, and are instead driven by the artificially imposed 15% limitation.  Over time, the impact of the 15% limit can add up, and South Carolinians often end up paying property taxes at an assessed value far below what their home is actually worth.  In other words, for these families the term “property tax” has very little meaning, as their tax bill is only loosely tied to their property as it currently exists.

As strange and shortsighted as this policy may be, the law as currently structured does have one bright spot: whenever a property changes hands, the 15% limitation is reset.  This means that — at least for a short time — the property tax is once again applied to the home’s actual value.  These “resets” play an important role in ensuring that South Carolina’s property tax retains some of its character as a tax on actual property values.

Unfortunately, some state legislators would like to eliminate this feature of the law, claiming that the “reset” results in unaffordable tax bills for people looking to change residences.  In a way, it’s a legitimate complaint.  The South Carolina tax cap (like those in California, Florida, and many other states) results in vastly different property tax bills for different taxpayers, based solely on how long they’ve chosen to remain at their current address.

But the “cure” lawmakers are considering in this case is worse than the disease.  Ending the reset feature would essentially divorce South Carolina’s residential property tax system from present day reality.  Rather than having anything to do with actual property values, a tax cap system without a reset feature would forever base each property’s tax bill on its 2006 value, and then grow it artificially based on the 15% formula.  Sure, when the real estate market is weak the 15% formula might not kick in, but given enough time, many residences will accumulate massive tax cap savings and will be subject to tax bills with almost no basis in present reality.

Ultimately, if the goal of state lawmakers is to ensure that property taxes don’t grow faster than South Carolinians’ ability to pay them, the best relief option is an income-tested circuit breaker credit.  Property tax caps, circuit breakers, and many other related topics are discussed in the property tax chapter of the newly released ITEP Guide to Fair State and Local Taxes.


Bad and Less Bad: Business Tax Cuts vs. Grocery Tax Cuts


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Some politicians in state capitals across the U.S. seem convinced that tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy are the best way to accelerate economic recovery. In two states, governors are proposing instead to cut taxes on groceries, which is a more effective, though not exactly flawless, way to help ordinary families. The tradeoff to any tax cut, of course, is unaffordable cuts to essential services including education, public safety, and health care.

In Wisconsin, state lawmakers agreed on a business tax cut that would add about $50 million to the budget deficit.  The Republican controlled legislature and newly elected Governor Scott Walker believe that the tax cuts will leave everybody with more money and leave the state with an improved economy.  Incredibly, Walker’s proposal rests on the assumption that the tax cuts will lure businesses away from Illinois, which recently saw an increase in its income tax, rather than fostering young, developing businesses. 

In Iowa, where a similar $300 million business tax cut is being discussed, critics of Governor Terry Branstad point out that essential social services are being axed in favor of pro-business policies.

In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is proposing to cut taxes on high-wage industries while further reducing funding for Medicaid, universities, community colleges, and K-12 education.  

Similar tax cuts are being proposed in New York, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. All of these plans prioritize tax breaks for business over providing essential services to those most affected by the economic downturn.  

The Governors of West Virginia and Arkansas have arrived at an entirely different tax-cutting proposal: reducing the sales tax on groceries.  Like lawmakers who support business tax cuts, Governors Tomblin and Beebe believe their brand of tax cuts will circulate quickly throughout the economy, providing necessary relief to the taxpaying public while stimulating the economy. 

Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas wants to cut the sales tax on groceries by a half-cent and has said it is the only tax cut he will consider this year.  In West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wants to reduce the grocery sales tax from 3 to 2 cents and would ultimately like to see it eliminated entirely.

While the proposals to cut the sales tax on groceries are a welcome development compared to proposed tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, there are still two problems with them. 

First and foremost, states are in dire need of revenue this year as they face the most significant budget challenge yet since the start of the recession.  Every dollar lost to a tax cut will have to be made up by an even deeper cut in spending. 

Second, reducing the sales tax on groceries is not the most targeted approach available to state leaders looking to support working families.  The poorest 40 percent of taxpayers typically receive only about 25 percent of the benefit from exempting groceries. The rest goes to wealthier taxpayers who can more easily afford to pay the sales tax on groceries. 

Enacting or increasing a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or other low-income refundable credit would be a more affordable and better targeted alternative to ensure that tax cuts reach low- and middle-income working families.  Tax cuts that directly benefit low-wage workers are especially beneficial to the general economy because low-wage workers immediately spend their refunds out of necessity.  By pumping the money back into the economy, the tax cut goes further in stimulating the economy than tax cuts for the wealthy or businesses.

Instead of pursuing tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, state lawmakers should be working to alleviate hardship on the most vulnerable.  Indeed, the governors in West Virginia and Arkansas may end up being much more efficient at helping their state economies rebound than the “business friendly" governors in Wisconsin and Iowa.


ITEP Releases New Report on Capital Gains Tax Breaks in the States


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Earlier this week ITEP released A Capital Idea: Repealing State Tax Breaks for Capital Gains Would Ease Budget Woes and Improve Tax Fairness. The report takes a hard look at the eight states that currently give special treatment to capital gains income including: Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The report finds that the benefits of state capital gains tax breaks go almost exclusively to the very best off taxpayers. In fact, in the eight states highlighted, between 95 and 100 percent of the state tax cuts from these tax breaks goes to the richest 20 percent of taxpayers.

Capital gains tax breaks also come with a pretty large price tag.  In tax year 2010, these eight states will lose about $490 million due to these loopholes, with losses ranging from $14 million to $151 million per state. These revenue losses represent a substantial share of currently-forecast budget deficits in several of these states.

ITEP finds that these preferences are costly, inequitable, and ineffective, depriving states of millions of dollars in needed funds, benefitting almost exclusively the very wealthiest members of society, and failing to promote economic growth in the manner their proponents claim. State policymakers cannot afford to maintain these tax breaks any longer.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


Tax News in Gubernatorial Races Across the Country


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Many gubernatorial candidates campaign on a platform of tax cuts, and few, outside of Minnesota Gubernatorial Candidate Mark Dayton, promote tax increases.  In such a political climate, perhaps the best that voters can hope for are candidates that promise to maintain progressive tax structures. 

California

One such candidate, California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, recently hammered his opponent, Meg Whitman, for supporting a regressive tax cut that would benefit only taxpayers who have capital gains income.

In 2008, 93% of taxpayers who paid capital gains taxes in California earned over $200,000.  While other gubernatorial candidates fight over who will cut taxes more, it is refreshing to see a candidate like Brown refuse to endanger the state's budget by cutting taxes for the wealthiest.

Illinois

Illinois current Governor Pat Quinn is having it out against Republican Bill Brady to see who will move into the Governor's Mansion next year. Brady proposes to eliminate the state's estate tax and the sales tax on gasoline, saying that this will send a message to business that  "Illinois is open again for business and we're here to stay for the long term." Quinn, on the other hand, supports an increase in the state's income tax to help solve the state's enormous fiscal woes.

Maryland

While fiscal prudence may call for hard decisions, campaigning calls for easy sound bites.  Former Governor and current Republican candidate for Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich wants to repeal Governor O’Malley’s 2007 sales tax increase.  Ehrlich’s proposal would cost the state treasury over $600 million. While Ehrlich himself raised taxes during his tenure, the former Governor is trying to re-brand himself as the anti-tax candidate

Like Ehrlich, current Governor O’Malley is also seeking to distance himself from his past constructive and successful tax policies.  However, O’Malley refuses to rule out future tax increases, signaling that he has not forgotten how he expanded health coverage and increased education funding these last four years.

Michigan

The “Michigan Business Tax” has fallen out of grace with Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates.  Both Democrat Virg Bernero and Republican Rick Snyder favor eliminating the business tax and replacing it with some other revenue source. Synder’s plan would partially offset the revenue loss from the business tax cuts by instituting a flat 6% corporate income tax.  Still, Synder recognized the plan would remove $1.5 billion from the state’s coffers. 

Bernero’s plan does little more to make up for the lost revenue.  His proposal includes collecting taxes on internet sales, although he refuses to commit to any gas or service tax increase. Instead, Bernero also seeks to cut state programs and lower costs.  While it is disappointing to see both candidates propose tax and funding cuts, Bernero has pledged to support state funding for anti-poverty and unemployment programs.

Pennsylvania

Despite massive state budget shortfalls in Pennsylvania, both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato pledged, abstractly, not to raise taxes. Neither candidate seems to be sticking to such a pledge. Onorato was gutsy enough to suggest imposing a new tax on shale severance.  Onorato’s proposed tax would allow the state to remain competitive with neighboring states.  Onorato’s Republican counterpart, Tom Corbett, has maintained that he will not raise taxes, but he is reportedly open to increasing payroll taxes. So apparently, Corbett’s pledge only applies to big business.

South Carolina

South Carolina voters are guaranteed to see a new Governor in Columbia that is going to slash budgets instead of raising revenue. Both the major candidates, Democrat Vincent Sheheen and Republican Nikki Haley, are saying that they won't raise taxes despite the fact that the budget is in disarray (falling to mid-1990's levels) and the federal government can't be relied on for more stimulus money to help prop the state up. Sheheen has said, "We can't keep funding everything at the levels of two or three years ago. We can't keep funding everything, period."

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Haley does have some pet projects she'd like to see improved despite claiming that South Carolina must live within its means. She says, "When your revenues are down, the last thing you cut is your advertising, so we need to make sure the Commerce Department is strong. We need to strengthen our technical colleges." No matter who wins this election, it's going to be difficult to improve technical colleges and the Commerce Department when money is so tight and lawmakers aren't leaving many options.

Tennessee

Tennessee politicians realize the state has serious budget shortfalls.  Unfortunately, the only question facing Tennessee voters this November will be how much to cut state programs and who to reward with tax cuts.

Last week, the current Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen announced plans to cut next year’s state budget by up to $160 million.  Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter lauded the plan, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam criticized the cuts for not being large enough

However, the candidates do have differing ideas about creating jobs through tax cuts.  McWherter proposed a $50 million state tax break for small businesses that would reward qualifying companies for creating the next 20,000 jobs.  In contrast, Haslam proposed creating regional economic development centers.  McWherter’s plan is based on a similar program in Illinois, which Democratic Governor Pat Quinn instituted and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady would like to expand.


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.


What You Should Know Candidates are Saying About Taxes


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Candidates across the country are gearing up for the November elections. Over the coming months we'll highlight just some of the candidates running in local, state, and national races with an eye toward evaluating their positions in terms of tax fairness.

Current Iowa Governor Chet Culver - Iowa's film tax credit program has been costly and controversial. This week current Governor Chet Culver came out against keeping the program. He said in a recent news conference, "We’re not going to be taken for suckers. People, unfortunately, exploited that program.”

Current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn - During the Democratic primary we wrote about Governor Quinn's proposal to raise income taxes in a progressive way. Now Candidate Quinn is proposing that, in combination with an income tax hike, he would urge local school districts to reduce regressive property taxes. He recently said, "If you get additional new money from Springfield, from the state government, then I think part of the bargain has to be that the local school districts at least roll back a portion of their property taxes. It's a fair bargain."

Current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick - Massachusetts voters will be asked to decide Question 3, which would slash the state sales tax from 6.25 to 3 percent. Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, taking a hammer to this revenue stream would have a disastrous impact on the state budget. Current Governor and gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick has come out against Question 3, saying that if the sales tax is reduced it would be "a calamity."

X South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley - South Carolina collected $147 million in corporate income tax revenue in the last fiscal year. Nikki Haley has said that she would eliminate the tax altogether in hopes of attracting more businesses. She said at a recent fundraiser, "If we become a no-corporate-income-tax state, we will become a magnet for companies." Instead of proposing to throw out an entire revenue source, she should take a minute to read ITEP's latest policy brief on economic development.

X Vermont gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie - Candidate Dubie is campaigning on a promise to cut $240 million in income and property taxes paid by Vermonters. Specifically, he would drastically reduce personal income tax rates, cut corporate income tax rates, and support a property tax cap.  But when he was asked how the tax cuts would be paid for in terms of fewer services, Dubie couldn't offer any details.


New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report.


South Carolina Sales Tax Reform Proposal is Flawed in at Least Two Important Ways


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It's encouraging that the South Carolina Taxation Realignment Commission (TRAC) is interested in broadening the state sales tax base and lowering the overall tax rate.  Nonetheless, testimony submitted by ITEP late last week makes clear that the specific proposal being considered by the Commission is seriously flawed in at least two ways.

The first flaw is what ITEP describes in its testimony as a "worrying focus on taxing the 'necessities' that represent a large share of low-income families’ spending."  While low-income families will be helped by the lower overall sales tax rate proposed by the TRAC, the new taxes those families will face on groceries, residential utilities, and prescription drugs may outweigh the benefits they see from the lower rate.  Lessening the impact of this change through the enactment of a state EITC or some other type of tax credit is of vital importance if South Carolina is to avoid pushing its impoverished residents deeper into poverty.

The second flaw relates to the TRAC's insistence that its proposal be revenue neutral.  South Carolina tax revenues — like those in most states — have taken a serious blow as a result of the economic recession.  Large-scale tax base-broadening of the type being discussed by TRAC would raise more than enough revenue to substantially lower the sales tax rate while simultaneously bolstering the state's weakened revenue streams. 

Refusing to pursue this latter goal would be a serious mistake.  And moreover, as ITEP's testimony points out, estimating the amount of revenue that can be raised by taxing a slew of previously untaxed purchases is much easier said than done.  As a result, it will be very difficult for lawmakers to know precisely what tax rate would be needed to ensure true revenue neutrality.  At the very least, this difficulty should encourage a more cautious approach to revenue neutrality than what the TRAC appears interested in pursuing.


Sales Tax Holidays: Good for Little More than a Laugh


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

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

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

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

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

 


Update on South Carolina's Tax Deform Commission


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South Carolina's Taxation Realignment Commission  (TRAC) was established over a year ago and has been meeting since September. Commissioners were charged with studying the tax structure with these instructions: "The goal of TRAC, and ultimately of the state’s tax structure, is creation of a system that enhances the state’s reputation as a '…optimum competitor in efforts to attract business and individuals to locate, live, work and invest…' in South Carolina."

The Commission has spent much of its time studying sales tax exemptions. Last week the Commissioners approved a proposal that would eliminate a series of sales tax exemptions including those for electricity and water, and would also expand the sales tax (albeit at a reduced rate) to include groceries and prescription drugs. The Commission's proposal includes a reduction in the overall sales tax rate so that the net fiscal impact of the base broadening measures is revenue-neutral.

A broad-base, low-rate tax is often good policy, but applying the tax to so many basic necessities is cause for alarm. As ITEP noted last week, "It's hard to find items that you could tax that would have more of a regressive impact than groceries and utilities."

The revenue-neutral nature of the proposal is also cause for concern. John Rouff from South Carolina Fair Share recently addressed that issue, saying, "Revenue neutrality is not what we need today. We have a state that is facing a dire economic crisis."

The Commission is expected to make a final decision in September about whether to send the proposal to the Legislature for their approval.


State Tax Cuts Are Not Stimulus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


South Carolina: New Details Released Showing that Boeing Subsidy Package Approaches $1 Billion


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New details have just surfaced regarding the deal between South Carolina and Boeing that we discussed in the Digest last week.  It turns out that the subsidy package Boeing was able to extract from the state’s taxpayers will be at least twice as large as was first reported.  In total, over $900 million will be given to Boeing. 

Put another way, the state will be giving Boeing an “incentive package” large enough to cover the entire cost of building its plant, with at least $150 million in benefits left over. 

State residents should keep this package in mind the next time South Carolina lawmakers proclaim the virtues of “free markets” and “limited government” as part of their anti-tax platform.

The details of an extremely generous subsidy package given by South Carolina to Boeing, Inc. have rightly garnered a lot of attention.  The entire package is valued at around $450 million, and will require the cash-strapped state to borrow $270 million in order to help fund the construction of Boeing’s new facility in North Charleston. Among other things, the package would assess Boeing’s in-state property at a mere 4% of its value for property tax purposes (a fact that may irk other industrial taxpayers who are assessed at a 10.5% rate), promises the company that its tax rate won’t rise during the next 30 years, and allows the company to retain half of what it ultimately does “pay” in property taxes, if it uses the money for site improvements.  

But an extremely detailed study of tax incentives in Pennsylvania, released by Good Jobs First this week, should cause South Carolina policymakers to think twice about their “smokestack chasing” ways.  The report explains, among other things, that state tax bills are generally of little importance in company location decisions, and rarely can such breaks encourage a company to be truly loyal to a state and its workforce (as demonstrated recently in North Carolina).  As a result, selectively reducing taxes for certain companies in order to attract them to a state is a “low-impact but high cost” strategy.  Instead, Good Jobs First provides a number of recommendations for encouraging economic growth in much more sophisticated ways – such as improving workforce training policies, or taking targeted, careful steps to maximize the growth potential of young, small, and local businesses.

The full study can be found here.


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.


Tax-Free Gun Days Starting to Catch On


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A little over a year ago, we told you about a ridiculous law in South Carolina that provided for a sales tax "holiday" on purchases of handguns, rifles, and shotguns (later ruled unconstitutional for technical reasons, though only after the holiday had already taken place).  Little did we know then that the idea would actually catch on.  Louisiana enacted a similar "holiday" last month, upping the ante by exempting not only handguns, rifles, and shotguns, but also bows, crossbows, hunting knives, arrows, ammunition, rifle scopes, holsters, and much more.  Unbelievably, the idea is reportedly receiving attention in Texas and Kentucky as well.

The Louisiana holiday is scheduled to occur each year on the first consecutive Friday through Sunday in September.  During that weekend, neither state nor local sales taxes will be collected on a variety of items the legislature has declared worthy of being included in its "Second Amendment Holiday." 

But it's not hard to imagine how many of those exemptions will pose serious administrative problems.  With some exempt items, such as tree stands, there seems to be little room for confusion.  In other cases however, the state has decided to exempt a variety of multi-purpose items based on whether they were designed, marketed, or even simply purchased for use while hunting (e.g. some items must be designed with hunting in mind, while others need only be purchased by somebody with the intent to hunt).  Items falling into this category include off-road vehicles, animal feed, boots, bags, binoculars, chairs, belts, and various types of camouflage clothing. 

Apparently, according to this list of tax-exempt items, you can look at a bird through tax-free binoculars, but only if you intend to kill it.  Ensuring that these items are really purchased by individuals with "Second Amendment" intentions will no doubt prove impossible.

The bill's official fiscal note hints at a further complication involved with this holiday.  Specifically, it explains that the state will pay retailers $25 for each cash register they re-program to calculate "Second Amendment" items as being tax-free.  On top of that, the state will pay $25 more when the register is re-programmed, back to normal, at the end of the holiday.  Official estimates are that it could cost Louisiana taxpayers up to $100,000 to help retailers make the necessary modifications.  Since the holiday is only expected to result in $263,000 per year in tax savings, this $100,000 cost is not a trivial concern.  And keep in mind, Louisiana taxpayers not purchasing weapons will be helping to pay this $100,000 tab to benefit their soon-to-be well-armed neighbors.

The inevitably complicated nature of sales tax holidays is just one of their many flaws -- as explained in this ITEP Policy Brief.  But despite all their problems, at least typical "back-to-school" sales tax holidays can be interpreted as a misguided attempt to make life easier for families with school-age children.  When it comes to these "Second Amendment Holidays," however, it's hard to see what exactly lawmakers are trying to gain, other than a pat on the back from the NRA.


Happy Holidays? Reconsidering Sales Tax Holidays


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So-called sales tax holidays, normally two- or three-day events that encourage shoppers to purchase back-to-school items tax-free, are bad policy for a variety of reasons. The holidays are poorly targeted, costly, and lull legislators into thinking that they've done something substantial to help reduce the regressivity of sales taxes.

The bottom line is that given the choice between targeted sales tax reform that takes into account one's ability to pay and a three-day sales tax holiday, lawmakers should always opt for targeted reform.

Last weekend a handful of states from Alabama to New Mexico held their sales tax holidays. (The Federation of Tax Administrators keeps a complete list of holidays here.) But because of the recent economic downturn, some legislators and economists are questioning the wisdom of not collecting sales taxes a few days a year.

Former chairman of South Carolina's Board of Economic Advisors Harry Miley certainly has his doubts about the effectiveness of sales tax holidays. He says that shoppers don't need incentives to go back-to-school shopping, and the cost to the state is quite high. He says, "The idea of a tax holiday for essential items doesn’t make any sense to me." For more on why sales tax holidays aren't all they are cracked up to be, see ITEP's Policy Brief.


South Carolina's Tax Commission Saga


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You know a state has some problems when it claims it cannot even afford to conduct a study to determine whether its revenue system is adequate and effective. That's what happenedearlier this week in South Carolina, where it appeared that legislation to create a special panel to study the state's tax structure might get derailed. Lawmakers found it difficult to resolve the panel's membership and whether the costs associated with the panel (staffing, travel, etc.) could actually be paid for.

On Tuesday the legislature decided that the state could, in fact, afford to conduct a study to determine how it should raise revenue. Unfortunately, the effort is set to fail before it even begins. Ultimately both the House and Senate approved the creation of the 11-member board, but House Democrats won't be allowed to appoint a panel member. The panel is supposed to study the so-called "Fair Tax," a proposal that would eliminate state personal and corporate income taxes and replace that lost revenue with huge sales taxes shouldered primarily by low- and middle-income people. Incredibly, recent controversial changes to the state's property tax won't be discussed before the panel.


"Fair Tax" Dead in Missouri But May Rear Its Head in Kentucky or South Carolina


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It's safe to assume that there will be a special legislative session in Kentucky this summer. After all, the Blue Grass state is expected to face a billion dollar shortfall for the fiscal year starting July 1. Governor Beshear claims

he hasn't committed to calling back the legislature or decided what topic he would even select for a special session, but everyone knows a shortfall this large isn't going away without further action. So a flurry of proposals are being discussed from progressive income tax reform to increased gambling and even the so-called "fair tax."

The infamous "fair tax" legislation, which proponents are pushing all over the country, would eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, replace the lost revenue with increased sales taxes on a wide range of services, and eliminate most current sales tax exemptions. Before going too far down this path,

Kentucky legislators should take a moment to look at how that same proposal has faired in other states just this year.

Missouri, "fair tax" legislation passed the House of Representatives but went nowhere in the Senate. An ITEP analysis found that this proposal would raise taxes on middle-income Missourians and require a much higher sales tax rate than advertised.

A similar fate is expected in South Carolina where similar legislation has been introduced in the House. Advocates in South Carolina are hopeful that the legislation won't get very far.

Kentucky lawmakers should quickly jump off the failed "fair tax" bandwagon and instead look for ways to improve their state's tax structure while also increasing state revenue.

As state policymakers craft their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, they must confront a pair of daunting challenges, one fiscal, the other economic. The budget outlook for the states is, at present, the most dire in several decades. In this context, then, states must find ways to generate additional revenue that create neither additional responsibilities for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet nor additional distortions in the economy as a whole.

For nine states -- Arkansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin -- one straightforward approach would be to repeal the substantial tax breaks that they now provide for income from capital gains. In tax year 2008 alone, these nine states are expected to lose a total of $663 million due to such misguided policies, with individual losses ranging from $10 million to $285 million per state. A new ITEP report explains that repealing these tax preferences would help states reduce their large and growing budgetary gaps, enhance the equity of their current tax systems, and remove the economic inefficiencies arising from such favorable treatment.

This report explains what capital gains are, how they are treated for tax purposes, and who typically receives them. It also details the consequences of providing preferential tax treatment for capital gains income for states' budgets, taxpayers, and economies in nine key states. Lastly, it responds to claims about both the relationship between capital gains preferences and economic growth and the role capital gains taxation plays in state revenue volatility. (Appendices to the report provide detailed state-by-state estimates of the impact of repealing capital gains tax preferences.)

Read the report.


South Carolina Governor More Concerned About Election Year 2012 Than Fiscal Year 2009?


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The budget picture in South Carolina is grim. The State's Comptroller General said recently that corporate income tax collections are down 57 percent, sales tax collections are down by 18 percent, and individual income tax collections are down nearly 3 percent since July. State agencies have reportedly reduced their own budgets by $600 million to take into account reduced revenues.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities forty-two other states now face a budget shortfall. Policymakers in other states have come forward with a variety of proposals to deal with their state's crisis. For example, New York Governor David Paterson recently asked for federal money to assist his state and Arizona Governor-Elect Jan Brewer won't take tax hikes off the table.

Governor Mark Sanford's answer to South Carolina's budget woes are in left field and across the street compared to these strategies.

In fact, Governor Sanford has publically argued against providing federal aid to the states and just this week he released a budget busting list of tax changes that include eliminating the state's progressive corporate income tax and introducing an optional single rate personal income tax. While some other items on his list would raise some revenue (raising the state's regressive cigarette tax, eliminating sales tax holidays, reducing business tax "incentives"), overall, it's pretty clear that Governor Sanford's solution is to dig the revenue hole deeper.

To the cynical among us it appears that Sanford may be gearing up for 2012. He was recently elected chairman of the Republican Governor's Association and is clearly attempting to beat the "supply-side" drum -- never mind that the notion of supply side economics has been debunked repeatedly.

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

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

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

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


EITC Campaign in South Carolina


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Advocates in South Carolina have launched a campaign (using an ITEP analysis) to educate policymakers and the public about the benefits of an earned income tax credit (EITC). The EITC receives bipartisan support and is a unique tool that serves to help working families rise from poverty. States choose to design their credits in different ways but having an EITC is always better than having none at all. South Carolina will hopefully join over twenty states in using an EITC to make their tax structure fairer. For more on the efforts of South Carolina Fair Share and their work on the EITC click here.


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).


South Carolina: Gold, Frankincense, and Handguns


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While many politicians in the District of Columbia were dismayed when the U.S Supreme Court struck down DC's handgun law, people in other parts of the country got ready to celebrate. The South Carolina legislature mustered the two-thirds majority it needed in both chambers to override the Governor's veto of the "Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday". The "holiday" establishes an annual, two day sales tax exemption for handguns, rifles, and shotguns. That exemption will occur each year on two of the busiest days of the Holiday shopping season, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. That Friday is commonly referred to as "Black Friday" because of the heavy traffic and crowds surrounding most shopping centers. (Consider that before you cut someone off in the shopping mall parking lot on Black Friday this year.)

Adding a twist to this story, however, is the fact that the bill containing the "holiday" may in fact be unconstitutional, as concerns have been raised as to whether it violates the state constitution's "single subject" requirement demanding that every bill deal with only one policy area. The bill includes a provision requiring oil companies to sell "blendable" fuel that can be mixed with ethanol, which perhaps stretches the definition of a "single subject".

As a result, some observers think the entire bill, including the "holiday", may end up never taking effect as a result of constitutional challenges. South Carolina may therefore need to begin formulating new ways to promote its vision of arming more of its citizens, though as this ITEP Policy Brief explains, a sales tax holiday may not necessarily be the most preferable route to doing so.


Selective Fiscal Responsibility in South Carolina


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South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford vetoed a bill this week that sought to increase the state's cigarette tax rate, which is currently the lowest in the nation. While the Governor supported the cigarette tax hike (as most people in the state do), he criticized the bill for linking the new revenues to a Medicaid expansion that would ultimately be unsustainable.

The cost of providing health care is constantly on the rise, and the real value of tax collected on each pack of cigarettes continuously declines as a result of inflation and other factors. The Governor, perhaps correctly, pointed out that the bill "virtually ensures future tax increases" in order to maintain consistent Medicaid funding. Interestingly, this is precisely the problem the legislature tried to address in attempting to index the amount of tax to the rate of medical cost inflation (as was discussed in a previous Digest).

The Governor's complaints about the bill's lack of sustainability seem suspect when one considers the purpose to which he would like to see the revenue dedicated: an optional flat income tax that (primarily wealthier) taxpayers could use to avoid the state's graduated rate structure. If the Governor wants a tax cut that neatly offsets the cigarette tax hike, then his plan would fail this test dramatically. While cigarette taxes exhibit some of the slowest growth (or even decline) of any tax, income taxes on the wealthy are among the most quickly growing revenue sources. This is in part because income is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands better-off individuals who pay at the top marginal tax rate. Reducing the rate at which this income is taxed would almost certainly come to cost more than what the cigarette tax could provide.


South Carolina: A Cigarette Tax Increase with a Twist


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During a recent debate over a proposed cigarette tax increase, South Carolina legislators briefly considered a unique proposal to index the amount of the tax to the inflation rate of medical costs; the logic being that without indexing the tax, the revenues it raised would soon fall short (as a result of inflation) of the amounts needed to maintain the health care expansion to which it would be dedicated. The provision to index the tax has already been removed from the bill, but it nonetheless continues to provide an interesting context in which to discuss the cigarette tax. With the cigarette tax being on the agenda of so many states in just the past few months, including Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia, to name a few, any new perspective with which to view this issue is certainly useful.

Though cigarette tax increases are often packaged as attempts to curb smoking, prevent teen addiction, or offset the various costs that smoking imposes on society, many policymakers either privately or publicly view the tax primarily as a method for obtaining revenue with which to enact or expand a favored program. The problem is that the stream of funding produced by cigarette taxes always falls short over time as inflation erodes the value of tax collected on each pack sold. Indexing the tax to inflation is one way to begin to remedy this problem.

The South Carolina proposal was especially interesting in that it explicitly tied the revenues raised to the cost of the program it would fund (health care). The main problem with South Carolina's approach is that smoking rates are generally on the decline -- meaning the tax base upon which this revenue source depends is shrinking. Indexing does nothing to solve this problem, and therefore should not serve as an excuse for policymakers to increase their state's reliance on this regressive and unsustainable revenue source.

As an interesting aside, indexing the cigarette tax to inflation does make sense for states whose primary goal in taxing cigarettes is to curb smoking. As inflation erodes the true value of the tax levied on each pack, the deterrent power of that tax is reduced. Indexing the tax is the most reliable way to ensure that a consistent amount of tax is collected.


Taxation's Own Digital Divide


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Earlier this month, Apple announced that it had surpassed Wal-Mart as the largest music retailer in the United States, citing data from market research firm NPD for the first two months of 2008. The announcement will hopefully help to draw more attention to a long-standing shortcoming in some states' tax systems -- namely, their inability to tax electronic commerce properly. Simply put, the form a transaction takes should not affect the amount of tax it might incur. Someone who downloads the latest Mariah Carey album from iTunes should pay the same state sales tax as someone who purchases the CD at his or her local record store, and a hotel reservation made through Orbitz should result in the same amount of revenue to the state as one made over the phone or in person.

Yet, flaws in state tax laws mean that purchases of intangible goods -- like a downloaded version of E=MC2 -- are often not subject to the same sales taxes levied on purchases of tangible goods. For example, California loses an estimated $500 million in sales tax revenue each year because it makes such a distinction between tangible and intangible goods. A proposal to move towards ending that distinction was defeated in the Assembly's Revenue and Taxation Committee this past week, the victim of lobbying by the American Electronics Association, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others.

Similarly, states and localities continue to lose vital tax dollars due to hotel reservations made via the Internet. That is, online travel companies like Hotels.com frequently avoid paying the correct amount of taxes by maintaining that they only owe tax based on the wholesale price they paid to the hotels for the room reservations they offer, rather than the retail price they charge their customers. Different jurisdictions have taken different approaches to this problem. A number of cities have brought lawsuits against hotel resellers, while the state of South Carolina recently served one such company with a bill for $6.3 million in unpaid sales taxes. On the other hand, Florida, predictably, has the worst idea. A bill before one House committee -- and backed by Expedia -- would let online travel companies keep this tax break, at a cost of $22 million in forgone revenue.


Less than Half of Tennessee Sales Subject to the 'Sales' Tax


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According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, state and local governments in Tennessee lose over $3.5 billion per year as a result of sales tax exemptions. Just five years ago, that number was only $2.2 billion. Five years before that, only $1.1 billion was lost annually.

So why is this number so large? And why is it growing so quickly? The answer to the first question is especially interesting in light of the fact that Tennessee is one of a minority of states that continues to tax groceries. Exempting groceries is widely recognized as an easy way to reduce the disproportionate impact that sales taxes have on the poor, but Tennessee doesn't do this. So where is the money going? For one thing, less than 40 percent of potentially taxable services in the state are actually taxed. Despite the gains in revenue and in fairness to be had from taxing services, haircuts, taxidermy, limousines, dating services, and many others remain tax-free in the state.

This also helps explain why the losses to the state have grown more than three-fold in the last decade. It is no secret that the U.S. has steadily been moving towards a more service-based economy. As this has happened, consumption has been shifted into purchases that are tax free under Tennessee law. This shift in the economy has a lot to do with why one University of Tennessee professor believes that only 48% of Tennessee's sales are subject to the sales tax. In 1979, it is estimated that that number was 65%.

But services don't explain the entire loss. Under pressure from organized interest groups, year after year, Tennessee legislators continue to add more exemptions to the tax code. This year alone, football merchandize, solar panels, and flatbed farm trucks were proposed to be made exempt from the sales tax. Exemplifying the problem perfectly was one bill that proposed to exempt mulch from taxation. Upon being introduced, a long list of goods including fencing wire and machine oil were added to the bill, ballooning its cost from $88,000 to $1.3 million per year.

This problem is by no means unique to Tennessee. As one South Carolina newspaper recently pointed out, shrinking sales tax revenues are partially a result of "small, targeted tax cuts [that] get even less scrutiny -- and make even more of a mess of our Swiss-cheese tax code". But this problem is especially noteworthy in Tennessee because the state lacks a broad-based income tax. With Tennessee state and local governments relying almost exclusively on sales taxes for revenue, these kind of exemptions are cutting into the fiscal foundation of public services. Tennessee state and local sales tax rates have already been raised to levels that are among the highest in the nation in order to make up for this lost revenue.


A Word from the Wise


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A state cannot improve the lives of its residents by becoming the "discount store of the U.S." warned Dr. William Fox, the respected Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, in a speech at the Annual Economic Outlook Conference in South Carolina this week. Fox said of South Carolina's tax structure, "If you want to be the discount store of the U.S. that certainly is an option. But it is not the way to create a rising income relative to the U.S. and the rest of the world."

According to The State, Fox reportedly said that South Carolina "needs to put in place a tax system that grows with the need for education and infrastructure, "so that you can invest in yourself." Fox and other colleagues are consulting with the Palmetto Institute (a South Carolina based think-tank) regarding ways to improve the state's tax structure. Let's hope that in the coming legislative sessions South Carolina follows Fox's advice instead of attempting to become the tax policy equivalent of K-Mart.


TABOR Alert: South Carolina


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As we noted in last week's Digest, South Carolina will likely face a budget deficit of roughly $430 million in the coming fiscal year. Predictably, this has prompted some, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, to call for a constitutional amendment to limit state spending. Similar proposals have been offered before in South Carolina and in other states. The only such limitation that has passed in any state is Colorado's so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" or TABOR. The result for Colorado has been a dramatic deterioration in essential public services and the state chose to suspend that limitation in 2005.

More to the point, as Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State points out, South Carolina's real problem is not runaway spending, but a deeply flawed tax system. Among the tax policy challenges that South Carolina must address are limitations on property tax growth and property tax assessments, wasteful tax breaks for profitable corporations like Michelin, and an excessive reliance on a sales tax that fails to tax services adequately. ITEP's Issue Briefs can help to explain the shortcomings of South Carolina's approach to property and sales taxation - and what can be done about them.


Conservative [Reckless] Approaches to State Fiscal Policy


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Policymakers in South Carolina learned late last week that the state will likely face a budget deficit of some $430 million heading into FY 2009. A number of states will have to close budget gaps in the coming fiscal year -- in part because critical sources of revenue growth have slowed with the cooling housing market. But South Carolina has brought some of this problem on itself. As the Bureau of Economic Advisors -- the body responsible for the latest budget projection -- indicates, one of the three largest factors contributing to the likely deficit is the $240 million in tax cuts enacted this summer.

News like this should give elected officials in Utah some pause. According to the Deseret Morning News, legislators there are already talking about using a projected $400 million budget surplus to cut taxes once again. Yet, as the News points out, that surplus may exist only because Utah's budget projections have not yet been updated to account for previously enacted tax cuts. In other words, some elected officials want to use these surpluses, which may not even exist because of previous tax cuts, to fund more tax cuts. Anti-tax politicians with this kind of mindset like to portray themselves as conservative, but this kind of behavior can only be described as reckless


Cuts, Cuts, and More Cuts


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Last Thursday South Carolina legislators passed a substantial tax cut package, two weeks after the legislative session was scheduled to end. Fierce disagreement between policymakers caused delays but lawmakers finally reached a compromise. Starting November 1, South Carolina visitors and residents will no longer pay a three percent sales tax on groceries. Of course, there are more targeted ways to assist low income tax payers than simply eliminating the grocery tax altogether (take a look at ITEP's policy brief). Progressives did win a defensive victory by lobbying hard against the House plan to lower income tax rates for better off South Carolinians. Instead, the state's bottom income tax rate was eliminated - a move that benefits taxpayers at all income levels.


Bill Comes Due in South Carolina


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South Carolina's free lunch comes to an end today. A controversial "tax swap" enacted last year repealed all homeowner property taxes for school operating costs and reduced the state sales tax on groceries... and partially paid for these tax cuts by increasing the sales tax rate on all other items by a penny. Residents of the Palmetto State have been enjoying the reduced grocery tax since last fall, but the extra penny of sales tax only takes effect today. So, for the first time since the tax swap was enacted, South Carolinians will get a taste of the plan's real impact on them. Low-income families, especially renters, will likely be shortchanged by this move, while wealthier homeowners will enjoy the lion's share of the tax cuts. The State newspaper puts it all in perspective here.

Adding insult to injury, state lawmakers are now contemplating cutting the state's income tax rates. House lawmakers want to cut the top rate, while the Senate wants to cut the bottom tax rate. Unfortunately, neither change will do a thing for the low-income families hit hardest by last year's tax swap.


Food Fight: Sales Tax on Food Questioned in Tennessee and South Carolina


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In a move towards a more progressive tax structure, lawmakers in both Tennessee and South Carolina have floated plans to eliminate or reduce the sales tax on groceries. However, several competing proposals are under discussion in both states, and a political food fight of sorts has broken out.

In Tennessee, the Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed a targeted food sales tax exemption for milk, eggs, and baby formula. Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans are lining up behind the bizarre idea of completely eliminating the state sales tax on groceries for a single month.

Tennessee's neighbor to the east is also grappling with various tax cut proposals. The South Carolina Senate Finance Committee passed a measure that would phase out the state sales tax on food over three years. The proposal is competing against a House measure that would reduce the top income tax rate.

Many have expressed concern over South Carolina's ability to pay for either measure, noting (wisely) that reducing revenues during a time of budget surpluses can lead to budget deficits down the road. There are ways to make tax breaks for food more targeted to those who need them the most (ways to get the most "bang for their buck" in other words). But almost any tax break on food would be more progressive than lowering the top income tax rate. For more on the best ways to target tax breaks to those who could really use them, read ITEP's policy brief on providing targeted tax relief for residents who need it the most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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