Tennessee News


Tennessee Mulls Move from Bad to Worse on Tax Policy


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tennessee.jpgTennessee is already one of the ten most unfair states when it comes to tax policy. It is one of nine states that do not levy a broad-based personal income tax on their residents’ earnings (the state does collect a 6 percent tax on investment income from dividends, interest, and some capital gains income- see more below). Instead, the state relies heavily on regressive sales taxes to fund public services, and as a result the bottom 20 percent of Tennesseans pay four times as much of their income in state and local taxes as the top 1 percent. Sadly, instead of trying to create a more fair tax system, there are two efforts underway that would make a bad deal for working families even worse.

The first effort is Amendment 3, a ballot initiative (and political gimmick) that would permanently ban the state legislators from creating a broad state income tax. Never mind that any income tax bill has zero chance of passing, and that the last serious effort in 2002 ended in wild protests and bricks thrown through windows. The measure has many prominent cheerleaders, most notably the father of voodoo economics, pundit-for-hire and Nashville resident Art Laffer, and his sidekick Travis Brown. They claim that Tennessee’s economic success (43rd in unemployment rate, 30th in quality of labor supply, 40th in quality of life) is due to its “status as a no-income tax state.”  They see Tennessee as the vanguard of the “heartland tax rebellion,” a gaggle of shortsighted tax “reforms” pushed by Laffer and right-wing organizations in conservative states. Kansas was the poster-child until recent events caused the state to become a liability.

Amendment supporters also claim the measure will bring more jobs to Tennessee, since business owners would be absolutely certain there would never be any broad income tax imposed. As usual, the claim is made with no evidence or common sense; who are these fence-sitting job creators who refuse to set up shop in Tennessee because of the possibility of a new tax that isn’t even imposed on businesses? Perhaps supporters, who are making a clearly ideological choice, can’t conceive of any other way to make business decisions. 

Unfortunately for supporters, their claims are belied by pesky facts. John Stewart, an opponent of the measure and former state economic development official, asserts that he “never had one company raise the issue of income tax as to whether they were going to come or not. The one issue they always cared about was a skilled and trained workforce through our colleges.” Stewart notes that the measure will force future Tennesseans to pay higher sales, property, food and business taxes or cut services in order to balance the budget. A recent Standard and Poor’s report found that states without progressive income taxes will see revenues shrink due to growing income inequality.

The second effort is the ongoing fight to repeal the Hall tax, which taxes investment income from dividends, interest, and some capital gains income. Attempts to repeal the tax failed this year, so advocates – backed by the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist – will try again during the 2015 legislative session. An ITEP analysis found that nearly two-thirds of the benefits from repealing the Hall tax would go to the wealthiest Tennesseans – those earning an average of $970,000 a year. The next largest beneficiary would be the federal government, since investors would no longer be able to write off Hall tax payments on their federal returns.

The losers from the repeal of the Hall tax would be ordinary Tennesseans, who would see state and local spending decrease or other taxes increase. Last year, the tax generated $264 million in revenue, three-eighths of which went to local jurisdictions. The plan to repeal the Hall tax would require the state to reimburse cities and counties for any revenue losses, but doesn’t specify where the money would come from. An editorial in the Knoxville News-Sentinel gets it right: “Without new revenue sources, the state would have to cannibalize other parts of its perpetually lean budget….Repeal of the Hall tax at this time without finding alternative revenue sources does not make sense for the state, for local governments or for the people of Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s blind, ideological pursuit of tax cuts has prevented the state from making crucial investments that would actually make the state more competitive. Tennessee ranks 40th in teacher pay, yet the most recent state budget was passed without promised raises for teachers and state employees. Proposed higher education spending was also eliminated, meaning college students will see tuition jumps. The idea that states can cut their way to prosperity – despite the evidence all around us – is alive and well. 


State Rundown 9/19: Income Tax Debates and Film Tax Credits


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tax.news-article.jpgA new report from Standard and Poor’s that shows progressive income tax systems are better for state revenue could provide a boost to tax reformers in Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe. Massachusetts is one of seven states with a flat personal income tax rate, and a bipartisan commission recently found that the state’s overall tax system places a greater burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers than it does on the wealthy. They’ve recommended that the state adopt a graduated income tax structure -- a move that would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment. Similar proposals have been defeated at the polls five times, most recently in 1994. For our take on the S&P report, check out this blog post from our director, Matt Gardner.

Meanwhile, Tennessee voters will soon decide whether to ban their state legislature from ever imposing a state tax on all personal income (Tennessee currently taxes interest and dividend income). The measure is largely superfluous, since there is little chance state lawmakers would ever consider a broader income tax. The last attempt to introduce a tax on personal income, in 2002, resulted in strident protests, including a brick thrown through the governor’s office window. Lawmakers ended up passing a sales tax increase instead, the last time any general tax increase was passed in the state. In last year’s Who Pays report, Tennessee ranked in the bottom ten states for tax fairness.

The Louisiana Film Entertainment Association (LFEA) commissioned a study on the economic impact of the state’s film tax credit incentive program. They’ve tapped HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm that has done similar analysis of film tax credits for the Motion Picture Association in Massachusetts and New York. The results of the state’s own studies, commissioned by Louisiana Economic Development, show that film credits were a net loss to the state in 2012, and each dollar collected on film credits cost $4.35 in state revenue. In 2010, the state spent $7.29 for each dollar collected. The LFEA study is sure to come up with much rosier numbers.

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that would triple funding for the state’s film and television tax credit program. The measure is meant to keep film and television production from leaving the state, and is the culmination of a yearlong campaign by entertainment industry lobbyists. Hollywood has been hammered by aggressive competition from other localities – like New York, Vancouver and Atlanta, where incentives were more generous – and new business models, like Netflix and HBOGo. While the measure enjoys broad support, not everyone is happy about the tax credits: the state’s public education unions fear the measure will reduce the money available for schools, while others have questioned the effectiveness and transparency of the credits. 


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


Norquist-Backed Tax Cut for the Rich Fails in Tennessee


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Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, along with the Tax Foundation and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity all tried to convince Tennessee lawmakers that the state’s wealthiest investors need a tax cut.  Fortunately for Tennesseans, their elected officials rejected that idea this week.

 At issue was the state’s “Hall Tax,” a 6 percent levy on stock dividends, certain capital gains, and interest.  Tennessee does not tax wages, business income, pensions, Social Security, or virtually any other type of income imaginable.  But for anti-tax groups, even the state’s narrow income tax on investors was too much to stomach.

The Tax Foundation put out an alert claiming Tennessee could improve in its (highly questionable) tax climate ranking by repealing the tax, while Grover Norquist traveled to Tennessee to urge repeal and Americans for Prosperity ran a series of radio ads doing the same.

The state’s comptroller got in on the action as well, bizarrely suggesting that the Hall Tax is bad policy because it is not primarily paid by large families or low-income people lacking health insurance.

But ultimately, sensible concerns that repeal would require damaging cuts in state and local public services eventually won out, and the bill’s sponsor dropped his plan.

This is good news for people concerned with the fairness and adequacy of state tax systems.  As our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explained in a report picked up by The Tennessean, these cuts in public investments would have come with no corresponding tax benefit for the vast majority of households:

“Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the tax cuts would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of Tennessee taxpayers, while another quarter (23 percent) would actually end up in the federal government’s coffers. Moreover, if localities respond to Hall Tax repeal by raising property taxes, some Tennesseans could actually face higher tax bills under this proposal.”

Tennesseans can breathe a sigh of relief that this top-heavy tax repeal plan didn’t make it into law this year.  But you can bet that Grover et al. will try again soon as they attempt to set in motion a national trend away from progressive income taxes.


State News Quick Hits: Maine Cracks Down on Tax Havens and More


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Maine legislators are poised to crack down on corporations that use foreign tax havens to hide income from state tax authorities. The legislation, which has now been passed by both the House and Senate but still faces further votes, requires multinationals doing business in Maine to declare income otherwise attributed to more than thirty countries known to be popular tax havens (like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, not to mention the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which turns out to be an island off the coast of France). Analysts estimate that such a change would increase state revenue by $10 million over the next two years. And U.S. PIRG, among other public interest organizations, has been beating the drum for this sensible reform, which we discussed in our recent report: 90 Reasons We Need State Corporate Tax Reform. Oregon and Montana already have similar laws on their books.

Thanks to a refundable tax credit included in New York’s budget this year, theater companies who launch their productions in upstate New York will enjoy having taxpayers foot the bill for 25 percent of the cost of “their so-called tech periods, the weeks long process in which a production gathers the costumes, tests the sets and choreography and establishes the lighting and musical cues.” Despite the credit’s extreme generosity, we’re still not sure it would have been enough to save Spider-Man.

Tax swap proposals that would trade income rate reductions for sales tax increases have been all the rage in conservative states in recent years. But what if your state doesn’t even have an income tax to begin with? Not wanting to be left out of the tax swap craze, Republican candidate for Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has a solution: completely replace property taxes with an increased sales tax. Texas already has a horribly regressive state tax system (PDF), but eliminating the property tax -- which is at least close to proportional in its distribution across income groups -- would only make matters worse. And while it is “easy to hate” the property tax, without it Texas would need to drastically cut services or more than double the sales tax. Such a trade could also mean less autonomy for localities (PDF) and a revamped school financing system.

Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are continuing to push for eliminating income taxes on investors in Tennessee, and there’s a chance they may succeed.  The state’s tax-writing committees will be voting this week on whether or not to gradually repeal Tennessee’s “Hall Tax” on dividends, interest, and some capital gains.  But repeal would be steeply regressive, as our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) showed in a report cited by The Tennessean.  And on top of that, a spokesman for Governor Bill Haslam explains that “we’re in the middle of dealing with difficult budget realities … and this legislation would automatically put the issue above other priorities when revenues come back.”


State News Quick Hits: EITC Awareness, Grover Norquist's New Target and More


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Community organizations, state tax departments, and editorial pages across the country celebrated National EITC Awareness Day last Friday. Roughly 80% of those eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit take advantage of it each year, a higher participation rate than most other social programs. But keeping this figure high -- and ensuring that busy, working people are also aware of state and local EITCs they may qualify for -- requires continued vigilance. One way to boost participation, and to save beneficiaries from wasting their refund on paid tax preparers, is by joining the volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) program. We also need anti-poverty advocates on the front lines fighting plans in some states to eliminate or weaken their state EITC, as North Carolina did last year.

Like many Americans, Grover Norquist is apparently sick of Congressional gridlock (despite having played no small part in causing it through his inflexible no-new-taxes pledge).  But rather than sit around while federal tax reform continues to stall, Grover has turned his sights toward Tennessee.  Grover wants to see Tennessee repeal one of the few bright spots of its staggeringly regressive tax system (PDF): its “Hall Tax” on investment income.  The Massachusetts native and current DC resident is signaling his intention to push lawmakers to repeal the tax, according to The Tennessean.

With an election just a few months away, Florida Governor Rick Scott has made clear that he wants tax cuts, yet again, to be a top priority in the Sunshine State.  His newest list of ideas includes cutting motor vehicle taxes, cutting sales taxes on commercial rent, cutting business taxes, and cutting business filing fees.  He’d also like to give shoppers a couple of sales tax holidays — a perennial favorite among politicians that like their tax cuts to be as high-profile as possible.

Check out the Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s new blog! Their latest post makes the salient point that two rounds of radical income tax cuts “have failed to create prosperity and are leaving low- and middle- income Kansas families struggling to make ends meet.”


States Praised as Low-Tax That Are High-Tax for Poorest Families


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Annual state and local finance data from the Census Bureau are often used to rank states as “low” or “high” tax states based on state taxes collected as a share of personal income. But focusing on a state’s overall tax revenues overlooks the fact that taxpayers experience tax systems very differently.  In particular, the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than any other income group in all but nine states.  And, in every state, low-income taxpayers pay more as a share of income than the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers.

Our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) took a closer look at the Census data and matched it up with data from their signature Who Pays report which shows the effective state and local tax rates taxpayers pay across the income distribution in all 50 states.  ITEP found that in six states— Arizona, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington —  there is an especially pronounced mismatch between the Census data and how these supposedly low tax states treat people living at or below the poverty line. 

See ITEP's companion report, State Tax Codes As Poverty Fighting Tools.

The major reason for the mismatch is that these six states have largely unbalanced tax structures.  Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Washington rely heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes because they do not levy a broad-based personal income tax.  Since lower-income families must spend more of what they earn just to get by, sales and excise taxes affect this group far more than higher-income taxpayers.  Arizona has a personal income tax, but like the no-income tax states, the Grand Canyon state relies most heavily on sales and excise taxes.

To learn more about how low tax states overall can be high tax states for families living in poverty, read the state briefs described below:

Arizona has the 35th highest taxes overall (9.8% of income), but the 5th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Arizona residents pay only 4.7% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Florida has the 45th highest taxes overall (8.8% of income), but the 3rd highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (13.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Florida residents pay only 2.3% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

South Dakota has the 50th highest taxes overall (7.9% of income- making it the “lowest” tax state), but the 11th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest South Dakota residents pay only 2.1% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Tennessee has the 49th highest taxes overall (8.3% of income), but the 14th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (11.2% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Tennessee residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Texas has the 40th highest taxes overall (9.1% of income), but the 6th highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (12.6% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Texas residents pay only 3.2% of their incomes in state and local taxes.

Washington has the 36th highest taxes overall (9.7% of income), but the 1st highest taxes on the poorest 20 percent of residents (16.9% of income).  The top 1 percent richest Washington residents pay only 2.8% of their incomes in state and local taxes.


The Road Show's Over, It's Time to Talk Policy


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What could be more lovable than a bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code? A bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code led by a couple of folksy guys in shirtsleeves who call themselves Max and Dave. No matter that they are two of the most powerful members of Congress, they have managed to craft a successful PR campaign playing on the public’s frustration with political partisanship and endemic dislike of the tax code. 

Max and Dave, of course, are Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Representative Dave Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Their aw-shucks, let’s-get-a-beer-and-fix-the-tax-code routine has received friendly media coverage inside the Beltway and outside too, during their recently wrapped up road show, which took the pair to Minnesota, Philadelphia, Silicon Valley and Memphis.

But as we have said many, many times, if these two are serious about reforming the tax code, they need to get serious about revenues. Indeed, they need to get serious period.  Stop putting the cart before the horse, quit with the campaign strategy and get down to policy.

Most recently, we made our point on the opinion pages of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the day before Max and Dave showed up for a friendly roundtable with executives from FedEx, one of the squeakier (PDF) corporate wheels when it comes to tax reform.  Our op-ed, “Most of Us Want Corporate Loopholes Shut,” asked why the Senator and Congressman would visit with FedEx for advice about tax reform.

“The venue is apt because FedEx’s taxpaying behavior is emblematic of the challenges facing anyone seeking to fix the United States’ corporate tax system; it’s awkward because FedEx is a heavy feeder on tax breaks enthusiastically supported over many years by bipartisan majorities in Congress.”

We then explained some of what we’d learned in reviewing FedEx’s latest financial statements.

“For example, my organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, found that between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective federal income tax rate of just 0.9 percent on over $4.2 billion in U.S. profits. With two more years of tax filings now publicly available, we know that over the past five years, FedEx paid an average effective federal income tax rate of just 4.2 percent.”

And we took on that worn-out whine about corporations needing a lower corporate tax rate to be competitive.

“FedEx also demonstrates how the U.S. corporate income tax does not appear to make our companies less “competitive,” despite the insistence of legions of CEOs that it does. Between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective income tax rate of 45 percent in the foreign countries where it does business. That’s about 50 times higher than the 0.9 percent rate they faced in the U.S. In fact, of the Fortune 500 corporations that were consistently profitable and that had significant offshore profits during that same period, we found that two-thirds actually paid higher taxes in the foreign countries where they do business than they paid in the U.S.”

Our op-ed in Tennessee also made reference to FedEx’s vast offshore holdings and how it drives down its taxes using depreciation. You can read the whole thing here. You can also read a small business owner using the Max and Dave visit at FedEx to make a similar point in a Tennessean op-ed.

Our real target, of course, wasn’t FedEx but rather the tax reforming team of Baucus and Camp.  We use individual corporations’ tax payments as case studies – little narratives to show what’s wrong with the corporate tax code.  As these corporations like to say, their tax avoidance practices are generally legal because Congress made them legal, so we like to show Congress exactly how their laws are working when it comes to corporate tax revenues.

Sometimes, though, companies take it personally when we publicize their actual tax payments, (remember our back and forth with GE last year?).  Sure enough, two days after our op-ed ran in Memphis, a FedEx V.P. took to the same opinion page to defend the company, using many of the shell games we’ve come to expect. For example, we had explained that FedEx paid a 4.2 percent effective federal income tax rate on its U.S. profits over five years. FedEx V.P. Michael Fryt retorted with a ten year total tax payments figure in dollars, cited its total bill for state, local and federal taxes over five years, and then wrote that FedEx’s effective tax rate has been between 35.3 and 37.9 percent since 2010 – and was even 85.6 percent in 2009.

Notice how those effective rate figures he cites are all actually higher than the federal statutory rate of 35 percent? There’s a reason for that.  While we focused on the company’s federal corporate income tax as a percentage of its U.S. profits, like we always do, Fryt is trying to divert attention to other taxes and taxes that FedEx has not paid yet, as companies often do.  It’s like CTJ shows the world an apple and these companies jump up and down demanding the world look at their oranges instead.  

We have a full response to those oranges FedEx was pushing last week right here.  Among other things, it’s a case of Fryt including taxes that FedEx paid not just to the U.S. Treasury but to every country and locality everywhere it does business, which is not something that Max Baucus or Dave Camp or any member of Congress has any control over. Members of Congress are debating how to reform federal taxes, and we assume that FedEx is lobbying (and lobbying) Congress to influence the shape of that same federal corporate income tax, not the taxes it pays to states or cities or foreign countries.

What Congress can legislate is the federal corporate tax rate and the loopholes, breaks and other special provisions that are increasingly eroding corporate taxes as a share of revenues.  Senator Baucus has told his colleagues to assume the tax code will be wiped clean of such expenditures, even as he and Camp continue to meet with corporations who unapologetically defend their favorite tax breaks – and demand lower rates on top of that.  Summer is over and with it, Max and Dave’s road trip. When they are ready to get back to work, we are ready to offer constructive ideas for tax reform that generates the revenues we need and delivers the fairness the public wants.

Congress hasn’t even granted states the power to collect sales taxes owed on online shopping, but already Tennessee lawmakers are discussing how they might squander the money.  On the heels of inheritance tax, gift tax, sales tax, and interest and dividend tax cuts, Governor Haslam says he’s open to the idea of cutting taxes even further if the state sees a bump in revenue from passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act.  So far the Governor has said he wants to proceed cautiously, but Tennessee lawmakers have guzzled their share of  tax cut snake oil lately.

Uh oh! Watch out for income tax cuts in Iowa in 2014. Already Governor Terry Branstad is looking to next year and potentially reducing income taxes. He recently said, "I think it’s very likely we’ll be looking at reducing the income tax further. When I became governor, the income tax rate in Iowa was 13 percent. We now have it down to 8.98 percent, plus we have full federal deductibility…Remember, the top federal tax is 38.5 percent, so the effective rate in Iowa is only about 5.5 percent. We’d like to see that go lower."

In refreshing news, late last week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a radical tax package passed by the legislature that included: a reduction in the corporate income tax rate, a 50 percent exclusion for pass-through business income, an additional $1,000 personal and spouse income exemption for individuals earning less than $20,000 in Missouri adjusted gross income, and a reduction in the top income tax rate from 6 to 5.5 percent. The Governor called the legislation an “ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible experiment that would inject far-reaching uncertainty into our economy, undermine our state’s fiscal health and jeopardize basic funding for education and vital public services.” Stay tuned. The legislature is expected to come back in September for a veto session during which it’s likely legislators will try to override the Governor’s veto.  

Last week, the Nevada Legislature passed AB 1 (PDF), a bill that changes how the state will handle tax abatements for new or expanding businesses. Under current law, the state grants partial abatement of property taxes, business taxes, and sales and use taxes to a business that locates or expands in the State and has 75 employees, or invests $1 million in capital into the state (businesses in smaller counties can qualify with 15 employees or a $250,000 investment). The new bill would lower the employee requirements to 50 in larger counties and 10 in smaller counties. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reminds us that these kinds of tax incentives are costly and their real impact hard to measure, to say the least.

The Connecticut House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 6566 (PDF), which would require public disclosure of specific details about state economic assistance and tax credits for businesses. The bill would call for the creation of an online database that lists information such as the name and location of the recipient, the number of jobs created or retained, and the amount and detailed nature of the tax subsidy. This bill came only a few weeks after a report was released by Good Jobs First that documented how costly economic development subsidy programs often lack any kind of public transparency. “Despite its widespread practice, this use of taxpayer funds remains controversial,” the report said, “but the absence of good information makes it impossible for citizens to weigh the costs and benefits to their communities.” The bill now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

 

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s proposal to repeal the state’s top personal income tax bracket is “gaining traction,” according to The Oklahoman.  The plan has already passed the House, and has the support of the state Chamber of Commerce. But the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that this cut is stacked in favor of high-income residents: “the bottom 60 percent of Oklahomans would receive just 9 percent of the benefit from this tax cut, while the top 5 percent would receive 42 percent of the benefit.”  

Texas and Washington State are continuing to search for ways to make it easier to identify and repeal tax breaks that aren’t worth their cost.  The Texas Austin American-Statesman reports on a bill that “would put the tax code under the microscope, examining tax breaks in a six-year cycle similar to the Sunset process that evaluates whether state agencies are performing as intended.”  And the Washington Budget and Policy Center explains in a blog post how “all three branches of state government have taken, or are poised to take, actions that could greatly enhance transparency over the hundreds of special tax breaks on the books in Washington state.”

This Toledo Blade editorial gets it right about Ohio Governor Kasich’s plan to broaden the sales tax base to include more services: “There is merit, in theory, to expanding the sales tax to include more services. But the experience in states such as Florida — which broadened its tax base, then abandoned the effort as unworkable — suggests it should be done slowly and for the right reasons.” Broadening the sales tax base is good policy, but the Kasich plan is bad for Ohioans because overall the plan (according to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis) increases taxes on those who can least afford it while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

ITEP is waiting for full details of Louisiana Governor BobbyJindal’s tax swap plan, but already clergy and ministers in the state are weighing in against the Governor’s plan to eliminate state income taxes and replace the revenue with a broader sales tax base and a higher rate. In this commentary, the Right Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, (bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana), worries: “It is difficult to see how increased sales taxes will pass the test of fairness that we would all insist upon. Our tax system has lots of room for improvement. But relying on increased sales tax will not give us the fair system we need. Raising sales taxes will increase the burden on those who can least afford it.”


Quick Hits in State News: Wynonna Judd's Tax Break, Undocumented Workers' Taxes


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The Iowa Policy Project’s Research Director Peter Fisher is quoted in a Des Moines Register piece where he recommends that Iowa increase it Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as one way to help low- and middle-income children. ITEP has long championed EITCs as a vital anti-poverty tax policy.  

With Halloween just around the corner, Renee Fry of Nebraska’s Open Sky Policy Institute shares the scary news that Nebraska ranks 27th among states for its regressive tax structure. Taxes are expected to be a contentious issue this year and “fiscal guru” Fry says the state’s “tax system is taking its toll in how much Nebraskans invest in schools, roads and communities. Outdated tax codes also complicate state leaders’ ability to plan strategically.”

Here’s a familiar problem, this time from Tennessee.  Big property tax breaks for farmers are reducing local tax bases by up to 20 percent. Worse, a state report says that the break is “being used by some people who clearly aren't farmers.”  Among the so-called “farmers” benefiting from this giveaway are some of the state’s wealthiest residents, like country music stars Billy Ray Cyrus and Wynonna Judd, as well as the founder of Autozone.

With a Maryland version of the DREAM Act on the November ballot, columnist Dan Rodricks at the Baltimore Sun wants readers to be aware of  the taxes that are often paid by undocumented workers, including state income taxes, federal income taxes, Social Security taxes, sales taxes, and fees.


Quick hits in State News: Arthur Laffer Under Scrutiny, and More


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To celebrate the five year anniversary of the first “Rich States, Poor States,” an Arthur Laffer/ALEC publication that ranks states based on how closely their tax and budget policies adhere to conservative economic principles, the Iowa Policy Project put it to the retrospect test and found it lacking.  They write, “The ALEC Outlook Ranking fails to predict economic performance. In fact, the less a state followed ALEC’s prescriptions, the better it did in terms of job growth, and the better it did on change in poverty rate and median income.”

New York just decided to throw even more taxpayer money at filmmakers, despite ample evidence that these giveaways don’t do much for long-term job growth or economic performance.

This Topeka Capital-Journal letter-to-the-editor from a registered Republican laments that the tax plan signed into law by Governor Brownback “will increase Kansas income tax on the poor and reduce taxes predominately for the wealthy.”

On Tuesday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam told the House Judiciary Committee that states need to be able to collect sales taxes on internet purchases. He said plainly, “This discussion isn’t about raising taxes or adding new taxes.” Instead it’s about “collecting taxes already owed.” We couldn’t agree more.

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

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced that he will call a special legislative session to start next week.  Lawmakers are widely expected to pass a progressive income tax package in order to avoid massive “doomsday” budget cuts.

Tennessee’s inheritance tax will be eliminated beginning in 2016.  Legislators recently sent Governor Haslam a bill repealing the tax, seduced by bogus claims about the economic benefits of repeal.  Lawmakers also passed two other notable tax cuts: one repealing the gift tax (which The Commercial Appeal says will benefit Gov. Haslam himself, along with other wealthy taxpayers), and another cutting the state sales tax on groceries by a quarter of a percent.

The gubernatorial race in Washington State is heating up and costly tax expenditures are getting long overdue attention from the candidates. But as this piece in the Seattle Times highlights, eliminating spending programs embedded in the tax code is easier said than done.  Read CTJ’s advice for how to do it here.

Finally, check out this timely column describing why Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton should veto a bill passed by the legislature under the guise of job creation. (Hint - it’s really a massive tax cut for business.)


Inching Towards An Online Sales Tax Policy


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This week brought news of a few more states tackling the challenge of taxing purchases made over the Internet in the same way as purchases made in “brick and mortar” stores.  Nevada and Tennessee got agreements from Amazon.com, the mother of all online retailers, to start doing its part to collect those taxes, and it looks like Massachusetts isn’t far behind.

  • In Nevada, Amazon.com will begin collecting sales taxes in 2014 under a new agreement announced on Monday.  The company already has major warehouses and distribution centers in the state.  Amazon’s agreement with Nevada is similar to deals struck in California, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • As in Nevada, Amazon’s deal to begin collecting sales taxes in Tennessee won’t take effect until 2014, but a lesser known part of that agreement has already taken effect.  Amazon is mailing notices to all its Tennessee customers from throughout the past year letting them know that they may owe sales tax on the items they bought from the company, even though Amazon didn’t collect those taxes for them.  Similar annual notices will be sent by February 1st in both 2013 and 2014.
  • The Massachusetts Main Street Fairness Coalition is continuing its calls for the state to require that Amazon collect sales taxes, and The Boston Globe just chimed in to support the idea as well.  As the Globe explains, the company’s new offices in Massachusetts should be enough to bring the company within reach of the state’s sales tax collection laws.

Of course, these efforts are only partial solutions at best.  Amazon.com may be the world’s biggest online retailer, but they’re hardly the only one.  Nevertheless, until the federal government acts to allow all states to enforce their sales tax laws on all purchases, these piecemeal victories are the best news we can hope for.


New Fiction from Arthur Laffer: Estate Tax Killed 220,000 Jobs in Tennessee


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Tennessee lawmakers are seriously considering repealing their state estate tax, in part because of a comically flawed report from supply-side economist Arthur Laffer.  The report’s bottom-line conclusion is that Tennessee would have benefited from 220,000 more jobs in 2010 if lawmakers had simply repealed the Tennessee estate tax one decade earlier.  But as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains in a new brief, while 220,000 jobs is certainly an impressive number, the reasoning Laffer used to arrive at that figure is far from convincing.

Laffer begins his argument by pointing to the “Laffer-ALEC State Competitiveness Index,” which is basically a wish list of fifteen conservative policies he would like to see states enact (low income taxes, low corporate taxes, low minimum wage, etc).  Tennessee ranks 8th overall on the Laffer-ALEC Index, and if the Index has any predictive power whatsoever, that means Tennessee’s economy should be doing pretty well.  But as Laffer admits, the reality is exactly the opposite.

Tennessee’s low economic and employment growth is particularly puzzling to Laffer because in a series of prior reports, he’s argued that states without income taxes (of which Tennessee is one) are outperforming the rest of the country.  So how then does Laffer explain Tennessee’s disappointing growth?  He decides to ignore a slew of factors that affect state economies in today’s complex world, and instead place all of the blame in one place: the state estate tax.

According to Laffer’s reasoning, if Tennessee had jettisoned its estate tax one decade ago, employment and economic growth more broadly would have sped up to a rate exactly equal to the average among all states not levying an income tax.  The natural result of this would be 220,000 more jobs in 2010, as well as $36 billion in additional yearly economic output.

Laffer says he can think of “no reason to believe” that things wouldn’t have played out this way.  But as ITEP explains in its brief, differences in economic growth rates are influenced by a range of factors that don’t appear to have even crossed Laffer’s mind, like differences in natural resource endowments, educational attainment, and infrastructure quality.  The unavoidable conclusion is that Laffer’s choice of scapegoat in Tennessee had a lot more to do with his ideology than with any sort of rigorous economic analysis.

For a closer look at Laffer’s deeply flawed argument in favor of repealing Tennessee’s estate tax, be sure to read ITEP’s full brief.

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

North Carolina’s two major newspapers, the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer, published editorials in support of the state’s estate tax in the wake of a hearing last week called to eliminate it.  From the News and Observer: “The estate tax is hardly a burden on those few inheritors who have to pay it. It is a modest but valuable asset to government revenue, and there is nothing unfair about [it]."  And, from the Charlotte Observer: “Some Republicans support abolishing the federal estate tax. They should explain why the extremely wealthy should be able to avoid paying any taxes on unrealized capital gains.”

Washington State’s special legislative session started yesterday. The media is reporting that the session will be a contentious battle over how the state should close its $1 billion budget gap. (Hint: the answer’s in the Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s proposal to tax capital gains income. )

An article from The Miami Herald reveals some ugly details surrounding the $2.5 billion in business tax cuts just passed by the Florida legislature.  As the Herald points out, “those benefiting had plenty of lobbyists … AT&T, which has 74 Florida lobbyists, spent $1.68 million on lobbying last year, more than any other company.”  Not coincidentally, AT&T and Verizon – both champion tax dodgers – were among the biggest winners.  A last-minute amendment to the legislation could give the telecommunications industry a tax break as large as $300 million.

A great op-ed in the Kansas City Star asks why Governor Brownback wants taxes in Kansas to be like Texas, reminding Kansans that Texas ranks low in everything that really matters, from high school graduation rates to household income to crime.

Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Co. and Gaylord Entertainment Co. have struck a deal with Nashville, Tennessee Mayor Karl Dean that, if approved, would result in an estimated $5.4 million in property tax breaks for their planned water and snow park.  Ben Cunningham of the Nashville Tea Party was right to point out that the plan amounts to a “giveaway” to companies that plan to move to the city anyway and that it’s time to stop “giving in to this kind of corporate extortion.”

Photo of Dolly Parton via Eva Rinaldi Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


New Graphics: State Gas Taxes at Historic Lows, and Dropping


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There are few areas of policy where lawmakers’ shortsightedness is on display as fully as it is with the gasoline tax.  Now, with a series of twenty six new charts from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), you can see the impact of that shortsightedness in most states as shareable graphs.

Overall, state gas taxes are at historic lows, adjusted for inflation, and most states can expect further declines in the years ahead if lawmakers do not act.  Some states, including New Jersey, Iowa, Utah, Alabama, and Alaska, are levying their gas taxes at lower rates than at any time in their history.  Other states like Maryland, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Wyoming will approach or surpass historic lows in the near future if their gas tax rates remain unchanged and inflation continues as expected.

These findings build on a 50-state report from ITEP released last month, called Building a Better Gas Tax.  ITEP found that 36 states levy a “fixed-rate” gas tax totally unprepared for the inevitable impact of inflation, and twenty two of those states have gone fifteen years or more without raising their gas taxes.  All told, the states are losing over $10 billion in transportation revenue each year that would have been collected if lawmakers had simply planned for inflation the last time they raised their state gas tax rates.

View the charts here, and read Building a Better Gas Tax here.

Note for policy wonks: Charts were only made in twenty six states because the other twenty four do not publish sufficient historical data on their gas tax rates.  It’s also worth noting that these charts aren’t perfectly apples-to-apples with the Building a Better Gas Tax report, because that report examined the effect of construction cost inflation, whereas these charts had to rely on the general inflation rate (CPI) because most construction cost data only goes back to the 1970’s.  Even with that caveat in mind, these charts provide an important long-term look at state gas taxes, and yet another way of analyzing the same glaring problem.

Example:


Trending in 2012: Estate and Inheritance Tax Rollbacks


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Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, ITEP will highlight tax policy proposals that are gaining momentum in states across the country.  This week, we’re taking a closer look at proposals which would reduce or eliminate state inheritance and estate taxes.  If you haven’t already, be sure to read our inaugural article in the series on proposals in some states to roll back or eliminate income taxes, which are the uniquely progressive feature of our tax system.

Whether state or federal, inheritance and estate taxes play an important role in limiting concentrated wealth in America. Warren Buffett views the estate tax as key to preserving our meritocracy, and the great Justice Louis Brandeis famously warned that we could have concentrated wealth or we could have democracy, but not both.  While the federal estate tax is often the source of passionate debate, these taxes are particularly important at the state level because they help offset some of the stark regressivity built into most state tax systems.  Unfortunately, lawmakers in some states have bought into the bogus claims of the American Family Business Institute (a.k.a. nodeathtax.org), Arthur Laffer, and others in the anti-tax, anti-government movement that repealing estate and inheritance taxes will usher in an economic boom.

Nebraska – Governor Dave Heineman has proposed repealing Nebraska’s inheritance tax entirely, determined, it seems, to pile on to the tax cuts already enacted earlier in his term.  (Inheritance taxes are very similar to estate taxes, except that inheritance taxes are technically paid by the heir to the estate, rather than by the estate itself.)  Unfortunately, in addition to worsening the unfairness of the state’s tax system, the Governor’s proposal would also kick struggling localities while they’re down, since revenue from Nebraska’s inheritance tax flows to county governments.

Indiana – Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley recently made the same proposal as Nebraska’s governor: outright repeal of the inheritance tax.  Kenley has floated the idea of using sales taxes on online shopping to pay for the repeal, but while Internet sales taxes are good policy on their own, this change would amount to an extremely regressive tax swap overall.  Indiana’s inheritance tax is already limited, however, and exempts spouses of the deceased entirely, as well as the first $100,000 given to each child, stepchild, grandchild, parent, or grandparent.

Tennessee – Governor Bill Haslam’s inheritance tax proposal may be less radical than those receiving attention in Nebraska and Indiana, but not by much.  Rather than repealing the tax entirely, Haslam would like to increase the state’s already generous $1 million exemption to a whopping $5 million.  It’s surprising, to say the least, that one of Haslam’s top tax policy priorities should be slashing taxes for lucky heirs inheriting over $1 million.

North Carolina – Efforts to gut the estate tax in North Carolina haven’t gained backers as visible as those in Nebraska, Indiana, and Tennessee.  But there are rumblings that repeal could be on the agenda of some legislators, as evidenced by the vehemently anti-estate tax testimony that a joint House-Senate committee heard from the American Family Business Institute this month.


Amazon.com Finds It Harder & Harder to Shirk Its Sales Tax Collecting Responsibilities


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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently announced that Amazon