Utah News


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

With pothole season well under way, our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), has been in the news quite a bit recently for its research on the need for more sustainable federal and state gasoline taxes. USA Today ran a story this week featuring quotes from ITEP staff and six different infographics based on ITEP data that explain where state gas taxes are, and aren’t, being raised.  In addition, ITEP’s Carl Davis appeared on both CBNC and NPR’s Marketplace to talk about the gas tax.

The Missouri legislature is poised to offer Kansas a truce in the never-ending battle to shower Kansas City-area companies with tax credits. Both the Missouri Senate and House recently passed similar bills that would ban state tax incentives for companies that agree to move from the Kansas side of the Kansas City border (Wyandotte, Johnson, Douglas, or Miami counties) to the Missouri side (Jackson, Clay, Platte, or Cass counties). It seems Missouri has finally realized that tax breaks used to lure companies across the border — otaling $217 million between both states in recent years by one estimate — don’t actually create new jobs for the region’s residents and would be better spent on much needed public services. The one catch: the Missouri bill would only go into effect if Kansas agrees to a similar ceasefire within the next two years.

Perhaps this is the year that Utah will establish a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A bill creating the much-heralded working family tax credit was passed out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee last month. Last year, a similar bill was passed by the full House, but stalled in the Senate. This year’s bill, which is again sponsored by Representative Hutchings, would give over 200,000 low-income Utahns a refundable tax credit worth 5 percent of the federal EITC, or roughly $113 on average. But one change from last year’s bill is that the credit will not go into effect until Utah is allowed to start collecting sales tax from online shoppers — something that won’t happen until Congress passes legislation granting the states that power. Such a bill has already passed the U.S. Senate and is supported by President Obama, but it is still pending in the U.S. House.

While a full solution to the problem of uncollected sales taxes on online shopping will have to come from the federal government, Hawaii’s House of Representatives wants to chip away at the problem by expanding the number of online retailers that have to collect sales tax right now. Under a bill backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, retailers partnering with Hawaii-based companies to solicit sales would have to collect sales taxes on purchases made by their Hawaii customers.  This move to apply the state’s sales tax laws more uniformly to both online retailers and traditional brick-and-mortar stores would be one step toward a more modern sales tax in the Aloha State.


The States Taking on Real Tax Reform in 2014


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Note to Readers: This is the fifth post of a five-part series on tax policy prospects in the states in 2014. Over the course of several weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) highlighted tax proposals that were gaining momentum in states across the country. This final post focuses on progressive, comprehensive and sustainable reform proposals under consideration in the states.

State tax policy proposals are not all bad news this year.  There are some promising efforts underway that would fix the structural problems with state tax codes and improve tax fairness for low- and middle-income families. All eyes are on Illinois as lawmakers grapple with how to raise much needed revenue after their temporary income tax hike expires. Many are hoping the timing is now right for a real debate about a graduated income tax. Washington DC’s Tax Revision Commission has proposed a number of sensible reforms. And, lawmakers in Hawaii and Utah are expected to seriously debate ways to improve their states’ tax fairness.

Illinois - Though there has been much legislative activity in Springfield about corporate tax breaks, the arguably more important issue facing lawmakers is the state’s temporary income tax rate increase that is set to decrease in 2015. Given this upcoming rate reduction, lawmakers and the public are weighing in on alternative ways to fund vital services, including the merits of a progressive income tax.

District of Columbia - DC’s Tax Revision Commission set the stage for real tax reform this Spring when it recommended expanding the sales tax base, enhancing the city’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers, boosting the personal exemption and standard deduction, reforming the District’s income tax brackets, and phasing-out the value of personal exemptions for high-income taxpayers. The Commission’s proposal is hardly perfect: it includes an expensive giveaway for people with estates worth over $1 million, as well as a slight cut in the city’s top income tax rate (in exchange for making that temporary rate permanent).  But the plan still contains a lot of good ideas worthy of the word “reform.”

Hawaii - Hawaii levies the fourth highest state and local taxes on the poor in the entire country, but some lawmakers would like to change that.  Proposals to enact an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) managed to pass both chambers of the legislature last year before eventually being abandoned, and lawmakers gave serious consideration to other low-income tax credit changes as well.  The Hawaii Appleseed Center’s recent report (PDF) on enhancing low-income tax credits, and options to pay for those enhancements, provides a wealth of information for the many lawmakers and advocates who intend to pick up where they left off last year.

Utah - Last year’s effort to improve Utah’s regressive tax system (PDF) by enacting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) ultimately fell short, though a bill that would have created such a credit did make it out of the state’s House of Representatives.  That push will be resumed this year.


Gas Tax Remains High on Many States' Agendas for 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via herzogbr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 


What to Watch for in 2014 State Tax Policy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gas Tax Reform Draws Close in Pennsylvania as Debate Continues in 3 More States


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Update: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed the gas tax increase described below into law on November 25, 2013.

One of 2013’s biggest state tax policy issues—the gasoline tax—continues to make headlines long after most state legislative sessions have come to a close for the year.  We’ve already written about how lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia enacted gas tax increases or reforms earlier this year.  But within just the last week, four more states have been in the news with high-profile proposals to raise their own gas taxes—including Pennsylvania, which appears to be on the verge of both increasing and reforming its tax.  Here’s what’s been happening:  

Pennsylvania is one of a small number of states where the legislature is still in session (most state sessions ended this spring).  This week, both the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed a bill that would gradually raise the gas tax by allowing it to rise alongside gas prices, much like an ordinary sales tax.  This is not a new idea in the Keystone State.  Prior to 2006, Pennsylvania’s gas tax actually functioned in exactly this manner, though the 32.3 cent tax has since run up against a poorly designed gas tax “cap” that the legislature is now seeking to lift.  When combined with increases in vehicle registration fees, license fees, and traffic fines, the overall package is expected to raise $2.3 billion per year for roads and transit.  As of this writing the bill needs to be approved by the House one more time before going to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk where it is expected to be signed into law.

In Washington State, The Olympian is reporting that “a bipartisan transportation revenue package now looks possible” after the coalition of lawmakers in control of the state senate backed an 11.5 cent gas tax increase.  The tax increase would be phased-in over the course of three years and is actually somewhat larger than the 10 cent increase sought by Governor Jay Inslee and House Democrats earlier this year.  As we explained in June, Washington’s gas tax would remain relatively low by historical standards even if the Governor’s 10 cent increase had been enacted into law.  The same is true of an 11.5 cent increase.  Lawmakers could potentially act on the 11.5 cent plan within the next few weeks if a special legislative session is called.

Utah business leaders, local officials, and other stakeholders are continuing to make the case that public investments in infrastructure will help the state’s economy succeed, and that the gas tax is the best way to pay for those investments.  On Wednesday, local officials testified before an interim transportation committee in support of a plan to allow localities to levy a 3 percent gas tax.  Unlike Utah’s fixed-rate gas tax—which actually stands at its lowest level in history as a result of inflation—this 3 percent tax should do a reasonably good job keeping pace with future growth in the cost of transportation construction and maintenance.  At the same hearing, a Republican state representative testified in support of his own plan to raise the state’s gas tax by 7.5 cents per gallon, phased-in over the course of five years.

The gas tax has been a frequent topic of discussion in Iowa these last few years, and it doesn’t seem like that’s about to change any time soon.  As in Utah, Iowa’s gas tax is at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation), but one of the state’s candidates for governor in 2014 would like to change that.  Democrat Jack Hatch has proposed raising the tax by a total of 10 cents over the course of 5 years.  Current Governor Terry Branstad, who is eligible to seek reelection next year, is noticeably less excited about the idea.  But Branstad has said he won’t veto a gas tax increase if one makes it to his desk.

Not even a month after cutting personal income taxes and raising the state’s sales tax, Ohio Governor John Kasich is pledging to further lower the state’s top income tax rate to below 5 percent (the top rate was 5.925% before being dropped to 5.3% this year).  Speaking at a plastics plant last week, the Governor said, “we have momentum” with tax cuts, and expressed his belief that low taxes will draw more business to the Buckeye State.

Proponents of the $800 million regressive income tax cut package that was vetoed by Governor Jay Nixon last month are spending millions of dollars to convince lawmakers to override the veto. Missouri’s Chamber of Commerce is airing TV ads in support of the cuts and conservative political activist Rex Sinquefield (who has been a long-time funder of the anti-tax agenda in Missouri) has given more than $2 million to efforts to overturn the veto.  For his part, Governor Nixon is spending the summer trying to convince lawmakers and others that the veto should be sustained, particularly if they care about quality education.  At a St. Louis Chamber event Governor Nixon said, “members of the General Assembly can either support (the tax cut) or they can support education. They cannot do both.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reports on the growing chorus of support for raising taxes in Utah in order to pay for improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure.  According to the Tribune, everybody from the state Chamber of Commerce to local governments and non-partisan think tanks has been “working to build a case that transportation tax hikes are overdue.”

A story in Kentucky’s Courier-Journal highlights some of the problems with paying for roads and bridges with tolls.  Drivers who happen to live or work close to a tolled bridge end up paying far more for infrastructure than those drivers who are lucky enough to have un-tolled routes available to them.  Moreover, low-income drivers are always affected most by tolls -- a fact that’s led some local lawmakers to begin discussing ideas like exempting drivers from tolls if their incomes are low enough to qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

 


Congress Members' Home States Have Fiscal Stake in Immigration Reform


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We still don’t know what the U.S. House of Representatives is going to do about immigration reform. The Senate passed a bill with a solid majority, and that legislation enjoys support from the Chamber of Commerce and the labor movement, from George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  What we do know, though, is that members of the House leadership had a nice long talk about it this week because they know the pressure is on them to do something. 

Also this week, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released a study with a bland title, Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions, that held some interesting numbers. What it shows is that once unauthorized immigrants are legalized and participating fully in the tax system, state tax revenues will go up, just as the CBO showed they would at the federal level. In fact, the report shows that state tax payments from this population are already at $10.6 billion a year, and that will rise by $2 billion under reform. The report (with a clickable map on the landing page!) shows how those tax dollars are distributed state by state.

According to reports, the following Representatives are now the key players on whatever immigration bill comes from the House. So, in hopes of informing the debate, we are sharing the total amount of estimated annual revenue each of their respective states would get in the form of tax payments from legalized immigrants following reform.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida: $747 million a year, up $41 million
Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho: $32 million a year, up $5.5 million
Rep. John Boehner, Ohio:  $95 million, up $22 million
Reps Michael McCaul, John Carter and Sam Johnson, Texas: $1.7 billion, up $92 million
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah: $133 million, up $31 million
Reps Eric Cantor and Bob Goodlatte, Virginia: $260 million, up $77 million
Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin: $131 million, up $33 million


Earned Income Tax Credits in the States: Recent Developments, Good and Bad


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Note to Readers: This is the last in a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the past several weeks CTJ’s partner organization, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has highlighted tax reform proposals and looked at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country.

Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed effectively cutting taxes for moderate- and low-income working families through expanding, restoring or enacting new state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) (PDF). Unfortunately, state EITCs are also under attack in a handful of states where lawmakers are looking to reduce their benefit or even eliminate the credit altogether.

The federal EITC is widely recognized by experts and lawmakers across the political spectrum as an effective anti-poverty strategy. It was introduced in 1975 to provide targeted tax reductions to low-income workers and supplement low wages. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia provide EITCs modeled on the federal credit. At the state level, EITCs play an important role in offsetting the regressive effects of state and local tax systems.

Positive Developments

  • Last week, the Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee approved legislation to increase the state’s EITC from 7 to 20 percent. Committee Chairman Joe Bolkcom said, “This bill is what tax relief looks like. The tax relief is going to people who pay more than their fair share.”

  • The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently reported on the push to create an EITC and a poverty tax credit (PDF) in Hawaii. The story cites data from ITEP showing that Hawaii has the fourth highest taxes on the poor in the country and describes the work being done in support of low-income tax relief by the Hawaii Appleseed Center.  The poverty tax credit would help end Hawaii’s distinction as one of just 15 states that taxes its working poor deeper into poverty through the income tax.

  • In Michigan, lawmakers are looking to reverse a recent 70 percent cut in the state’s EITC.  That change raised taxes on some 800,000 low-income families in order to pay for a package of business tax cuts.  Lawmakers have introduced legislation to restore the EITC to its previous value of 20 percent of the federal credit, and advocates are supporting the idea through the “Save Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit” campaign

  • Pushing back against New Jersey Governor Christie’s reduction of the EITC from 25 to 20 percent, last month the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a bill to restore the credit to 25 percent. Senator Shirley Turner, the bill’s sponsor, said there was no reason to delay its passage as some have suggested because low-income New Jersey families need the credit now.  "People would put this money into their pockets immediately. I think they would be able to buy food, clothing and pay their rent and their utility bills. Those are the things people are struggling to do."

  • Oregon’s EITC is set to expire at the end of this year, but Governor Kitzhaber views it as a way to help “working families keep more of what they earn and move up the income ladder” so his budget extends and increases the EITC by $22 million. Chuck Sheketoff with the Oregon Center for Public Policy argues in this op-ed, “[t]he Oregon Earned Income Tax credit is a small investment that can make a large difference in the lives of working families. These families have earned the credit through work. Lawmakers should renew and strengthen the credit now, not later.”

  • In Utah, a legislator sponsored a bill to introduce a five percent EITC in the state. The bipartisan legislation is unlikely to pass because of funding concerns, but the fact that the EITC is on the radar there is a good development. Rep. Eric Hutchings said that offering a refundable credit to working families “sends the message that if you work and are trying to climb out of that hole, we will drop a ladder in."

Negative Developments

  • Last week, North Carolina Governor McCrory signed legislation that reduces the state’s EITC to 4.5 percent. The future looks grim for even this scaled down credit, though, since it is allowed to sunset after 2013 and it’s unlikely the credit will be reintroduced. It’s worth noting that the state just reduced taxes on the wealthiest .2 percent of North Carolinians by eliminating the state’s estate tax, at a cost of more than $60 million a year. Additionally, by cutting the EITC the legislature recently increased taxes on low-income working families, saving a mere $11 million in revenues.

  • Just two years after signing legislation introducing an EITC, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is recommending it be temporarily reduced “from the current 30 percent of the federal EITC to 25 percent next year, 27.5 percent the year after that, and then restoring it to 30 percent in 2015.” In an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant, Jim Horan with the Connecticut Association for Human Services asks, “But do we really want to raise taxes on hard-working parents earning only $18,000 a year?”

  • Last week in the Kansas Senate, a bill (PDF) was introduced to cut the state’s EITC from 17 to 9 percent of its federal counterpart. This would be on top of the radical changes signed into law last year by Governor Sam Brownback which eliminated two credits targeted to low-income families including the Food Sales Tax Rebate.

  • Vermont Governor Shumlin wants to cut the EITC and redirect the revenue to child care subsidy programs, a move described as taking from the poor to give to the poor. A recent op-ed by Jack Hoffman at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute cites ITEP Who Pays data to make the case for maintaining the EITC.  Calling the Governor’s idea a “nonstarter,” House and Senate legislators are exploring their own ideas for funding mechanisms to pay for the EITC at its current level.

State Tax Proposals Worthy of the Word "Reform"


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Note to Readers: This is the fourth of a six part series on tax reform in the states. Over the coming weeks, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) will highlight tax reform proposals and look at the policy trends that are gaining momentum in states across the country. Previous posts in this series have provided an overview of current trends and looked in detail at “tax swap” and personal income tax cut proposals.  This post focuses on progressive, comprehensive and sustainable reform proposals under consideration in the states.

State tax reform proposals are not all bad news this year.  There are some good faith efforts underway that would fix the structural problems with state tax codes, rather than simply dismantling or eliminating entire revenue sources and calling it “reform.”  Proposals in Minnesota, Kentucky, Utah, and Massachusetts would improve the fairness, adequacy and sustainability of those states’ tax systems through various combinations of base broadening, tax breaks for low- and moderate-income families, and increases in the share of taxes paid by wealthy households. Other states to watch include Nevada, California, New York and Hawaii, though the specific proposals that will be considered in these states have yet to be fully fleshed out.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton recognizes that his state’s tax structure is in need of an overhaul and is looking at long-term solutions that will set the state’s revenues on a sustainable path now and in the future.  As he sees it, the current system is fraught with problems. It does not reflect the modern economy in many ways. It has shifted the responsibility for funding government to those with the least ability to pay. It is out of balance due to its heavy reliance on property taxes.  And, it is riddled with expensive and ineffective tax breaks that make the state’s revenues less sustainable.  Out of all the high-profile state tax reform plans unveiled this year, Governor Dayton has put forth the best example of a comprehensive and progressive tax reform proposal.  It will make Minnesota’s tax code more fair, adequate, and sustainable.  The Governor’s plan includes: broadening the sales tax base to services and using some of the additional revenue to lower the state’s sales tax rate; reducing property taxes; adding a new personal income tax bracket for the state’s wealthiest taxpayers; and closing corporate tax loopholes.  The plan also raises more than $1 billion a year to boost investments in public education and restore structural balance to the state’s budget.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signaled his support for overhauling the Bluegrass State’s tax code in his State of the State address in early February and indicated he would be looking to the recommendations from his appointed Blue Ribbon Tax Commission as a starting point for a proposal.  With a few exceptions, the Commission’s recommendations (released in December) were courageous and forward-looking, including a proposal to expand the sales tax base to services (PDF) while simultaneously adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (PDF) to offset the impact on low-income working families.  The recommendations also included broadening the personal income tax base by limiting itemized deductions for wealthy households, lowering the very large exclusion for pension income (and phasing it out for high wealth retirees), and lowering personal income tax rates.  Like the Minnesota plan, if taken as a whole, the Kentucky Tax Commission’s recommendations would shore up state revenues over the long term and more immediately raise revenue for current needs.

Utah lawmakers are looking at a proposal to raise the sales tax rate applied to groceries and couple that change with two new refundable credits to offset the impact on low- and moderate-income families: a food credit (PDF) and a state EITC (PDF).  While less comprehensive than the proposals under consideration in Minnesota and Kentucky, an ITEP analysis found that the Utah plan would reduce the regressivity of Utah’s tax code (PDF).  In other words, low-income working families would ultimately pay less of their income in taxes while upper-income families would pay slightly more.  Simply exempting food from state sales taxes (or taxing it at a lower rate) is a poorly targeted and costly policy that narrows the tax base and extends the break to wealthier taxpayers who don’t need it. Therefore, refundable credits of the kind Utah is considering are a smart, less costly alternative that can be designed to reduce taxes for specific groups of taxpayers in need of relief.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s FY14 budget included a tax package that will boost revenues now and in the future and make slight improvements to the fairness of the state’s tax system. While many governors this year are looking to replace progressive income taxes with regressive sales taxes, Governor Patrick wants the Bay State to do the reverse and rely more on the personal income tax and less on the sales tax.  His plan would raise the state’s flat personal income tax rate from 5.25 to 6.25 percent, double the personal exemption, and eliminate more than 40 personal income tax breaks that tend to benefit the wealthiest families.  The sales tax rate would drop from 6.25 to 4.5 percent and computer software, soda, and candy would be newly subject to the tax.  He also recommends a $1 increase to the cigarette tax. Governor Patrick’s plan would raise close to $2 billion when fully phased in. The Campaign for Our Communities coalition praised the proposal, saying that it “creates growth and opportunity through long-term investments in education, transportation and innovation funded by making our tax system simpler and fairer.”

 

 


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:


One More Good Reason to Raise the (Regressive) Gas Tax


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 Two states — Nebraska and Utah — recently enacted new laws diverting a sizeable chunk of their state sales taxes to transportation.  Education, human services, and other vital programs are expected to suffer as a result of this diversion.  Instead of siphoning off much-needed revenues from other areas of the state budget, these states should have boosted their traditional transportation revenue sources, most notably the gas tax.

In Nebraska, Governor Heineman reluctantly signed a bill last week that will divert 0.25 percentage points of the state’s 5.5 percent sales tax to road repair and construction.  Just two months ago, Heineman had called the same proposal “risky” and “unwise,” though the state’s improved revenue picture apparently caused him to abandon this position. 

A wide range of people, including both opponents of the bill and the bill’s sponsor, have pointed out that the inadequacy of Nebraska’s gas tax is to blame for the state’s unmet transportation needs. 

However, given the lack of real interest in raising the gas tax, lawmakers ultimately decided to meet those needs by simply prioritizing roads over education, public safety, and other services.

In Utah, a very similar law was enacted earlier this month when the state’s legislature narrowly overrode Governor Herbert’s veto of a measure redirecting up to $60 million in sales tax revenue to transportation each year.  Herbert had vetoed the bill out of concern for its impact on education funding, and on the state’s ability to be flexible in dealing with future budgetary challenges. 

An increase in Utah’s gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in fifteen years despite rising transportation costs, could have precluded the need to redirect such a substantial sum of money away from vital public services.

Making matters worse, an analysis from Utah Voices for Children points out that a significant amount of general fund revenues in Utah are already earmarked for transportation.  These earmarks, as well as additional borrowing, have allowed transportation spending to swallow up an increasing share of the state budget over the last five years, with spending on education, health, and environmental quality suffering as a result.

Unfortunately, this decline in other areas of the budget may not be an accident.  The Utah bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Stuart Adams, has reportedly touted the siphoning-off of revenue from other areas of the state budget as a major benefit, since it shrinks the size of programs he tends to dislike. 

Given that basically every state levies a gas tax that won’t keep pace with transportation cost growth unless its rate is periodically raised, this argument (whether made explicitly or not) will no doubt remain powerful among conservative lawmakers for years to come. 

Raising transportation-specific taxes and fees, while not always the most progressive solution, is no doubt preferable to allowing other areas of state budgets to be gutted in order to fund road repair and construction.

*MAY 28 UPDATE* Wisconsin Republicans are also working hard to redirect revenue away from schools and toward transportation.  The legislature's budget committee recently voted, along party lines, to redirect $125 million in sales and income tax revenue to transportation in 2012, and to redirect 0.25% of such revenue to transportation in 2013 and each year thereafter.  It's important to note that Wisconsin's gas tax used to be indexed to inflation — which allowed it to grow alongside increases in transportation infrastructure costs.  Inflation indexing was eliminated in 2006.


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New ITEP Report Examines Five Options for Reforming State Itemized Deductions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full report.

Film tax credits have received a lot of attention in recent days.  Just as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was signing the state’s first film tax credit into law, stories out of Iowa and New Jersey, as well as a New York Times article about film credits in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Utah, provided quite a few good reasons to be skeptical of these credits.

On Monday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell excitedly signed into law the state’s new film tax credit, with sitcom star Tim Reid (from “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Sister Sister,” and “That 70’s Show”) there to celebrate.  In order to justify enacting this giveaway for the film industry while Virginians are having to make due with reduced state services, Gov. McDonnell made the asinine claim the credit would produce a 1400% return on investment.  Economists everywhere have no doubt been laughing ever since.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, fellow 2009 gubernatorial election winner Chris Christie took exactly the opposite approach in vowing to eliminate the state’s film credit in order to help balance the state’s budget.  While Christie clearly had his priorities dead wrong in choosing not to extend the state’s income tax surcharge on millionaires (61% of voters favor the surcharge), he has certainly hit the nail on the head when it comes to this wasteful giveaway.  Not even the cast of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” appears to have been able to sway him.

Stories this week from the Des Moines Register and New York Times provide some very timely evidence regarding the wisdom of Christie’s approach, as well as the folly of McDonnell’s.  In Iowa, the Register reports that new criminal charges have been filed in the state’s ongoing film tax credit scandal.  Specifically, three moviemakers have been charged with inflating the value of their expenses in order to increase their take from the state’s film credit program.  A $225 broom, $900 stepladder, and 16,000% markup on lighting equipment are among the bogus expenses claimed by the filmmakers. 

The steady drumbeat of discouraging news surrounding Iowa’s film tax credit makes clear that Virginia is facing an uphill battle when it comes to policing this program.

The New York Times this week explored a more specific attribute of state film tax credits: the steps states are taking to prevent movies they dislike from receiving taxpayer dollars.  In Michigan, a sequel to a cannibalism-themed horror movie that was supported by state film tax credits was rejected for subsidy this time around because the state’s film commissioner determined that “this film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light.”  Michigan is by no means alone in enforcing this standard.  Films made in Pennsylvania can be denied tax credits if the movie in question does not “tend to foster a positive image” of the state. 

Texas possesses a similar requirement, which apparently was used to prevent the makers of a film about the Waco raid from even applying for film tax credits. 

And in Utah, the state’s Film Commission director admitted to withholding credits from films that he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the governor to see. Whether or not this rule of thumb varies with the theatrical tastes of the governor in office at the time remains to be seen.  Upon reading the Times story, one blogger with the Baltimore Sun went so far as to argue that these provisions show that “states want propaganda from filmmakers.”  They certainly beg the question: If state taxpayers subsidize the film industry, is it inevitable that state governments will censor movies before they're made?

New polling out of Utah indicates that 53% of the state’s residents would rather their representatives raise taxes than cut state services.  Increases in the income tax, as well as additional taxes on tobacco, alcohol, coal, oil, and natural gas are all considered by Utahns to be preferable to additional state spending cuts.  Against this backdrop, Rep. Brian King is among a minority of legislators currently favoring an increase in the income tax.  Specifically, King’s plan would raise the tax rate paid by those earning more than $250,000 per year.

Although many Utah legislators remain opposed to tax hikes, even Utah’s largest business organization – the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce – is supporting higher taxes in at least a limited form.  Specifically, the Chamber supports increasing the state’s fairly low cigarette tax rate, as well as hiking the state gasoline tax by ten cents per gallon.  The Chamber has, however, come out in opposition to Rep. King’s plan.

So far, the Republicans in control of Utah’s House, Senate, and Governor’s office have virtually ruled out tax increases, with the possible exception of a cigarette tax hike.  One state senator responded to the idea of tax increases by saying that “We're down so far in revenue ... down $1 billion dollars, that the tax increases that would be required to bring us up to where we were before would be so staggering that people who are advocating that don't understand how far we are."  Clearly, however, the same logic applies to state spending cuts, which were the primary vehicle used to close the state’s budget gap last year.  Utah’s situation is begging for a more balanced approach – a fact that Utahns appear to have recognized.


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.


Utah: A Case Study in Why States Should Reject a Flat Tax


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While the Wall Street Journal has been complaining (without cause) about Maryland's recent tax on millionaires, they neglected to mention what has happened to states who actually took their advice and implemented flat tax reforms. According to the editorial board of the WSJ, raising rates on top earners should cause them to flee the state in search of lower taxes, while instituting low and flat taxes should attract those same taxpayers. It seems recent developments in Utah have shown that this is simply not the case.

Last year, Utah replaced its dual income tax system with a five percent flat rate. Earlier this week, Utah legislators were informed that the state is in rough fiscal waters, according to a revenue update by the Tax Commission. Although almost all sources of tax revenue are down in the beehive state, the number one culprit is the state's income tax revenues, which have fallen nearly $300 million (to date).

According to Pat Jones, the senate minority leader, had the state not lowered its income tax rates to five percent, and not reduced certain sales taxes, Utah would have gained $360 million in revenue.

Meanwhile, education funds (whose primary source is income tax revenues) and general funds are collapsing. As the recession pushes states further and further into the red, key social services are being cut to bare bones so that middle- and low-income families bear the burden.


All That Glitters Isn't Gold: Impact of Utah's Flat Tax Surprises Many


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Over the last three years Utah's tax structure has undergone major changes. In 2007, the state instituted a dual tax system that included one graduated and one flat rate income tax. Then in 2008 the state eliminated the dual tax system and replaced it with a five percent flat rate with two nonrefundable credits: one for retirement income and one to replace deductions and exemptions for low-income taxpayers.

There was much grumbling at the time about the complexity of all these major tax changes happening over such a short span of time. That grumbling is getting louder. This week the Deseret News is reporting on several problems with the new flat tax structure. Apparently, the 2008 state withholding tables were miscalculated and, more alarmingly, some folks are seeing dramatic increases that they did not expect. As former Utah Tax Commission economist Doug Macdonald says, "We were told that only a few people would pay more. It was like selling a used car -- those pushing the change (to a flat-rate tax) only talked about the good parts of the car, not the bad parts." Clearly all that glitters isn't gold.


Tanning Salons: The Next Step in Sin Taxation?


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We've heard of cigarette taxes being used to fund lung cancer research. We've also heard of alcohol taxes dedicated to alcohol treatment efforts. We've even heard of the idea to tax unhealthy foods to raise money for combating obesity. Along these same lines comes a new proposal out of Utah to tax tanning salons at a 10% rate to fund melanoma research.

Frankly, Utah would be much better off if it expanded its sales tax base to include tanning services. Twenty two states already do so. Admittedly, the 4.7% sales tax rate won't raise as much revenue as the 10% tax, but it would provide advocates of the tanning tax with much stronger footing on tax policy grounds. Given that their 10% tax failed to make it out of committee, it's certainly an idea worth considering.


Food Fight: Lawmakers Must Decide Whether Food Should Be Subject to Sales Taxes


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The debate over whether and how to tax food has been in the news a lot lately. On the one hand, policymakers need the revenues generated from applying sales taxes to a broad base of goods and services. On the other hand, taxing food is regressive, and lawmakers always believe they will benefit politically from eliminating some portion of taxes. The result is that only a handful of states tax food.

This is currently a topic of a debate in Utah, where Governor Jon Huntsman wants to remove the sales tax on food entirely. But according to the Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, "(There's) really not much of an appetite for removing the rest of the sales tax." Governor Huntsman's plan to replace the revenue lost from removing the 2.75 percent sales tax on food is to increase the cigarette tax to $3.00 a pack. There are many reasons why increasing the cigarette tax is a lousy idea, regressivity and declining base being the most serious. Utah policymakers should follow the lead of other states like Idaho which tax food just as other goods are taxed, but then offer a targeted grocery tax credit ensuring that low-income folks receive some assistance for paying sales taxes.

Speaking of Idaho, Governor Butch Otter recently championed an increase in the state's grocery tax credit, but now that scheduled increase is threatened because the state is having difficulty balancing its budget. Kudos to Governor Otter for backing the scheduled increase in his State of the State address, rightly saying, "Idaho taxpayers are struggling. And that means we must fulfill our commitment to keep increasing the grocery tax credit. The budget I'm submitting today does just that and holds us to a principle-based policy that empowers Idahoans." While it may be tempting to delay the scheduled credit increase because of budget concerns, it's necessary that those most in need receive an increase in the credit that helps offset the sales tax they pay on food. For more on low-income credits and sales tax relief, read ITEP's policy brief.

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.


Transportation Funds: The Other State Deficit


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

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

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


The Next Tax Battle


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Most of the tax proposals recently on state ballots would have, if approved, made state tax systems less progressive, but a new proposed ballot question in Utah would do the opposite. There, an initiative is being promoted by a group called the Rings True Coalition who are rightly aghast at the inherent unfairness of their state's single rate tax structure. Their proposal would replace that single rate tax structure with a six-bracket progressive income tax. It's not news to us that a flat rate income tax is not fair to low income folks. Doug MacDonald, a former chief economist for the Utah State Tax Commission brings this point home when he offered examples to the Deseret News of several low-income folks who actually saw their tax bill increase when the flat tax went into effect. He says, "The effect of the flat tax is that it's unfair, random and has unintended consequences." As our most recent policy brief explains, the progressive income tax is an essential element of a fair and sustainable tax system. We'll keep our eyes on the Beehive State for what could become the next big tax policy fight.


Battles Already Beginning for 2009 and 2010 Ballot Proposals


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It's never too early to begin preparing for future ballot battles, particularly when they are likely to dramatically affect states' abilities to fund public services that residents depend on. Here are three states that might see major ballot battles in 2009 and 2010.

Maine: TABOR Question Appears Likely in 2009

It looks like Maine voters may face a bruising battle over state spending limits in 2009. The "Maine Leads" consulting firm claims to have gathered enough signatures to place a "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) spending cap on the 2009 ballot.

Supporters of this initiative have apparently learned very little from the lessons of two other states making headlines in recent weeks.

Colorado voters gave TABOR a chance, but because of the excessive restrictions it placed on their government's ability to provide valued services, a major, permanent scaling back of the requirement is being voted on this November.

Similarly, though California lacks a TABOR spending cap, the state has plenty of experience with supermajority requirements in its legislature (which TABOR would impose on any tax increase). After the recent budget debacle in California, serious talk has recently surfaced of ending their 2/3 requirement for the approval of state budgets (as explained below). Maine would be wise not to follow down California's obviously failed path.

Fortunately, a strong opposition to the TABOR campaign can be expected. The Maine Center for Economic Policy is very familiar with the issue, having already worked on the front lines of a similar battle when TABOR was on the ballot in 2006. At that time, they authored a report worth revisiting, aptly titled: "TABOR: Not Right for Colorado, Not Right for Maine.

Utah: A Return to a More Progressive Income Tax in 2010?

The Utah Rings True Coalition is beginning the process of getting a graduated rate income tax onto the 2010 ballot. The current, 5% flat rate income tax that took effect this year is defended by numerous lawmakers in the state, despite the huge breaks such a system offers to wealthy taxpayers. The group will have over a year to gather the 92,000 signatures needed.

Utah Voices for Children has authored a variety of important policy briefs on the flaws of the flat-rate system. You can find them here.

California: Recent Budget Gridlock Renews Calls to End 2/3 Requirement for Budgets in 2010

With the recent gridlock surrounding the state budget still fresh in everyone's minds, multiple legislative leaders have voiced an interest in placing on the 2010 ballot a proposal to end supermajority requirements for passing state budgets. Referring to the recent delays the supermajority requirement created in enacting their 2009 budget, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said "We can't keep doing this. This is ridiculous. It's unproductive."

And support for ending the supermajority requirement isn't coming only from the majority party. Republican state Senator Tom McClintock has said that "The two-thirds vote for the budget has not contained spending, and it blurs accountability! If anything, in past years, it has prompted additional spending as votes for the budget are cobbled together."


Advocates of the So-Called "Fair Tax" Target Utah


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The outrageously named "Fair Tax" reared its ugly head in Utah earlier this month when members of the Utah Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee heard a presentation by Fair Tax guru Thomas Wright. He proposed scrapping Utah's current tax system and shifting to a consumption tax on most goods and services, which he calls a "Fair Tax." This would actually be a disaster from the perspective of fairness and adequacy. Relying on sales tax revenues alone is folly and would place a larger burden on low-income families. Luckily there are advocates on the ground working against this proposal. Alison Roland, budget and research director for Voices for Utah Children says, "People are considering it a cure-all but I didn't see any solid proposals to mitigate regressivity. Low-income people live paycheck to paycheck, and they would be taxed on virtually everything they do." There are real reasons to want to reform the state's tax structure. The state's new dual income tax system is complicated and lacks low-income credits to help offset regressive sales and property taxes. Let's hope legislators investigate ways to reform the current ailments of the tax structure instead of inviting more unfairness and complexity with a so-called "Fair Tax."


Utah: Maybe Proposition 13 Isn't What We Need


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For once, there's some upbeat news when it comes to Proposition 13, though unfortunately it doesn't involve California. The Utah Revenue and Taxation Committee this week heard testimony on the merits of enacting a Proposition 13 style property tax cap in their state. With home values generally on the rise up until recently, Utahans have begun to express some frustration with the rising property tax bills coming out of their current fair-market-value assessment system. One knee-jerk way to prevent property tax bills from rising is to enact a law preventing taxable home values from increasing more than a certain amount in any year -- which one of the major provisions contained in Proposition 13 does. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of such laws, including grave inequities between neighbors, huge windfalls for the rich, and the potential to slow the housing market, are less than desirable. These consequences have been discussed in more detail in earlier Digest pieces, and this ITEP policy brief.

Thankfully, the reaction to the idea in the Utah legislature has been notably unenthusiastic. But with the debate still very focused on concerns over the recent "sticker-shock" of rising property tax bills and the possibility of "taxing people out of their homes", at some point property tax reform is likely to come to the state. So far, that reform appears to be headed in the direction of forcing localities to vote any time the property tax is increased. Perhaps with some work on the part of policy advocates, a more progressive reform (such as a low-income property tax circuit-breaker) could arise out of the discontent in Utah.

Until then, Utahns can at least take comfort in the fact that with home values recently on the decline, their property tax bills can be expected to do the same. If the state were to enact a Proposition 13 style cap on assessment increases, that would by no means be guaranteed, as has been shown in Michigan.


Anti-Property Tax Sentiment More Popular Than Santa Claus


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All across the country property tax bills are coming due and outrage about the most unpopular tax is growing. Proposals for various types of property tax cuts, reforms, and relief abound.

In Michigan, legislators are proposing to limit property tax increases and make it easier for homeowners to appeal their assessments. In West Virginia lawmakers want to freeze property taxes for seniors, and also limit property tax increases for younger homeowners. Politicians in Utah are considering a broad range of options including changing school district funding from reliance on property taxes to sales taxes and increasing their state's circuit breaker credit. Property taxes tend to be the tax that everybody loves to hate. The tax comes due in a lump sum, it's usually difficult to understand, and often it's not based on one's ability to pay.

Lawmakers in these three states and others should investigate property tax credits that ensure that low-income folks aren't burdened by the tax. While it may be popular with constituents to discuss property tax cuts, it's vital that replacement revenue be identified as well.


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


EITC Expansion: A Good Idea in Every State


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In a welcome trend, lawmakers and advocates in Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Hawaii, Utah, Ohio, and Iowa are considering enacting Earned Income Tax Credits ... or expanding existing EITCs. The federal EITC has been hailed by policymakers of all stripes as an especially effective tool for lifting working families out of poverty. At the state level, the EITC offers the additional benefit of helping to offset the regressive sales and property taxes that hit low-income families hardest. To find out more about whether EITC legislation is active in your state, check out the Hatcher Group's State EITC Online Resource Center.


Will Two Utah Income Taxes Be Twice as Good as One?


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Thanks to a special one-day legislative session earlier this week, Utah has two income taxes. Starting next year, wealthier Utahns will be able to choose between the current graduated-rate tax system (with a top rate of 6.98 percent) ;and a new broader-based tax levied at a lower flat rate of 5.35 percent. ITEP estimates that only 3 percent of the wealthiest Utahns will benefit from the flat-tax alternative, and that the wealthiest 1 percent of Utahns will see more than 75% of the benefit from the flat tax.

Taken on its own, the flat-tax alternative has its good points: it has virtually no exemptions, deductions or credits, which makes it a lot easier to calculate than the current tax. But the high rate on the flat tax ;makes it a losing proposition for virtually all low- and middle-income Utahns, which is why the legislation allows Utah families to choose which tax system they'd like to use. The legislative leadership's ;goal of enacting tax reform with ;"no losers" made the pick-your-own system the logical choice from a political perspective. The result? 97% of Utahns will pay taxes under the same old complicated income tax rules they've always had - and many of them will probably end up calculating their taxes under both systems to see if they'd benefit from the flat tax. Call it a tax cut - but don't call it tax reform.

Want to know more? Two ;columnists offer good retrospectives on this year's tax deform effort. For more details on Utah's income tax changes, check out the Talking Taxes weblog here.


More Complexity In State Tax Code... To Benefit the Wealthy


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Republican lawmakers in Utah are proposing a new personal income tax system, or actually, two new personal income tax systems. Under the proposed plan, a taxpayer could elect to calculate their income tax using a marginal rate structure along with existing standard deduction and exemption amounts or simply apply a flat rate to a slightly modified version of their federal adjusted gross income. Needless to say this proposal would make Utah's personal income tax that much more complex but it would also benefit the state's wealthiest residents more than its poor and working class families.

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