Washington 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


State News Quick Hits: Party With Boeing, Targeted Tax Cuts and More


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It’s an age-old question: How do you thank legislators who give your profitable company an $8.7 billion tax subsidy? Most etiquette experts agree that a handwritten note just won’t do. But a lavish party thrown in your benefactors’ honor — that’s more like it. Recently, Boeing threw a party for Washington state lawmakers to thank them for the record amount of taxpayer money they delivered to the company in a special legislative session late last year. The reception was conveniently held across the street from the Capitol. Thankfully for Boeing, the cost of the party will likely be written off as a business expense on next year’s taxes.

Indiana lawmakers are looking in all the wrong places for a way to boost their state’s economy. The Indiana Senate has passed a bill eliminating the business equipment tax for companies with less than $25,000 worth of equipment, while the House version would give localities the option of eliminating the tax entirely for new machinery. But a new report (PDF) from the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute explains that localities are in no position to deal with yet another cut in their property tax bases, and that giving localities the option of eliminating this tax is unlikely to draw any new businesses into the state (though it may reshuffle existing businesses around within the state’s borders).

The Arizona Daily Star reports that “a bid to enact a flat income-tax rate in Arizona is dead.” State Representative J.D. Mesnard had hoped to begin flattening one of the state’s only major progressive revenue sources by reducing the number of income tax brackets from five to three, but he appears to have abandoned that effort after failing to gather any support. But income tax cuts are hardly off the agenda. Mesnard still wants to funnel any new sales tax revenue collected from cracking down on online sales tax evasion into income tax cuts that are likely to benefit the rich. Much more reasonable, however, is his proposal to index the state’s tax brackets to inflation—a change that would actually help retain the progressivity of Arizona’s income tax over time.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has a better tax-cutting plan than his colleagues in the legislature. Rather than rewarding wealthy taxpayers with a cut in the state’s income tax rate, Snyder wants to provide targeted property tax relief to middle-income families through an expansion of the state’s circuit breaker program. The expansion would help offset a reduction in the circuit breaker passed in 2011 to help pay for a massive business tax cut sought by the Governor. But while Snyder’s plan is an improvement over plans to cut the income tax rate, the Michigan League for Public Policy notes that Snyder’s plan is hardly perfect: “a critical omission [from Snyder’s budget] was the failure to restore cuts in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, the best tool for helping families with the lowest wages.” And there are also serious questions about whether Michigan lawmakers should be discussing tax cuts at all—a new poll shows that in terms of their top priorities, voters rank tax cuts a “distant third” behind spending on schools and roads.


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.

On November 12th, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law the largest state business tax break package in history for Boeing. The new law will give Boeing and its suppliers an estimated $8.7 billion in tax breaks between now and 2040. Even before this giant new subsidy, Boeing has already been staggeringly successful in avoiding state taxes. Over the past decade, Boeing has managed to avoid paying even a dime of state income taxes nationwide on $35 billion in pretax U.S. profits.

Read the Full Report

Washington Governor Jay Inslee testified before legislators on the first day of a special session in favor of allowing tax breaks for Boeing that are estimated to cost the state $9 billion. Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s Remy Trupin issued this statement reminding lawmakers “It does not do our state’s economy any good to subsidize Boeing as they ship jobs out of state. We must ensure that significant state investments in Boeing benefit all Washingtonians.” Update: Governor Jay Inslee signed into law  tax breaks for Boeing.
 

There is a promising movement afoot in Minnesota to better fund the state’s transportation needs. The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, in next year’s legislative session, is going to propose either increasing the gas tax or, better yet, reforming it so that it grows alongside gas prices.
 

Here’s some temporary good news: The Illinois Senate adjourned without approving the litany of corporate tax breaks we told you about in an earlier post. So for now at least $88 million will stay in the state’s coffers. But the sponsor of the tax break bill, Sen. Thomas Cullerton says he expects to bring up the bill again next month. The Chicago Tribune is reporting, “even though [Cullerton] is positive he has enough votes to send the ... bill to the House, he would like to secure more.”
 

Amazon.com, the world’s largest online retailer, managed to score a $7 million subsidy from Wisconsin taxpayers in exchange for building a distribution center in their state.  But as our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains, these kinds of tax incentives are a zero-sum game that rarely pay off with any real economic benefits.

 


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.


State News Quick Hits: Iowans Don't Welcome Business Tax Cuts, and More


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In disturbing news that shouldn’t surprise anyone who  looked at the math, Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau is anticipating that the state will experience a $500 million structural shortfall in 2017 if the bill approved by the Joint Finance Committee becomes law in the Badger State.

In Iowa, voters have become increasingly wary of this year’s property tax overhaul- as they see businesses, not individuals, as the plan’s main beneficiaries. A recent poll shows that 64 percent of respondents say businesses that own property would be the winners in reform, and 37 percent of respondents say they would personally lose under the plan. This sentiment seems to be in line with what the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has been saying all along: “property-tax reform will be costly and will challenge cities, counties and schools to deliver what Iowans have come to expect. It offers big breaks to business property owners — while costing significant sums in local services.” Governor Branstad, however, plans to sign the bill this week.

ITEP has long studied state gas taxes and concluded that “state governments are losing out on over $10 billion in transportation revenue every year.” Washington State is on track to curb that trend this year as political leaders of both parties have come to an agreement on a gas tax hike. While it’s promising that legislators are interested in raising the gas tax to fund transportation projects, the kind of increase they’re looking at, a rate increase without any other reforms, is still going to fall far short of restoring the value Washington’s gas tax has lost in recent decades..


Washington State Gas Tax Plan: Much Needed, but Lacking Real Reform


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Washington State lawmakers are continuing to debate raising the state’s gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon, as they have for much of this year, but with perhaps a renewed sense of urgency following the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge. But while a 10 cent increase would provide a needed boost in transportation revenues today, such an increase would do little to reform the state’s broken gas tax structure for the long-term.

Washington is like a majority of states in levying its gas tax as a flat number of cents per gallon—37.5 cents, to be specific.  But flat-rate gas taxes inevitably fall short when construction costs rise and gas tax rates don’t.  Because of this, states like Maryland and Virginia both redesigned their gas taxes this year to rise alongside gas prices, and Massachusetts and the District of Columbia are contemplating similar reforms.  Washington State would be wise to follow their lead.

According to a new analysis (see chart below) by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), Washington State’s gas tax rate (adjusted for inflation) would remain low relative to prior years even if it were increased by 10 cents per gallon.  More importantly, by retaining the state’s simplistic flat-rate gas tax structure, such a reform would leave the state unprepared to deal with increases in the cost of infrastructure construction in the future. 

By 2023, we project that the state’s inflation-adjusted gas tax rate will slip back down to the same, inadequate level it is today.  This unsatisfactory outcome could be avoided by tying the tax rate to rise with either inflation or gas prices after the 10 cent increase is implemented.

Wash State gas tax rates.jpg

 


State News Quick Hits: Pushback on Tax Cuts as Job Creators, and More


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Michigan’s former Treasurer, Robert Kleine, explains in a Detroit Free Press op-ed that “there is no evidence that … [a 2011 tax change] reducing business taxes by $1.7 billion has created new jobs in Michigan.”  Among other things, Kleine observes that “state business taxes are such a small part of a business’ costs that even large changes have a minor impact.”

Gas taxes remain a major topic of debate in the states.  Since publishing our mid-session update on state gas tax debates two weeks ago, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a gas tax increase into law, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad reiterated that a gas tax hike is still on the table in his state, and The Olympian reports that raising Washington State’s gas tax is “now widely seen as a topic for special session.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been traveling the state seeking support for his more than $2 billion tax cut proposal (once fully phased-in) ever since using Tax Day 2013 to announce his renewed push for the plan he first championed last year. An op-ed from the Better Choices for New Jersey Campaign says the proposal was “a bad idea then, and it remains one today.”  Why?  Simply put, the state cannot afford even the scaled-back tax cut the governor is proposing for 2013 without reducing spending.

A new report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center takes on two common myths about the state’s economy that policymakers often use to justify cutting or eliminating taxes: North Carolina’s economy is uncompetitive compared to neighboring states and high tax rates drive North Carolina’s high unemployment. The report found that North Carolina is actually either leading or in the middle of the pack in every major indicator of economic health except for unemployment.  And, the explanation for high unemployment? A decline in specific industries the state has long relied on – like textiles and furniture – that are highly vulnerable to offshoring, outsourcing and other global pressures, not high tax rates.

Anti-Taxer-in-Chief Grover Norquist recently travelled to Minnesota where he met up with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to rally against taxes. Minnesota is actually one of the bright lights this year for tax justice advocates who are supporting House and Senate plans there that would raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans.

Need further proof that the poor are often taxed more heavily than wealthier folks? Take a look at this recent New York Times piece by sociologist Katherine Newman based on her book. She writes that “tax policy is particularly regressive in the South and West, and more progressive in the Northeast and Midwest. When it comes to state and local taxation, we are not one nation under God. In 2008, the difference between a working mother in Mississippi and one in Vermont — each with two dependent children, poverty-level wages and identical spending patterns — was $2,300.” Newman concludes with suggestions for offsetting the regressive impact of state taxes.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution is doing an investigative series on tax breaks and incentives, and here’s their latest article – a look into “the Georgia Agricultural Tax exemption program, [designed] to allow farmers and companies that produce $2,500 in agricultural services or products a year to receive sales tax breaks on equipment and production purchases.” What they found, however, is that construction firms, mineral companies, horse ranches and even dog kennels have applied for the breaks, along with hundreds of out-of-state businesses, with addresses as far afield as Texas and Colorado.” The newspaper found very few requests for this tax break were being rejected, and the governor is imploring businesses to police themselves. The newspaper concludes that it was the absence of clear criteria and lack of resources for screening and evaluating applications that’s resulted in the fiscal and logistical chaos.

Washington State lawmakers are trying to get a better handle on the numerous special tax breaks (PDF) being added to the state’s tax code every year. Under a bill that passed the state senate unanimously, new tax breaks would have to include a statement of purpose against which to judge their subsequent success, and an expiration date that would force lawmakers to vote on them again after a certain number of years.  Both of those reforms (along with others) have been recommended by our partner organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick cited a recent report from ITEP’s “Debunking Laffer” series while testifying in favor of his proposed income tax increase: “Last month, the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy issued a report evaluating the economic growth per capita of several states. The report compared nine states with relatively high income taxes to nine states with low or no income tax. The analysis made clear that the nine states with “higher” income taxes actually saw considerably more economic growth per capita than the nine states with low or no income tax. The states with no income tax have seen a decline in median income.”


Gas Tax Gains Favor in the States


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late last week, Kentucky’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform released their tax reform recommendations. Many of the Commission’s recommendations are bold and forward-looking, like their proposal to expand the sales tax base to services  (PDF) and simultaneously institute an earned income tax credit (PDF). Not only does the Commission deserve kudos for trying to shore up tax revenues over the long term while keeping an eye on tax fairness, the Commission also clearly understood the need to raise more revenue. As one Herald-Leader columnist said,  “task force members had the courage to recommend a plan that would add $690 million in revenue during the first year.”  But the Commission’s recommendations aren’t without their flaws, such as $100 million in cuts to the corporate income tax. Jason Bailey from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy reminds us, "Business tax cuts are really a race to the bottom between states.”

Nebraska think tank Open-Sky Policy Institute released, “Feeling the Squeeze- The Negative Effects of Eliminating Nebraska’s Inheritance Tax” detailing the impact of eliminating the state’s inheritance tax. The tax generates about $43 million annually for counties. These revenues are an important part of county budgets, and its counties assist with natural disasters, keeping roads safe and administering elections, among other things. Tax cuts don’t happen in a vacuum and that revenue will need to be made up with new revenue or reductions in services. Open Sky found that if “counties replaced all of the lost inheritance tax revenue with an increase in property taxes, the average overall county tax rate would have to increase by 7 percent.”

The majority of Hoosiers are telling Indiana Governor-elect Mike Pence “not so fast” on his tax cutting plan.  A new poll shows that taxpayers would rather see their tax dollars spent on investment priorities rather than tax cuts. Just 31 percent of those surveyed supported Pence’s proposal of slashing taxes by 10 percent across the board versus 64 percent of voters who would rather see tax revenue spent on education and workforce development.

Read this fantastic op-ed from Remy Trupin, executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, which makes the case for fundamental tax reform. “Washington needs a revenue mix built for the 21st century. That means eliminating wasteful tax breaks, modernizing our state sales tax to include more consumer services and taxing gains on the sale of stocks, bonds and other high-end financial assets held by the wealthiest two percent of Washingtonians.”


Quick Hits in State News: Wisconsin's Income Gap, the Brownbacks' Values Gap


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Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback has been appointed an unofficial advisor to a task force addressing childhood poverty in the state. The Hays Daily News predicts that this could lead to some uncomfortable conversations between Governor Sam Brownback and his wife, especially regarding the tax package he recently signed into law that raised taxes on low-income families. The editors suggest, “[m]aybe the first lady can ask why the governor and state legislature agreed to an unprecedented reduction in income tax rates while at the same time eliminating various tax credits, such as the food sales tax rebate and breaks for child care and renters.”

Monday was the biggest day ever for online shopping. “Cyber Monday” shoppers spent 30 percent more this year than last. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association and other brick-and-mortar business groups used Monday’s online shopping surge to remind shoppers and policymakers alike that sales taxes should be collected on Internet purchases just as on items purchased in traditional stores: “The tax is supposed to be paid. If someone orders something from an online retailer or a catalog retailer that doesn’t collect the tax, the customer owes the money to the state.”

It appears that the gap between Wisconsin’s rich and poor continues to widen. The bottom two fifths of the state’s residents actually saw their incomes decline while the top fifth – and especially the top one percent – saw theirs climb over the last 25 years. One solution to this problem, identified by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Wisconsin Budget Project, is to reform the state’s regressive tax structure because currently, “state and local taxes in Wisconsin increase income inequality rather than reduce it.”

A recent policy brief from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center identifies eight strategies to rebuilding the state’s economy. One of the goals identified is implementing a “Productive, Equitable Revenue System” through modernizing the tax structure and making it more fair. Washington has the most regressive state tax structure in the country; low income people pay far more of their income in taxes compared to wealthy Washingtonians. If state policymakers want to rebuild their economy, improving their tax structure is a good place to start.

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

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

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

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

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


Ballot Measures in Eleven States Put Taxes in Voters' Hands


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

Arizona

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

Arkansas

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

California

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

Florida

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

Michigan

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

Missouri

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

New Hampshire

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

Oklahoma

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

Oregon

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

South Dakota

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

Washington

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

 

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


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In November 2010, Washington State voters reached an unfortunate verdict and passed Initiative 1053, a law which mandates that the legislature assemble a two-thirds “supermajority” for any legislation deemed to raise taxes.

These supermajority requirements are not only anti-democratic but make sustainable and fair tax reform difficult because they, in effect, require legislators to enlarge one tax loophole in order to diminish or eliminate another. That’s right: in this upside down world, closing a loophole is a tax increase, so you have to create a new one or cut a tax to offset any that you close.  In short, majority-plus requirements like Washington’s provide yet another incentive for politicians to convolute the tax code with special interest giveaways.

Until, that is, a judge decides such a law is not just dumb, but unconstitutional. And in a bit of good news, Washington State’s legislative supermajority requirement for raising taxes and closing tax loopholes was recently struck down by a superior court judge for “[violating] the simple majority provision” of the state constitution.

In his decision, Judge Bryce Heller stated that the framers of the Washington constitution were well aware of supermajority rules (they required them to amend or repeal voter-passed initiatives, for example), and therefore the simple majority rule on tax and other legislation was intended by those framers and can, therefore, only be changed with an amendment to the state constitution. 

State Attorney General Rob McKenna (and now Republican candidate for governor), who defended the initiative in court, pledged to appeal the decision directly to the state Supreme Court.

Aside from the legal questions at issue in this case, several organizations have recently pointed out the damaging fiscal effects of supermajority requirements. The lawmakers and education organizations that brought the suit are concerned that the law prevents a majority of lawmakers from sufficiently funding state services such as education and transportation. They also point out a state Supreme Court’s ruling from last year concluding that Washington State is not, in fact, meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic public education.

Moreover, as the Washington State Budget & Policy Center wrote prior to the ruling, Initiative 1053 has prolonged the state’s recession “by forcing unnecessarily deep cuts to health care, education, and other job-creating investments.” The Center reports that the state’s budget has been cut by more than $10.6 billion over the past three years.

The DC based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lays out how supermajority rules also force lawmakers to raise fees, tuition and other revenue devices not covered by the law, as well as depress capital investments (investors are less willing to buy bonds from states with such requirements). Furthermore, with so few votes necessary to dictate legislative outcomes—for example, the Washington rule required the objection of only 17 senators to derail any bill—supermajority laws “increase the power of extremists and special interests” who can hold hostage even popular legislation.

It’s all very common sense that the supermajority requirement be struck down. (One setback to this case might result from a recent vote in the state legislature that was politically designed to “prove” a supermajority can be achieved on tax issues. It’s complicated and you can read more about it here.)  With the AG’s appeal, the state Supreme Court will be taking up the case, and both sides are hoping for swift action: the plaintiffs want to see more funding for schools and see the democratic process restored, while the law’s opponents want to get on with the task of shackling the Evergreen State’s government.

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.)


Quick Hits in State News: ITEP Testifies in Maryland, and More


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The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) testified this week in favor of a bill that would reinstate Maryland’s recently expired “millionaires’ tax.”  As ITEP explains in its testimony, the millionaires’ tax would make the state’s regressive tax system slightly less unfair.  And despite predictable claims from the anti-tax crowd, there’s no reason to think that the tax would harm the state’s economy.

Confirming our fears, it looks like Idaho lawmakers’ plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest and businesses in Idaho is moving forward. Legislation to reduce the top income tax rate passed out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.  In more bad Idaho news, it will not be joining the ranks of states with an Amazon tax this year as the bill failed to gain enough support.

It’s only March, yet Sales Tax Holiday season is already rearing its head. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley supports a “storm gear” holiday in advance of tornado season.  Lawmakers in Georgia are combining a sales tax holiday (bad idea) with a proposal to require online retailers to start collecting sales taxes from Peach State e-shoppers (good idea) in an effort “to kill any talk that a tax increase is afoot.”  And, Florida House members have already approved another year of a back to school tax holiday planned for August. 

ITEP’s Who Pays study was cited in an Associated Press article about heroic efforts to start taxing capital gains and other reforms in Washington State.  Because Washington has no personal or corporate income tax, and instead relies heavily on sales taxes, it has the most regressive tax system in the country.  At a press conference this week in support of the capital gains tax, Rep. Laurie Jinkins said, “Our fundamental problem in this state, in terms of revenue long term, has to do with fairness, adequacy of resources and stability of the resources that we bring into this state.”


Quick Hits In State News: A Good Bill With a Dim Future in New Mexico, and More


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Trending in 2012: Admitting Taxes Are Too Low


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Note to Readers: Over the coming weeks, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy 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 increase state revenues to pay for important public investments. 

Given the number of Governors calling for major tax cuts in their states, you’d think that states are suddenly awash in cash and well on the road to economic recovery.  But the reality is that very few states are back to where they were before the recession hit in terms of tax collections and public spending.  Many were limping along with federal stimulus funds, but now that’s dried up, too. Recognizing the need to begin restoring investments in education, transportation, and health care or prevent even more devastating cuts to these services, a handful of Governors have put tax increases on the table.  The proposals range from across-the-board rate increases to tax hikes only on the wealthiest, permanent to temporary changes, and plans that require only legislative approval to ballot initiatives for the public to decide.

California Governor Jerry Brown is taking his proposed tax increase to the voters in November.  In an effort to prevent damaging cuts to public education, Brown is asking wealthy Californians to pay more income taxes and everyone to chip in with a higher sales tax for the next five years.  A recent poll shows Californians are overwhelmingly on his side- more than 2/3rds of those surveyed support the Governor especially when the tax increases are linked to investments in education.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley included several revenue raising measures in his recent budget proposal to help close a $940 million gap.  Most notable is a plan to raise taxes on upper-income Marylanders through limiting the amount of itemized deductions and personal exemptions they are able to claim - a recommendation ITEP made last year.

O’Malley also proposed taxing internet transactions, digital downloads and increasing taxes on tobacco products and the state’s “flush tax.”  He recently announced a plan to apply the sales tax to gasoline rather than an increase in the designated gas tax to address transportation needs in the state.

Washington lawmakers are facing off on how best to address a $1 billion budget gap this year.  Governor Christine Gregoire is pushing for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase that would raise roughly $500 million, and to close the remaining gap with spending cuts.  At least two competing proposals, however, have emerged that would raise needed revenue and improve the fairness of the state’s tax structure.  The first is a one percent tax on corporate and personal income that would raise $500 million and allow for a reduction in the state’s sales and business-occupations taxes. Another plan would tax realized capital gains at five percent, raising between $215 million and $650 million a year. 

Given Washington’s restrictive rules on revenue-raising (a two thirds legislative supermajority is required to enact increases), any proposed tax increase will likely end up on a ballot (which a legislative simple majority can implement) for the voters to decide this Spring or Fall.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue recently proposed reinstating most of a temporary sales tax increase that expired last year.  She wants to invest the $800 million the tax would raise in the state’s public schools, community colleges and universities, all of which suffered massive cuts over the past four years.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is promoting some revenue raising ideas he says are supported by the public.  His $230 million revenue package includes a 50 cent per pack increase in the cigarette tax (bringing the total to $3.01), increases on other tobacco products, expanding the bottle bill so that a wider range of beverages require a redeemable nickel deposit, and taxing candy and soda at the state’s 6.25 percent rate (both are currently exempt from taxation).

Rhode Island After failing to gain legislative support last year for his reform-minded and sensible tax plan, Governor Lincoln Chafee has offered up a hodgepodge of tax changes this year he thinks lawmakers can stomach.  Chafee’s$88 million tax package includes some modest expansion of the sales tax to items such as taxi and limousine rides and pet services.

Photo of Christine Gregoire via Studio 8, photo of Deval Patrick via Green Massachusetts, and photo Jerry Brown via Steve Rhodes Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Taxing Capital Gains: A No Brainer for Washington State


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Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the country. No other state asks more of its poorest taxpayers and simultaneously asks so little of its wealthiest taxpayers.  The major reasons for its distorted tax structure are the state’s excessive reliance on sales taxes (along with property taxes) and the absence of any type of tax on income.

Later this month, legislators will be meeting in a special session to try to close the state’s $2 billion shortfall. Governor Gregoire has taken the uninspired and unimaginative approach of proposing only spending cuts to fill the gap. Her proposed plan will simultaneously harm working families and ensure that Washington State’s tax structure remains the nation’s most unfair.

Governor Gregoire and legislators need to think outside the box, and specifically consider  the Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s (WBPC) proposal to tax capital gains income.

 The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) found that a modest tax on capital gains income could raise as much as a $1 billion annually, and a full 97 percent of Washingtonians wouldn’t be impacted. To read more about WBPC’s proposal and ITEP’s analysis read A Capital Reform.  

Elected officials must move beyond the cuts-only rhetoric and look to budget solutions, like taxing capital gains, that help to create long term fiscal solvency and create a tax structure that works for everyone.

Photo of Governor Chris Gregoire via WS DOT Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


Will Washington State's Citizens Raise Their Own Taxes?


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This week, the Associated Press is reporting that some lawmakers in Olympia “have been quietly exploring the logistics of a special election in February 2012 that could ask state voters to raise taxes to help fill another budget shortfall.” 

This is a very promising development. Lawmakers from Washington State to South Carolina and any state with a budget crunch should be exploring straightforward revenue raising options like this. Balancing budgets by cuts alone undermines education, health care, public safety and the myriad of other important services that government provides its constituents.

A less promising development, meanwhile, is that Governor Christine Gregoire has called the legislature back for a special session in November with the goal of finding $2 billion in budget cuts, on the heels of $4.6 billion they already passed earlier this year.

The Washington State Budget and Policy Center (WSBPC)  reminds us that there is a lot at stake in this special session. Already, state agencies have submitted budgets that reflect 10 percent across the board reductions.  Some of the real life implications of these reductions would be: over 18,000 fewer students enrolled in community and technical colleges, the loss of health care for 25,000 children, and the elimination of food assistance for 14,000 low-income legal immigrants.

WSBPC gets it right when it says,it doesn’t have to be that way.  Policymakers can and should raise additional resources through a combination of eliminating wasteful tax breaks and temporarily increasing general tax rates or sin tax rates.

Given the harsh spending cuts that are likely coming down the pike, it’s imperative that lawmakers and the public remain vigilant and explore revenue raising opportunities in both the legislature and through the initiative process.

Photo of Washington State Capitol via Alan Cordova Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

"Sunset" provisions (or expiration dates) recently played a big role in allowing Washington State lawmakers to eliminate special tax breaks for filmmakers, computer server farms, and newspapers.  Unfortunately, a tax break for out-of-state banks was spared from the chopping block, due in no small part to its lack of a sunset provision.

Washington does a much better job than most states in making information available about the plethora of special breaks contained within its tax code.  Oddly, however, Washington also makes it much more difficult than most states to modify or repeal any of those breaks, since it requires supermajority support in the state legislature in order to raise tax rates or repeal tax breaks.

The unfortunate effects of this supermajority requirement were recently on full display in the Washington State House of Representatives. Last week, a minority of lawmakers was able to block the repeal of a tax break for out-of-state banks, while education and health care were slashed in order to balance the state’s budget. 

The Washington Budget and Policy Center (WBPC) points out that this problem could have been eliminated going forward had voters been allowed to decide this November on a proposal that would have given a simple majority of legislators the ability to repeal narrow tax breaks.

But in Washington and other states, a different method of addressing the unwarranted bias in favor of tax breaks is continuing to garner significant attention.  Specifically, Washington was able to get three narrow tax breaks off its books — for filmmakers, computer server farms, and newspapers — by simply allowing them to sunset (or expire) as scheduled. 

In Washington’s case, the value of sunsets is particularly pronounced, since tax breaks would otherwise continue to be in effect even after a majority of lawmakers decided they were ineffective.

Even in states without such supermajority rules, sunsets can be incredibly useful in forcing action. They require lawmakers to explicitly debate and vote, every few years or so, on tax breaks that otherwise would remain safely tucked away deep in the state’s tax code.

But sunset provisions are not the norm in Washington.  According to a recent WBPC analysis, only 37 of Washington’s 301 tax breaks include an expiration date.  That’s why Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles has proposed legislation that would sunset all tax breaks in the state.  The proposal is similar to requirements that already exist in Nevada and Oregon, and to a bill that ITEP recently testified on in Rhode Island.

Using more effective sunset provisions in Washington, and elsewhere around the country, would provide lawmakers with an extremely valuable tool for slowing the proliferation of tax breaks that are too often ineffective, unfair, or both.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


State Transparency Report Card and Other Resources Released


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

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

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

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

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

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


Results of Tax-Related Ballot Initiatives


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Earlier this week, voters in states across the nation voted overwhelmingly against implementing major changes to their states’ tax codes. Voters in Massachusetts defeated an effort to slash the state’s sales tax, preserving much-needed revenue to fund education, public safety and other vital services. In Colorado, three anti-tax measures that would have wreaked havoc on the state’s budget were also soundly defeated. Washington State voters rejected a plan that would have created an income tax while rolling back other taxes.

In other states, big business successfully used its money to influence the outcomes of ballot measures on tax issues. Voters in Missouri and Montana passed initiatives designed to ensure that neither state could implement a tax on the transfer of real estate. Neither state currently has a real estate transfer tax, yet the real estate lobby spent millions trying to pass the initiatives. In Washington and Massachusetts, the beverage and alcohol industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to see that sales taxes levied on their products were rolled back.

And in California, corporations spent millions to defeat a ballot measure that would have repealed several poorly-thought out corporate tax breaks. As the New York Times noted earlier this week, Fox News aired a critical piece on the ballot measure as part of their "War on Business" series, as parent company News Corporation gave $1.3 million to defeat the measure. Fox executives said they "didn't know" the parent company had made these contributions.

Unfortunately, voters in a number of states also ratified measures that will make it harder to raise revenues going forward. California and Washington each face tighter supermajority constraints on revenue-raising, Indiana voters enshrined property tax caps in their constitution, and voters in Massachusetts and Washington retroactively rejected small tax increases enacted by state legislatures in the past year.

Here are the results of initiatives we’ve been following.

Personal Income Tax

Washington: Initiative 1098 - FAILED
Initiative 1098 would have introduced a limited personal income tax applicable only to the richest Washingtonians, reduced the state property tax and eliminated the Business and Occupation tax for many businesses.

Colorado: Proposition 101 - FAILED
Proposition 101 would have reduced Colorado’s income tax rate and eliminated various fees resulting in an estimated loss of $2.9 billion in state and local revenue once fully implemented.

Business Tax Breaks

California: Proposition 24 - FAILED
Proposition 24 would have eliminated several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009 and would have increased state revenues by more than $1.3 billion.

Super Majority Voting Requirements

California: Proposition 25 - PASSED
California: Proposition 26 - PASSED

The passage of California’s Proposition 25 removes the current two thirds super majority requirement needed to pass the state budget (replacing it with a simple majority vote). However, Proposition 26 institutes a new super majority requirement for raising certain fees (classifying them as taxes, which still require a two thirds vote).

Washington: Initiative 1053 - PASSED
Initiative 1053 will ensure that all tax increases (no matter their size) be approved either by a two thirds majority in the legislature or a public vote of the people.

Earnings Tax

Missouri: Proposition A - PASSED
Proposition A requires voters to decide whether two local earnings taxes levied in St. Louis and Kansas City should exist and also prohibits other localities from levying a local income tax.

Sales Taxes

Massachusetts: Question 1PASSED
Massachusetts: Question 3 - FAILED

Question 3 would have cut the state’s sales tax rate from 6.25 to 3 percent, resulting in an annual revenue loss of $2.5 billion.  Question 1 removes the sales tax on alcohol, which was just added last year in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Washington: Initiative 1107 - PASSED
Initiative 1107 repeals a recently enacted sales tax increase on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy.

Property Tax Exemptions

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 2 - PASSED
This constitutional amendment fully exempts disabled prisoners of war (POWs) from paying property taxes.

Virginia: Question 2 - PASSED
Question 2 changes Virginia’s constitution to exempt disabled veterans and their surviving spouses from paying property taxes.

Property Tax Caps

Indiana: Public Question #1 - PASSED
The amendment to Indiana’s state constitution permanently limits property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. These limits already existed in statute. This ballot measure simply makes them more difficult to repeal.

Colorado: Amendment 60FAILED
Amendment 60 would have taken away the ability of voters to opt out of Colorado’s TABOR limitations as they relate to property taxes and require school districts to cut property tax rates in half over the next ten years, replacing the lost revenue for K-12 schools with state funding.

Real Estate Transfer Fees

Montana: Constitutional Initiative 105 - PASSED
Initiative 105 prohibits the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.  

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 3 - PASSED
Amendment 3 prohibits the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.

Government Borrowing

Colorado: Amendment 61FAILED
Amendment 61 would have prohibited or restricted all levels and divisions of government from financing public infrastructure projects (such as building or repairing roads and schools) through borrowing.

California: Proposition 22PASSED
Proposition 22 amends California’s Constitution to take away the state’s ability to borrow or shift revenues that fund transportation programs.


Voters Embrace Higher Taxes at the Local Level


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Last week, the Associated Press took a close look at how local-level tax increases have fared on the ballot leading up to this week’s election.  Out of the 39 states surveyed by the AP, 22 of them held local primary elections or special elections where tax measures were voted on in 2010, and a whopping 19 of those states saw their residents approve more than half of all proposed local tax increases.

Some of the more interesting results highlighted by the AP include the approval of 83% of local tax increases in Louisiana, 72% in Ohio, and 66% in ArizonaKansas, Nebraska, and Washington also approved particularly high percentages of local tax increases.

It’s important to note that the AP study was conducted before this week’s election, and therefore doesn’t tell us how local measures fared on November 2.  Moreover, as the AP points out in their review, there is no single source for information on the results of local ballot measures, and even most states fail to publicize local results in a centralized location. 

Unless and until a study of this week’s local measures is completed, we’ll be left to wonder whether trends from earlier this year have continued to hold.  If they have, there could very well be many more stories of local ballot successes like this one in Colorado.


State Tax Issues on the Ballot on Election Day


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The stakes will be high for state tax policy on Election Day, with tax-related issues on the ballot in several states. With a couple of notable exceptions (a new income tax in Washington and rollback of corporate tax breaks in California), these ballot initiatives would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both).

Personal Income Tax

Colorado: Proposition 101 would reduce or eliminate various fees and immediately reduce the state’s income tax rate from 4.63 to 4.5 percent and eventually to 3.5 percent).  If passed, Proposition 101 will result in an estimated loss of $2.9 billion in state and local revenue once fully implemented.

Washington: Initiative 1098 would introduce a personal income tax, reduce the state property tax and eliminate the Business and Occupation tax for small businesses. If passed, this legislation would improve tax fairness in the state with the most regressive tax structure in the country.  For more read CTJ's Digest articles about this initiative.

Business Tax Breaks

California: Proposition 24 would eliminate several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009 and increase state revenues by more than $1.3 billion.  For more details on these tax breaks, read the California Budget Project's Budget Brief on the initiative.

Super-Majority Voting Requirements

California: Proposition 25 would remove the current two-thirds super-majority requirement needed to pass the state budget (replacing it with a simple majority vote), while Proposition 26 would institute a new super-majority requirement for raising certain fees (classifying them as taxes).  For more details on these initiatives, read the California Budget Project’s initiative summaries.

Washington: Initiative 1053 would, if approved, ensure that no tax increases (no matter their size) become law without either approval by a two-thirds majority in the legislature or a public vote of the people. The Washington Budget and Policy Center gives a helpful summary of the initiative and its potential impact.   

Earnings Taxes

Missouri: Proposition A, if approved, would require that voters be asked every five years to decide whether or not local earnings taxes levied in St. Louis and Kansas City should exist. (If voters then decide to not allow them, they will be phased out over a ten-year period). The Proposition would also exclude any other local government from levying its own earnings taxes. For more on Proposition A, read Missouri Budget Project’s fact sheet.

Sales Taxes

Massachusetts: Question 1 and Question 3
A diverse coalition of businesses, advocacy organizations, citizens groups and political leaders have joined together to defeat Question 3, an initiative that would cut the state’s sales tax rate from 6.25 to 3 percent, resulting in an annual revenue loss of $2.5 billion.  Question 1 would remove the sales tax on alcohol which was just added last year in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Washington: Initiative 1107 would repeal the new sales taxes on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy. For more information, read CTJ's Digest article on the issue and the Washington Budget and Policy Center’s summary.

Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, it's an important revenue source. Slashing it in either Washington or Massachusetts without replacing the lost revenue with another source would cripple the ability of those states to provide core services such as education and public safety to their residents.

Property Tax Exemptions

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 2 would exempt fully disabled prisoners of war (POWs) from paying property taxes. Read Missourians for Tax Justice’s take on this issue.

Virginia: Question 2 would change Virginia’s constitution to exempt veterans and their surviving spouse from paying property taxes if the veteran is 100 percent disabled.

Property Tax Caps

Colorado: Amendment 60 would take away the ability of voters to opt out of Colorado’s TABOR limitations as they relate to property taxes.  Currently, voters can approve an increase in property tax rates above the constitutional limit which caps increases at the rate of inflation plus a small measure of local growth.  The amendment would also require school districts to cut property tax rates in half over the next ten years and replace the lost revenue for K-12 schools with state funding (an estimated $1.5 billion will be required from the state, meaning reductions will have to made to other services to support an increase in K-12 spending).

Indiana: Public Question #1 will ask Indianans to decide if their state's constitution should be permanently altered to limit property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. Voters may find it helpful to read this brief from the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

Real Estate Transfer Fees

Missouri: Constitutional Amendment 3 would prohibit the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax. Missouri currently doesn’t levy any such tax.  Placing the question before voters is seen as a preemptive move by the Missouri Association of Realtors to ensure that the state can’t create a transfer tax.

Montana: Constitutional Initiative 105 would, if approved, prohibit the state from enacting any type of real estate transfer tax.  The state currently doesn’t levy such a tax. The Billings Gazette has weighed in on this Initiative.

Government Borrowing

California: Proposition 22 would amend California’s Constitution to take away the state’s ability to borrow or shift revenues that fund transportation programs.  For more information, read the California Budget Project’s brief on the initiative.

Colorado: Amendment 61 would prohibit or restrict all levels and divisions of government from financing public infrastructure projects (such as building or repairing roads and schools) through borrowing.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ITEP Identifies Fundamental Mismatch in 6 State Tax Structures


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Earlier this summer the Census Bureau released data that revealed which states can be considered "low tax" states. We took a closer look at the data and found that while a handful of states could be considered low tax states overall, their taxes are not low for poor and middle-income families.

In fact, in six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington — there is a fundamental mismatch between the Census data and how these supposed low tax states treat people living at or near the poverty line. One of the major reasons for this is that these states have largely unbalanced tax structures. Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington rely heavily on property and sales taxes because they don't have a broad-based personal income tax. (For more on a Washington ballot initiative to introduce an income tax, see our Digest article below.) Despite having income taxes, Arkansas and Arizona rely heavily on sales taxes, thus making their tax structures balanced on the backs of low- and middle-income taxpayers.


Ballot Round Up


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Now that the primary election dust has settled and signature gathering deadlines have come and gone, we have a clear picture of the good and bad tax initiatives voters in a number of states will have an opportunity to support or oppose.  Over the coming month, the Tax Justice Digest will provide updates on tax-related ballot campaigns including links to the best resources to help voters understand what to expect when they hit the polls in November.

Indiana voters will soon decide if their state's constitution should be permanently altered to limit property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value for owner occupied residences, 2 percent for rental and farm property and 3 percent for business property. The state legislature has already approved this short-sighted measure twice.

Voters would find it helpful to read this brief from the Indiana Community Action Association which dispels false claims about the benefits of these property tax caps, including claims that all homeowners are likely to benefit, that having these caps in the constitution will prevent taxes generally from being raised, and that the caps are well-designed in the first place.

Missouri voters will be asked to decide on Proposition A and the fate of the city earnings taxes levied in Kansas City and St. Louis. If Proposition A is approved, voters will be asked every five years to decide whether or not these earnings taxes should exist. (If voters then decide to not allow them, they will be phased out over a ten year period). The revenue generated from these earning taxes represents about 30 percent of the cities' general fund budgets.

A key supporter (and bankroller) of the initiative, Rex Sinquefield, has said that the money "has to be replaced" if the earnings taxes are eliminated, but he doesn't actually say how that money will get replaced. "That was the reason that we proposed a 10-year phase-out," he says, "so you have a lot of time to figure this out."

If passed, the initiative would exclude any other local government from levying their own earnings taxes, further limiting the ability of local governments to raise funds in a progressive way. Missouri voters would be wise to take a step back and heed this warning from the St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial board: "The loss of (earnings tax) revenue would reverberate beyond the residents of St. Louis and Kansas City. Voters throughout both metropolitan regions would face increased uncertainty as their core cities struggled to find replacement revenue. As go the metro areas, so goes Missouri."

For more on the harmful ramifications of Proposition A, read this fact sheet from the Missouri Budget Project.

Washington State voters will soon have the rare opportunity to improve their state's tax and budget structure in a dramatic way. If Initiative 1098 passes, the state's property tax will be cut by 20 percent, the state's unique Business and Occupation tax will be eliminated for small businesses and a new income tax on the wealthiest of Washingtonians will become the law of the land. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has endorsed I-1098 "as a big step toward tax fairness and reform, as well as a way of putting teachers into classrooms and poor families onto the state's Basic Health Plan. " ITEP's report Who Pays found that Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation and badly needs a tax reform of this sort.

Californians will have the opportunity to repeal three costly business tax breaks by voting to support Proposition 24, “The Tax Fairness Act”.  Enacted in 2008 and 2009, the three business tax cuts — elective single sales factor, tax credit sharing, and net operating loss carrybacks — are scheduled to go into effect in 2011 at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion.  As a new Budget Brief from the California Budget Project explains, these tax breaks benefit relatively few corporations and come at a time when the state can ill afford such a significant loss of revenue.  

In Colorado, most Democratic and Republican lawmakers are united in their opposition to three anti-tax initiatives on the state’s ballot which would drastically reduce state and local revenue and hinder the state’s ability to pay for education, health care, public safety, and other core services. 

Amendment 60 would require school districts to cut property taxes and replace the lost revenue. Proposition 101 would slash the state’s income tax and cut other fees. Amendment 61 would limit or disallow government borrowing.  A Colorado Legislative Staff analysis of the combined impact of the three measures found that the state would lose about $2.1 billion in revenue, while taking on $1.6 billion in K-12 education funding to make up for the local property tax cuts.  As a result, education spending would constitute nearly 99% of the state’s general fund budget.


Ballot Initiatives in the States: The Good News


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Efforts are underway in a variety of states to give voters the opportunity to change their state's tax structure for the better. Advocates are laying the ground work for tax reform in Colorado. Tax justice advocates in Arizona can celebrate that a Proposition 13-like initiative didn't garner enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. California voters will get the chance to repeal various corporate tax loopholes while Washington is closer than ever before to introducing a personal income tax.

In Colorado, folks are thinking about the 2012 ballot already. Representatives of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute (CFPI) have filed two initiatives that are currently being reviewed to determine if they abide by the state's "single subject" per initiative rule. According to The Denver Post, "the measures also call for reducing the state sales tax but taxing services as well as goods, changing the income-tax system to a graduated system and making a tax credit for low-income workers permanent." Specifically the proposal would change Colorado's flat rate income tax into a graduated system with a least five brackets. Carol Hedges with CFPI recently said of the initiatives that "the overriding objective is to have our tax system more appropriately matched with economic realities."

Arizonans swerved and missed the tax policy equivalent of a Mack truck slamming into them when it was announced that "Prop. 13 Arizona" failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the 2010 ballot. The proposal was modeled after California's Proposition 13. The measure would have rolled back the assessed value of property sold before 2004 to 2003 levels, limited property value increases, and taken away voters' rights to override levy limits. This is the second time that the proposal failed to garner enough signatures. For more on capping assessed value, see ITEP's primer on the subject.

In November, California voters will get to vote on the Repeal Corporate Tax Loopholes Act. The measure, if passed, would eliminate several business tax breaks enacted in 2008 and 2009. They include elective single sales factor, tax credit sharing, and net operating loss carrybacks. For more details on these tax breaks, see California Budget Project's Budget Brief on this issue. Perhaps more upsetting than these tax breaks actually passing is the way they were passed. Initially, according to the California Budget Bites Blog, these tax deals were of the "dark-of-night" variety. Now Californians themselves will decide if these costly corporate tax breaks should remain the law of the land.

Washingtonians are closer than they have ever been to establishing a personal income tax. Washington has repeatedly been named by ITEP as the state with the most regressive tax structure largely because of their high reliance on sales taxes and absence of a personal income tax. Initiative 1098 introduces an income tax that has two brackets targeted at high income Washingtonians, reduces the state property tax, and reforms the business and occupation tax. Supporters of the initiative this week turned in well over the 241,000 signatures required to get on the ballot. It appears that Washingtonians will have an exciting and historic opportunity to reform their state's tax structure this fall.


Ballot Initiatives in the States: The Bad News


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Voters this November in a variety of states may have the opportunity to vote against anti-tax initiatives, as well. Right-wing activists were successful recently in gathering signatures for a handful of misguided anti-tax initiatives in Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington.  

Colorado voters are going to have a congested ballot come November. Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 have all qualified for the ballot and would have an enormous impact on Coloradans' way of life. About these three proposals the Denver Post opines, "The operating language within each one is a virus that would cripple the ability of our local and state governments to provide the most basic of services — from building schools for our children to supplying clean water to our homes. Both Democratic and Republican politicians have joined leaders in business and community organizations to oppose the initiatives."

According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: "Amendment 60 would overturn voters' decision to opt out of Colorado's TABOR limitations. The initiative also cuts property tax rates in half over a ten-year period. The statutory Proposition 101 would slash state and local revenues to the tune of $1.7 billion by reducing the state income tax, motor vehicle fees, and telecommunications fees." Amendment 61 would prohibit all levels and divisions of government from bonding, even if they previously had the authority to do so. These measures would have a disastrous impact on Coloradans' way of life.

The Boston Herald is reporting that an initiative proposing to reduce the Massachusetts sales tax from 6.25 to 3 percent is likely headed to the November ballot. The proposal would cost the state a jaw-dropping $2.4 billion annually. Proponents of the legislation delivered more than the required 11,099 signatures to the Secretary of State's office Wednesday. In somewhat brighter news, none of the four candidates for governor appear to support the initiative and have said that if it passes, deep cuts in state and local services would be all but guaranteed. Despite the regressive nature of the sales tax, it's important because slashing it would cripple Massachusetts' ability to provide for its residents.

Another initiative that reportedly has enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, backed by beer and wine wholesalers, would eliminate the new sales tax on alcohol.  Last year, state lawmakers removed the sales tax exemption on beer, wine and liquor and added them to the state’s sales tax base in order to raise $80 million for substance abuse programs.

Tim Eyman, Washington state's notorious anti-tax crusader, is up to his old, tired tricks again. Initiative 1053 would permanently re-establish the requirement for a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature or a statewide popular vote in order to pass tax increases.  A similar measure won at the ballot in 2007, but that measure allowed the legislature to repeal the rules by a simple majority vote after two years.  Facing a $2.8 billion budget gap this year, Washington legislators suspended the requirement in February for 16 months to pass tax increases to mitigate cuts to vital state services.  If passed this initiative impairs the ability of Legislators to do what they were elected to do — legislate.

Eyman is also supportive of Initiative 1107, which would roll back the new state taxes on a variety of goods including soda, bottled water, and candy. (Advocates of both initiatives turned in over 700,000 signatures to see that these issues will be placed before the voters in November.) Of course sales taxes are regressive, but the cost of removing the sales tax from these items is pretty stark. According to the Children's Action Alliance, "The choice for us is clear, a few extra pennies or the loss of essential services for kids."

Not surprisingly, the main financial backer of Initiative 1107 is the American Beverage Association, which has reportedly spent more than $1 million on the ballot effort thus far.

Washington recently joined with 30 other states to tax candy. If you want to see how your state taxes candy, see Washington State Budget and Policy Center's handy map on the subject.


Poll Shows Washingtonians Support Progressive Income Tax Proposal


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Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the country according to ITEP's recent Who Pays? report, which analyzed the tax structures of all fifty states. Not only does the state's tax structure hit low- and middle-income families the hardest, but it's also unsustainable because it doesn't generate enough revenue to fund public services.

The introduction of an income tax targeted at wealthy taxpayers would go a long way to solving both of these problems. Such a proposal is being touted by Bill Gates Sr. and a large coalition of groups promoting an initiative that, if put on November's ballot, would raise taxes on couples earning more than $400,000 ($200,000 for singles).

According to a recent poll from the University of Washington, the state's voters favor this tax reform by a 58 to 30 percent margin. If the initiative passes, Washington would join the vast majority of other states that have income taxes.


Positive Tax Reform Efforts Underway in Washington State


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Late last month, Washingtonians for Education, Health, and Tax Relief filed a ballot initiative to reduce the state's structural deficit and reduce the unfairness of the state's tax structure. One of the lead organizers of the effort to get Initiative 1077 on the ballot and approved by voters is Bill Gates, Sr.

Gates wrote in a recent Seattle Times op-ed, "I hope you will join me in supporting real tax reform to benefit the middle class and small business in Washington state, while making a much-needed investment in our schools and health systems. It's an idea whose time has finally come."

According to a fact sheet from the Economic Opportunity Institute, the initiative would:

  • Introduce an income tax on couples with incomes above $400,000 and singles over $200,000;
  • Reduce the state portion of the property tax by 20%;
  • Eliminate or reduce the Business and Occupation tax for many businesses by raising the small business credit from $420 to $4,800 per year;
  • Dedicate net new revenues to education and health;
  • Require regular reporting on how revenues are spent and require that future changes in the income tax be approved by a vote of the people.

ITEP's recent report, Who Pays?, which analyzed the impact of tax structures in all fifty states, found that yet again Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country. Serious efforts in Washington to increase tax fairness should be welcome news to tax justice advocates everywhere.


Leaving Money On the Table


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Since the passage of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, federal tax law has given state lawmakers a clear incentive to rely on income taxes, instead of sales taxes, to fund public investments. This is because state income taxes can be written off by federal taxpayers who itemize their deductions, and sales taxes generally cannot. Even with temporary legislation in place that does allow a sales tax deduction, states that rely heavily on sales taxes — and not at all on income taxes — are essentially choosing to ignore what amounts to a federal "matching grant" for states that rely heavily on progressive income taxes.

A new joint report from ITEP and United for a Fair Economy's Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative quantifies the cost of this choice in seven states that currently have no broad-based income tax — and that make up the gap by leaning heavily on the sales tax. The report shows that collectively, these seven states could reduce the federal taxes paid by their residents by $1.7 billion a year if they enacted a revenue-neutral reform that replaces sales tax revenue with a flat-rate income tax, and that the same states could save their residents $5.5 billion a year in federal taxes by enacting a similarly revenue-neutral shift to a graduated-rate progressive income tax.

Read the report.


Washington State Lawmakers Prepare to Increase Taxes to Help Fill Budget Gap


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Washington Governor Chris Gregoire signed a bill this Wednesday that temporarily suspends the state’s supermajority requirement for raising taxes.  By preventing the minority Republicans in either chamber from blocking budget proposals that rely on both revenue increases and spending cuts, this move almost certainly paves the way for what will be a more balanced approach to filling the state’s budget gap. 

The House, Senate, and Governor have all released budget proposals in recent days that would do precisely that, though each could go much farther in the degree to which it relies on additional revenues.  The Senate proposal, for example, relies on new revenues to fill just 10% of the state’s budget gap, while the Governor’s proposal would use revenues to fill barely 7%.

The Senate proposal, released on Tuesday, would eliminate or curtail a number of special tax breaks, raise the cigarette tax, and temporarily hike the sales tax by 0.3 percentage points.  In order to offset the inevitably regressive effects of the sales and cigarette tax hikes, the proposal would finally provide the funding needed to activate the state’s EITC (called the “Working Families Tax Rebate”), which was originally enacted in 2008.

Like the Senate proposal, the Governor’s proposal also identifies an array of tax breaks for elimination or reduction, though it targets fewer breaks than the Senate version.  The Governor would also increase the cigarette tax, raise the hazardous substance tax, and generate additional revenue from taxing bottled water, carbonated beverages, candy, and gum.

The House is expected to release the details of its budget proposal today.  That proposal was not yet available at the time of this writing, but it is expected to include both spending cuts and tax increases.  For more details on the House proposal once it’s released, be sure to check the Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s blog, “Schmudget.

As noted above, the likelihood of enacting the revenue increases contained in these plans has been greatly improved as a result of Washington lawmakers’ decision to temporarily suspend the portion of Initiative 960 that requires a supermajority vote in both houses in order to raise taxes.  I-960 was passed by voters in 2007, long before they could possibly have realized how dire the budgetary situation would be just a few years later as a result of the national recession.  Notably, the suspension of I-960 has opened up a great opportunity not only for Washington to tackle its budget shortfall in a more balanced fashion, but also to close a number of tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks that have been unduly protected by the supermajority requirement against “tax increases” over the past few years.

For more on the Washington State debates as they develop, you can follow the work being done at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, and the Economic Opportunity Institute.  Notably, both organizations have released additional options for raising revenue (here and here) that could be used to further mitigate some of the deep cuts still being contemplated by lawmakers.


Budget Band-Aids: Kansas and Washington


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On Monday, Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson gave his State of the State speech, which included a proposal to temporarily increase the state sales tax by 1 percent to help fill a nearly $400 million budget shortfall. Governor Parkinson said, "I can't find $400 million that we can responsibly cut. If you can find responsible cuts, I'm open to looking at them. Let me repeat, as a person who is fiscally responsible, a person that has cut more money out of the Kansan budget than any Kansan in history, there isn't $400 million that we can responsibly cut."

Of course, lawmakers shouldn't forget the very good ideas floated by Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon. She has suggested a three-year moratorium on creating new sales tax exemptions and an examination of the effects of current sales tax exemptions. If enacted, her proposals would go a long way to both modernizing the state's tax structure and making it more stable. 

In Washington State there are fewer buttons to press when it comes to revenue raisers (because the state lacks a broad-based income tax), but one option that is available to lawmakers is to increase and modernize the state's sales tax.

This week the Washington Budget and Policy Center released a report on this very topic. It includes a proposal to temporarily increase the sales tax rate, enlarge the base to include consumer services, and include candy, gum, and bakery products in the sales tax base.

Governor Christine Gregoire's budget proposals are frankly disappointing compared to the proposal put forward by the Budget and Policy Center. The Governor's proposal includes offering tax incentives to businesses, closing tax loopholes, service cuts and using federal dollars to help balance the state's budget.


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.

Read ITEP's New Report: Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of Tax Systems in All 50 States

By an overwhelming margin, most states tax their middle- and low-income families far more heavily than the wealthy, according to a new study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP).

“In the coming months, lawmakers across the nation will be forced to make difficult decisions about budget-balancing tax changes—which makes it vital to understand who is hit hardest by state and local taxes right now,” said Matthew Gardner, lead author of the study, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States. “The harsh reality is that most states require their poor and middle-income taxpayers to pay the most taxes as a share of income.”

Nationwide, the study found that middle- and low-income non-elderly families pay much higher shares of their income in state and local taxes than do the very well-off:

-- The average state and local tax rate on the best-off one percent of families is 6.4 percent before accounting for the tax savings from federal itemized deductions. After the federal offset, the effective tax rate on the best off one percent is a mere 5.2 percent.

-- The average tax rate on families in the middle 20 percent of the income spectrum is 9.7 percent before the federal offset and 9.4 percent after—almost twice the effective rate that the richest people pay.

-- The average tax rate on the poorest 20 percent of families is the highest of all. At 10.9 percent, it is more than double the effective rate on the very wealthy.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.” noted Gardner. “But virtually anyone would agree that this upside-down approach to state and local taxes is astonishingly inequitable.”



The “Terrible Ten” Most Regressive Tax Systems

Ten states—Washington, Florida, Tennessee, South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Alabama—are particularly regressive. These “Terrible Ten” states ask poor families—those in the bottom 20% of the income scale—to pay almost six times as much of their earnings in taxes as do the wealthy. Middle income families in these states pay up to three-and-a-half times as high a share of their income as the wealthiest families. “Virtually every state has a regressive tax system,” noted Gardner. “But these ten states stand out for the extraordinary degree to which they have shifted the cost of funding public investments to their very poorest residents.”

The report identifies several factors that make these states more regressive than others:

-- The most regressive states generally either do not levy an income tax, or levy the tax at a flat rate;

-- These states typically have an especially high reliance on regressive sales and excise taxes;

-- These states usually do not allow targeted low-income tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit; these tax credits are especially effective in reducing state tax unfairness.

“For lawmakers seeking to make their tax systems less unfair, there is an obvious strategy available,” noted Gardner. “Shifting state and local revenues away from sales and excise taxes, and towards the progressive personal income tax, will make tax systems fairer for low- and middle income families. Conversely, states that choose to balance their budgets by further increasing the general sales tax or cigarette taxes will make their tax systems even more unbalanced and unfair.”

Implications for State Budget Battles in 2010

“In the coming months, many states’ lawmakers will convene to deal with fiscal shortfalls even worse than those they faced last year,” Gardner said. “Lawmakers may choose to close these budget gaps in the same way that they have done all too often in the past—through regressive tax hikes. Or they may decide instead to ask wealthier families to pay tax rates more commensurate with their incomes. In either case, the path that states choose in the upcoming year will have a major impact on the wellbeing of their citizens—and on the fairness of state and local taxes.”


State Spending Done Through the Tax Code Needs to Be Reviewed


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A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice makes the case for a “performance review” system designed to evaluate the effectiveness of special tax breaks in achieving their stated goals. While CTJ's report primarily focuses on the importance of such a system at the federal level, most of its findings are equally applicable to the states.

The special breaks littered throughout state tax codes — or “tax expenditures,” as they are frequently called — are an enormous and often overlooked part of government’s operations.  Although the primary purpose of a tax system is to raise the revenue needed to pay for public services, every state, as well as the federal government, also uses its tax system to accomplish a variety of other policy goals. Encouraging job creation, subsidizing private industry research, and promoting homeownership are just a few of the countless ends pursued via special subsidies contained in state tax codes. Rather than having anything to do with fair or efficient tax policy, these tax credits, exemptions, and other provisions are actually much more akin to government spending programs — hence the term, “tax expenditures.”

A performance review system takes the commonsense step of asking whether these provisions are doing what policymakers intended of them. Under such a system, tax credits designed to encourage research and experimentation, for example, would be regularly examined to determine the amount of new research undertaken as a result of the credits. Shockingly, the vast majority of states, and the federal government, do not currently attempt to answer fundamental questions of this sort with any type of rigorous evaluation.

Among CTJ’s findings are:

— “Procedural biases,” such as the omission of tax expenditures from the authorization and appropriations processes, allow tax expenditures to slip by with a fraction of the scrutiny given to direct spending programs. State legislative systems requiring supermajority consent to “raise taxes” (or eliminate tax expenditures) are particularly biased in this regard.

— “Political biases,” such as the erroneous belief that government can take a “hands off” approach, or reduce its overall size by offering special tax breaks, also contribute to the current lack of oversight.

— A number of states have made strides in recent years to counteract these biases through performance reviews and other, similar means. Washington State’s efforts represent the most complete attempt at tax expenditure performance review yet to be undertaken in the United States. California, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, and Rhode Island have also made attempts — with varying degrees of success — to enhance the level of scrutiny applied to their tax expenditures.

— The bleak state budgetary outlook makes the implementation of tax expenditure review all the more urgent. States, like the federal government, can no longer afford to deplete their resources with ill-advised and ineffective tax expenditures. By implementing a tax expenditure performance review system, states can pave the way for a reduction in tax expenditures by identifying those expenditures that are ineffective.

— A formal review system could also help to reconceptualize these provisions in the minds of policymakers, the media, and the public as spending-substitutes, rather than simply as tax cuts. This would further help reduce the rampant biases in favor of tax expenditure policy.

— The precise design of a tax expenditure review system is very important. States should be sure to include all taxes, and all tax expenditures within the scope of the review. Additionally, states should exercise care in selecting the criteria to be used in the reviews — Washington State’s criteria represent a good starting point from which to build. Other key design issues include choosing the appropriate body to conduct the reviews, timing the reviews to coincide with the budgeting process, allowing similar tax expenditures to be reviewed simultaneously, and attaching some type of “action-forcing” mechanism to the reviews so that policymakers must explicitly consider the reviews’ results.

— Tax expenditure reviews are necessary, though they may not be sufficient to correct for the biases in favor of tax expenditure policy. A tax expenditure performance review system can play a vital informational role either on its own, or alongside other, more aggressive tax expenditure control techniques such as sunset provisions or caps on tax expenditures’ total value.

Read the full report.

Read the 2-page summary.

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

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

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

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


"TABOR" Update: Restrictions on Revenue-Raising on November Ballots


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Next month, voters in two states will go to the ballot to decide whether to cap the growth in public budgets according to a formula based on the annual rate of population growth plus inflation. In Washington, the ballot initiative brought forward by anti-taxer Tim Eyman is called I-1033. Researchers at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute refer to it as the "toxic twin" of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).  In Maine, the initiative, dubbed TABOR II, is more akin to an annoying younger brother (well, if that brother had the ability to wreak complete havoc with sound fiscal policy).  You can tell him to go away -- as Maine voters did in rejecting an earlier version of the initiative in 2006 -- but he unfortunately keeps coming back.
 
Colorado's experience makes it clear that arbitrary funding formulas are an ineffective way to run government, leading to devastating impacts on vital public services. In fact, Colorado voters chose to suspend TABOR in 2005, due to the effects it was having on education, transportation, and human services. 

The limits that I-1033 in Washington and TABOR II in Maine would impose are especially dangerous in light of the current recession.  Under these initiatives, funding caps would be the lesser of the previous year's cap or the previous year's actual funding levels.  As a result, during economic downturns, when revenues are especially low, the cap is permanently “ratcheted” down to lower levels.

As to the consequences that these initiatives would have if enacted, Washington State  Senator Rodney Tom was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, "If I-1033 passes, I think we just all go home and bury our heads in the sand." 

As discouraging as that image may be, there are reasons to be hopeful.  The Maine Chamber of Commerce, which had initially backed TABOR II earlier this year (despite opposing its predecessor in 2006), recently withdrew its support, a clear sign that the measure goes too far even for business leaders.

For more on the impact of I-1033, see the Washington Budget and Policy Center's report “I-1033 Undermines Public Priorities.”   For more on Maine’s TABOR II, check out these resources from the Maine Center for Economic Policy or read the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recent analysis.

Two states, Washington and Maine, will consider ballot proposals this fall that are similar in concept to the disastrous "Taxpayer Bill of Rights," or TABOR, that Colorado enacted in 1992 to limit tax increases and cap spending by the state government.

This week, Washington State officials released their estimate of the fiscal impact from Initiative 1033, which will be on the November ballot. The Washington State Budget and Policy Center says I-1033 "would impose strict spending limits on state and local governments resulting in sharp reductions in public investments in education, community devel­opment, health care, and economic security. By restricting resources, I-1033 would dramatically weaken the state’s ability to fund important public priorities and would dimin­ish the quality of life for all Washingtonians."

The state's Office of Financial Management agrees and says, "The initiative reduces state general fund revenues that support education; social, health and environmental services; and general government activities by an estimated $5.9 billion by 2015." (This doesn't include the estimated loss of nearly $700 million for counties and $2.1 billion for cities by 2015 that would result if I-1033 is approved.) Voters in Washington would be wise get all the facts before voting in favor of this heavy-handed and unnecessary proposal.

A similarly draconian initiative will be put before the voters in Maine this fall.  Last week, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap approved the so-called TABOR II for inclusion on the November ballot.  The initiative largely reprises an earlier effort – rejected by voters in 2006 – to impose severe limits on state spending and taxes, limits that could become more constraining with each successive economic downturn.   A new and excellent report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy reviews the dangers of the current initiative and concludes that what was bad in 2006 has only gotten worse with time.  Legislators and other public leaders agree.

To learn about how you can help stop TABOR II in Maine, visit Maine Can Do Better.

 


Tax Cap on Ballot in Washington


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Washington State's infamous anti-taxer, Tim Eyman, is up to his usual shenanigans. Initiative 1033 was approved by the Secretary of State's office last week and will appear on the ballot this fall. If approved, this sweeping "measure would limit the growth rate of state, county, and city general fund revenue, not including new voter-approved revenue, to inflation and population growth. Excess revenue collected above these limits would be used to reduce property taxes." The Washington State Budget and Policy Center points out that the real impact of I-1033 would be to constrict government's ability to provide for the needs of residents, increase the current deficit, and exacerbate the impact of economic downturns. Watch the Budget and Policy Center's slide show on the substantial flaws of the ballot initiative.


Washington: Newspaper Bailouts Begin


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Earlier this week, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed into a law a measure providing a 40 percent reduction in the state's business & occupation (B&O) tax for newspapers. Thousands of barrels of ink, millions of column inches, and billions of bytes have been expended in recent months lamenting the state of the newspaper industry, as newspapers such as the Boston Globe (and its parent, the New York Times) struggle to cope with -- or, in the case of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News, are completely overwhelmed by -- advertising revenue losses and consumers' preferences for information that they can access any time and any place.

Given this long-term transition from one media platform to another, it's hard to see what this measure will accomplish, other than the waste of tax revenue. After all, if Governor Gregoire and other officials in Washington are concerned about the possibility of an ill-informed populace, why not use the funds lost to the tax cut to forestall cuts to schools or to improve government transparency still further?

In the end, the inefficiency of this tax subsidy will probably only be matched by the irony it has achieved. As at least one observer has already noted, the Seattle Times, one of the subsidy's principal beneficiaries, offered the following editorial solution to the state's budget woes earlier this year: "Efficiency will be the watchword. Lawmakers will have to find numerous savings and new, less expensive ways to do business." Apparently, that advice extends only so far.


Income Tax on High-Earners Proposed in Washington State


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Washington state legislators, struggling to fill a huge budget gap, are officially considering the enactment of an income tax. The tax would only apply to "high earners", specifically those with income of over $500,000 for single filers, and over $1 million for married couples. Although the tax would be a mere 1% and would affect only a tiny fraction of state residents, the Governor has come out in opposition to the idea.

Nonetheless, talk of raising revenue in a progressive manner is especially encouraging coming from Washington state, where the idea of enacting an income tax has traditionally been greeted with hostility. As numerouseconomists have pointed out, raising taxes on more fortunate state residents is the best way to prevent cuts in the state services needed most during an economic downturn. Washington joins Illinois,Wisconsin,New York, Connecticut, and Delaware as states where progressive income tax increases have received serious attention.

For more on this topic, see the Economic Opportunity Institute's recent op-ed on "high incomes" taxes.


Tax Isn't a Dirty Word


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In too many states facing terrible budget shortfalls, proposals to cut vital services and even poorly targeted tax cuts are receiving a lot of attention from lawmakers. Progressive research groups are pointing out that states cannot escape their fiscal morass simply by cutting public services. This week, the Washington Budget and Policy Center released a letter to Governor Gregoire, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, which was signed by twenty economists urging them to consider all options when trying to balance the budget, including tax increases. The economists agree that, "Implementing deep cuts in government spending and declining to raise revenue through tax increases is not an effective strategy to guide Washington State out of this recession. The best strategy is to continue our long-term investments in education, health care, community vitality, and economic security."

Speaking of putting all the options on the table, the Minnesota Budget and Policy Project recently released their report Revenue-Raising Options to Help Close Minnesota's Budget Deficit. In a state where the Governor has repeatedly taken tax increases off the table, it's important that policymakers and the public realize that there are progressive revenue-raising options available. Read about the menu of options presented in the paper, including sales tax base-broadening, enacting an income tax surcharge, and the creation of new income tax brackets.

Washington state residents are in for a heap of trouble if Governor Christine Gregoire has her way when it comes to balancing the state's budget. To remedy their budget shortfall, Governor Gregoire has proposed this week to slash valuable state services, and has expressed no interest whatsoever in increasing any taxes. $6 billion worth of cuts in children's health care, unemployment benefits, education, and other key services have been put on the chopping block. The Washington Times reports that some of the Governor's cuts would even "violate voter-approved initiatives and previously negotiated labor contracts."

Thankfully, the Washington-based Economic Opportunity Institute presented more responsible ideas this week that add a much-needed progressive voice to the otherwise bleak landscape. Among their proposals are a variety of expansions in the state's sales tax base, a tax on high-income earners, and a tax on oil companies' profits.

Along similar lines, as Florida's budget situation continues to worsen, Republican legislative leaders have announced a special January session to deal with a $2.3 billion budget deficit for the current year. Options on the table include spending cuts and raiding trust funds -- but tax hikes have been explicitly ruled out by legislative leaders. Democratic lawmakers are showing renewed interest in hiking the state's cigarette tax -- even though the projected yield of such a hike has fallen dramatically in the last year. One editorial observer points out that avoiding sensible tax-raising solutions amounts to "eating the seed corn."


The Elephant in the Room


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

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


Washington, Meet Washington


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From coast to coast, state and local governments are coming face-to-face with the consequences of turmoil in the nation's housing and financial markets, as tax collections are falling well short of expectations and are opening up substantial budget gaps. The country's two Washingtons -- the city of Washington, DC and the state of Washington -- provide two troubling examples. Last month, Washington State's Economic and Revenue Forecast Council announced that it was reducing its revenue projections by $530 million, bringing the anticipated 2009-2011 budget deficit to $3.2 billion. Similarly, Washington, DC's Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, revealed at the end of September that the District would likely face a deficit of roughly $131 million in fiscal 2009. Fortunately, sensible solutions to these problems are available. Both the Washington Budget & Policy Center and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute have offered outlines for addressing the respective shortfalls, including using a portion of existing reserve funds, reconsidering ineffective tax exemptions or incentives, and at least temporarily raising taxes. You can read their recommendations here and here.


Seattle's Peculiar Tax on Bags


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Seattle's City Council approved a 20 cent disposable bag tax last week for grocery, drug and convenience stores across the city, scheduled to go into effect on January 1. Seattle residents use about 360 million paper and plastic bags per year, a number city officials hope to cut in half.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides as to whether this is a good idea. While a tax on disposable bags is inherently regressive, essentially an additional sales tax, many stores do offer cloth bags as alternatives to disposable ones or allow customers to bring their own. The city plans to provide all residents with a few reusable cloth bags for free. Another argument against the tax is it will require the purchase of disposable bags by many families who formerly acquired them for free to use as trash can liners, to transport food, and to pick up pet waste. This could diminish the positive environmental impact of the tax.

Supporters of the disposable bag tax say the tax provides a strong incentive for recycling which doesn't exist when bags are free. For example, Los Angeles estimates that its residents use nearly 2 billion plastic bags per year and only about 5% are recycled. There is solid evidence that disposable bag taxes have a strong effect on consumer behavior. Ireland implemented a plastic bag tax in 2002 and plastic bag consumption subsequently fell more than 90%.

Department stores are strangely exempt from the bag tax, even though they contribute nearly a quarter of disposable bag usage in Seattle. As Holly Chisa of the Northwest Grocery Association told the Seattle Post-Intellegencer, "If you're going to try to change behavior, everyone should be involved." Equally strange is where the proceeds of the tax are slated to go. Seattle allows large stores to keep 5 cents per bag for administrative purposes while the other 15 cents will go to the city to finance utility rate reductions and to purchase reusable bags. But businesses that gross less than $1 million get to keep the entire bag tax they collect. This amounts to a large unjustified subsidy for small businesses.

Whether Seattle's January 2009 bag tax is likely to be "successful" or not is certainly debatable, but there are several pressing issues that should be resolved to improve the likelihood of success. The tax should not be used to provide a small business subsidy and large retailers should not be exempt from the tax. The city should also consider reducing the regressivity of the bag tax by creating a positive incentive, such as mandating a rebate for not using disposable bags rather than a fee per bag. While this might not be quite as successful at reducing disposable bag usage, it would eliminate the potential burden on low-income families.


Washington: Budget Mess, New Fact Sheets, Anti-Tax Zealot Up to No Good


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Washington State appears to have joined the majority of states with fiscal problems. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, over half of the states are expecting to face a budget shortfall in their FY09 budgets. Estimates are that Washington could face a budget shortfall for the 2009-2011 biennium of $2.5 billion. Governor Chris Gregoire has said that she's not interested in tax hikes. "I said it four years ago, I'll say it again now: The last thing you want to do is go for taxes when you've got an economic downturn." Instead she has asked state agencies to tighten their belts and identify ways to cut spending. Yet, during an economic downturn state services become even more important to those in need.

Washington has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country and relies more heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes compared to other states. Washington is one of only nine states without a broad-based income tax. Perhaps now is the time to consider restructuring the state's tax system. Lawmakers and advocates should spend a few minutes reading a series of fact sheets released this month by the Economic Opportunity Institute, which provide detailed prescriptions to Washington's tax policy problems. The fact sheets include information on changing the tax structure through implementing a tax on Washingtonians with high incomes, expanding the sales tax base, and closing tax loopholes.

Clearly there are some in Washington, namely anti-tax zealot Tim Eyman, who prefer gimmicks over real solutions. This week Mr. Eyman's initiative to curb traffic congestion received approval from the Secretary of State's office. The proposal will be placed on the November ballot and would further constrain the state budget by taking 15 percent of the sales and use tax on vehicles and devoting the revenue to ease traffic congestion. The initiative would mandate that high occupancy vehicle lanes are open longer hours, stop lights are synchronized, and increased funding is available for road side assistance. While nobody likes traffic congestion, this is not the sort of problem that should be solved through a ballot initiative that will permanently put congestion reduction first in the queue for funding. Mr. Eyman's proposal would constrain the budget without offering solutions to the larger issues facing residents.


Washington Lawmakers Take a Bold Leap for Working Families


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On Tuesday the Washington State Legislature passed the Working Families Credit (WFC), modeled after the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and sent it to Governor Chris Gregoire for her signature. Qualifying families would claim a credit equal to 10% of their federal EITC. The EITC is a highly regarded program that has lifted thousands of families out of poverty. If the WFC becomes law, Washington would join 22 states and the District of Columbia in implementing similar programs. Washington would also be the first state that doesn't have an income tax to offer the credit. Even in states that do have income taxes, it's the sales taxes and property taxes that are really a burden for the poorest families, and the EITC can counter the regressive effects of those taxes. For more on this groundbreaking credit check out this policy brief from the Washington Budget and Policy Center.


Progress on State Tax Breaks for Low-Income Families


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Advocates in Kentucky have long been pushing for the implementation of a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a popular, targeted tax credit that offers assistance to working families. Similar credits have been enacted in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The House Budget Committee passed a bill that would introduce a credit equal to 7.5 percent of the federal EITC, coupled with a broader state estate tax. The bill will now go before the full House.

Policymakers in Connecticut have revived their efforts - stymied by a veto by Governor Jodi Rell - to enact a refundable EITC equal to 20 percent of the federal credit. A bill creating such a credit was approved by the General Assembly's Human Services Committee in late February; see this recent testimony from Connecticut Voices for Children on the measure's potential impact.

The state of Washington, despite lacking a personal income tax, could also be moving towards adopting a version of the EITC. Called the Working Families Credit, it would provide as many as 350,000 Washington residents with a credit amounting to 10 percent of their federal EITC, thus offsetting some of the impact of Washington's highly regressive tax system.

In more low income tax relief news, the Idaho House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted this week to increase the state rebates offered to offset the state's sales tax on groceries. Currently Idaho residents receive a $20 credit as an offset to the sales tax on groceries (more for seniors). The proposal being debated in the House would provide increased and targeted tax relief. For example, the new expanded credit would offer $50 per family member if the family's income is less than $25,000. The value of the rebates would increase each year until the maximum credit of $100 is reached. By 2015 the proposal is expected to cost about $122 million. Read more about options states have to provide targeted tax relief in ITEP's policy brief.


New Opportunity in Washington State


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Nine states currently have no broad-based income tax and, as a result, their tax systems are among the nation's most regressive. This week, legislation was introduced in the most regressive of them all, Washington State, to create a "Working Families Tax Credit." According to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, the credit would reduce taxes for more than 350,000 Washingtonians by allowing workers to claim a refundable earned income tax credit (EITC) that would be equal to ten percent of the federal credit. While several state have implemented EITCs, Washington could be the first where lawmakers are figuring out that the EITC is an effective measure even in a state with no income tax. The Seattle-Post Intelligencer is right to say that the implementation of this credit would help to offset the regressivity of the nation's most regressive tax structure. For more on this ground breaking legislative priority, read the Budget and Policy Center's full report here.


Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory


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Not content to allow the state's Supreme Court to restore some degree of sanity to the state's property tax system, legislators in Washington last week voted to reinstate a property tax cap that the Court had recently found to be unconstitutional. The cap, initially imposed as a result of a 2001 ballot initiative, had prevented - and, now, will continue to prevent - certain property taxes from growing by more than 1 percent per year, a rate less than the rate of inflation and well below the rate of growth necessary to maintain public services. In fact, the Legislature's vote occurred during a special one-day session hastily called by Governor Chris Gregoire, a move that seems at least partially motivated by a desire to keep localities from doing something rash, like taking the opportunity to increase property taxes and spend them on such luxuries as police or fire departments.

During the session, the Legislature also approved a change in law that will allow homeowners with incomes under $57,000 to defer payment of as much as half of their property taxes until they sell their homes. The Washington State Budget and Policy Center has produced a series of short papers examining property tax caps, deferrals, and other related issues; read them here.


Election Results are In!


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Last Tuesday voters made their voices heard on a variety of tax related issues. In Washington State it appears that anti-tax radical Tim Eyman won another initiative battle. The passage of Initiative 960 makes it more difficult for the state to raise needed revenue, but does little to increase government transparency or encourage economic development. Opponents of the measure rightly say that I-960 will increase dreaded red tape and bureaucracy. Read an FAQ about the initiative from the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition here.

But in a victory for tax justice, an earlier Eyman initiative has been ruled unconstitutional. This 2001 initiative, I-747, capped state and local property tax collections at 1 percent each year, unless a higher increase was approved by voters. Be on the lookout for more on how Washington responds to the passage of I-960 as courts may get involved again.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a ballot initiative to raise cigarette taxes and to use the funds to provide universal health care for children was defeated in Oregon, due in large part to the $12 million spent by RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies to oppose it. Governor Ted Kulongoski, one of the initiative's key backers, has vowed to continue the fight for expanding health care.

To read about the outcomes of ballot measures across the country check out this report from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.


Can a Tax Proposal Be Described in 13 Words?


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The latest weapon for people who believe in making it as difficult as possible to invest in the public good is rearing its ugly head in Washington State. Initiative 960 would change the state constitution to require two-thirds approval in both state houses, or voter approval, for all tax increases. The initiative would also broaden the definition of a "tax increase" to include "any action or combination of actions by the legislature that increases state tax revenue deposited in any fund, budget, or account." In a bizarre twist, any revenue change that was not approved by the people would earn a spot on the ballot - allowing voters to have their say in a non-binding advisory capacity. The description of these complex fiscal proposals in voter pamphlets would be limited to 13 words! For more on this confusing and harmful initiative, take a look at this report from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

In order to help educate taxpayers, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center recently issued a policy brief called "Washington State Taxes Remain Low Compared to Other States" which describes how Washington's tax structure stacks up. It points out that there are several reasons why Washingtonians should not be celebrating their low tax bills, including many pressing fiscal needs like a "shrinking revenue stream" and a growing structural deficit. The brief also notes that the average Washingtonian has low taxes, but the poor are carrying a higher proportion of the tax load in Washington than in any other state. Washington has the honor of being ranked by ITEP as having the most regressive tax structure in the country. It's clear that legislators have a lot to fix.


Property Taxes... the Good, the Bad, and the Ironic


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A recent court ruling in the state of Washington has given policymakers there an opportunity to revisit a property tax cap that has imposed considerable strains on schools and other local services. A new report from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center examines some of the flaws in the state's current property tax system and explores some of the options that other states use "like a property tax circuit breaker" to improve the fairness of that particular tax.

Florida and Maine are weighing changes to their property taxes as well... changes that would make their tax systems less fair. Last week, the Republican leadership of the Florida House of Representatives proposed abolishing the statewide property tax for Florida residents, limiting local property taxes, and raising the state sales tax rate 2.5 percentage points to 8.5 percent. These changes would not only exacerbate the inequity of Florida's tax system, but would also take a $5.8 billion bite out of state and local revenues, since the higher sales tax rate would only make up a little more than half of the revenue lost due to property tax cuts. "Reckless" and "irresponsible" are among some of the nicer things that the St. Petersburg Times has to say about the proposal.

Ironically, Maine's Governor, John Baldacci, in his FY 2008-2009 budget, advocated the same sort of limits on property tax assessments for year-round residents that have contributed to Florida's fiscal problems. This ITEP Policy Brief details the shortcomings of these kinds of assessment caps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Property Tax Reform


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For the first time in almost thirty years, Pennsylvania has passed major property-tax cuts. In an unusual display of election year bipartisanship, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell and the Republican-controlled legislature agreed on a series of measures designed to lower property taxes. There are two components to the legislation. First, the number of senior citizens eligible for property-tax rebate checks was nearly doubled. Second, most homeowners will have their property taxes reduced. Lawmakers are planning to pay for the tax cuts with revenue raised by casino gambling, which was recently legalized in Pennsylvania. Some state residents, however, might like to move in a more progressive direction and rely even less on property taxes and more on income taxes.

Things have not worked out so smoothly for property tax reform in Washington State. A Superior Court Judge has ruled Initiative 747 unconstitutional. The 2001 voter-approved initiative capped increases in state and local property taxes at 1 percent. Governor Christine Gregoire has said that if this ruling survives an appeal she will support some type of property tax reform. Early indications are that the Governor and legislators are specifically interested in reform that would benefit the elderly and low-income families.

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