Quick Hits In State News: Rhode Island Eyes Tax Increases, Massachusetts Gets Good Advice, and More

  • The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a report showing that Wisconsin poverty rates actually dropped between 2009 and 2010 – from 11.1 to 10.3 percent – thanks to safety net programs that were effective in keeping people out of poverty during the recession. The Institute’s director praised the earned income tax credit and food stamp programs saying that they “have done a fantastic job in this recession.”
  • Rhode Island’s House Committee on Finance considered five bills this week that would raise income taxes on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders.  Read ITEP’s testimony to learn how these proposals are the best option for Rhode Island policymakers who want to both raise revenue and improve tax fairness.
  • Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick created a special Tax Expenditure Commission last year to examine the more than $26 billion in tax breaks the state hands out each year (which amounts to more money than the state is expect to take in this year!).  After months of meeting, the members unanimously approved a report that the Commission Chair referred to as a “comprehensive roadmap” to reforming the system.  Many of the Commission’s recommendations mirror those in CTJ’s recommendations for cleaning up state tax codes – and the process by which they are modified. The 8 formal recommendations in Massachusetts include: reducing the number and cost of current tax expenditures; periodically reviewing expenditures and including an automatic sunset every five years; and identifying and publishing clear policy purposes and outcomes for each expenditure.
  • And this article is about a sales tax holiday for meals that’s been proposed as an actual piece of legislation in Massachusetts.  A week long sales tax holiday on meals purchased at restaurants? Sounds like a boondoggle of a loophole to us. Thankfully, commonsense prevailed and the idea was solidly defeated.

Are States Really “Racing” To Repeal Income Taxes?

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Arthur Laffer recently teamed up with Stephen Moore, his friend on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, to pen yet another opinion piece on the benefits of shunning progressive personal income taxes.  Most of the article’s so-called “analysis” is ripped from Laffer reports that we’ve already written about, but there was one new claim that stands out.  According to Laffer and Moore, “Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are now racing to become America’s 10th state without an income tax.”  If this is true, it’s news to us.  So let’s take a look at the most recent reporting on these states’ tax policy debates.

In Georgia, the state’s legislative session ended almost a month ago with the passage of a modest tax package.  Last year, Georgia lawmakers debated levying a flat-rate income tax, but that effort (which should have been easy compared to outright income tax repeal) failed and left lawmakers with little interest in returning to the issue.

The debate over the income tax debate in Kansas isn’t quite done yet, but the most recent news from The Kansas City Star is that “lawmakers say the tax reform package they’ll consider next week almost certainly will fall far short of the no-income-tax goal.”

In Missouri, a number of media outlets are reporting that the push to get income tax repeal on the November ballot is all but over because a judge ruled that the ballot initiative summary that proponents of repeal proposed to put before voters was “insufficient and unfair.”

And in Oklahoma, what started as an enthusiastic push for big cuts or even outright repeal of the income tax has since been watered down into something less ambitious.  The most likely outcome is a cut in the top rate of no more than one percent, although lawmakers are still toying with the idea of tacking on a provision would repeal the income tax slowly over time (so the hard decisions about what services to cut won’t have to be made for a number of years).  But in any case, budget realities have left lawmakers in a position where they’re hardly “racing” to scrap this vital revenue source.

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

No Amnesty for Corporate Tax Dodgers!

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Representing a remarkable defeat for corporate tax dodgers, a spokesman for the so-called “Win America Campaign” confirmed this week that it has “temporarily suspended” its lobbying for a tax repatriation amnesty. The coalition of mostly high-tech companies pushed for months for a tax amnesty for repatriated offshore corporate profits. The campaign once seemed unstoppable because so many huge corporations, and veteran lobbyists with ties to lawmakers, were behind it. 

What supporters call a tax “repatriation holiday,” or more accurately, a tax amnesty, allows US corporations a window during which they can bring back (repatriate) foreign profits to the US at a hugely discounted tax rate. The holiday’s proponents argue this would encourage multi-national corporations to bring offshore profits back to the US.

CTJ has often pointed out that the only real solution is to end the tax break that encourages U.S. corporations to shift their profits offshore in the first place — the rule allowing corporations to defer (delay indefinitely) U.S. taxes on foreign profits. Deferral encourages corporations to shift their profits to offshore tax havens, and a repatriation amnesty would only encourage more of the same abuse.

The Win America Campaign and its long list of deep pocketed corporate backers (including Apple and Cisco) spared no expense in pushing the repatriation amnesty, spending some $760,000 over the last year. This sum allowed the coalition to hire a breathtaking 160 lobbyists (including at least 60 former staffers for current members of Congress) to promote their favored policy in Washington.

So what prevented Win America from winning its tax amnesty? It was the steady march of objective economic studies put out by groups from across the political spectrum demonstrating how the holiday would send more jobs and profits offshore and result in huge revenue losses.

One of the toughest blows the repatriation amnesty took came from the well-respected Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) report showing what happened last time: the benefits from the repatriation holiday in 2004 went primarily to dividend payments for corporate shareholders rather than to job creation as promised. In fact, the CRS found that many of the biggest corporate beneficiaries of the 2004 holiday had since actually reduced their US workforce.

On top of this, the bipartisan and official scorekeeper in Congress, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), found that a new repatriation holiday would cost $80 billion, which is a lot of money for a policy that would not create any jobs. Advocates for the tax holiday responded with studies of their own claiming the measure would actually raise revenue, but Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) immediately debunked the bogus assumptions underlying these reports. 

On top of the solid research there was the incredible and rare consensus among policy think tanks across the political spectrum to oppose the measure. The groups opposing a repatriation holiday included CTJ, Tax Policy Center, Tax Foundation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Heritage Foundation, to name a few.

The suspension of lobbying for the repatriation amnesty is a victory for ordinary taxpayers. And while the Win America Campaign isn’t dead – one lobbyist promised that “if there was an opportunity to move it, the band would get back together and it would rev up again” – its setback validates our work here at CTJ on corporate tax avoidance in all its forms. 

Inching Towards An Online Sales Tax Policy

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

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

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

Quick Hits in State News: Doomsday Clock in Maryland, Branstad Loophole in Iowa, and More!

  • The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute just unveiled a “Doomsday Clock” on their website.  The countdown shows how many days are left until massive budget cuts take effect on July 1.  The Institute explains that these cuts can be avoided if Governor O’Malley calls a special session and lawmakers pass the progressive income tax package agreed to in conference committee.
  • Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour continues to lobby for taxing internet sales even after leaving the Governor’s mansion. In fact, in his farewell address to Mississippians the Governor said, “It is time for the federal government to allow Mississippi and every other state to choose to enforce our laws and to collect these taxes. They are owed us today, and there is no longer any public policy reason to keep us from collecting. Indeed, good public policy says it is past time that our brick-and-mortar merchants on Main Street and in our shopping centers get a level playing field with Amazon and the Internet. That they get fair treatment for paying our taxes.”
  • Thanks to an obscure tax loophole which offers Iowans the ability to write off all of their federal income taxes paid, Governor Terry Branstad had a 2011 tax bill of just $52. One state senator is pondering whether or not the state needs a “Branstad rule” to ensure that upper income Iowans pay more in state taxes. The Governor’s lack of a tax bill illustrates just how preposterous the loophole is – and why there are only six states that allow it.
  • Now that the rush to make sure our taxes are filed on time is over, here’s a downright beautiful essay from a priest in Kansas reminding us the good that comes from all the frenzy.
  • Here’s a thoughtful editorial from the St. Cloud Times describing Minnesota’s need to fund important transportation projects. Lawmakers there are looking into toll roads because the political will to raise gas taxes doesn’t exist – yet the editors rightly conclude, “It’s not that we oppose building this bridge or expanding roads. It’s just that the fairest revenue stream to do so is the gas tax. Legislators just need the courage to adjust it as needed.” To see how Minnesota’s gas tax has effectively shrunk over time, check out this chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Virginia Governor Expands Wasteful Corporate Tax Giveaway

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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell just signed into law the expansion of a tax break meant to support “manufacturing” that has, in fact, been used to subsidize everything from making movies to designing homes to roasting coffee. The break piggybacks on the federal deduction for “Qualified Production Activities Income” (QPAI), which was first proposed in the early 2000’s as a way to benefit US-based manufacturers.  As the proposal made its way through Congress, however, it morphed into a loosely defined tax break that Starbucks, for example, has been able to use to get $40 million knocked off its tax bill over the last few years. Walt Disney, Halliburton, Altria and the Washington Post Company are among scores of companies – not known for manufacturing – that have successfully exploited this loophole.

In most cases, state corporate tax law is based on the federal corporate tax, which means that when Congress creates an expensive giveaway like the QPAI deduction, the states go ahead and offer the same break for reasons of simplicity.  But 22 states have specifically decided that this break isn’t worth the cost, and have “decoupled” their laws from that part of the federal code.  Unfortunately, Virginia is moving in exactly the opposite direction.

The Virginia Department of Taxation estimates that this recent expansion of the state’s QPAI deduction will drain somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million from the state’s coffers each year. Worse, Virginians can’t expect much of a return on that $10 million “investment.”  As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) explains:

“The QPAI deduction has little value as an economic development strategy for individual states, because a corporation can use the QPAI deduction to reduce its taxable income for “domestic production” activities anywhere in the United States. That is, a multi-state company that engages in manufacturing activities in Michigan will be able to use those activities to claim the QPAI deduction—and thus cut its taxes—in any state that offers the deduction, even if the company does not have manufacturing facilities in those states.

Eliminating state QPAI deductions was recently proposed in a joint CTJ-ITEP report as a way to improve the adequacy and fairness of state corporate taxes.  That report showed that many profitable companies – including some headquartered in Virginia – are paying at a rate equal to less than half the average statutory state corporate tax rate.  Loopholes like QPAI are the reason.

Photo of Gov. Bob McDonnell via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


A Missouri Legislator Takes On A Costly Loophole

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Missourians can write off up to $5,000 in federal income taxes paid ($10,000 for married couples) on their state income taxes. Missouri is one of only six states that offer this deduction and it cost the state about $400 million in 2011. Calling it a “costly tax code luxury that produces no noticeable public benefit,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch blasted the deduction in an editorial today.

The editors also note that State Representative Jeanette Mott-Oxford recently offered an amendment to House Bill 1661 which would eliminate the deduction entirely, and that her legislation would significantly offset a crippling budget deficit which is projected to exceed $500 million next year.

In the House floor debate over her amendment, Representative Mott-Oxford cited the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s Topsy Turvy: State Income Tax Deductions for Federal Income Taxes Turn Tax Fairness on its Head. This 2011 report found that 83 percent of the benefit of the deduction goes to the top 40 percent of taxpayers in Missouri while those in the bottom 20 percent receive zero benefit from it.

In spite of its $5,000 cap (which makes Missouri’s deduction somewhat less irrational than other states’), treating federal income taxes as a deductible expense is costing the state eight percent of its income tax revenues and the figure will rise if federal income taxes on the wealthiest filers also rise, according to ITEP’s study.

Her legislation faces a daunting political gauntlet it’s not likely to survive, but Missourians should thank Rep. Mott-Oxford for pushing them closer to the day when this loophole is finally eliminated.


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Yesterday, Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, announced that those taxpayers who pay federal payroll taxes and other types of taxes, but who don’t have enough income to owe federal personal income taxes, should be required to pay the federal personal income tax as well. Cantor made his remarks at an event (subscription required) hosted by Bank of America.

“We also know that over 45 percent of the people in this country don’t pay income taxes at all,” Cantor said, “and we have to question whether that’s fair. And should we broaden the base in a way that we can lower the rates for everybody that pays taxes… Should they even have a dollar in the game on income taxes, which is the notion of broadening the base.”

When asked if this would mean “a tax increase on the 45 percent who right now pay no federal income tax,” Cantor said, “I’m saying that, just in a macro way of looking at it, you’ve got to discuss that issue.”

CTJ’s figures show that Americans in every income group do, in fact, pay taxes and that the tax system as a whole (including all the types of taxes that Americans pay) is just barely progressive.

For example, in 2011 the richest one percent of Americans paid 21.6 percent of the total (federal, state and local) taxes but also received 21 percent of the total income in the U.S. that year. Similarly, the poorest fifth of Americans paid just 2.1 percent of the total taxes in the U.S., but only received 3.4 percent of the total income in the U.S. In other words, the richest one percent are not paying more than their share, and the poorest Americans are not getting much largesse from the tax system.

The term “broadening the base” has often been used to describe a tax reform that would end the various loopholes and tax subsidies that reduce the amount of revenue a given tax at given rates can collect.

Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan recently made it clear that his idea of base-broadening would not involve repealing those tax loopholes and tax subsidies that benefit wealthy investors (the tax preferences for capital gains and stock dividends which mostly benefit the richest one percent). Cantor’s comments suggest that, like Rep. Ryan, he is interested in ending those tax subsidies that benefit the lower-income or middle-income households but not those benefitting the rich.

Several tax expenditures in the federal personal income tax reduce or eliminate the federal personal income tax for many lower-income and middle-income Americans. The refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are available only to those who work and therefore pay federal payroll taxes. The rules exempting most Social Security income benefits people who paid taxes over the course of their working lives. The standard deduction and personal exemptions ensure that people whose income does not meet a basic threshold are not subject to the personal income tax, similar to how corporations that are not profitable are not expected to pay the corporate tax. (Our complaints about corporations are limited to those that are profitable and still manage to pay no corporate income taxes.)

It’s unclear if Cantor is proposing to repeal the EITC and the Child Tax Credit, or the rule exempting most Social Security benefits from income taxes, or the standard deduction and personal exemptions, or what exactly. Any of these options would take a tax system that is just barely progressive and make it regressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Aside, Tea Party – A New Kind of Tax Protest is Here

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On Tax Day 2012, thousands of people throughout the country rallied in favor of progressive taxation and against the low (or sometimes zero rates) paid by the wealthiest Americans and corporations. These protests were the latest in the growing progressive tax movement dubbed “Tax Revolt 2.0” for its focus on tax fairness rather than tax cuts.  As one commentator declared, “Tax Day doesn’t belong to the Tea Party anymore.”

The popularity of these protests should be no surprise considering that 68 percent of Americans believe the current tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to ordinary workers. While efforts by grassroots groups have begun to change the conversation about tax fairness, these tax day 2012 protests reveal a reach and momentum that show no signs of receding.

You could hardly travel around the US on tax day this year without running into one of over 200 rallies including: Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Boston, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Bangor, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New York City, Ames, Toledo, Kalamazoo, Newark, Seattle, and many, many more.

While the broad theme of the nationwide protests was tax fairness, the targets differed. In Jersey City, NJ for instance, protestors rallied at their local Wells Fargo bank to call out the company for its role as an infamous tax dodger, while protestors in Tuscon, AZ held their rally at a local post office to highlight how the failure to tax wealth results in the loss of jobs and critical public institutions like the Postal Service.

To be sure, the anti-tax lobby is well established, but you gotta’ believe that activists as energetic and creative as these will win the day:


Photo of the “Tax Dodgers” via  D*Unit Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0