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The South Dakota Legislature’s Executive Committee voted earlier this week to study the more than 100 sales tax exemptions that the state currently allows. Tax exemptions are one type of “tax expenditure,” or government spending through the tax code.

Tax expenditures have the same impact as cash grants from the government, but implementing them through the tax system makes them less visible — and makes lawmakers less accountable for justifying them.

South Dakota’s sales tax exemptions alone are estimated to cost over $500 million annually. Adding the cost of property tax and corporate tax expenditures would make that figure even larger. To put that figure in perspective, South Dakota’s general fund budget for fiscal year 2012 is just over $1 billion.

“We don’t know when they were put in place, how they were trended over time and if they continue to meet their initial intent,” said Joy Smolnisky, director of the South Dakota Budget & Policy Project.

This summer legislators will meet to review the exemptions and study whether or not they achieve any sensible policy goals. Let’s hope this initial study leads to the creation of a regularly published tax expenditure report. For more on the importance of tax expenditure reporting, see the Budget and Policy Project’s work on this important issue.

For more general information, see CTJ’s report on tax expenditures.