Wisconsin’s budget challenges were exacerbated this year when the Legislative Fiscal Bureau announced in January that state revenue would be substantially less than previously anticipated. That development didn’t stop legislators from introducing a broad range of bills relating to tax cuts, but it significantly limited the number of those tax bills (and spending proposals) that were enacted during the recently ended 2015-16 legislative session.
A new summary of the session describes some of the noteworthy bills relating to taxes that were considered by the legislature, as well as bills related to the budget process that got some traction. As that document explains, only a few of the significant bills were enacted:
- An abridged set of changes to corporate tax laws (Act 218) – We were especially concerned about a wide-ranging set of proposed changes to the corporate tax statutes, which the Dept. of Revenue initially estimated could cost the state as much as $384 million per year!
State lawmakers have proposed a back-to-school sales tax holiday, a gimmick that would reduce the resources available to support Wisconsin’s schools, university system, and communities, without providing any real economic benefit.
Under the proposal, purchases of school supplies, computers, and clothing would be exempt from the sales tax for one weekend each August. This move would cost the state an estimated $13.2 million a year in lost tax revenue, and local governments an additional $952,000 in lost revenue. This reduction in revenue would make it harder for Wisconsin to make the kinds of investments in education, health, and workforce systems that can spur economic growth.
A sales tax holiday would do little to boost consumer spending or give a tax break to Wisconsin families with low incomes. There are a whole host of downsides to sales tax holidays, including:
- Instead of encouraging consumers to spend more money, sales tax holidays simply shift the timing of the spending;
- A sales tax holiday on back-to-school items involves lawmakers picking winners and losers among types of goods that should be exempt from the sales tax; and
- Sales tax holidays are not an effective tool for giving a tax cut to individuals with low incomes, since a large amount of savings is also given to people in higher income groups as well.
Transportation Tax Increase Shouldn’t Be Biased against Low-income Wisconsinites
Proposed legislation to fix local road repairs is a bad deal for poor Wisconsinites who don’t have cars. The proposal would authorize a sales tax increase that would fall more heavily on poorer Wisconsinites because the sales tax takes a higher percentage of their income. What makes that particularly inequitable is that the bill precludes using any of the new revenue for transit (e.g. bus and van service). Read more
Holiday shoppers are increasingly turning to the internet to make their purchases, but Congress has yet to close a loophole that gives online only retailers an advantage over their bricks and mortar counterparts.
Currently, online retailers that do not have a physical presence in a particular state are not required to charge sales tax to residents of that state. That doesn’t mean that these purchases are tax free, though: purchasers are still legally required to pay the sales tax, by declaring it on their income tax form. Few do.
When online-only retailers do not charge consumers sales tax – even though sales tax is owed on the purchases – those retailers have a competitive advantage over other retailers that are required to collect sales tax.
Ideally, Congress would step in to level the playing field between different types of retailers, by passing legislation that would allow states to require all retailers to collect sales tax. Read more
When you hear a policymaker advocating for “tax reform,” it’s worth checking the fine print.
There’s nothing wrong with the goal of improving Wisconsin’s tax structure. But two recent “tax reform” proposals would shift the responsibility for paying taxes away from those who are well-able to pay and toward everyone else, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Budget Project. Instead of true tax reform, these proposals are actually tax shifts – shifts that would require families with low and moderate incomes to pay more in taxes so we can give tax cuts to the highest earners.
The most recent tax shift proposal comes from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which recommends extending the sales tax to a number of goods and services that are not currently taxed and using the revenue to lower other taxes. Among the 24 things that would be newly taxed are basic necessities such as food, water, and fuel for residential use. Read more
Governor Walker floated the idea this week of replacing the current gas tax with a sales tax on motor fuel. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it would be good public policy because it would replace a stable revenue stream with a tax source that is far less predictable. (You can read more about the idea in this Journal Sentinel article.)
Although we don’t have details of what the plan would look like, the Governor said it would be revenue neutral – at least at first. But clearly the intent is that the sales tax approach would generate more revenue over time, as gas prices increase, and I think that’s a reasonable assumption to make. However, fluctuations in gas prices mean that in any given year this source of revenue could fall well short of the anticipated level.
From a political perspective the chief virtue of the plan, perhaps the sole virtue, is that it offers a way of potentially raising more revenue for transportation projects without periodically asking elected lawmakers to vote on gas tax increases. Read more
The best way to create jobs and build a broad-based prosperity in Wisconsin is to invest in excellent schools, safe communities, and a solid transportation network.
But a new report released today takes a different approach, claiming that giving big tax cuts to the rich and raising taxes for others would help the Wisconsin economy. The report, released by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, repeats the myth that tax cuts create jobs, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
The report advocates changing the state’s tax mix to rely less on the income tax and more on the sales tax, a change the group says would boost the state’s economy. But what the report fails to mention is that the result would be big tax cuts for people with the highest incomes and higher taxes for everyone else. If Wisconsin eliminated the income tax and raised the sales tax to make up for the resulting revenue loss, the top 1% of earners in Wisconsin – a group with an average income of $1.1 million – would get a tax cut of a whopping $44,000 on average. Read more
Concerns about increases in income inequality were voiced from a surprising perspective today, when Standard and Poor’s (the bond rating agency) issued a lengthy report titled “Income Inequality Weighs On State Tax Revenues.” The report concludes that “disparity is contributing to weaker tax revenue growth by weakening the rate of overall economic expansion.”
The authors offer this explanation for the correlation between income disparities and economic growth:
“…rising income inequality is a macroeconomic factor that acts as a drag on growth. There is evidence, although not conclusive at this point, that the higher savings rates of those with high incomes causes aggregate consumer spending to suffer. And since one person’s spending is another person’s income, the result is slower overall personal income growth despite continued strong income gains at the top.”
An article in today’s Washington Post sums up the findings in clearer terms:
“Even as income has accelerated for the affluent, it has barely kept pace with inflation for most other people. Read more
A bill under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives could limit Wisconsin’s flexibility in applying sales tax and make it more difficult to invest in schools and communities, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.
A committee in the House recently approved a bill that would prohibit all state and local taxation of Internet access. Currently, there is a moratorium on new taxes on Internet access fees, but seven states with pre-existing internet access taxes – including Wisconsin – were grandfathered in. This new proposal would eliminate the exception for Wisconsin and other states, and permanently ban all taxes on Internet access.
For Wisconsin, this restriction would reduce the resources the state uses to invest in public education, a healthy workforce, and a solid transportation network. Wisconsin would lose $127 million in tax revenue in 2015 if prohibited from taxing Internet access – resources that could be used to make Wisconsin a more attractive place to live and do business. Read more
It’s easy to explore the effect that changing Wisconsin’s tax mix would have on taxpayer groups at different income levels, thanks to a new interactive data feature put together by the Wisconsin State Journal. Users of the website can see how cutting the income tax and raising the sales tax would result in higher taxes for many Wisconsinites, and give big tax breaks to the highest earners.
The website allows you to set the level of the sales tax and the income tax independently, and see what changes result. For example, you can show how increasing the sales tax to 7.5% and cutting the income tax in half would result in an average tax increase of about $250 for people who earn the least, while giving an average tax break of $25,000 to taxpayers in the highest income group. Read more