Schmudget Blog


Tax Reform Can’t Wait, New Revenue Forecast Shows

Posted by Kelli Smith at Mar 16, 2017 03:30 PM |
Filed under: State Budget, State Revenue
By Andy Nicholas, associate director of fiscal policy, and Kelli Smith, policy analyst 
 

All too often, certain lawmakers in Washington state who are ideologically opposed to creating a more just and sustainable tax system have leaned on positive revenue growth predictions to justify avoiding their obligation to fund schools and other investments that benefit all Washingtonians. Today’s projected uptick in future state tax resources is negligible compared to what we actually need to build thriving communities in every corner of our state in the years ahead. These projections should not be an excuse for these lawmakers to continue kicking their responsibility to fully fund schools down the road.

State tax revenues are now projected to come in $313 million higher than previously anticipated in the coming 2017-2019 budget cycle, according to the latest forecast from the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. But going beyond the headline, a deeper analysis shows that, without action to fix Washington’s flawed, inequitable tax code – by taking important steps that include ending the tax break on capital gains and reforming our property tax system – available resources will remain at untenable recessionary levels.

As the graph below shows, total state tax revenues actually declined by 15 percent between 2001 and 2016, after adjustment for economic growth. They dropped significantly during the last recession and have remained nearly flat since then. And revenues are projected to decline by an additional 7 percent from current levels by 2021.

(Click on graphic to see enlarged version.)

Revenue_Collections_2001_to_2016

Today’s small increase in projected tax collections for the coming years represents less than 1 percent of the amount of funding needed simply to maintain our existing commitments to early childhood education, clean air and water, public safety, and other priorities. The increase is insignificant relative to the billions of additional dollars in funding required by the state Supreme Court to ensure Washington’s kids get the high-quality schools they deserve.

It’s worth noting that these state revenue projections will also not offer any meaningful buffer against the extreme cuts to federal funding proposed by the Trump administration that would devastate many programs here in our state.  

The truth is that today’s forecast means lawmakers won’t have anywhere near the resources needed to help our state’s communities thrive for generations to come. Those resources can only be generated if lawmakers show the boldness of vision required to finally fix Washington state’s tax code.

Washington Should Invest in Thriving Communities Instead of Paying Out Special Interest Tax Breaks

By Andy Nicholas, associate director of fiscal policy, and Kelli Smith, policy analyst
 
To support the foundations that make ours one of the best states to call home, Washington state’s tax code should reflect who we are – a state known for innovation and a commitment to creating thriving communities for everyone. But right now, our state tax code misrepresents our values. It is riddled with nearly 700 tax breaks. And while not all of them are bad, many of them benefit only the most powerful and do little to strengthen our economy.
 

Wasteful tax breaks are depriving our communities of billions of dollars that are instead being funneled to large corporations and special interests that have manipulated the tax code in their favor. Those special interests are receiving money that our state could be collecting and investing in public priorities that benefit us all, like schools, utilities, and emergency services. 

To support the well-being of our state and its people, lawmakers must take long-overdue steps toward cleaning up our tax code so that it serves all Washingtonians and secures revenue to fund important state programs. They can do that by getting rid of budget-busting tax breaks. 

The Budget & Policy Center’s revenue reform plan, Accountable Washington, proposes closing or narrowing 21 of the most wasteful and outdated tax breaks in the code, which would inject $1.1 billion into our communities in the 2017-2019 biennium. They are detailed below.

Narrow the tax break for big oil extractors. Fuel used by manufacturers or extractors in the process of manufacturing or extracting at the same plant is exempt from the use tax. This tax break was originally enacted to benefit the timber industry, but today, it primarily benefits the oil industry. Curtailing this exemption would end the tax break for all fuel extractors, except on fuel from wood byproducts, also known as “hog fuel.”  

Repeal the sales tax break for nonresident shoppers. Residents of states where there is no or low sales tax – primarily Oregon, Alaska, Montana, and certain Canadian provinces – may make purchases in Washington without paying the sales tax. This exemption was originally enacted to make Washington’s border businesses competitive with neighboring states. However, the majority of exempt purchases from qualifying nonresidents occur in King County, which isn’t a border county. That suggests this break is wasted on tourists who would shop in Washington with or without it. 

Apply the sales tax to consumer services. Washington’s sales tax mostly applies to tangible retail goods, such as cars and appliances. It also applies to many “nondurable” goods such as toothpaste and other hygiene products. That worked pretty well back in the 1930s when consumers spent most of their incomes on these kinds of products. But, as the chart below shows, consumers today spend the majority of their income on services not covered by the sales tax. It makes sense to modernize our tax code to reflect this economic reality. Applying the sales tax to consumer services, such as spa treatments, financial advice, and cable and satellite TV packages would accomplish that. 

(Click on graphic to see enlarged version.)

 2017_03_14_consumption_chart

Close the sales tax break on bottled water. Our state’s sales tax applied to bottled water until 2008, when Washington joined a multi-state effort to conform to a single set of sales tax standards, which excluded bottled water. Since then, this exemption has left millions of dollars on the table each year. Not to mention the negative effects on the environment: Not only does packaging and transporting bottled water contribute to global warming, but empty plastic bottles are also notorious for filling landfills and clogging waterways. Policymakers can reapply the sales tax to most purchases of bottled water while ensuring it remains untaxed for people who don’t have access to potable water.

Close the sales tax break on candy and gum. Washington state has a broad-based sales tax. While there are valid sales tax exemptions for some consumer goods, including many grocery items, there is no compelling economic reason why candy, gum, and baked confections should have a tax exemption. Applying the sales tax to these items would generate significant new resources and make the sales tax more broad and sustainable in the long run. 

Eliminate a business tax break for large online retailers. Retailers that have employees and properties located in Washington state pay business & occupation (B&O) taxes on the goods they sell to Washingtonians. However, large online retailers with no employees or offices located in Washington don’t pay any B&O taxes – even though they sell millions of dollars in goods to customers located here. This loophole can be closed by adopting an “economic nexus” approach for the B&O tax. Under this rule, any business that makes at least one quarter of its total sales to customers in Washington state, or that has at least $267,000 in sales here, would be required to pay B&O taxes on their in-state activities. 

Narrow the tax break for trade-in vehicles valued over $10,000. Under current law, the full value of a vehicle trade-in to a dealership is exempted from the state sales tax. We propose limiting this exemption to the first $10,000 of trade-in value. The Citizen Commission for Performance of Tax Preferences notes that this tax break doesn’t stimulate enough additional sales to replace the lost sales tax revenue. Further, the average vehicle traded in at a dealership is valued at $7,500, which means many trade-ins would remain exempt under the proposed $10,000 threshold.  

Eliminate the preferential tax rate for prescription drug resellers. Businesses that warehouse and resell prescription drugs pay a B&O rate that is less than a third of the standard rate for wholesaling. Even though this preference was passed to lure prescription drug wholesalers to relocate to our state, the preference is now available to all drug resellers who do business here, including those operating out-of-state warehouses. This preference no longer serves any purpose except to provide giveaways to prescription drug companies. 

Close the public utility tax break for interstate trucking and rail hauls. Transportation businesses that begin or end their trip outside of Washington state are not taxed on any of their income generated from activities here. Repealing this exemption would subject such businesses to the public utility tax for income received while in the state. 

Eliminate B&O tax breaks that no longer serve us, including for industries such as international investment management services and banking facilities, travel arrangement services like those provided online, and soda sellers. These industries get a break on their B&O taxes even though there’s little evidence that they benefit state or local economies.

The full list of tax breaks we propose to narrow or close can be found in the table below. 

(Click on graphic to see enlarged version.)

Tax Breaks Table

When our state gives away money to big oil, international investment banking companies, and prescription drug resellers, it can’t use those dollars to invest in the things that benefit us all. It’s time for lawmakers to clean up these wasteful and outdated tax breaks and invest those resources into the things that provide the foundations for thriving communities – from schools to public health programs, and from parks to walkable sidewalks.

Working Families Tax Rebate Remains Smart Policy to Fix Our Tax Code, Bolster Washingtonians with Low Wages

Posted by Julie Watts at Mar 02, 2017 08:05 PM |
By Asha Bellduboset, Narver fellow, and Jennifer Tran, senior policy analyst
 
In Washington state, the Working Families Tax Rebate (WFTR) is a powerful tool to help rebalance the state’s tax code and strengthen the economic security of working families. WFTR is the state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal tax rebate that lifts more families above the poverty line than almost any other government program. Through the EITC, qualifying low-wage workers can get an annual boost to their income in the form of a tax credit. Nearly all recipients are families with at least one child living at home. The WFTR was enacted by state policymakers in 2008 to build on the EITC and help hardworking Washingtonians meet basic needs. Unfortunately, the program has never been funded. It’s time for that to change.

Funding the WFTR is an important step lawmakers can take to clean up our inequitable tax code while reducing taxes for households with middle and low incomes. Under our current tax code, people with the lowest incomes pay seven times more in state and local taxes as a percentage of their income than the wealthiest 1 percent. The WFTR would help alleviate the disproportionate tax responsibility placed on people with low incomes by providing an extra boost to households already receiving the EITC.

Households that receive an EITC would get an additional 10 percent rebate for the year through the WFTR. For example, a family with two qualifying children receiving the maximum annual EITC credit amount of $5,616 could also qualify for an extra $562 through the WFTR. This extra income could cover the cost of feeding a family of three for one month or pay for a month of care for a school-age child.

Looking at the most current data on EITC filers, we estimate that if the WFTR were funded [1]:

  • Nearly 439,000 Washingtonians across every county who received an Earned Income Tax Credit would also receive a Working Families Tax Rebate, with a slightly higher share of benefits going to rural counties;
  • The WFTR would put $95 million back into the state economy; and
  • Qualifying households would on average receive approximately $2,400 in EITC and WFTR combined.

The EITC has been an extremely successful federal poverty-reduction tool, not only by immediately reducing taxes for working families, but also by supporting their work efforts through rebates that support access to transportation and child care. Our state should capitalize on the many established benefits of the federal program by fully funding the WFTR.

The map below further emphasizes why funding the WFTR is a smart policy choice. It would benefit households in all 39 counties in Washington state. And in particular, working families in rural counties in central and eastern Washington would see an economic boost.

Click on graphic to see enlarged version.

WFTR Map

Click here for a printable listing of total EITC returns and estimated WFTR rebate amounts for Washingtonians by county and legislative district.

And for details about the Budget & Policy Center’s full revenue reform plan, which includes the WFTR, visit our Accountable Washington webpage. The Accountable Washington plan would clean up the tax code, bolster the economic security of people with middle and low incomes, and invest in important statewide priorities

1. Budget and Policy Center’s Analysis of Brookings EITC 2014 Tax Year data, https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/earned-income-tax-credit-eitc-interactive-and-resources/

Our New Revenue Reform Plan Would Hold Lawmakers Accountable to Communities

By Andy Nicholas, associate director of fiscal policy, and Kelli Smith, policy analyst
 
Great schools, access to health care, safe communities, and other priorities are key to a strong economy and quality of life in our state. By investing in these priorities, lawmakers secure a brighter future for our state and its people.

But during the current legislative session, lawmakers are still struggling to find common ground on how to invest in schools and other key priorities. It’s essential that legislators take a bold, equitable path to fund our state’s most important investments and to bring greater balance to our tax code. The Budget & Policy Center has developed a plan that would do just that. This plan, called Accountable Washington, includes a package of reforms that would infuse $2 billion annually into our communities in the coming years, while significantly reducing taxes for Washington households with middle and low incomes. Additional details of the plan are available in this fact sheet.

As the chart below shows, taxes would decline by an average of 5.1 percent among the households with annual incomes that fall in the bottom fifth of Washingtonians. Households in the middle of the income scale would see their taxes decrease by 0.6 percent. By contrast, the richest 1 percent would see their taxes rise by 2.1 percent of annual income – a small price to pay for heightened investments in our communities. 

Click on the graphic below to see an enlarged version.

Accountable_WA_Distribution

Given the urgent need to fund state Supreme Court-mandated improvements to schools across the state, all of Washington’s children would be an important beneficiary of Accountable Washington. Further, this plan would ensure that lawmakers can fully funds schools while also keeping up investments in other programs that serve Washingtonians – such as responsive emergency services, clean water, food for kids who are hungry, and job supports for working parents. 

While looking to enact solutions to ensure we have adequate state investments, lawmakers should also be mindful not to raise new revenue on the backs of low- and middle-income households. These households already pay up to seven times more in state and local taxes as a share of their incomes than people at the top of the income scale. 

Accountable Washington would begin to clean up and rebalance our inequitable tax code in a way that raises billions of dollars in much-needed new resources. Here’s what it would do:

  • Enact smart, equitable reforms to the property tax, including eliminating an indiscriminate restriction on property tax revenue and offering in its place a new, targeted property tax rebate, which we call the safeguard rebate, for families earning $75,000 or less. Property taxes are the most significant source of funding for schools, and both state and local property taxes are at the center of the school funding debate. Under Accountable Washington, lawmakers can make the property tax code more sustainable and more equitable by raising the state property tax rate by $1.54 per $1,000 of assessed value and enacting a safeguard rebate to offset these increases for households with low and middle incomes. 
  • Rebalance the tax code by enacting an excise tax on capital gains at a rate of 9.9 percent on profits from the sale of stocks, bonds, and other financial assets of more than $25,000 (or $50,000 for couples). Washington is giving away a $2.8 billion capital gains tax break to the wealthiest Washingtonians. While 41 other states have this common-sense tax, Washington gives the wealthy a break on huge profits they receive simply from moving their wealth around. Almost 90 percent of this capital gains tax would be collected from the richest 1 percent of Washingtonians. Gains from the sale of a primary home, retirement accounts, college savings plans, and other common investments would be excluded from the tax. 
  • Lift up working families by funding the Working Families Tax Rebate (WFTR). Based on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), this rebate is a smart fiscal policy to help struggling families make ends meet. The EITC is one of the most powerful federal anti-poverty tools on the books. Including the WFTR in the Accountable Washington proposal keeps taxes from taking too big a bite out of family budgets for the lowest-income Washingtonians. 
  • Clean out 21 wasteful tax breaks that divert money out of classrooms and into the hands of special interests. To be clear, not all of Washington’s 700 tax breaks are bad policy, but many are outdated and no longer serve their original purpose. And others are simply giveaways to the powerful interests that finagled them into the tax code in the first place. Everybody benefits from excellent schools, clean air and water, safe roads, and accessible health care, so everybody should pitch in and pay their share. 

Our lawmakers have an historic opportunity to make some long-awaited repairs to our broken tax code, not only to provide a world-class education for Washington’s 1.6 million kids, but also to serve their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, and their entire communities. We believe they can do that through Accountable Washington. 

Check out this fact sheet on the proposal for more details.

Policymakers Have Opportunities to Advance Family Well-Being this Session

Posted by Julie Watts at Feb 15, 2017 12:10 PM |

Intergenerational approaches to addressing poverty are grounded in the principle that children thrive when their parents have the ability to meet their basic needs and secure their economic future. This legislative session, policymakers have several opportunities to pass legislation that would help ensure that Washington families across generations can reach their full potential and thrive.

As we have previously writtenHouse Bill 1484 and Senate Bill 5440 would lay the foundation and establish a framework to reduce the number of people living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($32,040 a year for a family of two) by half by 2025. 

Policymakers can also take steps this session to strengthen public benefit programs to have an immediate impact on child and family well-being. For example, they should ensure that state agencies and community organizations have the data and information they need to create effective poverty-reduction strategies. Current data sources don’t tell us enough about who is going hungry and missing meals due to a lack of financial resources. That is why policymakers and anti-hunger advocates have introduced Senate Bill 5485 and House Bill 2014 to allow the state to get more-detailed hunger data by region, race, and ethnicity to better target resources throughout the state. 

To see a fact sheet on why our state needs better data on hunger, click on the graphic below. 

Food insecurity graphic


Further, policymakers should also support these five intergenerational poverty-reduction priorities this session to build a better foundation for the future of our state:

  • Early Childhood Education: In order to thrive, all young children must have access to high-quality early learning. Policymakers must make sure more kids can enroll in the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program (ECEAP) and make sure the ECEAP child care centers have the resources to provide preschool education, and health and nutrition services. They should also improve both quality and access to affordable child care through Working Connections Child Care by eliminating potential waitlists, increasing the wages of child care workers, and ensuring providers have the resources they need to provide great care.
  • Post-Secondary and Employment Pathways: Education is a key pathway out of poverty. However, parents who participate in WorkFirst (a temporary assistance program to help families in poverty get on their feet) are not allowed to pursue more than 12 months of post-secondary education and training. A recent state study found that WorkFirst parents who manage against the odds to complete at least 54 credits (which takes at least 24 months) earned $6,252 more annually two years later and spent fewer total months on public assistance than parents who don’t go to community college. Senate Bill 5347 and House Bill1566 would allow WorkFirst parents to pursue 24 months of post-secondary vocational education and training.
  • Economic Assets:  We all need to have some savings to weather tough economic times, like the loss of a job or an illness. Unfortunately, some public assistance programs force people to spend down their savings or sell their car in order to qualify. As a result, people who are financially struggling need to dig themselves into a deeper economic hole before getting help. Two bills this session, Senate Bill 5609 and House Bill 1831 would raise or eliminate entirely asset caps in public assistance programs. Both bills would not only help people be more financially resilient, but would also make the programs more beneficial and cost-effective.

To see a fact sheet on the benefits of eliminating asset caps, click on the graphic below. 

Asset building image
  • Health & Well-Being: Research shows that children who grow up in economic hardship are at greater risk of experiencing toxic stress. In fact, as many as one in five low-income children and youth between ages 6 and 17 have some form of behavioral or mental health disorder. Rates are even higher for children who live in poverty and for those who become involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Intergenerational approaches to poverty place an emphases on reducing toxic stress through improved mental health services. House Bill 1713 and Senate Bill 5763 would require the state to better coordinate mental health resources and treatment for Medicaid-eligible children in Washington, require depression screenings for youth, and maintain a network of mental health providers.
  • Social Capital: Research has shown that there is an inter-relationship between social capital (relationships that help people earn more money and build influence in their community) and post-secondary education. Having social capital helps you get a better education and vice versa. Social capital and post-secondary education help people who’ve been incarcerated have a better transition home upon release, and they also them better contribute to their communities. Senate Bill 5069 and House Bill 1129 would allow people to pursue an associate’s degree while incarcerated, ensuring they have a chance at a better life when they are released and able to strengthen the well-being of their families and communities.


Policymakers on both sides of the political aisle have demonstrated their interest in and support for taking intergenerational approach to reducing poverty. The bipartisan support of many of these bills is a great sign that lawmakers want to support common goals to strengthen the well-being of all Washingtonians. 

Intergenerational Poverty Bill Would Help Lift Children and their Parents Out of Poverty

Posted by Melinda Young-Flynn at Feb 01, 2017 10:50 AM |
By Julie Watts, deputy director

Children can reach their full potential when their whole family has economic security. That is the fundamental principle underlying intergenerational approaches to addressing child poverty.


This session, state policymakers have an opportunity to lift significant numbers of Washingtonians out of poverty by passing a bill that focuses on improving the well-being of children and their families. House Bill 1482/Senate Bill 5440 would create an intergenerational, results-focused, evidence-based effort to improve the well-being of future generations.

Click on graphic to see enlarged version.

2gen_gears

Far too many children in Washington state are growing up in poverty and households that are financially struggling. They don’t have enough to eat, a consistent place to sleep, or access to a doctor when they are sick or dentist when they have a cavity. Research shows that children who grow up with this kind of economic hardship are at greater risk of experiencing levels of toxic stress so severe it can affect them throughout their lifetime. Such stress impacts their emotional development, their future academic achievement, and the chances they will raise their own children in economic hardship as well.

Intergenerational  approaches (also called two-generation approaches) to address poverty focus on supporting parents and children together – rather than supporting them in silos – to help them move out of poverty permanently. They coordinate support for families across five key areas: high-quality early childhood education; higher education and career pathways; asset building; health and well-being; and social capital.

HB 1482 and SB 5440 would:

  • Expand the scope of a state legislative-executive task force on WorkFirst (Washington’s temporary cash assistance program that helps families struggling to make ends meet get back on their feet) to include poverty reduction and to focus on the underlying causes of intergenerational poverty.
  • Establish a key goal of the task force to reduce the number of people living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line by 50 percent by 2025 in a way that eliminates disparities by race, ethnicity, sex, gender, zip code, immigration status, age, household type, disability status, and more.
  • Require the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to develop a five- and 10-year plan to reduce poverty.
  • Require DSHS to gather and track relevant national, state, and local data related to poverty and track progress toward poverty reduction goals.

Children are more likely to thrive when their parents are thriving. These bills can help lay the foundation for dramatic poverty reduction in our state so all of Washington’s kids can reach their full potential.

Senate Republicans' Plan Doesn't Amply Fund Schools, Puts Other Programs at Risk

The Senate Republicans' new plan to fund K-12 public schools continues to work within a framework that doesn’t raise additional revenue – a strategy that has proven ineffective at serving Washington's kids and that could force cuts to other important investments. To pay for the basics, including keeping excellent teachers and staff in our public schools, the legislature must inject more resources into schools than they have in recent years. Any plan to improve our schools must include additional new revenue, as well as a strong focus on equity, sustainability, and adequacy.

The Senate’s plan, called the Education Equality Act, features as its major funding source a new Local Effort Levy – basically, an increase to the statewide property tax of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. As details about the plan emerge, however, it appears that the plan does not actually raise additional dollars for schools. That’s because the proposed statewide property tax increase is coupled with cuts to local property tax levies that currently fund a significant portion of basic education costs. As we’ve said in the past, levy swaps like this are schemes that change the source of the money flowing to schools but don’t actually make new investments in Washington’s kids.

As it is structured, the plan could deepen the shortfall in school funding because the plan does not pay for itself. It leaves a $1.4 billion hole in the 2019-2021 budget, for which its authors have yet to identify a source of funding. Promising to pay for education without identifying a funding source is a prescription for damaging cuts throughout the rest of the budget. And while the plan would dedicate future revenue growth to funding basic education, it would use any revenue growth in addition to the dedicated funds to decrease the new Local Effort Levy to a rate of $1.25. In short, the proposal is not only short on revenue now, but it is also designed to restrict revenue growth for schools and other public investments in the future.  

There is certainly promise in raising additional school revenue through property tax reforms, as we have proposed. The Senate's plan would effectively nearly double the current state property tax rate. And it exempts the Local Effort Levy from the damaging 1 percent property tax levy growth limit, which is a positive step toward making the tax code more sustainable. But this plan should go further and get rid of the 1 percent levy growth limit altogether to allow property tax revenue to better keep up with the needs of our schools.

In addition, any reforms to the property tax should also include steps to fix our inequitable, upside-down tax code – in which Washingtonians with the lowest incomes pay seven times what the richest 1 percent pay in taxes as a share of income. The Senate's plan aims to more evenly distribute the tax code so that homeowners in every school district pay the same property tax rate, regardless of property values. But that doesn’t do enough to protect the thousands of lower- and middle-income homeowners and renters who would see higher property tax bills under the Senate proposal. The proposal should include a property tax safeguard rebate to ensure that property tax increases do not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of families who can’t afford it, no matter what part of the state they call home.

To learn more about the Senate Republicans' school funding plan, join our fiscal policy team for a Budget Beat webinar this Friday, February 3, at noon. And stay tuned for further analysis when more details about the fiscal impact of the plan become available. 

 
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