NC Budget and Tax Center

Better tax policy tool available to address state’s upside-down tax system

State lawmakers are once again considering more tax changes that won’t address what’s wrong with our current tax code or what our economy needs. During the Revenue Laws Committee meeting on yesterday, the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division provided committee members information regarding how raising the state standard deduction would impact taxpayers and state revenue.  This tax change would reduce the income tax owed by a taxpayer but is an expensive one that fails to efficiently target the low- and middle-income taxpayers who carry a heavier tax load than wealthy taxpayers.  A refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit is the better tool for North Carolina policymakers concerned about tax equity.

Tax changes passed since 2013 that include large income tax cuts that largely benefit the already well-off and profitable corporations have made North Carolina’s upside-down tax system worst. State lawmakers expanded the sales tax to more goods and services to partially pay for these costly tax cuts. The regressive sales tax hits low-income North Carolinians particularly hard, as they spend a larger share of their income on goods and services subject to the sales tax. This deliberate move by lawmakers to a greater reliance on the sale tax and less reliance on the income tax has shifted the tax load to low- and middle-income taxpayers and away from the well-off and profitable corporations.

In a context in which many working families earn low-wages and struggle to meet basic needs, there is increased recognition at the national level that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the best tool to ensure workers keep more of what they earn and in so doing move families out of poverty. Here’s why a refundable EITC makes the most sense for North Carolina: many low- and moderate- income North Carolinians are not subject to a state income tax because they don’t earn enough income. However, they pay a significant share of their income in other taxes—like sales and property taxes—and the EITC helps offset the higher tax responsibility they have overall relative to wealthier taxpayers. Moreover, increasing the standard deduction would reduce the income taxes paid for all tax filers who don’t itemize, not just those with low-incomes.

Increasing the standard deduction by $2,000 not only is poorly targeted but is also costly. Fiscal Research estimates that such a proposal would reduce state revenue by as much as $205 million for tax year 2017. The actual cost may be higher considering that a higher percentage of NC taxpayers (beyond the 70 estimate by Fiscal Research) are likely to take the standard deduction as a result of tax changes since 2013. Restoring a state EITC at 5 percent of the federal amount would be half the cost of increasing the standard deduction at that level and reach nearly one million working but low-income families and their children.

If policymakers are willing to spend $200 million to address inequities in our state’s tax code then restoring a state refundable EITC and doubling its value to 10 percent of the federal amount is the better policy choice.

News

Top state Sen. Apodaca leaving state legislature, vacancies abound

There’s some more shakeup in the state legislature, with today’s announcement by powerful state Sen. Tom Apodaca that he won’t run again.

N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca

N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca

Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, told the Charlotte Observer that he was ready to leave the politics, given the changes the state has seen since Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature in 2010.

“We’ve come to a point where we’ve accomplished almost everything we set out to,” Apodaca told the Charlotte Observer Monday. “Politics has never been the driving force in my life.”

As the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, he had the ability to decide which pieces of legislation made it to the floor for a vote, and which would languish.

N.C. Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger, in a statement released Monday, said Apodaca had been a key figure in bringing the agendas of the Republican senate caucus to fruition.

“Tom is not only one of my closest friends in the legislature, he’s one of my closest friends – period,” Berger said. “Tom was a steadying influence when we made big decisions, and someone the caucus could always count on to solve big problems.”

Apodaca’s announcement comes after state Sen. Bob Rucho, another prominent Republican in a leadership position, announced in early November he was stepping away from the legislature.

With Apodaca’s announcement today, a total of 13 lawmakers have said they won’t seek re-election in 2016 though many will stay on for the 2016 short session which begins in the spring.

Meanwhile, in Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, there have been several end-of-year departures announcements as well.

Chief Information Officer Chris Estes announced last week he was leaving his state government post overseeing the state’s technology systems to return to the private sector. Dale Folwell, a former lawmaker, is stepping down from leading the state’s unemployment insurance system and is considering a run for the state treasurer office.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Claim justifying more tax cuts not supported by facts

The latest quarterly revenue report by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division (FRD) highlights that tax cuts do not explain the better-than-projected income tax revenue collections for the most recent fiscal year 2015.

According to FRD, two factors likely affected income tax collections for the most recent fiscal year.

  • Corporate taxable profits accelerated as wages remained low and write-offs on losses from the recession dwindled. This pushed collections 21.2% above forecast expectations.
  • Timing in personal income tax collections from changes enacted beginning with the 2014 tax year meant lower monthly withholding revenue – but higher final payments and smaller refunds in April. The forecast didn’t fully capture those dynamics leading to a shortfall the previous fiscal year and a surplus in FY 2014-15.

There’s evidence to support these two points. Corporate profits are at a record high as the economy recovers in part due to a steady increase in productivity. Meanwhile, wages for workers have remained stagnant – an indication that workers have not participated in the economic gains during the ongoing recovery. Furthermore, FRD notes that tax changes in recent years made it difficult to determine the timing of income tax revenue collections, resulting in a projection that was well below actual collections for FY 2014-15. Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center

Restricting food assistance ignores the economic facts on the ground

The General Assembly used a few of the last hours of the 2015 session to cut back how long unemployed North Carolinians in economically distressed counties can receive food assistance. Even though this weeks’ labor market data show that 9 out of 10 counties have more out of work people than job openings, the new rule would cut unemployed people off regardless of how hard it is to find work. The change could take food off more than 100,000 tables across North Carolina, and will pull money out of already struggling local economies, a doubly bad deal.

The one-sentence provision in the ratified bill (see section 16.a) permanently prevents the state from seeking to extend food assistance for people who can’t find work in their local economies, except in times of emergency. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allows states to temporarily waive a three-month time limit for unemployed childless adults who live in areas where few jobs are available.77 waiver counties - Updated for Blog Post

Recognizing that cutting off food aid to areas where there aren’t enough jobs hurts entire local economies, North Carolina sought this waiver for 77 of our 100 counties earlier this year. If the Governor signs this measure and SB119 into law, the ban on the waiver would go into effect in July 2016. Without the modest support of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), between 85,000 and 105,000 North Carolinians would be subject to the three month-time limit and potentially will not be able to purchase food at their local grocery stores, depressing consumer demand further and driving use of food banks already stretched to capacity. Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center

Connect NC Bond Act out of step with cutting taxes

State policymakers seem to think we can spare the money for another $1 billion tax cut, but also need to run up $2 billion* in new debt for core investments. The NC Senate this week takes up the Connect NC Bond Act of 2015 (HB 943), which would use debt instead of regular appropriations to pay for a range of repair and renovation projects. While now is a great time to borrow for major new investments, cutting taxes at the same time is bad news for North Carolina’s long-term fiscal house.

There are good reasons to issue debt right now. Interest rates are still pegged to the floor and low oil prices make it cheaper to complete construction projects. After seven years of below average appropriations, especially during the recovery, the list of overdue repair and upgrade projects is as long as your arm (assuming you’re on the tall side).

Simultaneously running up debt and cutting taxes is risky business. Together, the cost of tax cuts passed last week and repaying new debt will set North Carolina up for future cuts to core government functions that are already stretched beyond the breaking point. More tax cuts may also topple North Carolina’s credit rating, which already happened to states like Kansas when they cut taxes.  If lenders get even more edgy about North Carolina’s shaky fiscal house, they may demand higher interest rates in a few years’ time when the last of the bonds authorized by HB 943 would go to the credit market.

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