More States Look to Raise Taxes

The Wall Street Journal | April 9, 2009
By Leslie Eaton

A free fall in tax revenue is driving more state lawmakers to turn to broad-based tax increases in a bid to close widening budget gaps.

At least 10 states are considering some kind of major increase in sales or income taxes: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. California and New York lawmakers already have agreed on multibillion-dollar tax increases that went into effect earlier this year.

Fiscal experts say more states are likely to try to raise tax revenue in coming months, especially once they tally the latest shortfalls from April 15 income-tax filings, often the biggest single source of funds for the 43 states that levy them.

The squeeze is especially severe in states hit hardest by the recession, such as Arizona, where sales-tax revenue has fallen by 10.5%, income-tax collections are down 15.7% this fiscal year, and the government faces a $3.4 billion budget gap next year. But such shortfalls are likely to be widespread; federal income-tax receipts from individuals have dropped more than 15% in the past six months, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

While most states so far have managed to cope with dwindling cash by cutting spending and raising fees on things such as fishing licenses and car registrations, that is unlikely to be enough in the new fiscal years that generally begin July 1, many analysts said.

"Income taxes and sales taxes are the go-to taxes when you really need to raise a lot of money," said Donald J. Boyd, who monitors states' fiscal health for the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y.

Sales-tax revenue has fallen more sharply than at any time in the past 50 years, Mr. Boyd said, and he expects income-tax collections to drop below levels state officials projected -- though the extent of the damage probably won't become clear until May.

Raising taxes is a perilous proposition for lawmakers, who must balance their states' budgets every year. Not only do they face political heat for increasing financial burdens during the recession, but added taxes risk worsening their states' economic problems by, for example, further hobbling consumer spending.

Some lawmakers say they have little choice. "With the size of our budget gap, we are looking at a situation of closing down our courts, releasing prisoners and cutting the school year by as much as a month," said Rep. Peter Buckley, co-chairman of Oregon's joint Ways and Means Committee.

His committee is considering an income-tax increase on high-earners, along with major budget cuts, to help close a projected $4.4 billion budget gap over the next two fiscal years. And things could get worse after a revenue forecast due out May 15, he said, because Oregon's unemployment rate has climbed to 10.8% and the state relies on income-tax revenue.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is likely to support the surcharge, said a spokeswoman , because the state is faced with losing as much as a third of its tax revenue.

Legislators know the increases will be unpopular with residents. "There will be blame, we accept that," Sen. Eileen M. Daily of Connecticut said earlier this month when she and fellow Democrats announced a budget that raises income-tax rates and expands the sales tax to raise more than $3 billion over the next two years. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, has said she would veto the plan.

But some governors are proposing tax increases. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell wants to raise the marginal income-tax rate by one percentage point, to 6.95%, on those earning more than $60,000 a year, effective in 2010. His budget plan also includes increases in corporate taxes as well as spending cuts to close a projected $750 million shortfall in a $3 billion budget, said spokesman Joe Rogalsky.

Many states remain determined to balance their budgets by relying solely on spending cuts. That is the case in Indiana, where raising revenue "is really not on the table," said Pat Bauer, the speaker of the state House.

Instead, he hopes to tap the state's rainy-day fund and to produce a budget that covers only one year, rather than the usual two, because plunging revenue makes it impossible to forecast that far in advance.

Tax collections have dropped drastically the past four months, according to Christopher A. Ruhl, director of the Indiana Budget Agency. Income-tax collections, which reflect withholding and estimated tax payments, fell 21% in March compared with last year and are down 7% for the fiscal year.

States have lowered revenue forecasts repeatedly in recent months, yet the estimates still seem to exceed the grim reality. Last week, Pennsylvania officials said total March tax collections were $334.6 million, or 7.9%, short of expectations, due to sharp drops in income and sales taxes and a steep decline in corporate income taxes. For the fiscal year that began July 1, 2008, collections to date are running $1.6 billion less than forecast.

This has led some experts, such as Nicholas Johnson of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to predict more legislatures will take up broad-based tax increases as early as May or June. "The problem," he said, "is that they are filling a hole that has gotten a little deeper."