What Will Next Week’s State Ballot Measures Tell Us About Taxes?

While most national attention is focused on which party will control the Senate and who will win the 36 gubernatorial races, many states also have fiscal initiatives on their ballots. And a few may provide some clues to how the public feels about the trade-off between taxes and government services.

Many of the 16 tax-related initiatives seem designed more to generate voter turnout (on both on the left and the right) than to influence tax policy. But some could have real impact on future state budgets.

Here are some key states to watch:

Massachusetts: Bay State voters will say whether or not they want to repeal an automatic inflation adjustment for the gas tax.  Watch this vote carefully. Many policy wonks would like to see exactly those annual adjustments made to the federal gas tax so that spending could keep up with inflation (although rising fuel efficiency and the possibility that Americans might drive less also pose threats to the revenue base that wouldn’t be addressed by indexing).

Nevada: The ballot includes a 2 percent margin tax on businesses that make more than $1 million in total revenue; taxable margins are defined as either 70% of revenues, or revenue net of compensation to owners or costs of goods sold. This levy, aimed at supporting K-12 education, is effectively a gross receipts tax.  A separate initiative would eliminate a five percent cap on mining taxes.

The state needs money to improve its schools but has no income tax and is constitutionally prohibited from passing one. Its property taxes have not recovered from home values that plummeted during the Great Recession and its gambling industry is suffering from increasing competition from casinos around the country.

However, the margin tax has some serious design flaws. For instance, a firm with significant gross revenue but no profits could be subject to the tax. In addition, its $1 million cliff means that a firm with revenue of $999,999 would owe no tax while one with income of $1,000,001 would owe up to $14,000 (or 2 percent of the 70 percent of one million and one dollars). The multiple options also can lead to complications with firms needing to figure out the best of three formulas to use.

Now for some that are as much about motivating base voter turnout as they are about tax policy:

Tennessee:  Voters will consider a constitutional amendment that would effectively bar future legislatures from passing a broad-based income tax. Currently the state taxes income from interest and dividends only.

Georgia: The Peach State also has a constitutional limit on tax rate increases on the November ballot.  This vote seems largely symbolic: Georgia has not raised its tax rates in 30 years and few politicians are clamoring to hike them now.

Illinois: Its ballot includes an initiative that calls for a 3 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million to support schools. This is in addition to the current income tax. While the measure may attract liberal voters, it is purely advisory and unlikely to do anything, given that the state’s constitution requires a flat income tax.

And finally marijuana:

Marijuana taxes. Five states have ballot measures to legalize or further decriminalize marijuana, potentially generating a new source of tax revenue. Florida is considering legalizing medical marijuana. District of Columbia voters will consider whether to legalize marijuana though DC voters are not allowed to vote on things that will directly affect the district’s budget so it will still be up to the DC council to pass authorizing legislation.

Oregon and Alaska have referendums to legalize and tax marijuana. In 2012, Oregon voters failed to legalize marijuana but in an effort to broaden support, backers changed this year’s version to limit the amount that consumers could possess. Alaska was one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana in 1975 and has flip-flopped on whether to criminalize or leave it be. They are proposing to legalize marijuana markets and tax and regulate the substance. The timing of which is driven as much by a need for revenues due to falling oil prices as it is to liberating drug policy.

The real action on legalization is teed up to happen in 2016, with eight more initiatives already scheduled, as states see a new source of tax revenue and are counting on higher voter turnout in a presidential election.

These tax initiatives may provide some interesting clues about what voters think about taxes. But to really find out, watch some key governor’s races in states such as Kansas, where the election has become a referendum on incumbent Sam Brownback’s low-tax policies.



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