The North Carolina Senate is moving ahead yet again – perhaps as early as this afternoon – with a new proposal to further reduce state taxes and the revenues they generate to fund essential public structures and services. While the plan is billed as “a billion dollar middle class tax cut,” a closer look at the data reveals that this is an inaccurate and misleading label. As is demonstrated in the essays below, not only does the plan include yet another round of unnecessary and illogical tax cuts for profitable businesses, most of the tax cuts targeting individuals would actually flow to the wealthy. We invite you to read and share these two essays widely.
By Cedric Johnson
Last week, the North Carolina Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 325 – sponsored by the chairs of the committee – that supposedly cuts taxes by nearly $1 billion. Proponents of the bill claim that the tax cuts are targeted to middle-income taxpayers, but this is not the case. The majority of the net benefits for the tax cuts will go to the highest income earners in the state. Simply put, this bill is not a billion dollar middle class tax cut, despite the title of the bill. This is a false claim that becomes apparent upon a deeper analysis of the bill.
For starters, the billion dollar tax cut claim touted by proponents is nearly 20 percent off the mark. The General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division (FRD) highlights that the annual cost of the tax plan grows to be around $839 million over the initial five years. Moreover, tax cuts for businesses account for 20 percent of that total cost estimate. While one might chop this up to a simple rounding approximation, the magnitude of this rounding up on something of such importance would likely garner some form of reprimand in the business and finance world in which billion dollar deals require a more precise understanding of the numbers.
During last week’s meeting, bill sponsors and FRD staff were unable, and at times unwilling, to answer critical questions related to the tax plan. Limitations to the analytical software used by FRD were noted, which limited staff’s ability to answer key questions about who benefits and the cumulative losses of tax cuts over the years.
The limited analysis produced by FRD allows proponents of SB 325 to falsely proclaim that the tax plan largely benefits middle income taxpayers. Typically, FRD arbitrarily selects income levels and often deploys just taxpayer scenarios to highlight the impact of proposed tax changes. This approach doesn’t allow policymakers or the public to understand the population-wide effects and the distribution across all taxpayers.
BTC’s analysis of SB 325 uses a more robust model developed by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-profit, non-partisan organization. ITEP’s microsimulation tax model calculates tax revenue yield and incidence, by income group, of federal, state and local taxes. The model is used in states across the country to analyze state tax proposals and to assess the impact of tax policies on issues of public concern. ITEP’s model segments North Carolina taxpayers into five equally split income groups based on actual tax returns and total estimated incomes (and breaks down the top 20 percent of taxpayers since income is so concentrated at the top of the spectrum). FRD informing lawmakers that a hypothetical taxpayer with adjusted gross income of $200,000 would get a tax cut under the plan provides no insight into the distributional impact of the tax plan, such as where that taxpayer falls along the income spectrum (certainly not in the middle). The ITEP model, however, highlights that this hypothetical taxpayer is closer to the top 10 percent of income earners in the state.
- Nearly half of total net tax cut benefits over current law under the proposed tax plan would flow to the top 20 percent of income earners. By contrast, only 29 percent of net tax cut benefits would flow to the bottom 60 percent of income earners – those with income of $57,000 or less. A move further away from the personal income tax and a greater reliance on sales taxes mean that the people hit the hardest by the tax plan are low- and middle-income taxpayers. Many taxpayers in the lowest income groups who live in counties with the highest levels of poverty already pay no income tax because the amount of income they earn is very low, and so their taxes will not change under this plan. Instead, these taxpayers primarily pay taxes through the sales tax, which results in them paying a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.
- The proposed tax cuts under SB 325 combined with income tax cuts passed since 2013 would result in the top 1 percent of income earners getting a permanent net tax cut of more than $19,000 on average. The middle 20 percent of income earners, by contrast, would get a tax cut on average of $293, while the bottom 20 percent of income earners would get a net tax cut on average of only $51.
- As for more corporate tax cuts included in the tax plan, there is no reason to believe that tax cuts going to big multistate corporations will benefit North Carolina’s economy. Businesses may choose instead to use the money to finance out-of-state investments or distribute these additional dollars in the form of dividends to their shareholders, who mostly live out of state. BTC’s analysis finds that just 18 percent of the corporate income tax rate cut is shared with North Carolina residents. Corporate income tax rate cuts since 2013 has resulted in nearly $900 million in revenue loss for the current fiscal year. More tax cuts in the tax plan would make this annual revenue loss number larger.
Sound research should drive our policymakers to make decisions that benefit the public good, not the powerful few. Understanding who benefits from the plan is important to assessing the right path forward for the state, particularly at a time when the state has pressing needs and unanticipated costs associated with natural disasters, and faces great uncertainty as to what the federal government will continue to fund in North Carolina. Last week’s Senate Finance Committee meeting made clear that sound rigor in the numbers and analysis is lacking, while uninformative rhetoric that sounds good in the Senate’s pursuit of more tax cuts would hamper our state’s ability to meet the needs of communities across
Cedric Johnson is a Policy Analyst at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.
Why cutting taxes for business again makes no sense
By Alexandra Forter Sirota
When businesses pay their share of taxes, North Carolina is able to invest in the things that build thriving communities and a prosperous economy – things like good schools, roads, public health and a clean environment.
The Senate’s tax plan, Senate Bill 325, includes a tax cut for businesses that goes against this proven principle. There are four reasons why this plan will move our state backwards.
- North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate is already the lowest in the country.
North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate, now 3 percent, is the lowest in the country among 32 states with a flat corporate income tax rate, and the states with graduated corporate income taxes all have top rates above 3 percent as well. (Four other states – Nevada, Ohio, Texas and Washington – do not have a corporate income tax; they impose a gross receipts tax – which is a tax on the total gross revenues of a company).
On January 1st of this year, North Carolina reduced the corporate income tax rate from 4 to 3 percent which will reduce revenue by $500 million when in effect for a full fiscal year. This was an automatic reduction built into the 2013 tax changes that is happening even as enrollment costs associated with public schools and universities are increasing and health care costs for retirees are rising. It happens as the state struggles to rebuild Eastern North Carolina communities post-Hurricane Matthew and cope with the implications of the increasing likelihood that Congress will shift more costs to states.
- Another corporate tax cut will not lead to meaningful economic growth, research indicates.
The proposed corporate tax cut will not provide the needed local boost to address North Carolina’s economic challenges or catalyze greater job growth where it is needed. That is because, as research has found, the impact on corporate investment of a small cut in the corporate tax rate would not only be small but require years to fully take effect. The consensus of that research is that even a very large, 10 percent reduction in total state and local taxes paid by businesses – much larger than the reduction in corporate income taxes alone in the Senate bill – is likely to increase economic output and jobs by only about 2 percent before accounting for any offsetting negative impact on the provision of public services that businesses rely on such as efficiently run courts and high quality public schools that help build an educated and trained workforce.
Additionally, there is no reason to believe that tax cuts going to big multistate corporations will benefit North Carolina’s economy: businesses may choose instead to use the money to finance out-of-state investments or distribute these additional dollars in the form of dividends to their shareholders who mostly live out of state. Estimates by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy suggest that just 18 percent of the corporate income tax rate cut would stay with residents of North Carolina.
- Cutting income taxes on small business won’t do much for North Carolina’s economy, either.
The Senate bill proposes an additional cut in the personal income tax rate, sometimes justified on the grounds that this will encourage job creation by small businesses that pay tax on their profits through the personal income tax rather than the corporate income tax. But Kansas completely eliminated its personal income taxes on these businesses and the rate of small business startups actually declined in the following two years. Small businesses hire mainly based on product demand and tax cuts are unlikely to generate the dollars to justify hiring more employees.
Nor will cutting income taxes attract entrepreneurs to the state, particularly if it leads to further reductions in the quality of North Carolina schools, parks, and other building blocks of vibrant communities. In a 2014 survey, only five percent of the founders of high-growth companies cited low taxes as a factor in where they started their businesses.
- Not all NC businesses benefit under tax plan, winners and losers created.
North Carolina imposes a franchise tax on corporations for the privilege of engaging in business in the state. In North Carolina, this flat fee for all businesses is intended to cover basic government supports such as application filings and court costs. The Senate bill proposes to increase the minimum franchise tax liability for the very smallest businesses organized as “Subchapter S” corporations (S-Corps) from $35 to $200 but reduce the tax for moderate-sized S-Corps worth less than $1 million. (For income tax purposes, S-Corp profits are taxed on the personal income tax returns of their owner(s), while the remaining C-Corps are subject to the corporate income tax.)
There is no justification for taxing small S-Corps more lightly under the franchise tax than small C-Corps. The S-Corps are already being relieved of corporate income tax liabilities even though they get all the non-tax legal benefits of a C-Corp. And if the rationale for cutting taxes on S-Corps with less than $1 million of value is that it brings their taxes closer to what Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) pay – which is what Senate bill proponents assert – then the appropriate solution is to level-up both LLC and S-Corp franchise tax payments to C-Corp levels, not level the S-Corp payments down.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.