December 24, 2008

Evaluating the National Retail Federation's "Tax Holiday" Idea

Yesterday the National Retail Federation published an open letter to President-to-be Barack Obama urging that come January, Obama's stimulus package should including a national "sales tax holiday," three ten-day periods in 2009 during which states that normally collect sales taxes on retail purchases would stop collecting them.

A new Citizens for Tax Justice report takes the shine off this idea a bit, noting a few fairly important reasons why a tax holiday might be not the right answer for America at this time.

Among them:
  • As with state sales tax holidays, it's hard to know whether the benefits would go to consumers or retailers.
  • To the extent consumers would be better off, the savings would go to even the very best-off families. No effort could be made to target these savings to families hit hardest by the current downturn.
  • Even if Congress likes the idea, that's not enough to implement it. Every state with a sales tax would have to pass legislation to make this work. And then every retailer in these sales-tax states would have to train workers and program computers to stop collecting state sales tax (but keep collecting local sales tax) during the holidays.
  • Since the first proposed tax holiday would take place in March, the immediate effect of such a plan would be to... encourage people to spend less money right now, and wait until March. Which is an odd feature in a stimulus plan.

The CTJ report is here.

December 20, 2008

Why Virginia Won't Hike Its CIg Tax

Earlier this week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine proposed doubling the state's cigarette tax from 30 to 60 cents per pack. Once upon a time, this would have been a pretty substantial hike. But with the wave of cigarette tax hikes nationwide over the past decade, this proposal would best be described as bringing Virginia's tax more in line with what the rest of the states currently do. As the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports, the nationwide average cig tax is now $1.19 per pack.

The Republican-led House quickly announced that it was having none of this. Their reason? Economic development:
[Virginia House Speaker William] Howell and [U.S. House member Eric] Cantor argued that a cigarette tax hike would send the wrong signal to other states, which might be more inclined to raise their cigarette taxes. That could lead to job losses in the tobacco industry, especially in Virginia.
The most obvious response to this rationale is that they're trying to close the barn door after the horses have gotten out. State lawmakers have looked--and continue to look, right now-- to cigarette taxes as their favorite source of new tax revenue for years now. The idea that other states are waiting for the official sanction of tobacco-producing states before further jacking up their cig taxes is pretty far-fetched.

But the more interesting question is why Howell views the tobacco industry as the most vital component of Virginia's economic development strategy going forward. (To say nothing of why Cantor, who after all is a member of the US Congress, not Virginia's legislature, is weighing in on this point.) Tobacco consumption has been falling for decades nationwide. Not just on a per capita basis either-- we're just collectively purchasing fewer and fewer smokes every year, as public knowledge of the immense healthcare costs associated with smoking increases.

It's a dying industry, a relic of the past. So why should Virginia, a state that has enjoyed a real technology boom over the past decade, want to reinforce the role of this industry in its economy? The Washington Post's Pete Earley has a disheartening, but probably apt, answer: because Virginia lawmakers got paid to think this way. As Earley notes, virtually every member of Virginia's tax writing committees in the House and Senate regularly take campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. You don't have to be a Rod Blagojevich for these contributions to have a subtle influence on how you think and vote on economic policy issues.

At a time when we're contemplating spending billions of dollars to prop up the US auto industry, it's hard to get too sniffy about efforts to keep the Virginia tobacco industry going. But as Virginia confronts a major budget deficit, every dollar of tax revenue not collected from the tobacco industry is coming from somewhere else. And by refusing to consider hiking the cigarette tax on economic development grounds, Virginia lawmakers are basically asserting that any other interest that could be taxed-- whether it's manufacturers, small retail businesses, or individual wage-earners and consumers-- are less vital to Virginia's long-term economic growth than are tobacco farmers. And it's hard to see any other explanation for this backwards approach to economic development than campaign contributions. As the late, great Mark Felt apparently never really said, "follow the money."

December 19, 2008

New York's "Soda Pop" Tax Proposal

New York Governor David Paterson unveiled his budget proposal this week, and one proposed tax hike is drawing a lot of attention: a plan to introduce a new tax on sales of soda pop. The 18 percent tax-- which would be on top of the existing state/local sales tax, generally about 8 percent-- would also apply to sugary juice drinks.

Paterson clearly thinks this is a good idea because it's supposed to raise half a billion dollars a year. Nicholas Kristof thinks it's a fantastic idea, but for an entirely different reason: he thinks it will get people to stop drinking so much soda. Kristof goes so far as to call it "a landmark effort that, if other states follow, could help make us healthier."

With no apparent irony, the New York Times reports that
State officials projected that the tax would raise $404 million in the fiscal year that starts in April, and $539 million in the following fiscal year, but said the proposal was primarily a public health measure.
Of course, if the yield of the tax goes up, that means that people are drinking more sugary sodas, not less. So this thing is either going to be a budgetary savior for the state, or it's going to make people healthier by encouraging them to spend less on soda pop. You can't have it both ways.

So what's the real answer? The Times' Clyde Haberman has a clear-eyed view:
Make no mistake, the last thing that government wants is for everyone, right this minute, to stop smoking, boozing, gambling and downing those nutritionally empty supersweet sodas. Too much money is at stake. By absolutely no coincidence, the New Yorkers who pay these particular taxes tend to be those who can afford them the least. Poor people spend disproportionately on smokes, booze and unhealthy soft drinks, not to mention on the prayer that God will drop everything else and shower lottery millions on them.
These are “habits that are more common among those who have the least amount of political power,” said Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a liberal but nonpartisan research center in New York. “To do something in the most politically efficient way is to tax or hike the fees of those who have the least power,” she said.
Folks like Kristof aren't wrong to want to discourage people from doing self-destructive things. But they're absolutely wrong to think that lawmakers' motive in proposing things like the soft drink tax is to improve public health. They're doing it because it's politically easier than the true tax reforms that could help keep New York's budget balanced years down the road.