November 30, 2009

Louisiana Tax Amnesty: A $303 Million Success?

The count is in: the recently-ended Louisiana tax amnesty brought in $303 million in revenue for the state.
The lion's share of the money-- $277 million-- was paid by delinquent businesses, with individuals ponying up the remaining $26 million.
This result raises three interesting policy questions.
1) Was the amnesty, taken on its own, a good deal for the state? Amnesties are often driven by the need to get revenue immediately at any cost, and all too often the result is that states agree to give up all penalties and interest if delinquent taxpayers just pay the original balance. The problem with this, of course, is that the delinquent taxpayers are essentially getting an interest-free loan, and the state is not getting what they're legally due. In this particular case, the deal apparently was that if you settled up in full, you got to keep half of the interest that was due. This is less costly than what a lot of states have done. It still does, however, carry a cost to the state. Verdict: Could have been worse.
2) What to do with the money? More than half is going to shore up specific funds: the rainy day fund and a "coastal fund." The rest, more controversially, is going to pay for health care. If this is controversial, it's because it's using what is arguably a one-shot revenue inflow to pay for what is clearly an ongoing expenditure. Put another way, finding a dollar bill under the cushions of your couch can help buy you dinner tonight, but then it won't help you tomorrow night. Gov. Jindal is arguing explicitly that at least some of this revenue should be thought of as ongoing, because they're bringing taxpayers back into the system. But the official verdict will come from the Revenue Estimating Conference. Verdict: thumbs up for shoring up rainy day fund, but don't pat yourself on the back for solving the health care funding problem just yet.
3) What are the implications for successful enforcement of the tax laws? A main argument against amnesties is that if folks know they're coming, they'll be less afraid to avoid taxes in the first place. This will be a problem if Louisiana continues to do amnesties, but is not clearly so yet. The really interesting question is what you can infer from the huge different between the amount raised from businesses ($277M) and the amount paid by individuals ($26M). Does this mean that businesses are cheating more? Alternative plausible explanations: businesses pay proportionally more of Louisiana taxes to begin with than do individuals (although this really can't explain the huge difference), or that the individuals who owe the most aren't taking advantage of the amnesty simply because they can't afford to, even with half the interest given back.

The $303 million yield of this amnesty will certainly help the fiscal situation in the short run. But Louisiana policymakers should take this opportunity to think strategically about what this success means for future amnesties-- and, more importantly, what it tells them about where they need to focus their normal enforcement efforts.