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Indiana Should Use Surplus to Expedite Rate Cuts, Index Exemptions for Inflation

4 min readBy: Katherine Loughead

With the Indiana General Assembly gaveled in this week for a special session called by Gov. Eric Holcomb (R), one of the issues is how to allocate portions of the $6.1 billion budget surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The House, Senate, and governor agree that some of the extra revenue should be returned to Hoosiers through taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. relief, but policymakers must decide what form that tax relief will take. Various proposals have been offered, including another round of income tax refundA tax refund is a reimbursement to taxpayers who have overpaid their taxes, often due to having employers withhold too much from paychecks. The U.S. Treasury estimates that nearly three-fourths of taxpayers are over-withheld, resulting in a tax refund for millions. Overpaying taxes can be viewed as an interest-free loan to the government. On the other hand, approximately one-fifth of taxpayers underwithhold; this can occur if a person works multiple jobs and does not appropriately adjust their W-4 to account for additional income, or if spousal income is not appropriately accounted for on W-4s. checks (as proposed by the governor and included in the House bill), as well as increases to the exemption for dependent children, a new exemption for adopted children, and a sales tax exemptionA tax exemption excludes certain income, revenue, or even taxpayers from tax altogether. For example, nonprofits that fulfill certain requirements are granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), preventing them from having to pay income tax. for children’s diapers.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill provides a much smaller amount of temporary sales and excise taxAn excise tax is a tax imposed on a specific good or activity. Excise taxes are commonly levied on cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, soda, gasoline, insurance premiums, amusement activities, and betting, and typically make up a relatively small and volatile portion of state and local and, to a lesser extent, federal tax collections. relief, including suspending for six months the sales taxA sales tax is levied on retail sales of goods and services and, ideally, should apply to all final consumption with few exemptions. Many governments exempt goods like groceries; base broadening, such as including groceries, could keep rates lower. A sales tax should exempt business-to-business transactions which, when taxed, cause tax pyramiding. on residential utilities services, undoing the gas taxA gas tax is commonly used to describe the variety of taxes levied on gasoline at both the federal and state levels, to provide funds for highway repair and maintenance, as well as for other government infrastructure projects. These taxes are levied in a few ways, including per-gallon excise taxes, excise taxes imposed on wholesalers, and general sales taxes that apply to the purchase of gasoline. inflationInflation is when the general price of goods and services increases across the economy, reducing the purchasing power of a currency and the value of certain assets. The same paycheck covers less goods, services, and bills. It is sometimes referred to as a “hidden tax,” as it leaves taxpayers less well-off due to higher costs and “bracket creep,” while increasing the government’s spending power. adjustment that took effect July 1 (and freezing it at FY 2022 levels until July 2023), as well as capping the gasoline use tax at 29.5 cents per gallon until July 2023. Current economic forecasts project the gasoline use tax rate will not reach the capped amount, meaning this provision is unlikely to have any real impact.

While well-intended, most of these measures—especially the temporary ones proposed in the Senate bill—would provide households with only modest, short-term relief from inflation. And while income tax refunds are more efficient forms of one-time relief than sales tax exemptions, an additional infusion of cash would add to the inflationary pressures in the economy more broadly without promoting long-term economic growth in Indiana.

A better approach would be for policymakers to dedicate some of the state’s surplus revenue toward accelerating or enhancing the permanent Indiana income tax rate reductions that were enacted earlier this year, as well as indexing Indiana’s personal and dependent exemptions for inflation. This would provide permanent tax relief to Hoosiers while making Indiana’s tax code even more competitive and further promoting long-term economic growth.

Under legislation enacted in March, Indiana’s flat individual income taxAn individual income tax (or personal income tax) is levied on the wages, salaries, investments, or other forms of income an individual or household earns. The U.S. imposes a progressive income tax where rates increase with income. The Federal Income Tax was established in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Though barely 100 years old, individual income taxes are the largest source of tax revenue in the U.S. rate is scheduled to be reduced from its current 3.23 percent rate to 3.15 percent for tax years 2023 and 2024. In subsequent years, the law uses tax triggers to reduce the rate further if general fund collections grow by at least 2 percent year-over-year (in specified years) and the Indiana Public Retirement System’s Pension Stabilization Fund balance is sufficient to pay liabilities without additional appropriations. Under current law, if all triggers are met, the rate would be reduced to 3.1 percent in 2025 and 2026, 3 percent in 2027 and 2028, and 2.9 percent in 2029 and beyond.

To enhance these reforms, policymakers could first consider reducing the rate below 3.15 percent starting January 1, 2023. Then, modifications could be made to reach the target rate of 2.9 percent sooner than planned, or to reduce the future target rate to below 2.9 percent. Simultaneously, policymakers could consider modifying the trigger mechanism to tie future tax cuts to specific inflation-adjusted revenue targets instead of single-year revenue growth, averting the possibility of an undesirable outcome in which a tax cut is triggered by a recovery from an economic downturn in which overall revenues remain below the desired baseline level.

Additionally, the House bill proposes raising the exemption for dependent children from $1,500 to $1,600 and doubling the exemption to $3,200 for the first year in which a taxpayer is eligible to claim an exemption for that child, including for infants and newly adopted children. Increasing the exemption for dependent children would be a structurally sound reform to consider, but to provide longer-term inflationary relief, policymakers also ought to consider indexing the major provisions of the state’s tax code for inflation, such as the personal exemption, dependent exemption, and additional exemption for dependent children, among others. These exemption amounts have remained static for many years and have therefore lost much of their real value over time.

The income tax rate reductions enacted earlier this year will help reinforce Indiana’s coveted position of having one of the best-structured tax codes in the country, but there is always room for improvement. Expediting the Indiana income tax rate reductions and indexing major income tax provisions for inflation are two of the most important tax policy changes policymakers could make to provide meaningful tax relief to Hoosiers both now and in the years to come.