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Nebraska Governor Withdraws Tax Reform Proposal; Legislature Look to Commission to Develop Alternatives

2 min readBy: Joseph Bishop-Henchman

Just over a week ago, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman decided to withdraw his two bills that would reduce the state’s income 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. rate by expanding the sales tax baseThe tax base is the total amount of income, property, assets, consumption, transactions, or other economic activity subject to taxation by a tax authority. A narrow tax base is non-neutral and inefficient. A broad tax base reduces tax administration costs and allows more revenue to be raised at lower rates. to additional business-to-business transactions. His action came after a contentious legislative hearing where witnesses (particularly from agriculture) expressed strong concern.

Their concern was justified, as I testified to at that hearing. B-to-B transactions, or business inputs, should actually be exempt under a properly structured 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. system. This is not because businesses deserve special treatment, but because not doing so leads to the “pyramiding” of hidden taxes on taxes, distorting prices between goods based entirely on how many steps in the production chain there are. Instead, sales taxes should aim to tax final retail sales once and only once. It’s a mistake nearly every state with a sales tax makes, but one that should be addressed in tax reform.

This suggestion and criticism, I must note, does not reduce my enthusiasm for the Governor’s overarching goal: a simpler, more sensible tax system for Nebraska that will mean more jobs and economic growth. His approach – reducing taxes on wages and investment and shifting to taxes on consumption – would boost economic growth and be in line with strong academic evidence for tax reform. Taxing services rather than business inputs could keep the plan revenue-neutral while ending a disparity between those who sell goods and those who sell services, which is actually just a holdover from how sales taxes were designed in the 1930s.

Legislators are now considering a bill to set up a commission to study the state’s tax code and recommend changes. If enacted, a preliminary report would be due December 15 and a final report by November 15, 2014. Nearly everyone seems supportive of this approach.

I am too and even started sketching out some back-of-the-envelope options, using the Governor’s basic approach but instead exempting business inputs and expanding the sales tax to services. Depending on how broad the sales tax expansion is, the state could get the income tax and sales tax rates both down to 5.5 percent on a revenue-neutral basis. If the sales tax rate stayed where it is, you could get the income tax down to 4 percent, lower than all neighboring states. A very aggressive sales tax base broadeningBase broadening is the expansion of the amount of economic activity subject to tax, usually by eliminating exemptions, exclusions, deductions, credits, and other preferences. Narrow tax bases are non-neutral, favoring one product or industry over another, and can undermine revenue stability. could get it down even further. An 8 to 10 percent sales tax rate would be needed to completely eliminate the income tax.

There’s a lot of moving parts of course. Besides the sales tax and income tax, there’s the property taxA property tax is primarily levied on immovable property like land and buildings, as well as on tangible personal property that is movable, like vehicles and equipment. Property taxes are the single largest source of state and local revenue in the U.S. and help fund schools, roads, police, and other services. , the inheritance taxAn inheritance tax is levied upon an individual’s estate at death or upon the assets transferred from the decedent’s estate to their heirs. Unlike estate taxes, inheritance tax exemptions apply to the size of the gift rather than the size of the estate. , and other taxes. I am pleased that legislators seem to be taking this step because they want to do something and do it right. Go Big Red!