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West Virginia Becomes the Latest State to Contemplate a Gross Receipts Tax

3 min readBy: Jared Walczak

You campaign in poetry but govern in prose (or at least, so said Mario Cuomo). With his 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. increase package, newly minted West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (D) wasted little time putting the poetry of the campaign trail behind him.

Justice never explicitly pledged not to raise taxes, but he came close. “You cannot tax our people anymore. They can’t stand it,” he declared on the stump. In a debate, he dismissed the notion that the only alternatives were to raise taxes or cut government spending, insisting, “The alternative is cut, cut, cut or tax, tax, tax — and I don’t believe in either of those.” He pledged to “right-size” government. And he accused his opponent of wanting to boost local taxes.

That was then.

On the first day the West Virginia legislature gaveled into session, Justice used his State of the State address to outline $450 million in new and higher taxes, including:

  • a 0.2 percent gross receipts taxA gross receipts tax, also known as a turnover tax, is applied to a company’s gross sales, without deductions for a firm’s business expenses, like costs of goods sold and compensation. Unlike a sales tax, a gross receipts tax is assessed on businesses and apply to business-to-business transactions in addition to final consumer purchases, leading to tax pyramiding. ($214 million)
  • a 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. rate increase from 6.0 to 6.5 percent ($93 million)
  • the repeal of sales tax exemptions for professional services and advertising ($88 million)
  • an increase in beer taxes and wholesale liquor markup ($6 million)

Of these proposals, by far the most notable—and the most economically destructive—is the gross receipts tax, modeled after Ohio’s Commercial Activity Tax (CAT), which is levied at a rate of 0.26 percent on business taxable incomeTaxable income is the amount of income subject to tax, after deductions and exemptions. For both individuals and corporations, taxable income differs from—and is less than—gross income. above $1 million. As gross receipts taxes, both the Ohio CAT and Governor Justice’s proposed tax are imposed on a company’s gross incomeFor individuals, gross income is the total pre-tax earnings from wages, tips, investments, interest, and other forms of income and is also referred to as “gross pay.” For businesses, gross income is total revenue minus cost of goods sold and is also known as “gross profit” or “gross margin.” rather than its net income (profit), and thus bear no relationship to a firm’s ability to pay.

Because industries and individual companies operate under dramatically different profit margins, some companies face high effective rates. Moreover, because the tax is imposed at each stage in the production process, “tax pyramidingTax pyramiding occurs when the same final good or service is taxed multiple times along the production process. This yields vastly different effective tax rates depending on the length of the supply chain and disproportionately harms low-margin firms. Gross receipts taxes are a prime example of tax pyramiding in action. ” results, whereby the same final transaction is exposed to taxes several times over. (See here, here, and here for more on the economics and effects of gross receipts taxes.)

Under the Ohio CAT, a firm with a profit margin of 1 percent faces a 26 percent effective tax rate on corporate net income, which is notable given that some industries do run on average profit margins of just a few percent, and of course some companies experience actual losses. An Ernst & Young (now EY) study applied average profit ratios for major industries to estimate effective tax rates under the CAT, and found rates ranging from 0.4 percent (management of companies) to 8.6 percent (construction), with a weighted average of 4.7 percent on a 0.26 percent gross receipt tax, just slightly higher than what has been proposed in West Virginia. Other industries with above-average tax rateThe average tax rate is the total tax paid divided by taxable income. While marginal tax rates show the amount of tax paid on the next dollar earned, average tax rates show the overall share of income paid in taxes. s under the Ohio CAT include wholesale (8.3 percent), retail (7.9 percent), and transportation and warehousing (7.0 percent), all low-margin enterprises.

In many ways, gross receipts taxes are a throwback to an earlier era. Once common due to their ease of administration, these taxes were largely abandoned over the course of the 20th century as states sought to modernize their tax codes and jettison their least competitive components. More recently, however, with corporate income taxA corporate income tax (CIT) is levied by federal and state governments on business profits. Many companies are not subject to the CIT because they are taxed as pass-through businesses, with income reportable under the individual income tax. revenues declining sharply, gross receipts taxes have seen a resurgence, adopted in Ohio, Nevada, and Texas, and currently under consideration in the Oregon legislature following the defeat of a high-rate gross receipts tax on the state ballot last November.

Unfortunately, the economics of gross receipts taxes have not changed. They remain a regressive, economically harmful mode of taxation which increases the cost of goods, encourages inefficient economic activity (like otherwise unprofitable vertical integration to limit the number of stages of production subject to the tax), and levies widely disparate and ultimately arbitrary tax burdens on a state’s businesses. Governor Justice has made it clear that he believes West Virginia desperately needs to become more competitive; the commercial activities tax would be a major step in the wrong direction.