January 31, 2007

Gross Receipts Taxes in State Government Finances: A Review of Their History and Performance

Download Background Paper No. 53

Background Paper No. 53

Executive Summary
Gross receipts taxes had largely disappeared as an important revenue source for state governments by the later years of the twentieth century, usually after considerable effort by state business groups to eliminate them. Analysts and scholars presumed that these taxes–also known as “turnover taxes”–had forever been replaced with options that made more sense as ways of distributing the cost of government and had less undesirable impact on the taxpaying public, including businesses, and generally lost interest in them. In recent years, however, such broad-base, low-rate taxes have again entered state tax policy discussions. With this re-emergence comes a need for a new analysis of grossreceipts taxes to aid policymakers who are unfamiliar with their structure and drawbacks.

This examination of American and European experience with gross receipts taxation has identified several significant conclusions about the tax. These may be summarized:

Broad base: The gross receipts tax base can be broad, broader than the total value of production of the economy, but it lacks any link either to capacity to bear the cost of government services or to the amount of government services used–the normal standards for assigning tax burdens.

Low rate: Whether a gross receipts tax has a low rate depends on how much revenue the government intends to raise from it. Unlike most taxes, the effective rate of a gross receipts tax is higher than the statutory (or advertised) rate. A broad-base, low-rate gross receipts tax is unlikely to contribute a major share of tax revenue to a modern state government.

Stable revenue: A gross receipts tax appears to be roughly as stable as a retail sales tax. Its variations do not contribute to the overall stability of total state revenue because its fluctuations follow generally the same pattern as other major taxes.

Economic neutrality: A gross receipts tax interferes with private market decisions. Its pyramiding creates a haphazard pattern of incentives and disincentives for business operations. Most significantly, it establishes artificial incentive for vertical integration and discriminates against contracting work with independent suppliers and the advantages of scale and specialization that production by independent firms can bring.

Competitiveness: A gross receipts tax interferes with the capacity of individuals and businesses to compete with those in other states and other parts of the world. The tax embedded in prices grows as the share of a production chain within the state increases, so there is incentive to purchase business inputs from outside the state. It discourages capital investment by adding to the cost of factories, machinery, and equipment, and the disincentive increases as more of those capital goods are produced in the taxing state. This tax structure does not promote the growth and development of the state.

Fairness: A gross receipts tax does not treat equally situated businesses the same. Firms with the same net income will face radically different effective tax rates on that income, depending on their profit margins. Low-margin firms will be at great disadvantage relative to higher-margin firms, regardless of their overall profitability. Many new and expanding firms have low margins (or even are initially unprofitable) and the gross receipts tax reduces the chance that these firms will survive. This also is not consistent with a climate for growth and development.

Transparency: A gross receipts tax is a stealth tax with its true burden hidden from taxpayers. Hiding the cost of government is inconsistent with efficient and responsive provision of government services and contrary to the fundamentals of democratic government.

There is no sensible case for gross receipts taxation. The old turnover taxes–typically adopted as desperation measures in fiscal crisis–were replaced with taxes that created fewer economic problems. They do not belong in any program of tax reform.