The Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index enables business leaders, government policymakers, and taxpayers to gauge how their states’ tax systems compare. While there are many ways to show how much is collected in taxes by state governments, the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems, and provides a roadmap for improvement.
The 10 best states in this year’s Index are:
- South Dakota
- New Hampshire
The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top ten states. Property taxes and unemployment insurance taxes are levied in every state, but there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. Wyoming, Nevada, and South Dakota have no corporate or individual income tax (though Nevada imposes gross receipts taxes); Alaska has no individual income or state-level sales tax; Florida has no individual income tax; and New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon have no sales tax.
The 10 lowest ranked, or worst, states in this year’s Index are:
- Rhode Island
- New York
- New Jersey
This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top ten while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases.
The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, is one of just two states to levy both an inheritance tax and an estate tax, and maintains some of the worst-structured individual income taxes in the country.
|Note: A rank of 1 is best, 50 is worst. Rankings do not average to the total. States without a tax rank equally as 1. DC’s score and rank do not affect other states. The report shows tax systems as of July 1, 2016 (the beginning of Fiscal Year 2017).|
|Source: Tax Foundation.|
|Overall Rank||Corporate Tax Rank||Individual Income Tax Rank||Sales Tax Rank||Unemployment Insurance Tax Rank||Property Tax Rank|
|District of Columbia||47||26||43||34||30||45|
Notable Ranking Changes in this Year’s Index
Arizona concluded a multiyear phasedown of its corporate income tax rate, bringing the rate from 5.5 to 4.9 percent in 2017. Scheduled annual rate reductions began in 2015, and this year’s final reduction helped the state improve six places on the corporate income tax component, from 19th to 13th. The cuts have been aided by limitations on credits and other tax preferences, which have helped pay down rate reductions.
In 2012, California voters ratified Proposition 30, an initiated constitutional amendment which, among other changes, temporarily raised the sales tax rate from 7.25 to 7.5 percent and created four new income tax brackets with a top marginal rate of 13.3 percent. In 2016, voters approved a twelve-year extension of the income tax provisions, but the ballot measure (Proposition 55) permitted the sales tax increase to expire, with the state rate reverting to 7.25 percent. California also adopted a sizable increase in its cigarette tax, bringing the tax per pack from $0.87 to $2.87 and, coupled with local sales tax increases, dropping the state one place on the sales tax component of the Index.
The Illinois legislature overrode the governor’s veto to adopt a budget which increased the state’s single-rate individual income tax from 3.75 to 4.95 percent, and the corporate income tax rate from 7.75 to 9.5 percent. Pass-through entities also pay a supplemental individual income tax of 1.5 percent (on the same base), known as the personal property replacement tax (PPRT), bringing the individual income tax rate for pass-through businesses to 6.45 percent. A similar 2.5 percent PPRT is included in the state’s 9.5 percent corporate income tax rate. These rate increases caused the state to slip slightly in the rankings, to 29th overall.
Recurring revenue shortfalls precipitated by a shortsighted package of tax cuts adopted in 2012 which, among other things, exempted all pass-through income from taxation, prompted legislators to add an additional bracket to the Kansas income tax and raise the top rate from 4.6 to 5.2 percent in an override of the governor’s veto. The additional bracket and higher rate, along with improvements in similarly-ranked states, dropped the state three places on the Index. Nevertheless, rates remain lower than they were before the 2012 cuts, and this year’s elimination of an exemption for pass-through income improves the neutrality of the state’s income tax code.
New Mexico continues to phase in corporate income tax rate reductions, with the rate scheduled to drop to 5.9 percent by 2018. This year’s reduction, from 6.6 to 6.2 percent, improved the state from 25th to 24th on the corporate tax component of the Index, and next year’s reduction will continue to enhance the state’s standing in comparison to its neighbors and further improve its corporate tax component score.
After the most dramatic improvement in the Index’s history in 2015—from 41st to 12th in one year—North Carolina has continued to improve its tax structure, and now imposes the lowest-rate corporate income tax in the country at 3 percent, down from 4 percent the previous year. This rate cut improves the state from 4th to 3rd on the corporate income tax component, the best ranking for any state that imposes a corporate tax. (Six states forgo corporate income taxes, but four of them impose economically distortive gross receipts taxes in their stead.) An individual income tax reduction, from 5.75 to 5.499 percent, improved the state’s individual income tax component rank from 15th to 13th. At 11th overall, North Carolina trails only Utah and Indiana among states which do not forgo any of the major tax types.
Substantial reductions in minimum rates across all unemployment insurance tax schedules resulted in a dramatic improvement in Rhode Island’s ranking on the unemployment insurance component of the Index, from 50th to 23rd, and improved the overall ranking from 44th to 41st.
District of Columbia
In 2014, the District of Columbia began phasing in a tax reform package which lowered individual income taxes for middle-income brackets, expanded the sales tax base, raised the estate tax exemption, and reduced the corporate income tax rate. This year, the corporate rate saw a further reduction, from 9.2 to 9.0 percent, which improved the District from 28th to 26th on the corporate tax component of the Index.
Recent and Proposed Changes Not Reflected in the 2018 State Business Tax Climate Index
Arkansas repealed its InvestArk investment tax credit, enhancing the neutrality of its corporate income tax. However, because the state still retained several smaller investment tax credits, the repeal of InvestArk alone does not improve Arkansas’s ranking on the Index. The state also removed repair parts (a business input) from the sales tax base, reducing tax pyramiding.
Hawaii voted to restore the higher rates and brackets associated with a temporary tax increase which had been allowed to expire a year ago, reestablishing three individual income tax brackets that had been eliminated and restoring the top marginal rate to 11 percent, up from 8.25 percent. However, this reversion will not take effect until the next calendar year, and will thus be reflected in the 2019 Index.
Indiana saw consistent rate reductions through a series of responsible tax reform efforts between 2011 and 2016. Subsequent legislation established a further schedule of corporate income tax reductions through fiscal year 2022. For 2018, the corporate income tax rate declined from 6.25 to 6.0 percent. These changes, however, were not enough to improve Indiana’s already enviable ranking on the Index, where the Hoosier State and Utah are functionally tied for the best rankings among states which impose all the major taxes.
Maine adopted, and then repealed, a 3 percent surcharge on high earners in 2017, which would have resulted in a top marginal individual income tax rate of 10.15 percent, eclipsed only by California’s 13.3 percent top marginal rate. Because the tax has been repealed, it is not reflected in the Index. Had the tax remained in place, Maine would have fallen from 28th to 35th overall.
In 2016, Mississippi adopted legislation gradually phasing out the state’s capital stock tax, increasing the exemption in 2018 and reducing the rate by one-quarter mill per year between 2019 and 2028. The 3 percent individual and corporate income tax brackets are also scheduled for elimination. Once reductions begin, they will be reflected in the Index.
Building on prior years’ tax reform efforts, including rate reductions implemented this year, the North Carolina legislature adopted further reductions to both individual and corporate income tax rates, to take effect next year. The corporate income tax rate is scheduled to be reduced to 2.5 percent, while the state’s single-rate individual income tax rate will be set at 5.25 percent. These pending changes will be reflected in the next edition of the Index.
A multipronged tax package saw New Jersey’s sales tax rate decline from 7.0 to 6.875 percent while the gas tax increased from 14.5 to 37.1 cents per gallon. New Jersey also began to phase out its estate tax; it is currently one of only two states (along with Maryland) to levy both an estate and an inheritance tax. If New Jersey completes the repeal of its estate tax next year as anticipated, its rank can be expected to improve on the property tax component of the Index, where it currently ranks 50th.
Three years ago, New York policymakers enacted a substantial corporate tax reform package that continues to phase in. This year, they reduced the capital stock tax rate from 0.125 to 0.1 percent, which was not enough, on its own, to yield a change in rank in the Index. The capital stock tax is on a path to repeal, which can be expected to produce improvements on the property tax component in future editions of the Index.
In 2016, Tennessee began phasing out its Hall income tax, a tax on interest and dividend income, though the state does not tax wage income. The Index includes this tax at a calculated rate to reflect its unusually narrow base. Initial reductions are too small to change any component rankings, but Tennessee’s rank will improve once the tax is fully phased out in 2022.
|Note: A rank of 1 is best, 50 is worst. All scores are for fiscal years. DC’s score and rank do not affect other states.|
|Source: Tax Foundation.|
|2015 Rank||2015 Score||2016 Rank||2016 Score||2017 Rank||2017 Score||2018 Rank||2018 Score||Change from 2017 to 2018|
|District of Columbia||44||4.43||41||4.54||47||4.19||47||4.20||0||+0.01|
Taxation is inevitable, but the specifics of a state’s tax structure matter greatly. The measure of total taxes paid is relevant, but other elements of a state tax system can also enhance or harm the competitiveness of a state’s business environment. The State Business Tax Climate Index distills many complex considerations to an easy-to-understand ranking.
The modern market is characterized by mobile capital and labor, with all types of businesses, small and large, tending to locate where they have the greatest competitive advantage. The evidence shows that states with the best tax systems will be the most competitive at attracting new businesses and most effective at generating economic and employment growth. It is true that taxes are but one factor in business decision-making. Other concerns also matter—such as access to raw materials or infrastructure or a skilled labor pool—but a simple, sensible tax system can positively impact business operations with regard to these resources. Furthermore, unlike changes to a state’s health-care, transportation, or education systems, which can take decades to implement, changes to the tax code can quickly improve a state’s business climate.
It is important to remember that even in our global economy, states’ stiffest competition often comes from other states. The Department of Labor reports that most mass job relocations are from one U.S. state to another rather than to a foreign location. Certainly, job creation is rapid overseas, as previously underdeveloped nations enter the world economy without facing the third highest corporate tax rate in the world, as U.S. businesses do. State lawmakers are right to be concerned about how their states rank in the global competition for jobs and capital, but they need to be more concerned with companies moving from Detroit, Michigan, to Dayton, Ohio, than from Detroit to New Delhi. This means that state lawmakers must be aware of how their states’ business climates match up against their immediate neighbors and to other regional competitor states.
Anecdotes about the impact of state tax systems on business investment are plentiful. In Illinois early last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars of capital investments were delayed when then-Governor Rod Blagojevich proposed a hefty gross receipts tax. Only when the legislature resoundingly defeated the bill did the investment resume. In 2005, California-based Intel decided to build a multibillion-dollar chip-making facility in Arizona due to its favorable corporate income tax system. In 2010, Northrup Grumman chose to move its headquarters to Virginia over Maryland, citing the better business tax climate. In 2015, General Electric and Aetna threatened to decamp from Connecticut if the governor signed a budget that would increase corporate tax burdens, and General Electric actually did so. Anecdotes such as these reinforce what we know from economic theory: taxes matter to businesses, and those places with the most competitive tax systems will reap the benefits of business-friendly tax climates.
Tax competition is an unpleasant reality for state revenue and budget officials, but it is an effective restraint on state and local taxes. When a state imposes higher taxes than a neighboring state, businesses will cross the border to some extent. Therefore, states with more competitive tax systems score well in the Index, because they are best suited to generate economic growth.
State lawmakers are mindful of their states’ business tax climates, but they are sometimes tempted to lure business with lucrative tax incentives and subsidies instead of broad-based tax reform. This can be a dangerous proposition, as the example of Dell Computers and North Carolina illustrates. North Carolina agreed to $240 million worth of incentives to lure Dell to the state. Many of the incentives came in the form of tax credits from the state and local governments. Unfortunately, Dell announced in 2009 that it would be closing the plant after only four years of operations. A 2007 USA TODAY article chronicled similar problems other states have had with companies that receive generous tax incentives.
Lawmakers make these deals under the banner of job creation and economic development, but the truth is that if a state needs to offer such packages, it is most likely covering for an undesirable business tax climate. A far more effective approach is the systematic improvement of the state’s business tax climate for the long term to improve the state’s competitiveness. When assessing which changes to make, lawmakers need to remember two rules:
- Taxes matter to business. Business taxes affect business decisions, job creation and retention, plant location, competitiveness, the transparency of the tax system, and the long-term health of a state’s economy. Most importantly, taxes diminish profits. If taxes take a larger portion of profits, that cost is passed along to either consumers (through higher prices), employees (through lower wages or fewer jobs), or shareholders (through lower dividends or share value), or some combination of the above. Thus, a state with lower tax costs will be more attractive to business investment and more likely to experience economic growth.
- States do not enact tax changes (increases or cuts) in a vacuum. Every tax law will in some way change a state’s competitive position relative to its immediate neighbors, its region, and even globally. Ultimately, it will affect the state’s national standing as a place to live and to do business. Entrepreneurial states can take advantage of the tax increases of their neighbors to lure businesses out of high-tax states.
To some extent, tax-induced economic distortions are a fact of life, but policymakers should strive to maximize the occasions when businesses and individuals are guided by business principles and minimize those cases where economic decisions are influenced, micromanaged, or even dictated by a tax system. The more riddled a tax system is with politically motivated preferences, the less likely it is that business decisions will be made in response to market forces. The Index rewards those states that minimize tax-induced economic distortions.
Ranking the competitiveness of fifty very different tax systems presents many challenges, especially when a state dispenses with a major tax entirely. Should Indiana’s tax system, which includes three relatively neutral taxes on sales, individual income, and corporate income, be considered more or less competitive than Alaska’s tax system, which includes a particularly burdensome corporate income tax but no statewide tax on individual income or sales?
The Index deals with such questions by comparing the states on more than one hundred variables in the five major areas of taxation (corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and property taxes) and then adding the results to yield a final, overall ranking. This approach rewards states on particularly strong aspects of their tax systems (or penalizes them on particularly weak aspects), while also measuring the general competitiveness of their overall tax systems. The result is a score that can be compared to other states’ scores. Ultimately, both Alaska and Indiana score well.
 See, e.g., U.S. Department of Labor, “Extended Mass Layoffs, First Quarter 2013 ,” Table 10, May 13, 2013.
 Kyle Pomerleau, “Corporate Income Tax Rates Around the World, 2014,” Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact No. 436, Aug. 20, 2014.
 Editorial, “Scale it back, Governor,” Chicago Tribune, , Mar. 23, 2007.
 Ryan Randazzo, Edythe Jenson, and Mary Jo Pitzl, “Chandler getting new $5 billion Intel facility,” AZCentral.com, Mar. 6, 2013.
 Dana Hedgpeth & Rosalind Helderman, “Northrop Grumman decides to move headquarters to Northern Virginia,” The Washington Post, Apr. 27, 2010.
 Susan Haigh, “Connecticut House Speaker: Tax ‘mistakes’ made in budget,” Associated Press, Nov. 5, 2015.
 Austin Mondine, “Dell cuts North Carolina plant despite $280m sweetener,” TheRegister.co.uk, Oct. 8, 2009.
 Dennis Cauchon, “Business Incentives Lose Luster for States,” USA TODAY, Aug. 22, 2007.