It’s presented by the port side as the answer–or a main answer, at the very least–to just about every revenue shortfall experienced by government. A great many states decided to make taxing the rich the linchpin on which their fiscal policies were based.
As Brad Williams walked the halls of the California state capitol in Sacramento on a recent afternoon, he spotted a small crowd of protesters battling state spending cuts. They wore shiny white buttons that said “We Love Jobs!” and argued that looming budget reductions will hurt the Golden State’s working class.
Mr. Williams shook his head. “They’re missing the real problem,” he said.
The working class may be taking a beating from spending cuts used to close a cavernous deficit, Mr. Williams said, but the root of California’s woes is its reliance on taxing the wealthy.
Nearly half of California’s income taxes before the recession came from the top 1% of earners: households that took in more than $490,000 a year. High earners, it turns out, have especially volatile incomes—their earnings fell by more than twice as much as the rest of the population’s during the recession. When they crashed, they took California’s finances down with them.
Mr. Williams, a former economic forecaster for the state, spent more than a decade warning state leaders about California’s over-dependence on the rich. “We created a revenue cliff,” he said. “We built a large part of our government on the state’s most unstable income group.”
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois—states that are the most heavily reliant on the taxes of the wealthy—are now among those with the biggest budget holes. A large population of rich residents was a blessing during the boom, showering states with billions in tax revenue. But it became a curse as their incomes collapsed with financial markets.
Arriving at a time of greatly increased public spending, this reversal highlights the dependence of the states on the outsize incomes of the wealthy. The result for state finances and budgets has been extreme volatility.
In New York before the recession, the top 1% of earners, who made more than $580,000 a year, paid 41% of the state’s income taxes in 2007, up from 25% in 1994, according to state tax data. The top 1% of taxpayers paid 40% or more of state income taxes in New Jersey and Connecticut. In Illinois, which has a flat income-tax rate of 5%, the top 15% paid more than half the state’s income taxes.
This growing dependence on wealthy taxpayers is being driven by soaring salaries at the top of the income ladder and by the nation’s progressive income taxes, which levy the highest rates on the highest taxable incomes. The top federal income-tax rate has fallen dramatically over the past century, from more than 90% during World War II to 35% today. But the top tax rate—which applies to joint filers reporting $379,000 in taxable income—is still twice as high as the rate for joint filers reporting income of $69,000 or less.
[. . .]
As they’ve grown, the incomes of the wealthy have become more unstable. Between 2007 and 2008, the incomes of the top-earning 1% fell 16%, compared to a decline of 4% for U.S. earners as a whole, according to the IRS. Because today’s highest salaries are usually linked to financial markets—through stock-based pay or investments—they are more prone to sudden shocks.
The income swings have created more extreme booms and busts for state governments. In New York, the top 1% of taxpayers contribute more to the state’s year-to-year tax swings than all the other taxpayers combined, according to a study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. In its January report downgrading New Jersey’s credit rating, Standard & Poor’s stated that New Jersey’s wealth “translates into a high ability to pay taxes but might also contribute to potential revenue volatility.”
[. . .]
A recent study by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Institute found that in 2009, states overestimated their revenues by more than $50 billion, due largely to the unexpected fall-off in personal-income taxes. Sales and corporate taxes have also fallen, but they account for a much smaller share of tax revenue in many states.
Tax experts say the problems at the state level could spread to Washington, as the highest earners gain a larger share of both national income and the tax burden. The top 1% paid 38% of federal income taxes in 2008, up from 25% in 1991, and they earned 20% of all national income in 2008, up from 13% in 1991, according to the Tax Foundation.
“These revenues have a narcotic effect on legislatures,” said Greg Torres, president of MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank. “They become numb to the trend and think the revenue picture is improving, but they don’t realize the money is ephemeral.”
Obviously, as the article points out, income volatility amongst the wealthy is not the only phenomenon affecting the revenue picture for state governments. But it ought to be clear by now that too many state governments believed that taxing the rich would be some kind of panacea for whatever fiscal challenges they might face. So much for that viewpoint. I am sure that these kinds of tax policies will continue to stick around; if for no other reason than to stir up class warfare. But as a means to achieving a sound fiscal policy, taxing the rich has been a bust.