Sales Tax the Only State Tax to Decrease in 2017

Taxes“Four years ago, voters approved Proposition 30, which raised the income tax significantly on the wealthiest Californians and raised the sales tax a tiny bit on everyone,” Capital Public Radio recently recalled. “That quarter-of-a-cent increase equated to paying an additional $0.01 on a $4 coffee; $1 on a $400 television; and $100 on a $40,000 car.” But on Election Day 2016, that changed. “Voters extended Proposition 30’s income tax increases in [November’s] presidential election with Proposition 55 — but that initiative allowed the Prop. 30 sales tax hike to expire.”

The shift means California’s sales tax is the state’s only tax to be decreased this year, from 7.5 percent to 7.25 percent. As the U-T reported, “Some local jurisdictions tack on their own assessments, so residents in certain areas will still pay more than the statewide rate.” In certain parts of the state, like the San Francisco Bay Area, voters allowed substantial increases.

From spending to taxing

Prop. 30 ushered in the so-called Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012, as California voters threw their support behind increased spending on state education and benefits. “The act increased sales tax and income tax rates to help maintain funding levels for public schools and colleges and pay for programs for seniors and low-income families,” U-T San Diego noted. “The additional revenue also provided local governments with a constitutional guarantee of funding to comply with a new state law that shifted lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.”

Some municipalities, particularly in parts of the state that joined a Democrat-led initiative to hike minimum wages, opted to raise more funds. “Bay Area voters this year generously approved taxing themselves in large numbers — and they’ll feel the pinch at the cash register in 2017 as local sales taxes across Silicon Valley take effect even as a state tax expires,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

“As California cities struggle to fund basic city services like police, fire protection, libraries and parks, they’re increasingly turning to voters for help. And voters this year said ‘yes’ to tax hikes in at least eight Bay Area cities in exchange for fewer potholes, less traffic and more cops, including San Jose, Newark, Martinez and Pleasant Hill.”

Pension pinch

For years, public pension costs have steadily built pressure on Golden State cities. In some areas, the problem has become egregious: The city of El Monte, in Southern California, shelled out 28 percent of its general fund to pay retirement costs. “Among California’s 10 largest cities, only San Jose paid as much toward retirement costs relative to its general fund. Los Angeles spends 20 percent of its general fund on retirement costs,” the Los Angeles Times revealed. “El Monte’s outsize pension bill weighs heavily on the San Gabriel Valley city of 116,000, where half the residents were born outside the United States and a quarter live below the poverty line.”

Meanwhile, CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund, has struggled with its own imbalanced budgets. “CalPERS has 65 cents for every dollar that it needs to provide pension benefits for almost two million people,” Fox Business recently recalled. “CalPERS pension debt is roughly $164 billion and mostly likely will grow larger in coming years.”

In an effort to come to grips with the problem, the fund reduced its forecasted return on investment from 7.5 to 7 percent. “It has been paying out $5 billion more a year in benefits than it’s receiving in contributions and investment returns, not a sustainable trend,” the Fresno Bee noted in an editorial. “With investment returns averaging 4.6 percent during the past decade, some experts urged CalPERS to reduce its forecast even more.” But that would risk pushing more California cities toward bankruptcy — or toward even higher local taxes.

This piece was originally published by

New Bill Would Allow Cities to Ratchet Up Sales Taxes Even Higher

LAO Sales Tax State Comparison ChartAlthough Californians already pay some of the highest sales taxes in the nation, a bill that recently passed the Assembly paves the way for the sales tax to go even higher. Assembly Bill 464 increases to 3 percent (from the current 2 percent cap) the maximum sales tax rate that can be levied by local governments.

That potential 3 percent sales tax levied by cities and counties is in addition to the statewide 7.5 percent sales tax, which could result in a combined 10.5 percent tax in some areas of the state. Tax hikes require majority voter approval for general purpose levies and two-thirds approval for special purposes.

The average state and local combined sales tax in California is 8.5 percent, according to a recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The lowest rate of 7.5 percent predominates in rural counties, while the highest rates are in urban areas. Residents in eight cities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County are currently paying a 10 percent sales tax because their counties have received exemptions from the 2 percent cap.

“AB464 is about local control and flexibility,” said the bill’s author Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, on the Assembly floor May 14. “It gives local voters the ability to raise revenue to fund important public services, including transportation, public safety and libraries. This bill is crucial, because if just one city in a county reaches the [2 percent] cap, then the entire county is precluded from having voters raise any additional taxes, hindering key transportation projects or attempts to enhance public safety.

LAO Sales Tax Chart“As a result, a flurry of legislation has been signed into law creating individual cap exceptions across the state. AB464 reduces the need for this one-off legislation by lifting the cap statewide. Please join me in granting voters the ability to raise sufficient revenue to fund public services locally in California.”

There was no debate on the bill, which passed along party lines 45-31. It’s supported by California’s counties and their transportation commissions along with government employee unions.

The California Taxpayers Association issued an opposition “floor alert” on the bill that was signed by numerous business and local taxpayer organizations. It states that “California already has the highest sales and use tax rate in the country,” and provides three arguments against raising the cap:

  • Increases the cost of doing business. Businesses face a significant sales and use tax burden in California, and business purchases account for roughly 40 percent of all sales and use tax collected by state and local governments. California is one of the few states that requires businesses to pay sales and use tax on manufacturing and R&D equipment bought and used in the state, making California a very expensive state to operate in, particularly when the sales tax rate is 10 percent in some California cities.
  • The sales and use tax is a regressive tax that impacts California’s most vulnerable residents, making it more difficult for them to budget and purchase everyday necessities. California’s economy is improving, resulting in improved revenue collections this year. Now is the wrong time to ask taxpayers, especially those that can least afford it, to spend more of their income to pay taxes.
  • Raises the sales tax rate to 11 percent in some areas. [T]he Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority imposes a 0.5 percent tax in excess of current limitations for all of Los Angeles County. This bill would authorize this district to increase its rate to 11 percent. This level of taxation is excessive, and exacerbates the problems described above.

That last argument may be in error. The bill caps the city/county-levied sales tax to 3 percent above the statewide rate, which would equal a maximum of 10.5 percent even for districts with current 0.5 percent cap exceptions.

The immediate beneficiaries of AB464 are Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, which have all reached the 2 percent limit, as well as Marin, San Diego and Sonoma counties, which are near the 2 percent limit, according to the Assembly’s legislative analysis.

California’s sales tax brought in $48 billion in 2013–14. About half of it goes to the state government’s general fund, making it the second largest general fund source after the income tax, which accounts for two-thirds. One percent of the sales tax goes to cities’ and counties’ general funds; the rest is aimed at specific programs such as public safety and transportation.

LAO Sales Tax Increase Chart

The statewide sales tax rate began at 2.5 percent in 1933. Although the tax rate has tripled since then and its revenue has increased at a 7.3 percent annual rate, the sales tax has actually decreased as a share of total state revenue. “In the 1950s, the sales tax accounted for the majority of General Fund revenue, while the personal income tax contributed less than one-fifth,” the LAO report said. “Since then, personal income tax revenue has grown rapidly due to growth in real incomes, the state’s progressive rate structure and increased capital gains.”

In 1969, cities and counties were granted the authorization to pass their own sales tax increases, mostly benefiting transportation improvements.

Although not nearly as volatile a revenue source as the income tax, revenue from the sales tax can vary significantly depending on the state of the economy. In 1974-75 sales tax revenue increased 22 percent, but in 2008-09 it declined 10 percent. Overall, however, adjusting for increased rate changes, inflation and population, sales tax revenue has remained roughly constant per capita since 1970–71, according to the LAO.

AB464 will next be considered by the Senate Rules Committee.

Why Taxing Services Is Bad for California

With last fall’s election of former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg to the State Senate, and the introduction of his Senate Bill 8, there is renewed interest in “tax reform” at the California Legislature and specifically expanding the sales tax base to include services. This call for “reform” is premised on the belief that it will address “volatility” in our state’s finances.

However, “volatility” – fluctuations in General Fund revenues – comes instead from our state’s over-reliance on income taxes (primarily stock options, capital gains and dividends) paid by the top income earners (the top 1 percent generate over 40 percent of PIT revenue). Taxing services will not bring stability to the state’s overall revenue streams.

Moreover, a tax on services is a direct tax on labor. California already has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation according to the U.S. Department of Labor in December. Taxing services that are proposed by SB8 will tax services that rise and fall with the economy, but exempt services that are less impacted by the general economy (i.e., medical care and education).

Taxing services has been considered by the state Legislature on multiple occasions, most recently in two different bills in 2012. Those measures were the subject of intense lobbying in the State Capitol.  Assembly Bill 2540, proposed by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, would have taxed specific services that the author believed would be used only by top income earners in the state.

On the other hand, AB1963, by former Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, initially took a broader approach, but ultimately made it through the Legislature to simply have the Legislative Analyst study the taxation of services in this state.  However, Governor Brown vetoed that study bill. No measures were considered during the past two years.

In general, extending the sales tax to services in California could take several forms, such as taxing all services or a select number of them, and possibly lowering the rate for all purchases, although Senator Hertzberg does not contemplate that approach in SB8. Instead, he intends to generate $10 billion annually in new taxes and primarily spend these new tax revenues on education.

Current California law, contained in the Sales and Use Tax Law that is administered by the State Board of Equalization, imposes a tax on retailers measured by the gross receipts from the sale of tangible personal property sold at retail in this state, or on the storage, use or other consumption in this state of tangible personal property purchased from a retailer for storage, use or other consumption in this state.

The fundamental argument of those advocating for a tax on services is that California’s economy has changed dramatically from one based upon manufacturing products to one based on providing services.  As such, they argue the sales/use tax does not generate sufficient revenues because it is not taxing services, which account for a large majority of the state’s economic activity. Because of this, proponents argue, our state’s tax system has not “kept up with the times.”  Some even call the lack of a tax on services to be “unfair and unjust.”

However, taxing services would be bad for California’s business climate and would unnecessarily increase state tax revenues despite the fact that we have one of the highest personal income and corporate income tax rates in the nation. To make matters worse, our base sales/use tax rate is the highest in the nation.

California currently imposes a tax on a few services (e.g., printing and fabrication). In fact, only a handful of states tax more than 10 services. Only four states tax all services (Hawaii, New Mexico, South Dakota and West Virginia), and those are not major competitor states to California. Hawaii is the only state that taxes all professional services, with New Mexico and South Dakota taxing a number of professional services.

Several states imposed taxes on services, only to repeal them shortly thereafter (Florida and Michigan).  Maryland and Massachusetts actually repealed their services tax legislation before it went into effect. It is also important to note the entire tax structure of those states.  For example, Delaware taxes 142 listed services. However, Delaware is one of five states that does not impose a sales/use tax on tangible property.  Washington State taxes 152 listed services. However, Washington is one of four states with no personal income or corporate taxes.

We believe there are numerous shortcomings to taxing services in this state. As the state Board of Equalization has pointed out, as well as the Legislative Analyst, there are a number of policy considerations to take into account in considering whether to tax services in California.  Key among the issues raised is the administrative feasibility of such a proposal.  It will be difficult for both business owners and the state BOE to properly identify and track the information required. For example, there are thousands of businesses in this state that are not registered with the BOE because they do not currently have sales/use tax collection and reporting obligations to the state.

Moreover, the BOE notes that taxing services may create “perverse incentives.” The BOE explains that taxing a specific service might encourage consumers to purchase the service from out-of-state providers, thereby creating a competitive disadvantage for California businesses. The more expensive the service, the more in taxes that would be paid which, in turn, will create a stronger incentive to move the business out-of-state.

Furthermore, the BOE and LAO note the general call for avoiding the taxation of services used primarily by businesses. They contend that most economists and tax experts agree that states should avoid expanding the sales tax to cover services used primarily by businesses because any sales tax paid by a business will be factored into the prices it charges for goods and services, which would also potentially be subject to tax, thereby creating “a tax on a tax” scheme.

In addition, California’s existing sales tax law is inherently regressive because lower-income individuals typically spend a larger percentage of their earnings on taxable goods. By expanding the sales tax base to include services, the state’s sales tax will become more regressive as many of the services to be taxed will be paid for by lower-income citizens.

Moreover, a tax on services would harm those companies that have to contract for services, but not affect those that can provide the same services in-house. Small businesses, which most often contract for support services, would be forced to pay sales taxes. As a result, the tax burden would fall more on small and mid-sized businesses.

Finally, this taxing services proposal has to be put in the context of all the other major costs of doing business in this state. Employers in California are already facing significant increased costs of doing business due to increased personal income and sales taxes under Proposition 30, higher workers’ compensation rates, higher minimum wage, reduced federal unemployment insurance credit, higher energy costs, and increased costs due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. California has the highest personal income tax rate, highest state sales tax rate, highest corporate taxes in the western U.S., and the second highest gas tax in the nation.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the government relations firm of Aprea & Micheli Inc.

City of Stanton Proposes Higher Taxes Instead of Cutting Pay and Benefits

On November 4th, voters in Stanton, California, will be asked to vote on a 1 percent sales tax increase, which if approved will raise their sales tax to 9 percent – the highest in Orange County. Nestled in the heart of Orange County, tiny Stanton, a city of barely three square miles in size with a population in 2012 of 38,915 residents, is an unlikely candidate for the spotlight, when California’s local ballots are about to be inundated with over 140 local tax increases affecting many cities and counties that are ten times bigger. But Stanton is ground zero in a battle over how to manage municipal budget deficits, because if their voters approve this tax increase, cities throughout Orange County will follow suit.

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Stanton currently only retains 1 percent (one-eighth) of the 8 percent sales tax they currently collect. According to Stanton’s Consolidated Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year ended 6-30-2013 (page 9), their total sales tax revenue for that year was $3,683,199. If they increase their sales tax rate from 8 percent to 9.0 percent, they should double the amount of sales tax collections retained by the city. A spokesperson for the city of Stanton confirmed they project the new sales tax will add $3.1 million to their projected annual sales tax revenues. How does that compare to their spending?

According to Stanton’s “Measure GG,” the city “now faces a $1.8 million structural budget deficit.” This means the sales tax increase is expected to eliminate their budget deficit with $1.3 million left over. But if you evaluate Stanton’s expenditures, there is an alternative to new taxes. How does the city spend most of their money?

To answer this, again, look no further than the “Whereas” section of Measure GG. The third “Whereas” states “public safety is a top priority in Stanton and represents over 70 percent of the City’s General Fund budget, and without a local funding source the City will be forced to significantly cut public safety services.”

It’s quite clear that Stanton has already cut everything else. Based on information reported to the California State Controller’s Office, in 2012, the City of Stanton had 26 full-time non-safety personnel. Their average base pay was $74,146 per year, with negligible overtime, and “lump sum” payments averaging $4,700 per year, mostly to management. The lowest full-time regular rate of base pay was $42,359 for an administrative clerk. When you pile on the employer payments for retirement health care (average per year $8,691) and for their 2 percent at 55 pensions (average per year $15,693), the total pay and benefits for Stanton’s 26 non-safety employees in 2012 averaged $104,990. Nice work if you can get it. But it represents less than 18 percent of Stanton’s estimated direct personnel costs.

Finding information as to just how much Stanton pays for police and fire protection is not easy, but a reasonably accurate estimate is possible. According to Stanton’s city website under “Fire Services, we learn “there are a total of 21 firefighters who serve the City of Stanton.” Under “Police Services,” we learn “the Sheriff’s Department provides 44 staff members to the City of Stanton.” If we make just one assumption – that the rates of pay earned by the sheriffs and firefighters assigned to Stanton are representative of the rates of pay earned by all Orange County sheriffs and firefighters, we can estimate how much Stanton incurs in direct personnel costs for public safety. Pay for Orange County sheriffs can be found using 2012 data reported by Orange County to the CA State Controller. Pay for Orange County firefighters can be found from 2013 data recently obtained by the California Policy Center directly from the Orange County Fire Authority. Here goes:

OC Public Safety

Based on the data and assumptions as noted, on average, Stanton’s 21 firefighters earn a direct pay and benefits package of $217,956 per year; Stanton’s 44 sheriffs earn an average direct pay and benefits package of $186,682 per year. The source data used for these calculations and others cited in this post can be downloaded here “Stanton_2014_Statistics.xlsx” and readers are invited to point out any errors in calculations or reasoning therein.

There are a lot of takeaways here. For example, if Stanton were to join with other Orange County cities who contract for their police and fire protection and negotiate a 14 percent decrease to the average total pay and benefits their police and firefighters earn, they would eliminate their structural deficit of $1.8 million – and their firefighters would still earn average pay plus benefits, after the reduction, of $187,285 per year, and their sheriffs would still earn average pay plus benefits, after the reduction, of $160,412 per year. The average household income in Stanton during 2012 was $48,146.

A final observation – CalPERS has announced a 50 percent increase in required annual pension contributions, to be phased in between now and 2017. If Orange County’s independent pension system follows suit, and there is no evidence their financial imperatives differ significantly from CalPERS, then Stanton’s annual required pension contributions will increase by $2.2 million per year – nearly all of that for public safety. So even if Measure GG passes, the projected surplus of $1.3 million will probably be more than offset by increased pension contributions. Expect more taxes, or start cutting pay and benefits.

It is always important to emphasize that public safety employees deserve to be paid a premium to compensate for the risks they take to protect the public. But Stanton’s citizens and elected officials, and their counterparts in cities throughout Orange County, will have to decide where to draw the line on that premium. Perhaps the facts should speak for themselves.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.