The latest sign that Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature haven’t done enough for the state’s business climate comes in the Tax Foundation’s 2013 State Business Tax Climate Index.
Wisconsin ranks 43rd, the same as one year ago. The 43rd ranking comes from rankings of 32nd in corporate taxes, 46th in individual income taxes, 15th in state sales taxes, 23rd in unemployment insurance, and 33rd in property taxes.
The Tax Foundation notes:
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 tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. Wyoming, Nevada, and South Dakota have no corporate or individual income tax; Alaska has no individual income or state-level sales tax; Florida has no individual income tax; and New Hampshire and Montana have no sales tax.
The lesson is simple: a state that raises sufficient revenue without one of the major taxes will, all things being equal, have an advantage over those states that levy every tax in the state tax collector’s arsenal.
And Wisconsin certainly levies “every tax in the state tax collector’s arsenal.” Which is important because …
The modern market is characterized by mobile capital and labor, with all types of business, 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 in 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, such as raw materials or infrastructure or a skilled labor pool, matter, but a simple, sensible tax system can positively impact business operations with regard to these very resources. Furthermore, unlike changes to a state’s health care, transportation, or education system—which can take decades to implement—changes to the tax code can quickly improve a state’s business climate.
Of our high income taxes, the report notes:
The individual income tax systems in these states tend to have high tax rates and very progressive bracket structures. They generally fail to index their brackets, exemptions, and deductions for inflation, do not allow for deductions of foreign or other state taxes, penalize married couples filing jointly, and do not recognize LLCs and S corps.
I don’t know that any of those are the case in Wisconsin other than the high tax rates — 7.9 percent in the case of corporations, and 7.75 percent in the case of individuals. The truism that if you want less of something, tax it more, is demonstrated in the state’s low number of “rich” people and our substandard number of business starts and incorporations. Then again, the fact that state per-capita personal income growth has trailed the national average since the late 1970s demonstrates that aiming to tax upper-income people has deleterious effects down the income chain.
You may notice that the 2011–12 Legislature, despite being controlled by Republicans for most of the session, did not cut taxes. Tax incentive programs get poor reviews:
State lawmakers are always mindful of their states’ business tax climates but they are often 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. …
Lawmakers create 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 a woeful business tax climate. A far more effective approach is to systematically improve the business tax climate for the long term so as to improve the state’s competitiveness. When assessing which changes to make, lawmakers need to remember two rules:
1. 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). Thus a state with lower tax costs will be more attractive to business investment, and more likely to experience economic growth.
2. 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 geographic 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.
Unlike in the 1970s, when Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey enacted the Machinery and Equipment property tax deduction, Wisconsin Democrats today look at businesses as cash cows that can be taxed to unlimited levels without consequences. Experience proves otherwise. On the other hand, where are Republicans on tax issues? Why are substantial tax cuts not being proposed in GOP legislative campaigns today? Why were there no tax cuts — which should have been accompanied by actual budget cuts — in the 2011–13 state budget? Why vote for Republicans if their tax policies are in practice indistinguishable from their opposition?