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Archive for January 15th, 2016

In recent years, I’ve argued that America’s corporate tax system must be very bad if companies are not only redomiciling in places like Cayman and Bermuda, but also inverting to countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

Well, the same thing happens at the state level. Yes, companies (as well as entrepreneurs and investors) usually move from high-tax states to low-tax states, with zero-income tax jurisdictions like Texas reaping a windfall of new jobs.

But when a big company like General Electric announces that it will move its headquarters from Connecticut to a state like Massachusetts, that’s a damning indictment of Connecticut. After all, Massachusetts doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a low-tax refuge.

The always-superb editorial page of the Wall Street Journal looks at the big-picture implications.

Hard to believe, but Connecticut was once a low-tax haven in the Northeast. Its business climate has grown so hostile in recent years, however, that General Electric on Wednesday announced that it will move its headquarters to Boston. When Taxachusetts becomes a reprieve, Governor Dan Malloy ought to know Connecticut has a problem.

Exactly.

And what’s really amazing is that Connecticut didn’t even have an income tax as recently as 1990.

But once politicians got the power to impose that levy, the state has been in a downward spiral.

And it doesn’t appear that the decline will end anytime soon.

… last summer…Connecticut’s legislature grabbed an additional $1.3 billion in tax hikes, the fifth increase since 2011. …The state’s $40.3 billion two-year budget boosted the top marginal tax rate on individuals earning more than $500,000 to 6.99% from 6.7% and 6.5% in 2010. Mr. Malloy also extended for the second time a 20% corporate surtax that his Republican predecessor Jodi Rell had imposed in 2009. …The tax hikes have failed to cure Connecticut’s chronic budget woes.

Of course they haven’t. Raising taxes to cure an over-spending problem is like trying to douse a fire with gasoline.

But the tax-happy politicians have one achievement. They’ve managed to drive the economy into the dumps.

Since 2010 the…State has recorded zero real GDP growth, the lowest in the nation save Louisiana (-0.7%) and Maine (-0.6%). Connecticut is one of only four states (Illinois, Vermont, West Virginia) whose populations have declined since 2012.

Notwithstanding all this bad economic news, politicians in Hartford continue to spend like there’s no tomorrow.

Over the next two years spending is set to rise by $1.5 billion, including $700 million in higher personnel costs. Pension payments are soaring. Connecticut’s pension system is 48% funded, third worst in the country after Illinois and Kentucky.

Good grief, as Charlie Brown might say. The bottom line is that the productive people who are left in Connecticut should make plans to leave before it’s too late.

By the way, there are two other noteworthy observations in the WSJ‘s editorial.

First, I like the fact that General Electric has escaped the fiscal hell-hole of Connecticut, but I’m not a fan of the company because it likes to feed at the public trough.

And, indeed, it will be getting special privileges from Massachusetts.

Mr. Immelt says GE, which has been headquartered in Fairfield since 1974, selected Boston after considering…a “package of incentives” valued at as much as $145 million.

Huh, whatever happened to the quaint notion that the laws should apply equally to everyone? Why should GE enjoy one set of rules while other companies labor under a different set of rules?

I imagine Voltaire is spinning in his grave.

Second, even though Massachusetts was foolish enough to engage in favoritism for GE, the state actually isn’t as bad as its reputation.

As the WSJ explains, it has a flat tax for households and it also has been cutting its corporate rate.

Massachusetts has the lowest taxes in the Northeast outside of New Hampshire… The Tax Foundation ranks Massachusetts’s business tax climate 25th in the country, ahead of Georgia (39), Connecticut (44), Rhode Island (45) and New York (49). Massachusetts has worked to shake its high-tax image by cutting its corporate rate to 8% from 9.5% and flat income tax to 5.15% from 5.3% in 2008. In the same period, Connecticut has raised its corporate rate to 9% from 7.5% and its top income tax rate to 6.99% from 5%.

Wow, I’m embarrassed that I used to live in Connecticut.

Though, in my defense, I was a kid when my family escaped from New York and Connecticut was a zero-income tax state when that happened.

Now, though, Connecticut merely serves as a bad example.

There are two broad lessons from this episode.

  1. A state that doesn’t have an income tax should never allow the adoption of that awful levy. I’m thinking specifically of the folks in the Pacific Northwest since some of the big spenders in the state of Washington are advocating for that levy. And add Wyoming and Alaska to that list since politicians in those states over-spent when energy prices were high and some of them are now pushing to impose an income tax since tax receipts from energy are no longer climbing.
  2. A state with a flat tax should never allow the introduction of multiple rates. It’s remarkable that Massachusetts has a flat tax (thanks to an old provision in the state’s Constitution), but the key lesson is that the flat tax has made it difficult for leftist politicians to raise the rate since all taxpayers would be adversely impacted (this is also why it’s been difficult for big spenders in Illinois to raise tax rates). In a system with graduated rates, by contrast, it’s much easier for politicians to play the divide-and-conquer game and selectively raise some tax rate.

I’ll close with one additional observation that this story is yet another example of why federalism is good.

We get to learn the damaging impact of high taxes and excessive spending thanks to the fact that we still have some government taking place at the state and local level.

And this explains why our statist friends want centralization. If there’s a one-size-fits-all policy of high taxes and wasteful spending, it’s much harder to move across national borders than it is to move across state borders. That insulates politicians (though not fully since there are varying amounts of tax competition between nations, both for investment and people) from the consequences of their reckless behavior.

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