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.

Despite record tax haul, CA legislators seek to raise rates

tax signWith a big tax surplus flowing into state coffers, California shattered records last year with a historic haul dwarfing those of other large states around the country. This year, meanwhile, legislators planned still further increases.

“During the 2013-14 fiscal year that ended last June,” the Sacramento Bee reported, “California collected $138.1 billion in taxes of all kinds, 16 percent of all state taxes collected in the nation and more than the next two states, New York and Texas, combined.” The majority of the sum came from personal and corporate income taxes, according to the Bee.

Money maze

At first blush, California’s cash-in promised straightforward results. “Through the end of March, state general fund revenue was about $1.3 billion ahead of projections,” Jason Sisney, California’s chief deputy legislative analyst, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “April revenue is likely to add at least $1 billion more than projected.”

But thanks to the Golden State’s arcane fiscal requirements, revenue was set to be apportioned in counterintuitive ways:

“Under the state’s budget formulas, ‘virtually all or more than all of the additional revenue, relative to projections, may be required to go to schools and other statutory and budgetary commitments, such as the state’s rainy-day fund and debt payments,’ Sisney said. As a result, ‘The amount of extra state money available for other purposes could be little or nothing, and in some scenarios, reducing non-school spending on programs could be required.’”

Tax watchers, the Chronicle noted, paid special attention to a surge in taxes amassed through payroll withholding. In a report cited by the Chronicle, Standard & Poor’s called the increase “a sign that California’s economy is firing on all cylinders.” But that interpretation did not extend to the Golden State’s self-employed economy, since entrepreneurial taxpayers don’t have their taxes withheld in advance by an employer.

New hikes foreseen

Despite the influx of revenue, legislators have not been satisfied with tax rates. Assembly Bill 464, introduced by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, “would give local governments the power to add another 1 percent to the combined state-local sales tax rate with voter approval,” the Bee reported.

Senate Bill 16, meanwhile, introduced by state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would hike several of California’s car-related taxes and fees. “The measure would increase the state gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon, raise the state vehicle annual registration fee by $35, and levy a $100 per year surcharge on zero-emission vehicles that don’t use gasoline,” The Bond Buyer noted. “Beall’s plan also would phase in a 3.5 percent increase in state vehicle license fees over five years.”

On at least one issue where elected officials remain divided, the prospect of higher taxes has deepened. Although the push to legalize marijuana in California would presumably bring more tax revenue to Sacramento, Colorado’s uneven experience with the process has led to increasing reticence among Californians who don’t want to struggle with similar problems. As CalWatchdog noted previously, Coloradan legislators have divided over what to do with the excess tax revenue.

Up in smoke

marijuana-leafThe indirect tax consequences of legal marijuana could also mount. At a recent panel convened by the Northern Californian chapter of the ACLU, “Paul Gallegos, a former district attorney in the marijuana-growing heartland of Humboldt County, noted that a pot plant needs 6 gallons of water each day over its 150-day growing cycle,” according to ABC News. Amid California’s protracted drought, water rates and rationing penalties could be dramatically effected.

Finally, more comfortable on more familiar ground, some legislators have re-trained their attention on increasing taxes on tobacco products. State Sen. Richard Pan, D-San Francisco, “wants to raise California’s tobacco tax by $2 a pack, to bring in $1.5 billion a year for smoking prevention and smoking-related medical costs now borne by taxpayers through Medi-Cal, the state’s healthcare program for the poor,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

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