Legislature Gearing Up for Tax Reform Debate

Tennessee Republicans are flush with even more power in the General Assembly after the 2014 general election, and members of the expanded supermajorities in both dens of the statehouse are sure that one thing’s for certain: there’s no time like the present to talk about tax cuts.

There’s some disagreement, though, about which ones to go after first.

The two biggest targets are the Hall tax on investment earnings and Tennessee’s highest-in-the-country sales tax.

While many of the Volunteer State’s conservative Republicans favor doing away with the Hall tax, some of the party’s legislative leadership have instead made populist arguments in favor chipping away at the state’s sales tax. Over the past several years since losing majority-party status, that’s been a priority as well for Democrats, who charge the tax hits Tennessee’s poor the hardest. And as pitiful as their numbers are in the Legislature, Democrats could play a role in helping shape the discussion, particularly in the House.

While some Republicans have in the past balked at discussing cuts to the state’s general sales tax — or the tax on food — due to fears that its reduction would be a potential step toward enacting a state income tax, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he hopes a recently passed constitutional ban on taxing Tennesseans’ income would change the discussion.

“Every time since I’ve been here we’ve tried to have a discussion about the state’s revenue and expenses, people say ‘Oh, it’s Trojan Horse for the income tax,'” the Collierville Republican told reporters last week. However, the overwhelming passage of Amendment 3 on Nov. 4, a change in the Tennessee Constitution that expressly prohibits the enactment of income taxes at the state or local level, “should silence those critics,” said Norris.

In the wake of two-thirds of Tennessee voters approving the amendment, Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed legislation earlier this month aimed at, over the next three years, entirely phasing out the Hall Income tax — a six percent tax on income received from investments over $1250 a year for individuals making more than $33,000 a year.

In response, Norris and state Rep.Gerald McCormick — the majority leaders in both legislative chambers, who routinely carry legislation for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam — filed a proposal to reduce the state sales tax from 7 percent to 6.75 percent.

Getting rid of the Hall Tax would cut about $260 million from the annual budget. Likewise, McCormick told the Times Free Press, the proposed sales tax cut would reduce annual state revenue by about the same.

Norris referred to his proposal as one of “the bookends” of the greater tax reform discussion.

“The bill was filed, so I filed a bill. Do you want to cut $260 million in revenue for these people, or $260 million revenue for all people? It sort of frames the issue,” Norris said last week.

But while two of the state’s top fiscal conservative groups generally support reducing the tax burden of all Tennesseans’, they’re standing firm on their particular support for specifically doing away with the the Hall tax first — and they say that ought to be lawmakers’ first priority.

Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity is “committed to assisting in the repeal of the Hall Income Tax,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Tori Venable. “Repealing this regressive tax will help our state as a whole, not just those who will benefit from the tax cut. The assurance of the Hall Income Tax repeal will help our state recruit more businesses, increasing job growth and economic output,” she wrote in an email to TNReport.

Lindsay Boyd, policy director for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a 10-year-old Nashville-based free-market think tank, told TNReport via email that, first and foremost, the Hall Tax has to go. It “deters Tennessee families from settling in our state and small business entrepreneurs from investing in our economy,” Boyd said. She added that chipping away at the sales tax is a good idea, but it’s not going to show immediate results and definitely shouldn’t detract from the Hall tax discussion.

“A minuscule cut to the sales tax, as proposed by Rep. McCormick and Sen. Norris, may be a discussion we should resume once we free Tennesseans from the worry of having their hard earned dollars punitively and heftily taxed by the Hall tax on investment income- remembering that 40 percent of those who pay the Hall income tax earn less than $50,000 per year,” Boyd said.

Last session’s House GOP Caucus chairman, Franklin Rep. Glen Casada, told TNReport he favors prioritizing Hall tax elimination. Eliminating it as quickly as possible is an “excellent idea,” he said, because it would attract senior citizens to the state.

“It’s a wise, prudent financial move,” said Casada,who added that it’s unfair to ding people who’ve “played by the rules” and have saved money for retirement — and are not relying on government assistance.

Casada said he favors reducing taxes in general — but wants to begin with getting rid of the Hall tax, “and then start cutting sales tax on food.”

For an alternative perspective — or another tax-cutting idea to add to the mix — look no further than the House majority leader.

McCormick told TNReport this week that he thinks franchise and excise taxes should be looked at too. “I just think we need to look at all of them at the same time, and then decide if we can afford to cut taxes who we want to cut them for,” he said.

McCormick added that he was concerned cutting the Hall tax would “disproportionately” benefit higher income Tennesseans. The Legislature should “look at something that might also help those that are on the bottom rungs of the income levels.”

Haslam has suggested any legislators interested in cutting their constituents taxes should also be looking for cuts to make in state expenses. “I believe in cutting taxes. We’ve cut taxes since we’ve been here. We also believe in balancing the budget. And I think it’s important when you’re talking making any changes to revenue in the state, what are the commensurate changes you’re going to make in the expense structure as well?” Haslam said earlier this month.

  • James White

    Lower Taxes Through Less Government.