There are scattered tax cuts in the fiscal forecast for 1978 in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, but they are likely to bring only temporary relief from the cold realities of government spending.
With a $138 million surplus in the state budget and an election coming in the fall, Maryland politicians are promising taxpayers some sort of windfall. Raising the standard deduction, lowering the state property tax and bolstering state aid to schools to mitigate pressure on local property taxes are favored by Acting Gov. Blair Lee.
Reduction - or at least rationalization - of Virginia's hodgepodge of local business taxes is on the agenda of state lawmakers and industrial recruiters. Elected on promises to hold government spending to natural revenue increases, Gov. John Dalton is not expected to propose major tax changes.
The District of Columbia has already nipped 10 cents a fifth from its liquor tax, effective this spring. Lower taxes on financial institutions and a two-tier property tax system favoring residential over commercial property are under consideration. Mayor Walter Washington, City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker and Council Finance Committee Chairman Marion Berry all want to be mayor and none of them is planning to run on a higher taxes platform.
The tax outlook in the district is comfused by the citys continuing budget crisis. Congress has still not approved the budget for the the fiscal year that began last November, let alone begun work on next year's tax needs.
Little action has been taken on recommendations produced by a year long study by the D.C. Tax Revision Commission.
The commission rejected the so-called "classified" property tax system, but a city council committee began hearing last week on the plan, which would tax business property at higher rates than residential real estate.
The commission called for reducing the gross receipts tax on banks and savings and loan associations in the city, which now pay higher taxes than their suburban competitors. It suggested extending the district's five-cent general sales tax to non-professional services, such as laundry and dry cleaners, barber and beauty shops.
Also under consideration in Washington is an anti-speculation real estate tax. Details remain to be woked out, but the idea is to take the profits out of speculation with what amounts to an excess capital gains tax on real estate profits.
Taxpayers in Washington and its suburbs would all pay a regional transit tax that is being discussed as an alternative to a commuter tax on incomes earned in the District by suburbanites. A transit tax that would produce tangible benefits for suburban taxpayers is considered more palatable politically than an outright commuter tax, but no one is likely to swallow the medicine this year.
Maryland's budget crisis is of a differnt sort - what to do with a $128 millions budget surplus expected to accumulate by July 1. There are as many answers as there are candidates for governor, and at last count there were seven of those.
The surplus is the result of the success of the Maryland state lottery, which is producing 40 per cent more money than predicted, and higher than anticipated collections from the state sales tax, which was raised a penny a year ago. Some lawmakers are suggesting rolling back the sale tax from 5 cents to 4, but most state budget makers say that's not the answer to a temporary oversupply of cash.
Gov. Lee has been dribbling out his solution for the past month and will drop the whole ball of wax in his budget message later this month. For starters, the governor wants to cut the Maryland property tax rate by 3 cents, to 20 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That would save $9 a year in taxes on a house assessed at $60,000.
State Comptroller Lou Goldstein suggests a bigger cut, whacking a dime off the state property tax, which goes to pay the interest on state debt. Even that kind of a cut - $30 on a $60,000 house - would not have a major impact on the total property tax bill, becaue of local taxes that amount to $2.89 per $100 in Montgomery County and $3.41 per $100 in Prince Georges County.
Less suggests attacking that problem with a $25 million increase in state aid to schools.
Less popular with local governments is his suggestion that property tax assessments by cut by 10 per cent. He wants to reduce rate from 50 per cent of actual value to 45 per cent, amend the state constitution's requirement for uniform assessments to allow a lower rate for owner occupied houses, and limit annual increases in assessments. Local officials argue that any reduction in assessments will soon have to be offset by higher tax rates.
Also suggested in Maryland is an increase in the standard deduction for the state income tax. At $500, Maryland's standard deduction is among the smallest in the nation. Lee would raise it to $1,500.
The gain would be bigger than that, because taxpayers cannot itemize deductions on their Maryland taxes unless they also itemize on the federal return. Many taxpayers who gain from using the standard deduction on federal taxes now lose because of the state's small standard deduction.
Virginia is likely to remain what it has become in recent years - a state close to the median in the nation in the tax burden it imposes on both businesses and individuals.
Statistics provided by a number of state and federal agencies show that Virginia reached its present status as a median tax burden state through a faster-than-average increase in both state and local taxes during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This trend has leveled off, however. In each of the last two sessions of the General Assembly, major tax proposals, including a severance tax on newly-mined coal, were defeated.
After the electtion last year of a new governor and 100-member House of Delegates, the government remains in the hands of a business-minded Republican executive and an overwhelmingly Democratic, but conservative, Assembly.
The proposal for busines tax relief has come from the state Revenue Resources and Economic Commission, a committee of legislators, local government officials and private citizens who have collected some interesting statistics but have never had much impact on state tax policy.
The commission's goal is eliminating the hodgepodge of gross receipts taxes levied on businesses and professionals by cities and counties throughout the state.
Recognizing that budget pressures on local governments make this impossible to achieve this year, the commission recommended tht these tax ceiling be placed on every $100 of gross receipts for four categories: contracting, 16 cents; retail sale, 20 cents; finance, real estate and professional, 66 cents; all other, 37 cents. In a majority of instances, these ceilings would be lower than existing tax rates. However, to lessen the impact on local government, the commission recommended that no city or county be forced to suffer an actual revenue reduction. Therefore, in localities where rates are higher than the recommended ceilings, revenue levels would be frozen until the rates that produce them fall to the suggested level.
A tax increase levied on beer wholesalers two years ago to help finance mental hospital and prison construction is scheduled to lapse this year unless the Assembly extends it for other purposes.
The increase raised the beer tax to 2.6 cents per 12-ounce container. Without new legislation, the levy will fall back to 2 cents July 1.
A more significant business tax reduction, the gradual cutback of the state gross receipts tax on utilities, will begin at the end of this year. The current rate of 3.5 per cent of gross income has been critcized as more burdensome than the 6 per cent corporate income tax levied on other businesses.
The Assembly responded to the complaints largely because of the realization that the tax is passed through to hard-pressed utility rate payers. Beginning in 1979, the levy will be reduced over five years to 2 per cent of gross income.
Retail businesses that collect state and local sales taxes for the government are seeking relief from a measure passed last year requiring them to speed up their payment of the collected taxes to the state. Some merchants claim this forces them to borrow money to cover taxes on credit purchases.
Real estate taxes are levied by the 136 cities and counties in Virginia, making levels uneven and future changes hard to predict. On average, however, real estate tax rates have remained stable in recent years. Actual taxes have risen with inflation land values as they are reappraised by local governments.