In charting your spending for the next year, plan for the possibility that state and local taxes will go up. Legislators have raised taxes in at least 21 states, to replace lost federal revenues and cover the high social cost of the recession. Even more increases are coming down the pike.
A few states hope to hold their taxes level. Some taxes have actually been out or rebated -- for example, in Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas.
Your taxes may also have been cut if you live in a state with an income tax. Most state systems are coupled with the federal system, so when the Reagan administration cut taxes in 1981 and 1982, state income taxes went down, too. Fallout from the federal tax cut has cost states $600 million so far in lost revenues from business taxes and $100 million from personal taxes.
States are struggling to live on reduced budgets by slashing public employment and public services. But budget-cutting isn't enough. Revenues must be raised to cover essential public services.
Last year, state legislators approved $3.8 billion in higher taxes, a 10-year record, and now seem to be reaching for even more.
The biggest percentage increase, in the amount of money you're paying to state and local governments, comes in user fees and assessments.
These fees can cover a lot of ground. You might be paying more for garbage collection, library cards, emergency-room services at the hospital, state college tuition and transit fares. Homeowners might face special assessments for paving the road that runs past their house. It probably costs more to get a restaurant license, a dog license, and a driver's license.
There appears to be less resistance to these kinds of fees because each one, individually, is fairly small. As always, the ideal tax is one that's paid but never seen. You may not think of a price increase for a driver's license as a tax, but it is. And unlike the traditional taxes, most user fees are not deductible on your income-tax return.
"Public opinion polls suggest that the least obnoxious tax to the public is the sales tax," John Shannon of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations told my associate Virginia Wilson. Five states raised sales taxes last year. This year, increases are on the books, or under consideration, in 13 states.
Sales taxes are regressive in that they fall most heavily on those with the smallest incomes. Everyone has to pay them, even those who earn too little to be liable for income taxes.
But sales taxes fall only on consumption, not on savings. So the person with enough money to save part of his income pays proportionately less in sales taxes than the lower-income person who must spend everything he earns.
There's a clear pattern to how states raise money, Shannon says. It they need just a little money, they raise user fees. Next come gasoline taxes, then the "sin taxes" on cigarettes, alcohol and other amusements. A state in serious trouble turns to the sales tax, because that's where the big money is. States in the most desperate condition, like Michigan, turn to income taxes.
Here's the latest tax-hike count: New or higher income taxes were imposed in five states so far this year, corporate tax increases in six states, higher gasoline taxes in six states, higher tobacco taxes in eight states, higher liquor taxes in two states, and higher property taxes in one state. Unemployment taxes paid by employers may be raised in some states to help cover losses in the unemployment insurance system.
A few states are decoupling their tax system from the federal system, or at least thinking about it. State legislators would especially like to recapture the $600 million lost in business taxes, due to cuts at the federal level. But states are also concerned about their business image and want any decouplings to appear temporary.
The irony is that the most desperate states, with the worst business and employment conditions, are being forced to raise the greatest amounts of revenue in order to stay afloat. Yet adding higher business and personal taxes may push their economies even further into the hole. Without some help from the federal government, the downward spiral in the most afflicted states and cities will be hard to arrest.