Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 

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Should DC Raise Its Sales Tax to Help End Homelessness?

April 6, 2015

As you may have read, Mayor Bowser has proposed a quarter of a percent increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax to raise revenues for homeless services. The new rate would be 6%, as it was from mid-2009 until October 2013.

The bump-up would raise an estimated $22.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year and slightly more in each of the three out-years the budget must project. About $18.7 million would move the District toward the goal of ending homelessness.

One of those quick, easy Washington Post online articles asks whether Bowser should be increasing the sales tax — quick and easy because it consists mainly of imported tweets. But it poses a good question. And we’re bound to hear more answers than we already have.

Here’s how I see the issue at this point.

For the Sales Tax Increase

The best argument in favor of the increase is that the District needs more money to reduce homelessness — let alone to make it “brief, rare, and non-recurring,” as the new strategic plan intends.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute gives us an itemized account of $12.7 million in spending on plan priorities that the sales tax increase would apparently cover.* The remainder of the $18.7 million would give about 6,000 families a yearlong reprieve from the impending cut-off of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Many are homeless already. But the reprieve is still a fair, sensible preventive measure if ever there was one. It would be even more effective (and fairer) if the budget rolled back at least some portion of the earlier benefits cuts that have left the families with a pittance.

Against the Sales Tax Increase

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was quick off the dime. “When revenues are growing by 3 percent,” he told reporters, “you don’t need to be raising taxes.” This, however, assumes that projected revenuessans tax increases, will be enough to pay for all critical needs.

Tackling the large, complex homelessness problem is, of course, only one of them. Perhaps Councilmembers can carve out sufficient funding from other programs, but neither he nor anyone else knows that now. And it’s not what he’s saying.

What he also says, however, raises what’s probably the most significant objection to the sales tax increase — and to sales taxes generally. They’re regressive, i.e., take larger shares of income from lower-income people than from those who are wealthier.

The District’s sales tax isn’t as regressive as some. I recall my shock when I moved from Berkeley, California to St. Louis and discovered that I had to pay tax on food I bought at the grocery store and on over-the-counter medicines.

The proposed increase would nevertheless require anyone who shops in the District to pay somewhat more for items that are also basic necessities — toilet paper, soap, light bulbs, shoes, etc. Most shoppers who’d take the hit are District residents.

DCFPI’s Executive Director, Ed Lazere, puts the best face on this he can, telling a Washington Times reporter that the effect on families is likely to be modest — a point the Institute’s budget brief repeats.

But, he adds, “All things being equal in a city that is marked by increasing income inequality, it probably would have been reasonable to raise revenues by asking those with the highest incomes to pay a little bit more.”

Alternative Revenue Raisers

Now, I don’t have anything like the expertise to say how the District could raise at least as much revenue as the proposed sales tax increase in a more progressive way. But I can draw on concepts experts have floated.

You who follow this blog know I’m about to get on my hobby horse and cite services that are still exempt from the sales tax. All but six in the long list DCFPI compiled in 2010 still are. And the vast majority of them can hardly be viewed as basic necessities.

Our property taxes are also worth a look. We have some extraordinarily pricey homes here in the District that are taxed at the same relatively low rate as small, unrenovated homes in our as-yet ungentrified neighborhoods.

And the tax collected doesn’t capture their actual increasing value because residential property tax increases are capped. Owners who live in those homes most of the year also benefit from reduced assessments.

I understand the need to craft a property tax increase carefully so as to protect low-income owners who bought their homes many years ago, before housing prices soared. But I think it could be done.

What surely could be done is to repeal the recent property tax break for seniors with incomes far from low. This beneficiary would willingly forfeit it to help fellow residents with no homes whatever.

There are probably other — and perhaps better — alternatives. But whatever the DC Council may consider will raise outcries from some interested parties. That’s just how revenue policymaking works. As former Senator Russell Long quipped many years ago, “[D]on’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

In the immediate case, I hope that fellow behind the tree won’t be a mother who already can’t afford to buy enough diapers.

That said, it may be wrong to frame this issue as an either-or choice. DCFPI cites several priorities that could require more revenues than the sales tax hike would raise. Two speak directly to homelessness — the rollback of the TANF benefits cuts and additional locally-funded housing vouchers.

More generally, I suspect that dedicated sales tax revenues will fall far short of the funds needed to end long-term homelessness in the District within five years — even if budgets continue to ensure $100 million a year for the Housing Production Trust Fund.

I note that the Mayor’s State of the District address pushes the target year forward to 2025. Doubt this is just a slip by her speechwriter.

* As DCFPI notes, the Mayor’s budget includes $40 million to construct some smaller shelters — a step toward replacing the DC General family shelter. The money would be borrowed, however, not drawn from sales tax revenues.