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Indiana

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    Police say preliminary test results show that a central Indiana sheriff’s deputy had a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit to drive when he was involved in a weekend crash.
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  • Judges to visit schools around state
     INDIANAPOLIS – Judges from Indiana’s trial and appellate courts will pass out pocket Constitutions to schoolchildren Wednesday in observance of Constitution Day.
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Locally
Indiana lawmakers passed a modest income tax cut in 2013. But it hasn’t gone into effect yet.
The state individual income tax rate will drop 5 percent over four years. The first reduction, from 3.4 percent to 3.3 percent, happens in 2015. It will decrease again to 3.23 percent in 2017. Gov. Mike Pence had sought twice the relief in half the time. An average taxpayer might save $1.50 a week under the plan.
Indiana has a flat tax rate.
The state’s unemployment trust fund has been paying out more in benefits than it received from taxes since 2000. The imbalance was eroding the trust fund surplus even before the recession hit and swept away the remaining balance. Indiana legislators in 2011 passed a large tax increase for businesses to help balance the fund. Some changes were made to how benefits are paid out, but the benefits themselves were not cut.
No legislative moves have been made on the minimum wage.
– Niki Kelly, The Journal Gazette

States risking deeper wealth gap

Possible side effect of tax, spending cuts to jolt growth

– Lawmakers in many states have been trying to boost their post-recession economies by cutting income taxes, curbing aid to the long-term jobless or holding down the minimum wage. Some have pursued all of these steps.

Whether such policies will spur businesses to expand as hoped isn’t yet clear. But collectively, the actions could ease the financial burden for the states’ most affluent residents while reducing the safety net for those at the bottom.

The shift may also contribute to a trend that is prompting growing national concern: the widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. The divergence has developed over four decades and accelerated in recent years.

Economic statistics show that incomes for the top 1 percent of U.S. households soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, yet inched up an average of 0.4 percent for those making less.

Many economists are sounding alarms that the income gap, greater now than at any time since the Depression, is hurting the economy by limiting growth in consumer spending.

Yet those concerns aren’t resonating in some states. Last year, at least 10 states passed income tax cuts targeted at businesses or those in the top individual brackets. Several more already have cut taxes this year, including Democratic-led New York and Republican-led Oklahoma. Yet over the past three years, nearly one-fifth of the states have reduced unemployment benefits, and more cutbacks are under consideration.

The theory is that business owners are more likely to hire, expand and drive economic growth when their own financial burdens are eased. But others contend that formula comes with side effects.

“What’s happening at the state level is increasingly important, and, to many eyes, it appears to be moving things in one direction – toward greater inequality,” said Matthew Gardner, executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington tax research group.

The once-obscure income gap has become an issue in the 2014 elections as Democrats and Republicans differ over the best way to ensure that America fulfills its promise as a land of opportunity.

Economists point to a variety of factors contributing to the gap, from the shift toward foreign manufacturing to a growth in single-parent households. Federal policies also come into play.

But state governments play a role, too.

Since the mid-1970s, states as a whole have cut their top individual income tax rates by nearly one-fourth, while boosting state sales tax rates by almost half, according to an Associated Press analysis. That has meant lower taxes for those earning the most and a bigger proportionate tax bite for those who spend more of their income on retail sales. Vermont, for example, has cut its top personal income tax rate from 17.5 percent to less than 9 percent while doubling its sales tax rate to 6 percent.

At the same time, states have scaled back some of the aspects of the financial safety net that keep low-income people out of poverty. The inflation-adjusted value of state welfare payments has been dropping in every state except Maryland and Wyoming and – even with federal food stamps included – leaves recipients below the poverty level in all states.

Amy Jennewein, a divorced mother of three, came to the Missouri Capitol this year to implore lawmakers to raise the minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $10. Instead, the Republican-led legislature voted to gradually cut the top individual income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent and referred a three-quarter-cent sales tax increase to the ballot. It also curbed unemployment benefits.

“The middle class is disappearing – that’s what it feels like,” said Jennewein, who works two jobs at a preschool and a grocery store to support her family at poverty level.

“Every single day, I feel it’s getting worse.”

As the safety net shrinks, the chance that residents will be impoverished at some point has grown.

The percentage of people ages 35 to 45 in poverty rose by one-third from 1988 to 2008 compared with the previous two decades, according to research by Mark Rank, a social welfare professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Folks are getting less in terms of redistribution on the bottom end, and folks are getting more in terms of tax cuts on the top end,” Rank said.

The last time the income gap was this wide was in the Roaring ’20s, when government did little to redistribute income. That changed after the Great Depression, when many states began using income taxes to improve public education, prevent poverty and add services to boost the quality of life.

But business groups began protesting their growing share of the burden.

In Missouri this year, business leaders stood beside GOP lawmakers at news conferences before they enacted an income tax cut with a special break for many business owners.

Jack Lonsinger, who employs about 20 people at a carbon recycling business near Kansas City, said he would put the eventual tax savings toward the purchase of new equipment.

“We use the money we get back to invest – it’s nothing we’re going to stick in our pocket,” he said.

Income inequality among households has grown by 13 percent over the past several decades in Missouri. But state officials who are pushing for tax cuts said they aren’t seeking to exacerbate the gap and, in some cases, weren’t aware of it.

“The ultimate goal is to increase our state’s economy and get it flowing in a better direction,” said Missouri state Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican.

The long-running debate over the effect of reducing taxes on economic growth is unresolved. Though taxes are a factor in business expansions, the cost and availability of skilled labor and good transportation systems often are rated as more important. An analysis for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in 2012 found that reductions in top tax rates have had “little association” with investment or economic growth.

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