Recently I was in a rural area of Michigan and stopped at a small out of the way place to buy a soda. As I paid I noticed a yellow sign about 8 ½ by 11 behind the clerk on the wall. It read “Licensed Minnow Dealer.” I asked the clerk if there was any special information he had to know to secure that license? Did he have to go to class to learn about minnow care, or pass a test to assure minnow competence, before he could get that license? He groaned a slow groan. “Noooooo. The governor is desperate for money. It’s just another tax.”
The minnow tax qualifies as a tiny tax, not because the tax yield is small, but because it applies to few people and goes unnoticed by nearly all of Michigan. Tiny taxes are easy to slip by the public unnoticed. We can hope the money collected for the minnow tax covers the wage costs of the people who collect it. Even it doesn’t, it is still a good tax for politicians. It generates jobs and politicians must be able to say jobs are rising and go easy on the details. As we will see below there are hundreds of tiny taxes generating jobs.
The relentless tide of productivity increases, the outsourcing of jobs abroad and the investment and movement of American manufacturing abroad has reduced millions of jobs in production occupations; 3.5 million since 1990. Tiny taxes along with the bigger and better known income, property and sales taxes create lots of tax collecting jobs.
The federal government collects the personal income tax, which is noted for its many forms and schedules and thick booklets of instructions. As recently as 1990 the IRS 1040 instruction book was 52 pages not counting the forms. In 2006 it swelled to 103 pages, not counting the forms and the pages of lost children. My favorite instruction for 2006 came from a list of exceptions. The exception is "Dividends attributable to periods totaling more the 366 days that you received on any share of preferred stock held for less than 91 days during the 180-period that began 90 days before the ex-dividend date." Even for someone who could understand when or how to apply this particular exception, would they know the ex-dividend date? Could they find the ex-dividend date?
It is popular around tax time for a Congressman or two to hold a press conference, waive some tax forms, and huff and puff in indignation at our complicated tax system. There are vows to do something, but they know perfectly well nothing will happen. The tax system is going to get more complicated: more forms, more worksheets, more booklets, more go here, more go there. It’s predictable because there is one powerful and consistent message that jumps out of every line of every page of tax forms and tax booklets. The message is employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts employment as Tax Examiners and Tax Preparers at 138,000 in 2006. That total doesn't count employment in the cottage industries: paper, printing, software, books, accountants, lawyers, courts, the Post Office and, of course, tax advice. These are often high paying jobs for people of influence.
All that taxing work creates lots of jobs, but when the work is done there is nothing to drive, nothing to eat, nothing to wear. A large group of people writes checks to the government. Money is transferred, nothing else happens. It’s quite possible to end the income tax. Taxable income is almost identical with consumption spending because Americans save little as a society. Switch to a value added tax or sales tax and governments could still raise the necessary revenue without any income tax, and a tiny fraction of the present cost and work. Eliminating the income tax is administratively feasible, but it will not happen. It eliminates too much work.
But the federal personal income tax is just a start. The District of Columbia and 43 states have their own income tax with their own tax administration. They could declare that state residents will pay an income tax to their states as a percent of the federal tax and have the federal government collect and distribute the tax revenue. The plan would save nearly all the costs of a large state income tax administration and be more efficient, but who needs efficiency when America needs jobs.
All the states have a real property tax. The District of Columbia and 35 states levy a real property transfer tax, also known as a deed recordation tax, since tax liabilities incur at deed recordation. Although most states have local governments assess property values and set property tax rates, additional state bureaucracies and a state board of equalization oversee the process. Property taxes create jobs in that administrative time is required to determine assessed value and then more administrative time is needed to process and hear assessment appeals; all before collecting the tax. In Michigan, the courts got so bogged down with property tax fights, the legislature created a separate administrative law court, the Michigan Tax Tribunal, to settle property tax battles.
Sales taxes are well known state taxes. The District of Columbia and 45 states have a sales tax, and 8 states still tax food. More and more state legislatures allow local governments to levy an additional percent or two of local options sales tax. More and more states have started to extend their retail sales tax to services as well.
States will often add a use tax to accompany their sales tax. A use tax applies to all taxable items brought into a state or purchases from out-of-state retailers. Tax authorities want to discourage people from shopping in low price, or low tax states. Look on the North Dakota web site and the commissioner of revenue will tell you “In addition, tangible personal property not originally purchased for use in North Dakota is subject to a use tax based upon its fair market value at the time it was brought into the state.”
With more spending on services and legislatures hungry for revenue, some states have added gross receipts taxes. The Delaware commissioner of revenue tells website visitors “Delaware does not impose a state or local sales tax, but does impose a gross receipts tax … Unless otherwise specified by statute, the term "gross receipts" comprises the total receipts of a business received from goods sold and services rendered in the State.” The Commissioner seems to be kidding us that a gross receipts tax is different than a sales tax. Sales, use and gross receipts taxes compute a percentage of revenue paid in a transaction, or transactions, so the difference among them, if any, is miniscule.
Quite a few states have sales and use taxes and a selection of gross receipts taxes. Plans to raise a statewide sales tax generally draw media attention and statewide publicity. Opponents get organized. Plans to impose a 2 percent gross receipts tax on dry cleaning establishments may pass without notice. At least 9 states have a dry cleaning tax, which is sometimes a license fee, sometimes a gross receipts tax and sometimes both.
Some states do get carried away with their gross receipts taxes. New Jersey lists a fur clothing retail gross receipts tax, a cosmetic medical procedures gross receipts tax, the luxury & fuel inefficient vehicle surcharge and the litter control fee. All are gross receipts taxes. On the state’s website we read the litter tax will be $2.25 of every $10,000 of “gross receipts on retail sales of litter-generating products sold within or into New Jersey by each person engaged in business in the State as a manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor or retailer of such litter-generating products.”
Many know litter when they see it, but not in New Jersey where litter generating products means products “produced, distributed, or purchased in disposable containers, packages or wrappings; or not usually sold in packages, containers or wrappings but commonly discarded in public places; or of an unsightly or unsanitary nature commonly thrown, dropped, discarded, placed or deposited by a person on public property, or on private property not owned by him.” If there are any products exempted from the litter tax it is not obvious what they would be. Remember they had to have a lawyer job to write all the fancy prose.
Up in Illinois the state’s tax commissioner worries about fairs, festivals, flea markets, and craft shows. These are known to the commissioner as special events which are “a unique kind of business in which persons from other communities or states sell items to the public … Many times, the only fair and efficient way to collect the proper taxes is to have our collection agents personally register each vendor and collect taxes at the event.” How nice it is to know tax collectors are paid to attend craft shows and flea markets to collect taxes, but we have to hope they collect enough taxes to pay for their gas, and I suppose also their wage.
There are other close cousins of the sales, use and gross receipts tax. Severance taxes amount to gross receipts taxes in most situations in that taxes are usually a percentage of gross receipts from natural resource extraction. Public utility taxes typically end up being gross receipts taxes, but that is not universal. I can find 44 states with public utility taxes. Public utility taxes have many names: public utility gross receipts tax, utility gross receipts tax, telecommunications tax, telephony tax, mobile communications service tax, steam, gas and electric companies tax, electricity consumption tax, electric cooperatives fee and on and on.
Public utilities taxes can be gross receipts but they are often levied as an excise tax. An excise tax is similar to sales, use or gross receipts taxes in that all of them tax commercial transactions. Excise taxes tax quantity such as cents per gallon or cents per pound, and often levies fall on the manufacturing, or distribution part of the marketing chain and not just retail sales.
Since I am speaking of excise taxes do not forget tobacco, liquor, wine and beer. They are all favorites for excise taxes, although not the only ones. The federal government, the District of Columbia and all the states have a tobacco tax. Rhode Island has top honors here at $2.46 a pack for cigarettes, the median rings in at $.80. Most states tax everything sold that contains tobacco. Alabama does not want to leave anything to chance so they define taxable tobacco as cigarettes, cheroots, stogies, cigars, little cigars smoking tobacco chewing tobacco and snuff. Some states tax a percentage of the wholesale price, up to 90 percent in Massachusetts.
All the states get revenue from alcoholic beverage, but not always from taxes since 18 states maintain their own monopolies for distilled spirits. Alcoholic beverage taxes are all cents per gallon, but 42 states also apply their sales tax in addition to their excise charges. The tax rates are too varied and complex to describe, but liquor tax rates tend to be higher than wine, and wine rates higher than beer. They could simplify and tax by alcoholic content, but why have it simple when it can be complicated. At least six states have a special excise on soft drinks or soft drink syrup.
Probably you drive so it is hard to forget gasoline taxes, which are typically also an excise tax. Federal fuel taxes are 18.4 cents a gallon gasoline, 24.4 cents a gallon diesel. But the District of Columbia and all the states tax other fuels in addition.
Fuel taxes are just behind the federal income tax in complications, fighting and foolishness. Most of the trouble comes because the states cannot stand the spectacle of truckers buying low priced fuel in low tax states instead of high priced fuel in high tax states. Buying low priced gas for your car might seem like a normal choice. Low prices attract more business and the tendency is hardly a secret. If your neighborhood grocery charges $8.00 a gallon for milk you go to another grocery, but the states want to suspend shopping around and prevent truckers from doing what everyone else does everyday: buy at low prices.
If a trucker buys a tank of fuel in South Carolina where the diesel tax is 16 cents a gallon and then drives through North Carolina where the diesel tax is 30.15 cents per gallon, and they do not pay the extra North Carolina tax then authorities label them as criminals engaged in fraud. A whole bureaucracy of procedures, audits and enforcement tracks down the malefactors and threatens them with jail. Truckers are expected to keep detailed records of their fuel purchases and their mileage by state. They are expected to produce and document their records at any time. They are expected to pay high taxes on fuel in states where they did not buy fuel. Sometimes I hear that businesses are greedy and overcharge. I have not heard of any businesses that jail customers who buy at lower prices. It takes a state legislature and large bureaucracies with enforcement jobs for that.
However, the gasoline and diesel taxes are just two among a number of fuel related taxes. Try out the oil company franchise tax, motor carrier road tax, and taxes on aviation gasoline, jet fuel, gasohol, un-dyed diesel, un-dyed kerosene, compressed natural gas, propane/LPG, ethanol, methanol, liquefied natural gas, and electricity. Minnesota taxes wind power.
It is not enough to tax gasoline for cars. With cars we have car taxes and the DMV. Virginia taxes cars as personal property, but there are a variety of ways to extract revenue from automobiles. Try the vehicle rental tax, vehicle rental surcharge, rental car excise tax. A number of states tax tires such as the waste tire fee, tire user fee, tire excise tax, tire user surcharge, or charge a recycling fee for tires and batteries.
While you are out driving and traveling you may want to find some lodging, a place with room, bed and taxes. Expect to pay a lodging tax, hotel tax, room tax, transient room tax, room and cottage rentals tax, vacation rentals tax or a tourism tax. Oregon taxes tent sites. Most of the time these are gross receipts taxes but a few states make it an excise. About the same number of states also have meal taxes on meals and beverages. In all cases they work hard to get your money.
Many think business escapes taxation. This could be true, but before you make up your mind look at state taxation of business. Learn about corporate organization and qualification fees, all the states have them. Find out if your state has the corporate income tax or the corporate franchise tax, or the corporate business tax. In California its 8,84 percent of net income derived from business transacted in California, in Delaware 8.7 percent. Some states have a charge for each $1 or $1000 dollars of capital. Even if they do not collect any revenue from these corporations, they have some jobs doing it.
Insurance companies are singled out and taxed as their own category in some way or other in all the states. Insurance taxes go by several different names, but the tax takes a percentage of net premium receipts or a percentage of adjusted gross premiums where adjustments are made by carefully written procedures developed by the State’s Department of Finance and Revenue.
Did I mention Banks? All banks engaged in business in South Carolina are required to register and pay the annual bank tax. The tax is 4.5% of SC net income. Some states call their bank tax a financial institutions tax, such as Indiana. In Kentucky, they have the bank franchise tax, which is 1.1 percent of net capital assets after apportionment. It applies to every financial institution “regularly engaging in business in Kentucky if during any taxable year it obtains or solicits business with 20 or more persons within Kentucky, or if receipts attributable to sources in Kentucky equal or exceed $100,000.” Those regularly engaging in financial business fill out Form 73A801A, a form of 21 pages for the accountants, auditors and financial professionals who have to learn which assets to include or exclude from the total of capital assets after apportionment. Probably they do not mind though, they have salaried jobs to do the work.
Death brings death taxes in all the states. Only eleven states have inheritance taxes, but all the states have some kind of estate tax, although Virginia is getting serious about eliminating its estate tax. Both together are often referred to as death taxes. Estate taxes tax the value of a deceased persons assets and property after any allowable deductions. It reduces what is transferred to heirs or beneficiaries before ownership transfers. Inheritance taxes, if any, tax what heirs receive after they take ownership and possession. Many of the state’s estate taxes have a connection to the federal tax and amounts paid there. There is also the fiduciaries tax in a few states.
Having fun can be a do it yourself thing: a walk in the park or the home arts. Otherwise though, expect taxes with your fun. Click around a state tax website and find a few obscure links to the fun taxes. Quite a few states like the admissions tax, or some variation of it, like the riverboat admissions tax in Indiana and Illinois. Since riverboats are usually for gambling Indiana taxes gamblers when they get aboard and again with the riverboat wagering tax that takes 22.5 percent of adjusted gross receipts from gambling. States with legalized Casino gambling have gaming taxes, but casino gambling is not a requirement for gambling and gaming taxes. Pari-mutual wagering is almost always taxed. Some states tax charity gaming. Indiana has a charity gaming tax along with the other gaming taxes. Iowa has a social and charitable gambling tax, perhaps to prevent those avaricious folks running church raffles and bingo nights from getting too greedy and taking all the money they raise. Other states call it the bingo tax and some states charge a fee for the license they require to hold a bingo night. North Dakota has a bingo and pickle card tax. Illinois, one of America’s most innovative and entertaining tax states, has a pull tabs and jar games tax with License Fees.
Other fun and games taxes include the amusements tax in Arizona, the amusement machine tax in Arkansas and several other states, the watercraft excise tax in Washington, baseball stadium district taxes in Colorado and DC, the coin-operated device tax in Tennessee, boxing and wrestling exhibitions tax in New York. Many states insist on taxing vending machine revenue.
Not many know about the blueberry tax. The blueberry tax takes $.15 a pound out of Maine blueberry revenues. I looked for the blueberry tax in other states, but I could not find one. New Jersey is apparently America’s leading blueberry producer, but apparently without a blueberry tax.
Looking in other state websites for a blueberry tax took me to other agricultural states where I found the beef tax, which is a charge per head of cattle, and the corn tax, rice tax, wheat tax, potato tax, tobacco tax, soybean tax and my favorite tax, the catfish feed tax, which is in Arkansas at a rate of $.99 per ton.
Fish are good too, both for eating and taxing. There is the mahogany quahog tax, seed oyster tax, fishery resource landing tax, salmon enhancement tax, regional seafood development tax, enhanced food fish tax, which taxes those from Washington state in first commercial possession of fish at various rates like 5.92 cents per pound of Chinook, Coho, or Chum Salmon or 5.92 cents per gallon of Chinook, Coho, or Chum salmon eggs. Fish eggs. Don’t forget fish eggs.
With the growth of the Internet all the states and many of the local governments use websites to make it easy to get all the details of their taxation. For anyone interested in the details of taxation it is easy to Google or Yahoo a state’s website and study taxes to your hearts content. On this blog though we only need to see the bigger picture and that is why I summarize the three most important things to know in taxation and revenue. Take them one, two, three: jobs, jobs, jobs.