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What’s Next for the 21st Century (Tax) Commission

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

weedwhackerUpdated with new info from the California Finance Department.

The blue-ribbon commission rewriting California’s tax code moved ahead on a policy framework Tuesday – but the nut-cutting politics are still to come.

As Calbuzz forecast in eye-glazing detail on Monday, the California Commission on the 21st Century Economy is focusing on a new, broad-based “business net receipts tax” as the centerpiece of its proposed revision of the state’s creaky tax code.

The commission included the tax as part of one overall outline for tax reform. In advance of their next – and final – meeting on July 16, the panel instructed staff members to flesh out this broad strokes outline into a full, detailed proposal, complete with economic forecasts and models that show who pays how much under the proposed new tax structure. Staff also will prepare a look at a less radical option.

That’s when the fun will start.

Ostensibly, the commission has two basic, essentially mechanical, goals in their re-do of the tax system: 1) evening out tax collections from year-to-year with a revenue stream that is less volatile and more predictable than the current spike-and-trough system, which makes long-range fiscal planning a fool’s errand; 2) making changes that are “revenue neutral,” i.e. ensure that the new system doesn’t generate a big tax increase or decrease.

Inevitably, however, any change to the tax system results in winners and losers, and debating that inherently political issue will likely be the focus of the economic debate when the commission meets next. Chairman and Arnold ally Gerald Parsky has made clear he wants the ideologically diverse group to reach consensus on a final proposal, in order to deliver a package to the governor that is politically palatable to both parties in the Legislature.

The first package to be considered  approved yesterday has these key elements:

– Flattening the progressive, steeply-stepped state income tax rate system to a structure with essentially one rate of about six percent.

– Eliminating the state sales tax (local sales tax levies that have been approved for special purposes like transportation would remain in effect).

– Eliminating the corporation tax.

– Imposing the business receipts tax. It would be assessed on nearly every business in the state as a percentage of its gross revenue – minus the cost of goods and services that it purchases from other companies.

– Charging a “carbon tax” on gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, calculated at the refinery at $20 per ton of carbon emissions. This would amount to about 18 cents-per-gallon of gas.

The second scenario would flatten the income tax structure, but not include the receipts tax.

As a political matter, there are at least three crucial issues that will underlie all the green eyeshade talk in the devil-in-the-details debate when the commission meets again:

** How regressive will the new system be? It seems clear that flattening income tax rates will redistribute some of the state tax burden away from the very wealthy and towards the middle class. In making its final recommendations, however, commissioners can make adjustments in this area – by increasing the income level at which people pay zero tax, for example, or by directing some carbon tax revenue to offset an increase in the earned income tax credit – as part of its effort to calibrate a tax calculus that will sell politically.

** How revenue neutral will it be? Although the commission is charged with designing a system that does not raise taxes, the net receipts tax, with its application to more businesses than the sales tax, plainly carries with it the possibility of expanding the base of state tax collections, thereby increasing general fund revenues in future years.

** How will it play with the Legislature? The answers to the first questions will largely determine whether the commission’s proposal will attract the kind of bipartisan support Schwarzenegger hopes to win. This means that Republicans must feel they’re not voting for a tax increase in disguise, while Democrats feel assured that over time the new structure will produce enough revenue to pay for their favored education, welfare and other programs.

As we reported earlier, Schwarzenegger would like the commission to deliver a report that can be quickly transformed into a clean bill for introduction and swift action in the Legislature. He is hoping to win support of the legislative leadership on the policy merits, in order to gain the political backing to force an up-or-down vote on the package in the Legislature.

Given the current toxic climate in Sacramento, passing major tax legislation would be an impressive victory, and give Arnold a second major accomplishment – after voter approval of the Prop. 11 reapportionment reform last fall – to use in pushing back against the widespread perception that his governorship has been a failure.

– By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine