Advocates of eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas point to the great amount of revenue that could be raised if Kansas eliminated these exemptions, estimated at some $4.2 billion per year. Analysis of the nature of the exemptions and the amounts of money involved, however, leads us to realize that the additional tax revenue that could be raised is much less than spending advocates claim, unless Kansas was to adopt a severely uncompetitive, and in some cases, unproductive tax policy.
Tax exemption policy is an important economic policy matter. A recently-released study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit is titled Kansas Tax Revenues, Part II: Reviewing Sales Tax Exemptions. In its background discussion, the report noted “the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion that tax exemptions and tax deductibility are a form of subsidy that is administered through the tax system. A tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organization of the amount of tax it would have to pay on its income.”
Sometimes these tax exemptions are issued to specific organizations. Others are issued to organizations that fall within certain categories. In this case, the exemption is like an entitlement, granted to any organization that falls within the scope of definition of the exemption. Some exemptions are for categories of business activity that shouldn’t be taxed.
It’s this last category that is important, because of the large amount of economic activity that falls within its scope. An example is exemption 79-3606 (m), described as “Ingredient/Component parts: Of items manufactured or produced for sale at retail.” The audit report estimates that for 2009, this exemption cost the state $2,248.1 million in lost sales tax revenue.
But this exemption isn’t really an “exemption,” at least if the sales tax is a retail sales tax designed to be levied as the final tax on consumption. That’s because these goods aren’t being sold at retail. They’re sold to manufacturers who use them as inputs to products that, when finished, will be sold at retail. Most states don’t tax this type of sales. If Kansas decided to tax these transactions, it would place our state’s manufacturers at a severe disadvantage compared to almost all other states.
There are two other exemptions that fall in this category of inputs to production processes, totaling an estimated $461 million in lost revenue.
Another big-dollar exemption is “items already taxed” such as motor fuel. This is an estimated $232.5 loss in revenue. Two other categories of exemptions are purchases made by government, or purchase made by contractors on behalf of government. Together these account for an estimated $449.9 million in lost revenue. If these two exemptions were eliminated, the government would be taxing itself.
All told, these six exemptions account for $3,391.5 million of the total $4,234.2 million in exemptions for 2009. That’s about 80%.
So $4.2 billion has shrunk to $842.7 million. That’s still a lot of money, but not near as much as spending advocates would like to have Kansans believe is lying in wait just for the taking.