Can eliminating sales tax exemptions in Kansas generate a pot of gold?
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 $5.9 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 and harshly regressive tax policy.
A recent advocate for eliminating some sales tax exemptions is Phillip Brownlee of the Wichita Eagle editorial board. In a previous op-ed on this topic he wrote ” And with each added exemption, the state is losing out on more revenue — $5.9 billion this fiscal year, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. That’s money the state could be using to cover its budget shortfalls, increase funding to public schools or further reduce its income-tax rates.” At least he mentioned reducing other tax rates. Usually advocates of closing sales tax exemptions simply want more tax money to spend.
$5.9 billion dollars, by the way, is a lot of money, almost as much as the state’s general fund spending. But we need to look at the nature of these exemptions. I’ve prepared a simplified table based on data from the Kansas Department of Revenue. I simplified because there are many deductions that probably should be eliminated, but they represent very small amounts of money.
Some sales tax exemptions are for categories of business activity that shouldn’t be taxed, at least if we want to constrain the state to a retail sales tax only. An example is exemption 79-3606 (m), described as “Property which becomes an ingredient or component part of property or services produced or manufactured for ultimate sale at retail.” The tax that could be collected, should the state eliminate this exemption, is given as $3,083.24 million ($3,083,240,000).
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 $632 million in lost revenue. Another similar exemption is “Machinery and equipment used directly and primarily in the manufacture, assemblage, processing, finishing, storing, warehousing or distributing of property for resale by the plant or facility.” Its value is nearly $159 million.
Together, these exemptions account for $3,874 million of the $5,900 million in total exemptions.
Another big-dollar exemption is “items already taxed” such as motor fuel. This is an estimated $318.90 million loss in revenue. Other exemptions are purchases made by government, or purchase made by contractors on behalf of government. These account for an estimated $624.90 million in lost revenue. If these two exemptions were eliminated, the government would be taxing itself.
Not taxing prescription drugs means lost revenue estimated at $96.49 million. If the state started taxing residential and agricultural use utilities, it could gain an estimated $169.98 million. These taxes, like the sales tax on food and the motor fuel tax, fall hardest on low-income families. As Kansas is one of the few states to tax food, do we want to make life even more difficult for low-income households?
Adding these exemptions comes to about $5,084 million. There are other exemptions for which we could make similar arguments for their retention. What’s left over — the exemptions that really should not exist — isn’t much at all. The entire category of “Exemptions to Charitable Organizations by Name.” amounts to $3.05 million in exempted sales tax. These represent the organizations where a lawmaker has crafted an exemption like “Property and services purchased by Jazz in the Woods and sales made by or on behalf of such organization.”
So when the Eagle’s Brownlee writes “As is, favored groups are saving billions of dollars a year, worsening the tax burden for everybody else” he must be including broad categories of business like “All Kansas manufacturing companies” as a “favored group.” Or maybe he means prescription drug users are a “favored group.” Or families struggling to pay utility bills.
But there are more problems. Brownlee describes these sales tax exemptions as a “cost in lost revenue of $5.9 billion last fiscal year.” The only way this makes sense is if one thinks that our property (our money) first belongs to the state, and that in order to spend it, we have to give the state its cut. That’s an opinion — ideology, if you will — that you may agree with, or you may oppose. What’s remarkable — shocking, really — is that in his previous career Brownlee was a Certified Public Accountant. He ought to understand the nature of sales taxes meant to be applied to retail sales, not components of manufactured goods.