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While taxes are an essential source of revenue for all state governments, the manner in which they are imposed varies widely from state to state. In its simplest form, a tax is an across-the-board levy on a base, such as income, to which a specific rate applies and for which no modifications exist. Taxes are rarely levied in this manner, however. Instead, most state tax codes incorporate a number of exemptions, deductions, credits, and deferrals designed to encourage certain taxpayer activities or to limit the tax burden on certain types of individuals or endeavors. Known as "tax expenditures", these provisions can have a significant impact on state tax revenues.
This document offers a summary of the tax expenditures affecting three taxes from which Massachusetts derives the bulk of its revenues: the personal income tax, the corporate excise, and the sales and use tax. It also provides revenue estimates for each tax expenditure, as mandated by Massachusetts state law. Organized into five separate sections, this study analyzes all aspects of Massachusetts tax expenditures. Part I contains a detailed explanation of how we identify and estimate the costs of tax expenditure provisions in the tax code. In the next sections (Parts II - IV), we have provided detailed information about each of the three major tax types, including an explanation of how each tax is calculated and the ways in which that tax's basic structure is modified to produce the various types of tax expenditures. The tax expenditures for each tax are listed after the description of the tax.
Following the expenditure listings, Part V provides three appendices. The first lists recent law changes that affect this year's tax expenditure budget; a second gives three-year tax expenditure estimates that are consistent with our most recent estimation methodology; the third is a glossary that defines terms used throughout the text. In reviewing this document it is important to remember that although a tax expenditure represents a deviation from the generally agreed-upon, or basic, structure of a given tax, determining whether a provision is a tax expenditure is not the same as making a judgment about its desirability. An element of the basic structure of a tax can be inequitable or have undesirable economic effects, just as a tax expenditure can. If so, it can be changed by legislative action just as a tax expenditure can.
The estimates of the costs of tax expenditures included in this volume are revised annually. As improved methodologies and data become available over the course of the year, some estimates may be reexamined and occasionally revised.
What Are Tax Expenditures?
Tax expenditures are provisions in the tax code, such as exclusions, deductions, credits, and deferrals, which are designed to encourage certain kinds of activities or to aid taxpayers in special circumstances. When such provisions are enacted into the tax code, they reduce the amount of tax revenues that may be collected. In this sense, the fiscal effects of a tax expenditure are just like those of a direct government expenditure. Some tax expenditures involve a permanent loss of revenue, and thus are comparable to a payment by the government; others cause a deferral of revenue to the future, and thus are comparable to an interest-free loan to the taxpayer. Since tax expenditures are designed to accomplish certain public goals that otherwise might be met through direct expenditures, it seems reasonable to apply to tax expenditures the same kind of analysis and review that the appropriations budget receives.
It is essential to distinguish between those provisions of the tax code that represent tax expenditures and those that are part of the "basic structure" of a given tax. The basic structure is the set of rules that defines the tax; a tax expenditure is an exception to those rules. In general, most taxes have a series of features that define their basic structure. These features are:
- A base, on which the tax is levied, such as net income, or a particular class of transactions;
- A taxable unit, such as a person or a corporation;
- A rate, to be applied to the base;
- A definition of the geographic limits of the state's exercise of its tax jurisdiction; and
- Provisions for the administration of the tax.
Defining the Basic Tax Structure
A tax expenditure is a deviation from the generally agreed-upon, or basic, structure of a given tax. For example, the base of the sales tax includes all retail sales to final consumers. The exemption for sales of energy conservation equipment is an exception, created to encourage purchases of such equipment. The sales tax that is not collected because of the existence of this exemption is a tax expenditure.
While this general definition seems straightforward enough, the task of compiling a comprehensive list of tax expenditures presents many conceptual problems. For example, some of the deductions and exemptions allowed under the tax statutes are not tax expenditures. The broad category of income tax deductions allowed for business expenses is not listed as a tax expenditure. Since the income tax is generally considered to be a tax on income net of the costs of producing that income, deductions for business expenses are taken against gross income and therefore occur prior to calculation of the tax base. In addition, tax provisions reflecting constitutional prohibitions, such as the prohibition on taxation of sales to the federal government, are considered parts of the basic tax structure and therefore are not properly considered tax expenditures. These distinctions are fairly simple, but more complex analytical questions quickly arise.
For example, deductions for the depreciation of property and equipment used in a trade or business are considered part of the basic tax structure because the use of productive assets is a legitimate cost of doing business. However, federal depreciation rules allow larger depreciation deductions in the early years of a property's useful life. These accelerated depreciation rules could be viewed as properly reflecting changing notions of obsolescence and thus as part of the basic tax structure; or the faster rates of depreciation could be considered a special adjustment in the tax base designed to provide an incentive for investment, and therefore a tax expenditure. Indeed, past federal tax expenditure budgets prepared by the Congressional Budget Office and versions prepared by the Treasury Department have disagreed on exactly this issue.
We have adopted the point of view that accelerated depreciation is a tax expenditure. Although accelerated depreciation still allows the same total deduction for a piece of property; the rate of depreciation allowed in the early years is faster than would be permitted under traditional accounting principles. Generally, revenue cost estimates in this document for tax expenditures associated with accelerated depreciation rely on assumptions used in congressional federal tax expenditure analysis concerning ordinary depreciation rates.
We have chosen to view the rules for personal exemptions and for no tax status in the Commonwealth's personal income tax as provisions which help to define the income tax base, and thus as a part of the basic structure of the tax (much as the progressive rate structure of the federal income tax, which similarly reduces the tax burden on low-income people, is a part of its basic structure). The base of the tax is defined as net income above what is required for subsistence. Since personal exemptions help define the amount of income needed for subsistence, and therefore the base, they should not be classified as tax expenditures. According to this reasoning, exemptions allowed for dependents would also be considered part of the basic tax structure, since subsistence requirements increase with the size of the taxpayer's household. However, we note that this view of the tax structure does not always lead to easy conclusions. First, taxpayers are allowed exemptions for dependents even if those dependents have their own income and take personal exemptions for themselves. We have treated the use of the dependents' exemption as a tax expenditure. Second, the fact that the no tax status amount is greater than the personal exemption suggests that the intent behind the no tax status and personal exemptions goes beyond simple definition of an income base. Although personal exemptions and the no tax status are not listed in this document as tax expenditures, estimates for the revenue losses associated with these provisions are provided in an endnote.
The sales tax presents the most difficult case. The sales tax statute and its legislative history indicate that the established base of the tax is all "retail" sales. At a minimum, the sales tax exemptions for business purchases of component parts and of products to be resold appear to be provisions that help define which sales are considered non-retail sales, and therefore should not be classified as tax expenditures. However, it is difficult if not impossible to decide which other sales tax exemptions might also cover non-retail sales. For example, manufacturing companies are allowed an exemption from the sales tax for purchases of machinery used in the production process. Since this machinery is not a direct component part of any product being manufactured and is not purchased simply to be resold, it could be argued that the machinery purchase is a retail sale and that the machinery exemption is a tax expenditure. Others would argue that because these purchases are not purchases by the final consumers of an end product, and because they represent legitimate business expenses, these sales tax exemptions should not be considered tax expenditures.
As stated in the introduction, the most important thing to remember is that making a judgment about whether a provision is a tax expenditure is not the same as making a judgment about its desirability. With this in mind, we have attempted to provide more rather than fewer tax expenditure estimates, so that necessary information is available for those charged with making policy judgments.
Description of the Data
This budget should be considered part of an ongoing effort to list tax expenditures, describe their characteristics, and estimate their revenue costs. Each year, we attempt to improve upon the analysis presented in the prior year's tax expenditure budget. For purposes of comparison, we have provided an appendix containing updated tax expenditure estimates for the past two years as well as for Fiscal Year 2010.
Information collected by the Department of Revenue (DOR) from Massachusetts’s tax returns was an important source of data in this budget. Estimates made from these data tend to be the most reliable. Unfortunately, many tax expenditures cannot be estimated from DOR records. When a particular category of income is excluded from taxation, amounts often do not appear on tax records. This is especially likely to be the case for those tax expenditures brought about by "coupling" the state tax code to the federal code, since exclusions and some deductions are not reported explicitly, but are simply carried over to state tax calculations as part of the reporting of federal income. In such cases we have had to estimate a Massachusetts figure using national tax data, census information, sales statistics, and other information.
You will note that in several cases, this year's revenue estimate is very different from last year's. Revisions to the estimates occur for four reasons: we have new data sources; federal tax expenditure estimates on which we rely have changed; we have refined our estimation methodologies; or changes in Massachusetts tax law have modified existing estimates. In a few instances, more than one of these factors operates to explain the difference. All estimates are projections forward from a base year (which varies depending on the availability of data) to Fiscal Year 2010.
There are some additional caveats that the reader should keep in mind when reading this budget. First, most revenue loss estimates have been made without taking into account how repeal of a provision might change taxpayer behavior. For example, if the sales tax exemption for a particular item were repealed, the item would become more expensive to consumers, so one would expect sales of that item to decline. The revenue gain from repealing the provision would be, therefore, somewhat less than if the level of sales for the affected items remained the same. On the other hand, some of the income not spent on that item might be spent on other taxable items. To the extent that consumers and businesses pay more taxes and have less income available for other purposes, the repeal of a tax expenditure might have much broader economic and revenue effects. Clearly, the full calculation of these effects is very difficult.
Second, the interaction among different taxes and tax expenditures may be quite complex. Repealing some tax expenditures may increase or decrease the value of others. For example, increasing the no tax status amount would mean that fewer people would pay taxes, and thus fewer people would claim other exemptions. This would reduce the revenues lost through other exemptions.
Third, the revenue cost estimates do not generally reflect compliance factors that may significantly reduce revenues available from a tax expenditure repeal. In particular, where Massachusetts tax provisions are "coupled" with federal tax rules, audits of Massachusetts’s taxpayers generally compare state and federal returns. If Massachusetts tax provisions were "decoupled", taxpayers would have to make separate calculations for Massachusetts tax purposes, and these provisions would require special audit procedures. Compliance difficulties would certainly result.
And fourth, particular caution is appropriate with respect to the tax expenditure budget's totals for expenditures for particular taxes. Not only do these totals reflect the imprecision of the specific estimates, but they also omit those items for which no estimates were available. In consequence, particular totals may be substantially understated. At the same time, included in the totals, particularly with regard to the sales tax, are a number of substantial items that many analysts would regard not as tax expenditures, but rather as features of the underlying tax itself. The general approach in preparing the tax expenditure budget has been to count questionable items as tax expenditures, so that information concerning them would be available for analysis. The result is that certain of the totals are higher than they would be under a more restrained analytic approach.
Reading the Budget
In this document, tax expenditures and cost estimates are listed according to the taxes to which they pertain: personal income, corporate excise, and sales and use. Each of the three major taxes includes an introductory section with a description of the tax, followed by a listing of the tax expenditures for that tax. Each tax expenditure item includes a brief description, the cost estimate, a statutory citation, and an indication of the tax expenditure's type. Taxes on financial institutions, utilities and insurance companies, as well as the various special excises on motor fuels, cigarettes, and alcoholic beverages are not covered in this budget.
It should be noted that there are at least three tax expenditures that are claimed in significant amounts by insurance companies and financial institutions. These are the film (or motion picture) tax credit, the low-income housing tax credit, and the historic buildings rehabilitation tax credit. Because insurance companies and financial institutions are not included in this Tax Expenditure Budget, the full aggregate values of the motion picture tax credit, the low-income housing tax credit, and the historic buildings rehabilitation tax credit credits are not shown here. However, in the each of these items in the corporate excise tax expenditure section of this document, we have indicated the total amount of tax credits claimed by insurance companies and financial institutions.
Although income from professions, trades or employment was taxed throughout the nineteenth century under the local property tax, it was not until 1916, under the authority of Article 44 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, that the Massachusetts personal income tax was enacted as a separate tax. Because Article 44 requires that all income of the same class be taxed at the same rate, Massachusetts applies a flat tax rate regardless of total income; the federal tax structure (and that used in most states) uses graduated rates.
Generally, the Massachusetts personal income tax ties into the federal Internal Revenue Code as it was on January 1, 2005. To the extent that the Massachusetts tax takes federal law as its starting point, it adopts many federal tax expenditures.
The personal income tax is the state's largest revenue source, accounting for 59.8% of Department of Revenue tax collections in Fiscal Year 2008.
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