By Mary E. Forsberg and Deborah Howlett
June 26th, 2011
Perhaps you’ve heard a politician or two, in an accusatory tone, declare New Jersey has the highest taxes in the nation. It’s become a rallying cry for the current administration. It is repeated as an indisputable fact by the media. But mostly it just sounds right to people, perhaps because it so neatly fits the cynical narrative of government waste, fraud and abuse.
The thing is, it’s not true.
Consider this from a recent press release by the Connecticut House Republican Party:
“Connecticut residents already pay the highest taxes in America.”
Or this from the Buffalo News editorial page: “New York is the most overtaxed state in the nation.”
Nope. According to the Orange County chapter of the Lambda Alpha economics society, “California is the most overtaxed state in the nation,”
And from a conservative pundit in Chicago: “I live in Illinois … the most overtaxed state in the union.”
But wait. There’s another. The vice chair of the Maine Republican Party has said, “Maine is currently the most overtaxed state in America.”
They can’t all be right.
For the record, New Jersey ranks eighth among all states when state and local tax revenues are compared as a percentage of taxpayer’s personal income, according to an analysis using data from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. It’s the cleanest comparison of the tax “burden” in all 50 states. New Jersey’s ranking drops considerably once you get past property taxes and look only at state tax collections.
Simply comparing total revenue collected from taxes in each state would produce a wholly inaccurate comparison because poorer, less-populated states would always appear to tax less. Measuring as a percentage of personal income, or on a per capita basis, provides necessary
context and a more accurate comparison among states.
Consider the big three state revenue sources in New Jersey — income, corporate and sales taxes — and then size up property taxes.
On a per capita basis, New Jersey ranks seventh among states for income tax revenues, according to U.S. Census data. As a percentage of personal income, New Jersey ranks 19th among states.
It’s important to understand New Jersey is consistently at the top of lists that rank states in terms of median income and millionaires (those with at least $1 million in investable or liquid assets) as a percentage of households.
With all that wealth, the state also has a progressive income tax that collects significant amounts of its revenue from the wealthiest in the state and virtually none from the poorest, such as married couples whose incomes are less than $20,000 ($10,000 for a single person).
The progressive aspect of New Jersey’s income tax has evolved since the state’s first 2 percent flat tax was enacted in 1976. Public opinion polls show a vast majority approve of raising rates levied on income that exceeds $1 million a year.
Other states also have local income taxes. Philadelphia, for example, levies a 3.928 percent wage tax on residents and a 3.4985 percent wage tax on nonresidents on top of the state’s 3.07 percent flat income tax. Cities in New Jersey are barred from imposing income taxes on workers.
Corporate taxes in New Jersey rank ninth as a percentage of personal income and sixth when measured per capita.
New Jersey took in a little more than $2 billion in fiscal year 2010 from corporations, or 7.5 percent of all revenue collected by the state. However, 93 percent of the 252,000 corporations subject to New Jersey’s corporate business tax paid the state less than $2,000 each. Corporate revenues for the year surpassed $24.6 billion.
Comparing revenue from the sales tax puts New Jersey 19th on a per capita basis and 36th when measured as a percent of personal income.
The state sales tax is often cited as one of the highest in the nation because of its 7 percent rate. However, it is applied more narrowly than sales taxes are in many other states.
Food, clothing and gas are exempt, for example. Depending how one looks at it, that is a loss to the state or a savings to taxpayers of about $2.6 billion.
Nor does New Jersey allow cities or counties to collect local sales taxes, which many other states allow.
Montgomery, Ala., levies a 10 percent sales tax (4 percent state; 6 percent local) on everything sold, including food.
In Georgia, a 12 percent combined state and local sales tax is the norm in some areas of the state.
What’s abundantly clear, however you slice the data, is that New Jersey ranks among the top one or two states in the nation when it comes to property taxes, which are the only real source of revenue for local government in the Garden State. Last year, property taxes produced $25 billion in revenues, exceeding revenue from the state’s three major taxes.
* * *
In total, as a percentage of personal income, taxes in New Jersey rank about eighth among all the states. Considering it ranks near the top for median income and wealth, that designation hardly seems out of line.
But those are not the numbers pushed by anti-tax zealots. Groups such as the conservative Tax Foundation have cited New Jersey as having the highest tax burden in the nation, using a convoluted formula that doesn’t quite parse the intricacies of local tax laws.
For example, the Tax Foundation charges back to New Jersey the $2.6 billion in income taxes paid to New York by New Jersey residents who work in New York and must abide by New York tax laws, over which New Jersey has no control.
By the way, that $2.6 billion is not just a blip in the data. It is more than New Jersey collects from its corporation business tax, the state’s third-largest revenue source, and it is one of the largest income transfers from one state to another in the country.
All of this just points to the need to be careful when citing state rankings.
Some, such as the Tax Foundation’s, only obscure real facts because they allow politicians to cherry-pick data and use them to justify their political philosophy.
So the next time you hear someone say New Jersey is the most overtaxed state in the nation, look past the rhetoric and consider the real numbers behind the statement.
Check out the tax data tables here.