Guest Column

Tax cuts are not the answer for Michigan’s prosperity

February 3, 2017
| By Lou Glazer |
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In fact, what legislators got was the exact opposite: arguably the worst state economic performance since the end of the Great Recession.

Despite the overwhelming evidence cutting taxes doesn't grow state economies, it seems like the Michigan legislature is hell-bent on replicating the failed Kansas playbook, this time by eliminating the state income tax.

Let’s quickly review what has happened in Kansas. This comes from a Bloomberg column by Barry Ritholtz, founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management and formerly chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm.

He writes: “In May 2012, (Gov. Sam Brownback) signed the bill into law. It initially lowered the top personal tax rate to 4.9 percent (it’s now 4.6 percent) from 6.45 percent, but most importantly, it eliminated income tax on profits for owners of limited liability companies, subchapter S corporations and sole proprietorships. Give Brownback credit for passing the exact legislation he had promised.

“The results, however, haven’t been very encouraging. Indeed, since the tax cuts were passed, almost nothing has gone as promised in Kansas. Revenue plunged, and the state resorted to pulling money out of its rainy-day fund to plug the holes. A number of critical services, including for road maintenance and schools, were cut. The business climate has been poor, and the economy has lagged behind neighboring states, as well as the rest of the country.

“The math is simple: Tax cuts tend to reduce revenue, in Kansas’ case much more than expected. To change people’s behavior requires more substantial incentives than changing things by a few percentage points. The reduced revenue led to spending cuts that lowered quality of life. In response, rising numbers of people and companies have left the state.”

Why did the experiment fail? As Ritzholtz explains: “Alas, reality trumps theory. As we have seen almost every time this thesis has been put into practice, it fails. The tax cuts don’t magically kick the economy into higher gear, and the government ends up short of money. Remember former President George W. Bush and his tax cuts? Same deal. … The bottom line: The results from the economic laboratory known as Kansas are in. Supply side theory — and Kansans — lost.”

At the same time Kansas was slashing taxes, California and Minnesota were raising theirs. In both cases, the changes mainly were higher income taxes on households with the highest incomes, which is a strategy the tax cutters repeatedly tell us is the worst thing you can do to a state economy.

California arguably has had the best recovery of any state since the end of the Great Recession.

The Washington Post reported:

“California’s economy grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, tying it with Oregon for the fastest state growth of the year. That was up from 3.1 percent growth for the Golden State in 2014, which was near the top of the national pack.

“The Kansas economy, on the other hand, grew 0.2 percent in 2015. That’s down from 1.2 percent in 2014, and below neighboring states such as Nebraska (2.1 percent) and Missouri (1.2 percent). Kansas ended the year with two consecutive quarters of negative growth — a shrinking economy. By a common definition of the term, the state entered 2016 in recession.”

And then there is Minnesota. It has — by far — the strongest economy and the highest taxes in the Great Lakes region. It also has the lowest unemployment rate, the highest proportion of adults working, the highest per capita income and lowest poverty rate.

Michigan policymakers should have learned cutting taxes is not effective in growing state economies from our own experience, as well. We have been trying this playbook since the late 1990s. The result: Michigan for the first time ever is a low prosperity state even with a strong Detroit Three. The last time the Detroit Three was thriving was in 2000, when Michigan had a per capita income at the national average. Today, having gone from a high tax state to a low tax state, Michigan is 11 percent below the national average. And there are roughly 400,000 fewer jobs in Michigan today than in 2000.

States with the lowest taxes don't have the best economies. And states without income taxes definitely are not the most prosperous.

What correlates far better with high state prosperity is talent. The states with the highest education attainment are the most prosperous.

What matters is what you get from higher taxes. The places with the strongest economies are those that combine high quality education systems and a high quality of place that retains and attracts mobile talent. Both education and placemaking require public investments. These kinds of public investments, paid for by our taxes, are the state policy playbook most likely to return Michigan to high prosperity, not more of the failed tax-cut recipe in Michigan and Kansas.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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