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John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Is RI the New Taxachusetts?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


There’s not much happening at the State House these days in the annual hiatus period between the end of the legislative session in July and the start of the new session come January, except for one notable activity: the study commission that’s holding hearings on reform/repeal of the state sales tax. In meetings held to date (the commission meets again this week), the commission has heard from a number of state officials, tax experts and economists on the potential impact and feasibility of eliminating the tax or at least lowering it to be more competitive.

This group is led by Warren Democrat Representative Jan Malik, an advocate for getting rid of the sales tax altogether. Malik has a personal business interest in vanquishing the sales tax: he owns a liquor store by the state line and has experienced loss of sales from customers who are attracted to go over the border to Massachusetts, which currently does not apply the sales tax to alcohol.

Though his bill to kill the sales tax did not pass in the last legislative session (probably because the world is not about to end, which is the only way we could do that), he did have success in getting legislation passed to eliminate the sales tax on wine and spirits, effective this month, but not on beer, which one would imagine represents the highest volume of sales for any retail outlet. However, lowering or even eliminating the sales tax on anything within state borders is a good thing. And he got a commission to actually look at the question in all its ramifications.

Rhode Island -- The New Taxachusetts?

The Ocean State’s sales tax at 7 percent is one of the highest in the nation, exceeded only by California’s 7.5 percent. It is also the second largest revenue stream for the state after the personal income tax, and it brought in almost $900 million through the end of the last fiscal year.

Retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend and extending into Cyber Monday will deliver a substantial revenue boost to the state, if shoppers open their wallets this year. But every day, across every retail hour, the sales tax bells rings constantly, with every purchase, small and large, that every individual in the state makes on a vast variety of items.

The sales tax is the most pervasive and regressive tax of all because it does not distinguish between the purchase of any item subject to the tax, whether it’s made by a millionaire or someone unemployed, whether it’s a hot takeout meal or a hot sports car. Everyone who makes a retail purchase of just about any kind, save for protected items like everyday clothes and groceries, pays the tax at the same rate.

With Rhode Island now recognized to be the tax hell that Massachusetts no longer is, focus on taxes in general and the sales tax in particular have become a matter of concern to state lawmakers, policy advisors and the public, because our reputation for high taxes, as well as poor strategic management of the state’s economy, now define our state. Everyone recognizes that something must be done to steer Rhode Island into more stable and prosperous waters before we head over the waterfall.

Big Issues -- Bigger Questions

The big question is how we can do that as we face even larger indebtedness (the deficit for fiscal 2014-15 is currently estimated at $140 million), plus impacting reversals in fortune in the 38 Studios implosion and the prospect of significant revenue losses when the slot parlor and casinos in Massachusetts get up and running. How do you lower a tax like the sales tax, never mind eliminate it, in the face of such a daunting fiscal future?

Governor Chafee, over two years ago, attempted to lower the sales tax while extending its overall reach. That is one attempt at reforming the tax but, as events proved, not an easy one to accomplish, because even with a lower overall tax rate the negative impact on those newly affected by the tax extension prompted a major pushback. And with good reason.

Chafee wanted to tax manufacturers, those of us who remain here, even as we already struggle under the state’s heavy tax environment. (The added tax burden on Taco, we estimated, was going to amount to a million more dollars a year.) With the business community up in arms about the prospect of an even higher sales tax burden, the legislature elected to extend the sales tax to just a few minor things, and even these were opposed and retracted for the most part. Before the wine and spirits tweak to the sales tax, the tax had been extended to sales of high price clothes and footwear, considered to be “luxury” items. No one seems to have complained much about that.

Experts testifying before the sales tax commission have painted a rosy picture of the Ocean State’s future economy with no sales tax at all in place. Despite acknowledging giving up a significant portion in state revenue each and every year, these voices claim elimination of the sales tax would create jobs, boost incomes and spending power, and vault Rhode Island into the top tier of business-friendly states. Too bad it’s not that easy.

While these are most laudable and necessary objectives for Rhode Island, how do we stand still and hold our breath in the meantime? The central problem we face is the size of our government(s). As they are presently structured, our state and local governments need every dime they can take in. Our pension reform is in question and massive healthcare obligations are forthcoming. The only way we can afford to significantly change our tax climate is to overhaul how government operates in our city-state, which is a major task that only a landmark constitutional convention can achieve.

More on the promise of a constitutional convention in future columns...

John Hazen White, Jr. is President and CEO of Taco, Inc. in Cranston and is the founder of Lookout RI.


Related Slideshow: Best and Worst Run States in New England

How well do the New England states stack up against each other in terms of how they're currently run?

According to Wall Street 24/7, looking at a state's debt per capita, budget deficit, unemployment, median household income, and percentage below the poverty line are all indicators of a state's level operational success - or lack thereof.  

Below are how the New England states were ranked compared to each other, based on data from 2012 -- as well as the "best run" and "worst run" states in the country. 

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Rhode Island

National Rank, #47

> Debt per capita: $8,721 (3rd highest)
> Budget deficit: 6.9% (35th largest)
> Unemployment: 10.4% (3rd highest)
> Median household income: $54,554 (18th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 13.7% (tied-20th lowest)


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National Rank, #41

> Debt per capita: $8,531 (4th highest)
> Budget deficit: 17.1% (12th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.4% (tied-14th highest)
> Median household income: $67,276 (4th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.7% (4th lowest)


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National Rank, #30

> Debt per capita: $4,447 (12th highest)
> Budget deficit: 16.6% (14th largest)
> Unemployment: 7.3% (tied-22nd highest)
> Median household income: $46,709 (16th lowest)
> Percent below poverty line: 14.7% (tied-24th lowest)


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New Hampshire

National Rank, #25

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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National Rank, #18

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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National Rank, #6

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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Worst Run State in US

50. California

> Debt per capita: $3,990 (20th highest)
> Budget deficit: 27.8% (3rd largest)
> Unemployment: 10.5% (2nd highest)
> Median household income: $58,328 (11th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.0% (18th highest)


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Best Run State in US

1. North Dakota

> Debt per capita: $3,033 (20th lowest)
> Budget deficit: None
> Unemployment: 3.1% (the lowest)
> Median household income: $53,585 (19th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 11.2% (6th lowest)



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Will somebody tell the owner of Whole Foods that Rhode Island is bad for business because I couldn't even get a parking space there....or Hot Pockets on Thayer Street (there's always a line out the door or the Garden Grille (every table is taken at lunchtime) and the owner opened a bakery next door and another restaurant on Broadway (The Grange). Maybe we need an anti-thriving tax for those businesses who do quite well in spite of the constant Rhode Island bashers like Mr. White. These businesses also have the added bonus of being located in the most beautiful state in the country.

Comment #1 by Jonathan Bainsworth on 2013 12 03

Word on the thriving East Side is that Whole Foods was doing so well they're thinking about setting up shop in the superman building.

Comment #2 by David Beagle on 2013 12 03

Jonathan, take the blinders off, and the rose colored glasses with them, will ya. To even suggest that Whole Foods or Hot Pockets (?really?? Hot Pockets) are viable tools for measuring the economy in the state is idiotic.
As far as Whole Wallet opening a store in the superman building. Do you believe that they would keep the store open on N. Main St., and Waterman? Or, would they close both and consolidate and in all probability reduce headcount.

Comment #3 by Patrick Boyd on 2013 12 03

its hard enough to make things happen in this state, but when you hear comments like mr bainsworth....

then you start to see why the state is the way it is.

Comment #4 by john paycheck on 2013 12 03

How about cutting taxes 10% and cutting spending by 15% department by department. Might that be a start?

How about making RI a Right to Work state? Might that send the right message to potential new businesses?

How about Voter Initiative for RI so that citizens who collect enough signatures can put propositions on the ballot for the voters to decide? Might that free us from the tyranny of the General Assembly?

Comment #5 by James Berling on 2013 12 03

The tragic irony of those on this thread is that they continue to espouse their free market analysis which only facilitates the continuing decimation of the middle class and the race to the bottom that began when people were taken in by the Trickle down myth spewed forth by Reagan. I'm reminded of chickens promoting the values of Colonel Sanders.
First, you cannot apply free market analysis to a rigged system so please stop. You cannot separate Wall Street from Main Street in your flawed analysis. If you want to know what's wrong with Rhode Island and the rest of the country you need only "follow the money". The Walton Family has a collective wealth equal to the bottom 40% of the country. 95% of all economic gains since CEO and businessman George W Bush crashed the economy in 2008 have gone to the top 1%. It is deregulation and bad international trade agreements that sucked away manufacturing bringing us to this current economic state. Your comments bashing Rhode Island are analogous to hungry dogs fighting for the remaining scraps of what's left after years of horrendous policy decisions by mostly republicans. Remember, it was teflon Don Carcieri (CEO and businessman) that hatched the 38 Studios debacle. The middle class in this country was not created out of the generosity of the business community or the largesse of the wealthy. It came from taxing the wealthy and strong unions. As to the hypocrites on this thread that bash unions and yet take holidays, vacation and sick time and maybe have collected overtime at some point...please give it all back since I'm sure you would not want to keep such tainted coin....otherwise thank a union representative next time you see him.

Comment #6 by Jonathan Bainsworth on 2013 12 03

WOW Jonathan, talk about taking it off topic. We're talking about how screwed up Rhode Island is here, not the battle between Wall St and Main St. This is not about Walmart and what it has done to the economy nor is it about NAFTA. To believe that ANY governor of this state has any real power is simply foolish. Carcieri introduced the idea of 38 Studios, but it NEVER would have happened if the GA hadn't made available that $75 million. This is about the Rhode Island economy which is where it is due to the democratically controlled General Assembly and their complete ineptitude.

Comment #7 by Patrick Boyd on 2013 12 04

Bainsworth, just admot you are a communist. Face it pal, you anti-capitalist, socialist, losers have everything you want here in RI; democrat assembly, senate, gov, mayors,----it should be nirvana!...but we are BROKE!Berling, you nailed it.

Comment #8 by joe pregiato on 2013 12 04

You're unable to see the forest for the trees my friend, if you don't think our situation in Rhode Island isn't a result of Wall Street shenanigans. Focusing on RI politics as the problem while ignoring the role Wall Street played in the collapse is analogous to reprimanding a child for lighting a match in the living room while a crazed arsonist is dousing the furniture with gasoline.

Comment #9 by Jonathan Bainsworth on 2013 12 05

So Jonathan, there are no problems in the Rhode Island General Assembly, is that about it? I missed the part where Wall Street writes the laws of Rhode Island. I missed the part where Wall Street sets the tax rates for the state. I missed the part where Wall Street gave $75 million to a start up in a business with a failure rate in excess of 75%. I missed the part where Wall Street put a huge percentage of the state's revenue in the general fund to be doled out accord to who was friendly with who. I missed the part where Wall Street gives an overly large percentage of the budget money to social services. I missed the part where Wall Street felt ethics reform in the GA is basically unnecessary.
Get your head out of your...............

Comment #10 by Patrick Boyd on 2013 12 05

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