Voters in as many as four states in November will consider higher levies on their wealthiest residents as income inequality steers liberal activists and politicians toward more progressive taxation.
Colorado and Maine may raise taxes on top earners, while Minnesota is looking to apply the state’s Social Security tax to high incomes to care for senior citizens and people with disabilities. California voters could extend by 12 years a soon-to-expire income-tax increase on the wealthy, while the state’s most populous county, Los Angeles, is eyeing a new tax on millionaires to pay for homeless services.
If the statewide measures appear on ballots in November, more voters will consider higher taxes for the wealthy than in any year since the 1980s, according to Ballotpedia, an online almanac sponsored by the nonprofit Lucy Burns Institute in Wisconsin. The Occupy Wall Street movement and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign have brought attention to the widening gap between rich and poor as states and municipalities expect a slowdown in tax collections as the economic recovery cools.
"There is more action in the states because the federal government, particularly the Republicans in the House of Representatives, don’t really care what the people think," said Morris Pearl, a 56-year-old former managing director at Wall Street investment firm BlackRock Inc. who now heads the Patriotic Millionaires, a coalition of wealthy Americans advocating higher taxes on the rich. "In a lot of states, people are realizing that the wealthy are taking advantage of the system."
Nationally, people earning at least $250,000 paid more than 51 percent of income taxes in 2014, while accounting for just 2.7 percent of returns, according to the Pew Research Center. Still, a provision of the federal code that taxes investment income at lower rates than normal earnings, along with reductions in the top income-tax rate since the 1960s, have fed perceptions that the wealthy are gaming the system.
While there’s disagreement as to the causes, studies have shown that income is increasingly concentrated among top earners, with relative declines among the middle class and the poor. The highest-earning 1 percent of households increased their income by about 275 percent after taxes between 1979 and 2007, compared with a gain of about 40 percent for the middle 60 percent of America’s income distribution, according to a 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office.
Congress in 2013 permanently extended the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for most people while raising the top tax rate to 39.6 percent. The federal rate hasn’t changed since then and efforts to tax the rich more often face opposition from limited-government advocates.
"When politicians want to raise taxes, they always tell people they’re going to raise taxes on someone else: smokers, millionaires, people who drink soda pop," said Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes tax increases. "But it always shifts from taxing certain people to taxing as many people as you can. There’s only so much money you can get from the Kennedy family."
Still, the rich have become so rich than an individual taxpayer can sway a state’s finances. Billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper last year left New Jersey, which has a top state income tax of 8.97 percent, for Florida, which has no income tax. That led New Jersey tax forecasters to warn in April that his departure might skew their predictions.