Would an Income-tax Cut Benefit Missouri?
Missouri’s economic growth has consistently lagged that of much of the country—so badly, in fact, that our state’s gross domestic product growth ranked 40th among the states between 2010 and 2020. That’s the grim reality of Missouri’s position relative to the rest of the country while states like Florida, Tennessee, and Texas leave us in the dust. How can policymakers help create an environment that strengthens economic growth to benefit more Missourians?
Tax relief and reform alone won’t solve all of Missouri’s problems or immediately launch Missouri to the front of the pack in attracting talent and capital from around the country. We need better schools with more educational opportunities We need to reduce crime, especially with three of our major cities—St Louis, Kansas City, and Springfield—ranking distressingly high on national crime indices. But solving either, let alone both, of these problems is very complex and likely to require a multi-pronged approach as policymakers work to build consensus and tackle each element of the problem.
There are some things Missouri can never have—like Florida’s coastline (although the Lake of the Ozarks is plenty to brag about)—but implementing good tax policy is well within our grasp. Some would seek quick, superficial, and ultimately harmful “fixes,” like using subsidies or tax credits (subsidies by a different name) as handouts to lure large, well-connected companies to expand in Missouri, with no guarantee that any jobs they create would outlast the flow of taxpayer money. But history and research have undermined the claim that we can subsidize our way to prosperity or successfully pick winners and losers. One thing policymakers absolutely can do is create a better, more level playing field for families and small businesses with an income-tax cut that returns money to their pockets and reduces the penalty on hard work and investment.
Thankfully, Governor Parson and the General Assembly appear poised to pursue exactly that—rate reductions to Missouri’s income tax—in the upcoming special session of the legislature. Doing so would not only be welcome relief to Missourians suffering under decades-high inflation, but it would also be a great way to kickstart a bold tax-reform agenda to improve the economic prospects of every Missourian. Economic research has demonstrated that lower income-tax burdens encourage work, improve productivity, increase entrepreneurship, promote innovation, and attract people and firms from places with more punitive taxes. When we enable people to earn higher returns on their labor and investments, it should come as no surprise that we get more of both.
This isn’t theory or idle speculation. One only needs to look as far as neighboring Tennessee to see a state much like our own that has grown dramatically faster than Missouri in recent decades. One major reason for that growth is that Tennessee is one of nine states with no income tax, and its major cities do not have local income taxes. Greater economic growth is more than just a statistic. It’s more jobs and new businesses at places ranging from local mom-and-pop shops to modern tech start-ups—all driving up wages and creating ladders of opportunity. Growth benefits Missourians of all backgrounds, which is why we must seize on the opportunity to return power and money to the people through the kind of income-tax-rate reductions now being discussed.
Those who oppose these cuts look past the obvious success of Tennessee and Florida and instead bring up the specter of Kansas, which faced negative consequences in the years following its own major tax cuts. But not every tax cut is created alike, and prudent budgeting always demands running the math both on the revenues and spending sides, which is exactly what Missouri policymakers are doing carefully and seriously as they deliberate. By contrast, when Kansas cut taxes, it created a special zero percent rate for only certain forms of income (namely, LLCs, S-Corps, and other pass-through entities) and did not undertake other subsidy and spending reforms to ensure that the numbers would add up. Favoritism and bad arithmetic are bound to create problems. Not surprisingly, many businesses changed their structure to these newly tax-free entities, and Kansas state revenues fell. Kansas reduced the tax rate on pass-through income to zero, far below that of regular income. Not only did this change have little justification economically but it also greatly encouraged tax avoidance behavior through income reclassification
That is not the proposal under consideration in Missouri. Governor Parson and the legislative leadership are considering accelerating already-planned rate reductions by cutting the Missouri income tax rate from 5.3 percent to 4.8 percent—a move well justified by the enormous surge in revenues the state continues to experience. It would be even better for our state if Missouri were to push even further past 4.8 percent. The prudent course of action in that case would be to also pursue subsidy reductions and other tax and spending reforms to ensure the stability of Missouri finances for vital public services. State leadership is also considering increasing the standard deduction on state taxes, which would deliver further relief to working- and middle-class Missourians, removing some from the tax rolls entirely.
At a time of high inflation and labor shortages, putting Missouri on a faster growth track through pro-growth, pro-work, pro-investment income tax reductions could not be more appropriate. In the short term, having more money in their pockets will provide much-needed relief to struggling families and empower Missourians to achieve their dreams, whether this means saving for a house, starting a business, or donating to their communities. In the long run, taking an important step toward major tax reform signals that Missouri is open for business and no longer willing to cede ground to states like Tennessee, Florida, or Texas. If those states can attract investment and talent by rewarding hard work and entrepreneurship, then we can too.
However you measure it, Missouri has not been growing compared to other states. If the Governor and legislature succeed in passing some combination of tax rate reductions and other adjustments to our income-tax system, they will increase opportunities for all Missourians. That would be a legislative special session we could be proud of.