Taxes Matter 14: Cross-Border Shopping and Liquor

The Portland Press Herald ran an editorial on September 8 stating that lowering Maine’s liquor prices is bad public policy. Their logic: lowering prices is bad because it might encourage more people to drink, which would unleash other social costs.

The problem with that logic is that Mainers already have easy access to cheaper booze: they can simply buy it across the border in New Hampshire.

Cross-border shopping in New Hampshire is a major pastime for Mainers. We all know people who make a regular run to buy liquor, cigarettes or other everyday items in New Hampshire. When Mainers go on out-of-state vacations, they take orders from friends and family for the quick stop at the Portsmouth liquor store on the way home.

Put simply, with a little planning, there is virtually no one in Maine who doesn’t already have access to cheaper liquor in New Hampshire. In fact, as shown in the picture above, New Hampshire even pays you to come buy it. The state offers you a $25 coupon, which more than covers your gas bill to make the trip. As the ad in Down East magazine puts it:

“Explore Endless Summer Savings at your nearest New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet—conveniently located across the state. Offering the best selection of wine and spirits at the lowest prices in America.”

In addition, New Hampshire is running a larger ad campaign, called “Load Up New Hampshire.” The state’s online website,, proclaims:

“NO SALES TAX! Every Day, Every Year!

Substantial savings on all beer, wine, and ales

Up to 30.5 cents savings per gallon of gasoline

No state withholding on lottery ticket winnings

As much as $26.70 savings per carton of cigarettes”

Furthermore, the Portland Press Herald editorial misses a much larger point. Think about this: Why does New Hampshire go through all the trouble of running glitzy ads just to sell liquor? Because it isn’t just about liquor.

They know that once you get to New Hampshire, you’ll stay for other shopping and take advantage of other lower taxes on items such as cigarettes and gasoline—plus, there’s no general sales tax in the “Live Free or Die” state.

Of course, retail stores do this all the time. Take any “Marketing 101” course, and one of the first tactics you’ll learn is how to use targeted sales to lure customers who will stay to buy other goods—often negating their initial savings. From a tax perspective, customers save when buying just about anything in New Hampshire, compared to buying it in Maine.

Add up all of these cross-border shopping trips, and you end up with a very big problem. Recent MHPC research has estimated that Maine is losing up to $2.2 billion in retail sales each and every year to New Hampshire. This has created a 40-mile desert of big-box retailers on the Maine side of the border. At the same time, big-box retailers in New Hampshire locate as closely to the Maine border as possible.

Cross-border shopping also hits state and local government coffers. Higher Maine retail sales would mean greater income, sales and property tax revenue. Higher tax revenue would enable reductions in tax rates, which would fuel more economic growth.

Unfortunately, instead of this virtuous tax cycle, Maine has a vicious tax cycle that drives Mainers to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere.

Equalizing Maine’s liquor prices would be an important first step toward taking back our economy. Without the savings from liquor, the overall incentive to shop in New Hampshire is greatly reduced, especially with today’s high gasoline prices.

At some point, Maine’s policymakers have to come to the realization that Maine’s tax policy must become competitive in at least one area. Why not start with liquor?

But wait there’s more, the Union Leader is reporting that New Hampshire’s liquor sales are soaring:

Retail sales at New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets since July 1 are up $9.8 million year-to-date, an increase of 9.4 percent over the previous fiscal year.

Spirit sales increased 9.5 percent and wine sales increased 9.3 percent, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

The commission said it is seeing continued growth at new and recently relocated stores across the state. Seven state liquor stores have been relocated over the past two years as part of a goal to update them statewide. Collectively, those stores experienced $7.9 million in growth in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, the commission reported.

This story originated as an editorial for The Maine Wire.

Illinois Policymakers say: “The deal is, they take three months of grocery money in exchange for chips and a sandwich”

Hard work must have killed somebody

In a saga that falls into the category, “you just can’t make this stuff up” . . . Illinois policymakers recently enacted one of, if not the largest, tax hike in state history only to find themselves faced with threats of companies leaving the state. The response, give away special tax breaks of course!

Both Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange have threatened to leave Illinois if something isn’t done about their tax burden. So now the legislature is debating SB 397 which would carve out special tax treatments for Sears and CME (pdf).

Included in this discussion is a proposal to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit from to 15 percent from 5 percent of the federal EITC (though the specifics are still in flux). However, the EITC is a deeply flawed policy that hurts the working poor more than it helps. My latest study on the EITC proposal published by the good folks at the Illinois Policy Institute (pdf) finds:

Because taxpayers lose out on the earned income tax credit as their income increases, there is incentive for workers to keep their income under the “phase-out” level. Specifically, the only time during which the government rewards the worker for earning more money is when the worker’s income is moving from zero to $12,750. The federal earned income tax credit only encourages work effort in the phase-in income range where the effective marginal tax rate is negative 40 percent.

The taxpayer is, at best, indifferent during the plateau stage where the effective marginal tax rate is 0 percent. During the phase-out state – $41,000 for a single person and $46,000 for a married couple – the taxpayer is actually penalized with an effective marginal tax rate of 21 percent. Since the income range of the phase-out (21,800 to $46,000) is twice as large as the income range of the phase-in ($0 to $12,750), the federal earned income tax credit is spreading more work disincentive than incentives.

The state earned income tax credit, since it is an add-on to the federal earned income tax credit, only serves to exacerbate the work disincentives. The current state earned income tax credit is worth 5 percent of the federal earned income tax credit, which creates an effective marginal tax rate during the phase-out of 22 percent (versus 21 percent under the federal earned income tax credit alone). When the proposed state earned income tax credit worth 15 percent of the federal earned income tax credit takes effect in 2013, the effective marginal tax rate during the phase-out will increase to 24 percent. Expanding the state earned income tax credit will only serve to further discourage work.

Compounding the work disincentive related to the phase-out of the earned income tax credit are other federal, state and local taxes and other government welfare programs. These other factors increase the effective marginal tax rate faced by people in the earned income tax credit’s phase-out income range. Other taxes add to the tax burden on each additional dollar earned while, at the same time, the money received from other government welfare programs begins to phase out at approximately the same income range that the earned income tax credit begins to phase out.

In fact, a more comprehensive effective marginal tax rate estimate found that the effective marginal tax rate can reach as high as 65 percent! Faced with an effective marginal tax rate that high, many people will find themselves trapped by the earned income tax credit rather than helped by it. Expanding the state earned income tax credit will only dig the hole deeper for those people working desperately to better their economic situation.

Illinois would be better off using this money to lower the personal income tax rate or increase the exemption for all taxpayers, rather than expanding the deeply flawed earned income tax credit.

This was a fun study for me as there was a good deal of nostalgia since it was based on work from one of my first studies that I ever published for the Tax Foundation: “Growth of the Earned Income Tax Credit” (pdf) co-authored with Arthur P. Hall

Additionally, the EITC does nothing for Illinois’s middle class which has gotten clobbered by the recent tax hikes.  Watch the video below from Kristina Rasmussen of the Illinois Policy Institute which explains how “the deal is, they take three months of grocery money in exchange for chips and a sandwich.”  It’s no wonder why taxpayers are fleeing Illinois.

Oklahoma’s Improved Economic Performance Suggests Right to Work Is Working

My latest study for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs finds that critics of Oklahoma’s right-to-work law are wrong. From the study:

On September 25, 2001, Oklahoma voters went to the polls and passed a constitutional amendment—Right to Work (RTW)—which gave workers the choice to join or financially support a union. This made Oklahoma the 22nd state (plus Guam) in the union to join the ranks of RTW states.

However, RTW was soon challenged in court, and the matter rose all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It took two years of legal wrangling before all the challenges were settled. When the dust settled in 2003, RTW remained in place—along with the promise of greater economic performance.

Fast forward to today, and opponents of the law are still at work trying to discredit it. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), for example, claimed that RTW in Oklahoma has been a dismal failure. One of EPI’s most important pieces of evidence is that manufacturing employment is lower today than it was before RTW.

But EPI’s view on the economic impact of RTW is simply too narrow. RTW is about giving businesses and their employees the flexibility to create a better economic future. There are two ways to accomplish this: the company can hire additional employees to boost output, or the company can invest in new capital to boost output through higher productivity.

Just because manufacturing employment fell does not mean that Oklahoma’s manufacturing sector is in a death spiral. In fact, the opposite is true. It is widely known that America’s manufacturing industry has been shedding jobs thanks in large part to technological advancement. Today’s American manufacturing worker is one of the most productive, if not the most productive, in the world.

. . .

In summary, we have presented new evidence that RTW has been a boon for Oklahoma. Manufacturing output and productivity have outpaced the competition, and people from non-RTW states are voting with their feet by moving to Oklahoma in increasing numbers. This evidence from Oklahoma should help convince policymakers in other non-RTW states that RTW is good economic policy.

The chart below shows that since 2003, Oklahoma’s Gross Domestic Product for the manufacturing industry has not only grown faster than for all non-right-to-work states, but also faster than all right-to-work states.

Chart Showing Gross Domestic Product of Manufacturing Industry in Oklahoma 2003 to 2010

Taxes Matter 13: Maine’s Sales Tax, Tax Zappers and the Laffer Curve, Oh My!

Old Cash Register 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: OhMyGouda in Florida

I just posted this on The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s blog (Maine Freedom Forum), but I also wanted to share this with Wealth Alchemy’s audience because so many of you will likely be seeing this debate coming soon to your own state.

Also, we all need to realize that the retail sales tax is one of the worst taxes out there and is simply on its last legs–all states should be working to eliminate it. The better alternative would be to enact a Business Enterprise Tax as New Hampshire has done which is also one reason why New Hampshire has one of the lowest business tax burdens in the country. Read on . . .

Today the Kennebec Journal has a story about the rise of sales tax zapper computer programs that enable businesses to under-report their taxable sales and lower their sales tax bill. Of course, the article casts Maine’s state government as the victim of unscrupulous business owners:

But some lawmakers are concerned the state may be losing significant revenue from the latest computer technology, called “zappers” because they alter sales records in a more subtle way that still yields a lot of cash for the seller.

“It’s clearly subversive and against our process of treating people fairly, equitably and everyone paying their fair share of the tax burden,” said Rep. Garry Knight, R-Livermore Falls, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. “I would suggest that zappers be outlawed in this state.”

He said his panel has not looked at the expanding use of technology to cheat on tax laws, but he said if it is happening in other states, Maine should assume some is happening here.

With a zapper program, a $6 burger-and-fries combo at a restaurant, for example, could be altered by the software to reflect a $4 burger sale. In Maine, that would mean 14 cents going to the restaurant owner that should be paid in taxes. In other states, that has added up to a lot of lost revenue.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

“Tax evasion is something that we always should take seriously,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the lead Democrat on the Taxation Committee. “Zappers are something that Maine Revenue Services is not able to track. It is a very difficult enforcement problem.”

He said Maine should watch what other states are doing and consider adopting policies and laws that seem to work the best. He agreed Maine may want to outlaw the computer programs, although he is not sure how effective that may be.

As usual, policymakers are simply treating this as a tax compliance issue when, in reality, this zapper issue is a symptom of a much larger problem–Maine’s sales tax is suffocating the state’s retailers. A few month’s ago I released a study which showed that Maine is annually losing an estimated $2.2 billion in retail sales to New Hampshire thanks to tax-fueled cross-border shopping by Mainers. Lowering the sales tax would encourage more Mainers to stay home to do their shopping. As a result, Maine’s retailers would not be struggling quite as much as they are now and having to resort to desperate measures such as sales tax avoidance.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Maine sales rate of 5 percent is very likely on the back-side of the Laffer curve. In other words, a lower sales tax rate would generate more economic growth and higher tax collections from other taxes, such as income taxes, the remaining sales tax, property taxes, etc., that it would offset the lower sales tax collections stemming from the tax rate reduction. It’s the closest thing to a “free lunch” that one can get in tax policy. Yet, policymakers have just left the sandwich on the table.

No, the real victims here are Maine’s businesses who have historically been treated by policymakers as a “money pinata.” Now, on top of the sorry economy, Maine businesses, especially smaller businesses, will have to live in fear that the next knock on their door will be an agent from the Maine Revenue Service as they attempt to crack down on these sales tax zappers. This will be an added tax compliance cost for all businesses which is especially onerous and demeaning to the overwhelming majority who play-by-the-rules.

We are 21

The good folks at the Illinois Policy Institute have taken some of my research and created a new website call “We are 21.” It’s based on the fact that in Illinois it takes 21 private sector workers to fund 1 state government worker.  Here is a cool video they have made:

The great thing I like about doing this report is that it is based on tax data from the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.  What are they going to do, say it’s a lie 🙂