Here’s a Vote for Cleaning Up the Rolls

When you read as many reports, studies, analyses and similar materials as I do, it’s difficult to be shocked by many of the facts that emerge. But check out these numbers from the Pew Center on the States regarding voter registration:

  • 24 million vote registrations either invalid or largely inaccurate
  • 1.8 million dead people still listed as active voters
  • 2.75 million who are registered to vote in more than one state
  • 51 million (estimated) voting-age U.S. residents who are not registered

Here’s a portion of the NPR story on the findings.

Election officials say one problem is that Americans move around a lot. And when they do, they seldom alert the local election office that they’ve left.

Ben Skupien, a registered voter who now lives in Northern Virginia, is pretty typical. He has moved repeatedly over the years and says he’s probably registered to vote in about a half-dozen states.

"The assumption, I would think, is that they would do the courtesy of letting the other states know that if you’re registered with a new state, [the old registration] would no longer apply," said Skupien.

In fact, states seldom share such information. The Pew study found that almost 3 million people are registered to vote in more than one state.

Voters also die, which leads to another problem, says Linda Lamone, who runs Maryland’s elections.

"If a John Smith lives in Maryland and goes to another state, say on vacation, and dies," Lamone said, "the law of the state where John Smith dies dictates whether or not the Maryland vital statistics people can share that information with me."

And even when they do — or if a person dies in-state — there’s often a delay before election officials are alerted. It’s also not always clear that the individual on the death certificate is the same one who’s registered to vote. Election officials still have to do a lot more digging to avoid accidentally taking someone off the rolls who is very much alive.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed says it’s amazing how many times his state has come across names on the voter rolls that appear to be the same person, but turn out not to be.

"We’ve even had cases, in very small counties, people [with the] same name and same birth dates," added Reed.

He said that has led to inaccurate reports that "dead" people are voting. He admits there have been a few cases in his state where widows or widowers have cast ballots for former spouses, but he said such fraud is very rare.

Still, election officials say it’s important that the public have confidence in the system.

So Washington and seven other states — Oregon, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Utah and Nevada — are joining a pilot program to share more voter information and other databases, to try to make their lists more accurate. 

Indiana’s Business Tax Climate: Not a Perfect One, But a Good 10

We’re No. 10! We’re No. 10! Not exactly the rallying cry one is used to hearing, but a refrain that deserves more plaudits than usual. Here’s why Indiana’s ranking in the Tax Foundation’s 2011 State Business Tax Climate Index is noteworthy:

  • It’s not easy to make substantial improvements in this area. Indiana has ranged between No.12 and No. 14 over the last five years
  • The top eight seemingly head the list by default as they do not impose one of the big three taxes (sales, income or corporate income). So, without too much of a stretch, you could say Indiana is second on the list
  • We’re far away from the bottom 10; in order from No. 50, that’s New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and North Carolina

The Indiana Chamber’s advocacy efforts certainly are contributing factors to the state ranking. Historic tax restructuring in 2002 (including elimination of the inventory and corporate gross receipts levies) is among the Decade of Policy Victories document reflecting major legislative accomplishments from 2000-2009. The Chamber has also achieved success in general property tax reductions and an expansion of a variety of tax credits (good for business, but not earning high marks in this report).

According to the Tax Foundation, the worst tax codes tend to have:

  • Complex, multi-rate corporate and individual income taxes with above-average tax rates
  • Above-average sales tax rates that don’t exempt business-to-business purchases
  • Complex, high-rate unemployment tax systems
  • High property tax collections as a percentage of personal income

Indiana’s rankings in the five categories are: corporate tax index, 21st; individual income tax index, 11th; sales tax index, 20th; unemployment insurance tax index, 12th; and property index, 4th.

Since this tax analysis game is not for the faint of heart, a little more from the Tax Foundation on how it all works.

The methodology of the State Business Tax Climate Index is centered on the idea of economic neutrality. If a state’s tax system maintains a “level playing field” for businesses, the index considers it neutral and ranks it highly. However, each state’s final score depends on a comparison with the other 49 states.

The overall index is composed of five specific indexes devoted to major features of a state’s tax system. Each of these five indexes is composed of several sub-indexes.

Each state’s laws and tax collections were assessed as of July 1, 2010, the first day of the 2011 fiscal year. Newer tax changes are the subject of commentary in an appendix but are not tallied in the scores and rankings.

The Tax Foundation has data charts, further analysis and a full 60-page report. By the way, you have to go west for most of the rest of the top 10 (in order): South Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming, Nevada, Florida, Montana, New Hampshire, Delaware and Utah.

And finally, going into a state budget year that will bring pressure to raise revenues, let’s all keep the vital importance of the tax climate in mind on business attraction and expansion decisions.

Fun with Campaign Commercials (Straight from the Caldron)

It’s campaign season. That means we’ll all be blessed with myriad political ads until early November. Some positive, most negative — and some Halloween-themed. "Saturday Night Live" had some fun with Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell’s latest spot:

Tax News: Good to Be Tied to Arkansas in This Case

Interesting numbers from the Tax Foundation, which is in the business of analyzing interesting (tax) numbers. Its annual review of what states did with their tax policies included some strong praise for Indiana. A few excerpts from the release and a link to the full study, which takes some to task for targeted tax hikes and accounting gimmicks (instead of reducing spending).

Nine states increased individual income tax rates (five states reduced their rates), six states raised general sales tax rates, 17 states increased excise taxes on cigarettes and five states increased rates of alcohol excise taxes.
 
“Two states – Arkansas and Indiana – managed to roll back spending growth commitments and take actions to limit spending, but other states have either kicked the budget can down the road or increased taxes,” said Tax Foundation Director of State Projects Joseph Henchman, who authored Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact No. 204, “A Review of Significant State Tax Changes During 2009.”  

“With state revenues declining due to the tough economic situation, most state leaders in 2009 have tapped high-income earners, smokers, out-of-state business transactions, or other targeted groups, those being the only people that politicians feel safe raising taxes on,” Henchman notes. 

California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin increased individual income tax rates. States that increased sales taxes include California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.
 
Other miscellaneous tax changes in 2009 include obesity and soda taxes, excise taxes on plastic bags (often mischaracterized as “fees”) and “Amazon” taxes, which force out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes from customers if the companies have affiliate and advertising relationships with in-state businesses.

States Eye Unclaimed Property for Additional Revenue

Looking for ways to deal with greatly reduced tax collections, states are focusing on their unclaimed property statutes as a potential source of revenue. States are discovering that by changing their laws they can increase what escheats to the state coffers. Changes like expanding the definition of what constitutes "unclaimed property," shortening the period for owners to claim it and limiting recovery options result in more of the property going to the state (and less to the owners).

It is estimated that states collectively hold $33 billion in unclaimed property. Delaware expects to collect $380 million in 2009. So it is no wonder that struggling states are tempted to grab what they can in these disconcerting developments.