For decades, Nevada lawmakers have discussed the possibility of tax “reform.” Indeed, they have commissioned a growing library of studies to examine tax-reform possibilities — only to later ignore the recommendations of those studies.
It should be noted that Nevada’s most prominent fiscal challenges have occurred on the spending side of the ledger — not the revenue side. After all, real per-capita spending remains higher today than it was two decades ago. Given this reality, there is little reason to believe that Silver State government suffers from insufficient revenue.
Nevertheless, NPRI recognizes that no tax structure is perfect and that Nevada’s taxing system could be improved, on a revenue-neutral basis, by designing reform around the considerations outlined here.
Tax reform should minimize revenue volatility. Volatility in tax revenues exacerbates the tax-and-spend cycle. During periods of economic growth, upward volatility showers legislatures with unusually high revenues. Lawmakers have historically committed these revenues to expand government programs and liabilities, even though such expansion regularly proves unsustainable when economic recession arrives.
When recessions do occur, downward volatility enlarges the deficit between revenues and the inflated spending levels that lawmakers committed to during previous periods of economic growth. Historically, lawmakers have then responded to this deficit by calling for new or higher taxes — only to once again over-commit tax dollars as soon as economic growth returns.
The tax structure should be designed to minimize distortions in economic behavior. Taxes that penalize specific behaviors or consumption patterns discourage individuals from engaging in those behaviors. This causes a destruction of jobs and wealth as individuals are pushed away from welfare-maximizing behaviors and toward second-best alternatives. For instance, taxes on saving and investment such as capital gains taxes discourage individuals from saving, encouraging instead immediate consumption.
Compliance costs should be kept to a minimum. Complicated taxing mechanisms, such as the federal income tax, carry additional costs, since filers must devote thousands of man-hours to understand the tax code and ensure compliance. The Tax Foundation estimates, for example, that compliance costs associated with the federal income tax will amount to $483 billion in 2015 — more than one-fifth of the total revenue collected from the tax!
Nevada lawmakers should avoid tax instruments that use complex arrays of deductions and stratified income brackets.
Reform should protect tax equity. Taxpayers in similar circumstances should face similar tax burdens (horizontal equity). Taxpayers at different points along the income scale should also face a proportionally similar tax burden to ensure economic efficiency (vertical equity). Tax structures that are either overly regressive or overly progressive can obstruct economic growth.
If lawmakers are to pursue tax reform, it should be on a revenue-neutral basis. Current tax revenues in the Silver State are already more than adequate to provide high-quality government services, as this publication makes clear.
To the extent Silver State governments have failed to deliver high-quality services, the failure has resulted from poor policy design or implementation. The recommendations in this volume show how to correct these deficiencies.
All four major objectives of tax reform — together optimizing Nevada’s economic climate — can be accomplished through a revenue-neutral expansion of the sales tax base. NPRI has laid out a plan for expanding the sales-tax base with a consequent lowering of the statewide sales tax rate to 3.5 percent. That analysis should serve as a primary guideline to any potential tax-reform effort.