No surprise, but Americans are consuming and spending less since the coronavirus kicked in. Retail sales dropped to 8.7 percent in March, the largest month-over-month decline since the Census Bureau started tracking this data. Previously, the sharpest decline was less than half this – at 3.9 percent from October 2008 to November 2008, during the previous economic crisis. The reduction in consumer spending is due in part to lockdowns, spending more time at home for fear of the virus, and the economic impact – whether it’s losing a job, reduced hours, or in anticipation of tougher times ahead.
While consumer spending is down at a net level, there appear to be some winners and some losers in the post-COVID world of staying in and working from home. Restaurants and apparel are the hardest hit, whereas online retailers, home, garden, grocery, and alcohol sales are all up.
The decline and shift in consumer spending are having a strong negative impact on state sales tax revenues. Nationwide, sales taxes account for approximately 20 percent of all state revenue, so the decline in consumer spending will have a material impact on state budgets. As a result, states are looking at new ways to generate or increase revenue to offset the trend. Below we’ll look at three ways states are looking to raise taxes to make up for holes in their budgets.
Eating out less and working from home mean Americans are spending more at the grocery store; approximately 13 percent more year-over-year, per Census data. The issue for states is that groceries are generally not taxed or low-taxed, although there are a few items that apply the full tax rate.
Kansas, for example, applies the full sales tax rate to groceries. The consequence of this is that grocery sales make up about 15 percent of Kansas’ total sales tax revenue. The consequence of this policy is that the state’s sales tax revenue has barely taken a hit year-to-date.
States are taking notice and may move to the trend of taxing groceries as a way to recover part of their declining sales tax revenues.
Another trend is the increase in streaming services and one-time rentals/purchases of digital goods for entertainment and working at home. Currently, 22 states tax streaming services, and 30 states tax digital goods. Other states will look to start taxing these services as well, and digital taxes will start to expand into cloud storage and other services as more people work remotely.
Sin taxes are taxes on goods and services that are “bad” for us; think alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and marijuana (where it’s legal). Increases in sin taxes are generally easier to pass as they don’t apply to the overall general population and politicians can play the moral angle.
During the last recession, for example, lawmakers in more than 12 states increased tobacco and liquor taxes. Newer sin taxes are being instituted, such as those on vaping equipment and supplies.
The exact form and structure will vary, but one thing is certain: States will institute or increase taxes in areas where the money is being spent to ensure their sales tax revenue remains stable.