UPDATE Senate approves tax cut bills totaling $120 million by 2016


LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Senate on Thursday approved 11 separate tax cut proposals which would total about $120 million by the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The tax cuts, which would be phased in over a three-year period to take advantage of savings anticipated from health care expansion, would amount to about $10 million beginning July 1 and $82 million in fiscal year 2015.

The centerpiece of the tax cut proposals is House Bill 1585 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, which would reduce the state income tax in all tax brackets by one-tenth of 1 percent. Under the bill, amended from its original version passed by the House earlier this week, the lowest tax bracket would be the only one to receive the tax break beginning in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

HB 1585, which was amended, passed 28-5. It then went to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which concurred in a Senate amendment. The bill goes to the House.

During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, said he preferred the original proposal because it reduced the state income tax for lower and middle income brackets, but not for high income earners.

Maloch said he was proud that the state has been able to cut taxes in each of the previous three regular legislative sessions — 2007, 2009 and 2011 — and that tax cuts appear on track in the current session.

“We did it … while still maintaining a balanced budget, and of course we did it during a very difficult economy,” he said.

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, said Collins amended the bill so the income tax cut would apply to all taxpayers.

The tax cut would reduce state general revenues by about $2.4 million in the next fiscal year, $32.9 in 2015 and $55.7 million in 2016.

Originally, HB 1585 would have cut the state’s 7 percent income tax to 6.875 percent on taxable income of $44,000 and above. It also would have cut the top tax bracket of 7 percent to 6 7/8 percent.

In a 32-0 vote, the Senate also approved HB 1966 by House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, which would raise the capital gains tax threshold to 50 percent of gains.The bill includes an exemption for capital gains that exceed $10 million.

The tax cut would reduce state revenues by about $7 million annually, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The bill went to the House tax committee, which concurred in two Senate amendments. It now goes to the House.

The Senate passed identical House and Senate bills — SB 135 and HB 1234 — that would reduce the sales tax on groceries from 1.5 percent to 0.125 percent. However, that tax cut would not take effect until the the state pays off certain bond obligations or the long-time desegregation lawsuit involving three Pulaski County school districts is resolved.

Both bills passed 34-0. HB 1234 goes to the governor. SB 135 went to the House tax committee, which gave it a “do pass” recommendation. The House is scheduled to take it up on Friday.

While most of the tax proposals generated little discussion on the Senate floor, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said during the meeting of the Senate tax committee that he was disappointed that more tax cuts won’t take effect in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, while the Legislature has approved $125 million for the Big River Steel project in Mississippi County and there is more than $100 million in state surplus available for capital projects in lawmakers’ home districts.

Carter said later that phasing in the tax cuts is a responsible approach — and one that should not come as a surprise because it has been discussed in numerous news reports.

“The comments that I read from Sen. Hester were off base. When you come up and serve in the General Assembly, you have to realize that you don’t get 100 percent of what you want every time,” he said.

Files told reporters after the Senate committee meeting he is optimistic that savings the state will see from health care expansion — initially paid for entirely by the federal government — as well as expected growth in the economy will allow the state to absorb the tax cuts without having to cut the budget.

Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters later he was comfortable with the tax cuts for the first two years, but worried about $120 million in 2016.

“We’ve got a mechanism in place with the (health care) expansion, with the private option, and the savings that are generated across the board in various agencies in that regard, to be able to accommodate 100 million,” he said.

Whether the state can afford $120 million in 2016 “depends on (revenue) growth,” he said.

“If they are believing they’re going to be protected from normal growth and revenue in just normal expansion of economic activity in the state, they may be alright. But, I wouldn’t do it that way,” he said.

“As long as they understand they’ve got an opportunity to fix that in the regular 2015 session, if their assumptions are wrong, then they’ll have to do that,” he said. “I would be more conservative going in the future, but obviously they believe there will be growth and just normal expansion in business opportunities and revenue.”

Other tax cut proposals endorsed by the Senate Thursday included:

—SB 11 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, a sales tax exemption on supplies for farm machinery, with an annual revenue impact of about $750,000. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 298 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, a sales tax break on utilities for grain drying and storage facilities, with an annual revenue impact of about $4 million. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 299 by Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, a sales tax break for timber harvesting equipment, with annual impact of about $750,000. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 334 by Files, a sales tax break for replacement parts and machinery for manufacturers, with an annual impact of about $4.6 million. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 463 by Sen. Jim Hendren, Gravette, an income tax break for active duty military, with an annual impact of about $7.2 million. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 791 by Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, a utility sales tax reduction for manufacturers, with an annual impact of about $18 million. The bill passed 30-1 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—SB 853 by Teague, a sales tax break for dental appliances, with an annual impact of about $1.4 million. The bill passed 34-0 and later cleared the House tax committee. It goes to the House.

—HB 1039 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D-Warren, a utility sales tax break for agricultural structures, aquaculture and horticulture structures, with an annual impact of about $4 million. The bill passed 34-0 and then went to the House tax committee, which concurred in two Senate amendments. It goes to the House.

—HB 1399 by Rep. Joe Farrer, R-Austin, which would allow volunteer firefighters to deduct from their state income taxes the cost of equipment they are required to buy and any losses to personal property that they experience while fighting fires, up to $1,000 per year. The tax cut has an annual impact of about $48,000 annually. The bill passed 34-0 and then went to the House tax committee, which concurred in a Senate amendment. It goes to the House.

The tax cuts that take effect Jan. 1, 2014, include HB 1039, HB 1585, HB 1966, SB 11, and SB 463. The others take effect Jan. 1, 2015.