The Retail Sales Tax in a New Economy

Source: John L. Mikesell – Indiana University, Sharon N. Kioko – University of Washington, presented at the Brookings Institution’s 7th annual Municipal Finance Conference, July 16-17, 2018

For the second half of the 20th century, the retail sales tax was the largest single source of tax revenue to state government and the second largest source for local governments. Born out desperation during the Great Depression, the retail sales tax became the single largest source of tax revenue for the states by 1947. While consumption is an indispensable measure of household ability to pay, the U.S. retail sales tax fails to fully capture that measure in its taxable base. As a result, the tax is not economically neutral, horizontally equitable, robustly revenue-productive, or simple to collect. Since its adoption, political, social, and economic forces have created a tax that is both “too broad” or “too narrow”. We explore patterns of change and their impact on the retail sales tax. Specifically, we explore how changes in consumption, policy, and technology, particularly the internet, have made the retail sales tax less neutral, equitable, administrable, and productive. We also examine which policy options have been successful and what policy changes should be encouraged.

View Kioko’s slides
View Gordon’s slides
Tracy Gordon (Urban Institute)