The Great Progressive Tax Escape
Democrats contend that marginal tax rates don’t matter to investment and growth, and even some conservative intellectuals are conceding the point. But the evidence from wealth fleeing high-tax states shows how sensitive the affluent are to rate increases.
The liberal tax model is to fleece the rich to finance spending on entitlements and government programs that invariably grow faster than the economy and revenues. IRS data on tax migration show this model is now breaking down in progressive states as the affluent run for cover and the middle class is left paying the bills.
Between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent data), a net $8.5 billion in adjusted gross income left New Jersey while $6.2 billion poured out of Connecticut—4% of the latter state’s total income. Illinois lost $13.6 billion. During that period, Florida with no income tax gained $39.3 billion in AGI. (See the nearby table.)
The affluent account for a disproportionate share of the income migration. For instance, individuals reporting more than $200,000 in AGI in 2015 made up 57% of the income outflow from Connecticut (compared to 48% of total state AGI) and 57% of the inflow to Florida.
Snowbird flight isn’t new, but migration has accelerated as taxes have increased. Income outflow from Connecticut averaged $500 million between 2003 and 2007. Then in 2009 GOP Gov. Jodi Rell raised the top tax rate to 6.5% from 5%, which her Democratic successor Dannel Malloy lifted a few years later to 6.7% and again two years ago to 6.99%. AGI outflow between 2012 and 2015 averaged $1.6 billion.
In 2004 Democrats raised New Jersey’s top rate on individuals earning more than $500,000 to 8.97% from 6.37%. Between 2012 and 2015, annual income outflow from New Jersey averaged $2.1 billion—twice as much as between 2000 and 2003 after adjusting for inflation.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie blocked his Democratic legislature’s attempts to reimpose a millionaire’s tax that lapsed in 2009. But Democratic Governor-elect won the election this month by promising to soak the rich even more, and his legislature will oblige.
The prospect of future tax hikes appears to have propelled an exodus of high earners from Illinois, which has a relatively low and flat 4.99% income tax. Democrats raised the rate from 3% in 2010, but the tax hike lapsed in 2015 after Bruce Rauner became Governor. House Speaker Michael Madigan finally this summer secured GOP legislative support to override the Governor’s veto and reinstate the higher rate.
But the tax increase won’t raise enough money to finance the state’s $250 billion unfunded pension liability, and the long-time goal of unions has been to enact a graduated income tax. The affluent know they’ll get soaked eventually and are seeking shelter. Top earners made up 47% of Illinois’s income flight in 2015 compared to 33% four years earlier. Income taxes from the 306 Cook County denizens who decamped to Palm Beach in 2015 with $258 million of income could have paid 200 teacher salaries. Alas.
This millionaires’ diaspora has harmed income and economic growth. Real GDP between 2011 and 2016 grew annually at a paltry 0.2% in Connecticut, 1% in Illinois and 1.2% in New Jersey, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. These states were the slowest growing in their respective geographic regions, though other high tax states in the Northeast didn’t fare much better.
As a result, revenues have repeatedly fallen short of projections in New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut while budget deficits have ballooned. Democratic lawmakers have cut public services and funds to local governments, which have responded by raising property taxes.
The Tax Foundation says New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, New York and Illinois have the highest property taxes in the country. Over the last two years, the average Chicago homeowner’s property taxes have risen by roughly $1,000. Higher property taxes hit middle-class earners especially hard and are another incentive to leave a state.
As these state laboratories of Democratic governance show, dunning the rich ultimately hurts people of all incomes by repressing the growth needed to create jobs, boost wages and raise government revenues that fund public services. If the Republican House and Senate tax-reform bills follow through with eliminating all or part of the state and local tax deduction, progressive states will have an even harder time hiding the damage. They should be the next candidates for reform.