Briefing Paper No. 53

The Case against a Tennessee Income Tax

By Stephen Moore and Richard K. Vedder
November 1, 1999

Executive Summary

On November 2 the Tennessee legislature will convene a special session to debate reform of the state tax system. The center of the controversy is whether Tennessee should adopt a personal income tax, as proposed by Gov. Don Sundquist, to close an estimated $400 million budget shortfall.

This study finds that a personal income tax in Tennessee would likely have two negative economic effects. First, an income tax would almost certainly reduce economic growth and job creation in the state. The absence of an income tax in Tennessee gives Tennessee a large competitive advantage over other states with which it competes for jobs and businesses. We find, for example, that Kentucky, a state very similar to Tennessee except that it has an income tax, has had considerably weaker economic performance since 1980. Between 1980 and 1998 the per capita economic growth rate of Tennessee was 47 percent compared to 36 percent in Kentucky.

The second negative effect of a state income tax would be to trigger much faster growth in state expenditures. That has been the almost universal pattern in other states after they enacted a state income tax. Yet the premise of pro-income tax forces in Tennessee that the state’s revenues have been growing too slowly is contradicted by the evidence. In the 1990s, even without an income tax, Tennessee’s per capita tax receipts have grown 12th fastest among the 50 states. Tennessee’s tax revenues have climbed at twice the rate of inflation plus population growth. The legislature should be cutting taxes, not introducing new ones.

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Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. Richard Vedder is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University.