Capitol Comments

In 2016, state sales tax rates look a lot like they did in 2015. In 2015, 45 states plus the District of Columbia levied a sales tax – the same was true on January 1, 2016. In 2015, five states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon) did not levy a sales tax – the same five states did not levy a sales tax on January 1, 2016. Sales tax rates (or lack thereof) remained the same in 49 states and the District of Columbia on January 1, 2016 over 2015 rates. Those rates range from a low of 2.9 percent in Colorado to a high of 7.5 percent in California, with an average rate 5.65 percent.

Econ Piggy

The Nation's international trade balance in goods and services. Sales of new single-family houses. Total construction activity. U.S. retail and food services sales for the month. These are just a few of the key economic indicators released on a monthly and quarterly basis by the U.S. Census Bureau, which are in turn used by both the private and public sectors to make data-driven decisions. Last week, the Census Bureau announced that the public will now get access to those data faster than ever.

For states in the coming year, no news is good news when it comes to finances. For the last few years, states on the whole have seen a slow and steady increase in revenues. In the coming year, state leaders will have a little bit more breathing room when making fiscal decisions. States collected $912 billion in total tax revenues in fiscal year 2015—an increase of 5.6 percent over 2014 levels. Growth over this time was widespread—47 states reported growth—while three states, Alaska, Illinois and North Dakota, reported declines. For states reliant on natural resources, that cautious revenue growth could be derailed by volatility in the oil market.

Federal Instability Trickles Down: As the federal appropriations process remains largely dysfunctional, that volatility and instability will continue to affect states negatively. Federal dollars made up 30 percent of state revenue in fiscal year 2013—a decline after reaching a peak of 35.5 percent in fiscal 2010 after the Great Recession. However, Congress has not approved all 12 appropriations bills on time since 1996, and it has relied on the use of stopgap continuing resolutions, also known as CRs, and omnibus bills to provide federal appropriations. That causes significant uncertainty, making it difficult for state and local governments to manage fiscal resources and strategically plan.

Public Pensions Remain a Priority: Public pensions will continue to be a major area of concern for many states as accounting requirements and the financial assumptions used to calculate how much a state must pay into their systems transition. State-run retirement systems had a $968 billion shortfall in 2013, but recent strong investment returns, new accounting standards and state reforms have led to a reduction in unfunded liability for a majority of states. However, shortfalls are expected to remain between $800 and $900 billion in 2016, which means pensions will remain a big fiscal concern for state leaders in the coming year.