The Minnesota Tax Handbook, a publication of the Minnesota Department of Revenue, provides a history of taxes in Minnesota. For the researcher, it’s an interesting read. For the taxpayer, it’s more often discouraging than enlightening. Today, let’s talk about the income tax.
It was enacted in 1933, with ranging from 1 to 5 percent. It didn’t take long—only 1937—before the first rate increase was put into place. Rates were increased in 1937, 1959, and 1971. In 1971, the top rate was 15 percent. Six years later (1977), rates went up again, with new brackets of 16, 17 and 18 percent enacted. These rates mirrored the interest rates of the Carter era.
Taxpayers endured not only higher permanent rates, but also surtaxes, or tax increase that are, in theory, temporary. The first came in 1949, when a 5 percent surtax was added to standards rates. In 1957, military veterans who received a bonus for their service were hit with a unique surtax of their own. (Remember, this in an era of the draft, so earning military pay was not optional.) The state imposed a 7 percent surtax in 1981, and increased it to 10 percent in 1982, extended it in 1983, and repealed it in 1984. In 1987, it enacted another tax, equal to 10 percent of a 5 percent federal surtax. It also eliminated the option of deducting federal income taxes.
To be sure, there were some reductions on occasion, including surtaxes that were allowed to (eventually) expire. The 17 percent bracket imposed in 1977 was repealed in1979. Rates were also reduced in 1985 (by an unspecified amount), 1999 (from 6, 8, and 8.5 percent to 5.5, 7.25, and 8 percent), and 2000 (from 5.5, 7.25 and 8 percent to 5.35, 7.05 and 7.85 percent).
But over time, some promised reductions have been put on hold. Such was the case in 1991, when a rate of 8.5 percent was maintained rather than reduced to 8 percent, as scheduled.
Along the way, the state has experimented with alternative minimum taxes, changing deductions and exemptions, and other characteristics of the tax code. The result has been to turn the income tax into less of a way to levy revenue required to fund government operations and more of a way to manipulate (or if you will, “incentivize”) personal and business behavior.
Throughout time, the state has also added to the base from which it levies tax. For example, out-of-state income was subject to the tax starting in 1977, and a “nonresident entertainer tax” (the “jock tax”) was implemented in 1989.
Minnesota government also has tightened the screws to ensure compliance. The state required withholding, starting in 1961. This makes it easier for state officials to plan, which is a good thing. But another benefit, from the government’s point of view, is that it also creates opportunities to take in more money, thanks to penalties on underpayments on estimated taxes.
Thankfully, the income tax today isn’t anywhere near its highest point. It has, though, been supplemented by other taxes, most notably the sales tax, which from its original figure of 3 percent has grown to 6.875 percent, plus local add-ons. Take other taxes into account, and you have a history of the public sector taking a bigger slice out of Minnesotan’s incomes.
At this point, I’d like to suggest a “rule”: no how much the state raises various tax rates, it’s still not enough. This will be even more true in the future, as an aging population and the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) put on pressure for more public spending on health care.
Perhaps it’s time, then, to say, enough. Let’s prioritize the money that’s flowing into the revenue department at current rates, and see if, over time, we can actually reduce rates and reform the tax code.