local option sales tax
Forty-six states currently impose a statewide sales tax of some kind. In most of these states the rate is not uniform throughout but varies among cities and counties. This is because 37 states allow for a “local option sales tax,” a process where an individual locality may choose to add a surcharge to the statewide tax rate. Local governments frequently use local option taxes to help defer the costs of capital improvements or special projects.
Kentucky may soon become the 38th state to allow this practice. On Feb. 12, the Kentucky House of Representatives voted 57 – 38 to allow localities to impose their own sales and use taxes. This, of course, is only a first step. The Kentucky Senate must still approve this measure as well as a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution. The constitutional amendment is necessary because Kentucky’s legislature does not currently have the legal authority to permit local option taxes.
Under the proposed amendment, which the Kentucky House approved by a 62 – 35 vote, the legislature may permit cities and counties to impose a sales tax of up to 1%. Any such levy would be added to the existing statewide Kentucky sales tax of 6%. Any proposed local option sales tax must be separately approved by the voters of the city or county, and the net proceeds of any tax must go to “the completion of capital projects” or servicing the debt on such projects, which can include anything from public utility lines to a sports facility. The local sales tax would therefore only last as long as necessary to pay for the approved capital project – but in some cases that could mean up to 10 years.
If approved by the Senate, the constitutional amendment will appear on the 2016 general election ballot. If voters approve the amendment, localities could begin the process of implementing a local option sales tax starting in January 2017. Cities and counties could then put sales tax proposals before local voters beginning with the November 2018 general election.
Despite the support of a solid majority of the Kentucky House and Gov. Steve Beshear, the local option sales tax’s future remains unclear in the state senate. Because a constitutional amendment is involved, a three-fifths majority of the 38 senators must vote in favor of the House’s proposals. Senate President Robert Stivers told the media he personally supports the local option tax but was unsure how the majority of his Republican caucus would vote.
The local option tax has muddled traditional party lines. In the Democratic-controlled House, the Republican leadership supported the local option tax. But many Democratic lawmakers spoke out against the measures, criticizing them as imposing a “regressive” tax on poorer Kentuckians. Likewise, several Republican candidates hoping to run against Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, in this November’s election, denounced the measures as an unwarranted tax increase. Supporters reply they only want to give local governments the option of using the sales tax to raise funds, and that voters would retain the final say.
S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog Bonham’s Cases.
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