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Chamber pitches tax policy to lawmakers

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Going into the Missouri General Assembly’s 2018 session, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce is working to ensure laws are passed that benefit local business owners and their employees. This month, the organization that represents 1,500 businesses and more than 110,000 employees released its annual legislative agenda and began actively working in the state capital.

The 14-page document outlines the chamber’s aim for future public policy centered on workforce development and taxation – with underlying themes in state budgeting, education, energy and transportation infrastructure.

Tax freeze
For starters, it’s time to tap the brakes on tax reform, said Sandy Howard, the chamber’s senior vice president of public affairs.

“We are concerned about the state’s long-term revenue stability,” she said. “There are two ways that you can address that. One is to look for new revenue sources. The other is to hold the line on tax cuts. … Our legislative priorities, adopted by our board, call for pausing any broad-based tax cuts.”

The state balance sheet will need time to adjust to the effects of the federal tax code changes recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, Howard said, as well as Missouri’s own Senate Bill 509 – which lowers the personal income tax rate a tenth of a percent each year the general state revenue meets certain goals.

“It is really important to have some of these recent changes go into effect,” she said, “and see what the impact is on the state economy and state budget, before any other broad-based tax cuts are implemented.”

Gov. Eric Greitens on Jan. 25 announced his support for what he called a revenue-neutral plan to lower the income tax rate for 97 percent of Missourians. He is scheduled to appear in Springfield on Jan. 30, as part of a series of events across the state to promote the proposal.

Streamlined sales tax
In the meantime, to pay for a laundry list of spending aspirations, Howard said state leaders will need to find new revenue sources.

“We’re hoping they’ll take a look at a streamlined sales tax – it’s essentially an internet sales tax,” she said.

The concept has been proposed by Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board Inc. – a Wisconsin-based nonprofit run by state legislators and tax administrators – and 24 states have adopted it in some form. It aims to simplify the collection of sales taxes from online retailers through standardized practices, according to StreamlinedSalesTax.org.

At least four bills have been introduced this year to implement a streamlined sales tax, one of them by Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.

“Our tax laws have not kept up with the changing economy,” Howard said in reference to the inconsistent collection of state sales taxes by online retailers.

“The value of something like this is it levels the playing field for local retailers. Because, today, they have a terrible competitive disadvantage.”

New investments also should be made in the state’s transportation system, Howard said.

“We are seventh in the country in terms of miles of roads and bridges that we have to maintain,” she said. “But our state funding is at 47th in the country, based on the state investment in transportation. And that is unfortunate, because it’s one of Missouri’s natural aspects, based on our location at the center of the country.”

House Bill 1479, introduced this year by Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, would instate a streamlined sales tax and dedicate the money to the state road fund.

Mind on the future
Adjusting tax rates might be a hot topic in national politics, but Howard said Missouri does not have a reputation for burdensome taxes.

“We don’t often hear that it is our tax rates that are preventing employers from investing in our state,” she said. “We hear more about the workforce, more about transportation infrastructure – the regulatory climate.”

Bolstering training for the state’s workforce is a high priority.

“That is far and away the greatest need that we hear from employers,” she said, noting demand for science-minded employees as well as skilled laborers. “We think that’s critical for employers who could grow if they had the workforce that they needed, but also for the employees who could benefit by improving their skill set, and being better equipped for the jobs that are available and able to reach their full potential.”

The chamber’s agenda specifically asks for a reauthorization of and increase in spending for the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Skilled Workforce Missouri program. It provides assessment of businesses that want to expand in or enter the state, and then assists businesses with talent recruitment and training, according to DED resource website OpenForBiz.Mo.gov.

Springfield-area politicians have shown interest in the cause, Howard said.

“Jay Wasson, the senator from Nixa, he has been a true champion for workforce development, and we’re so grateful for his efforts,” she said.

Wasson has introduced three bills to maintain and refine the Missouri Works Program, which helps businesses access capital through withholdings or tax credits. The program, enacted in 2013, is scheduled to expire in 2019, but Wasson’s bills would extend it to 2030.

Advocacy
The chamber document lists a number of suggested funding increases in education, while asserting that curriculum expectations must be raised and local control of schools should be protected.

In the fiscal 2019 budget proposal Greitens released Jan. 22, the governor suggested a $6.5 million expansion in need- and merit based scholarships, while hinting at $70 million in administration cuts at the state’s four universities.

In Missouri State University President Clif Smart’s weekly blog, called Clif’s Notes, he said the cuts could result in tuition and fee increases.

“These recommendations include a 10.12 percent cut to Missouri State University’s core operating appropriation,” he said, estimating MSU would receive $8.6 million less than last year and $10.3 million less than the 2001 budget.

“To put that in perspective, our enrollment has increased by over 6,000 students since 2001.”

The newest Springfield chamber legislative agenda was sent this month to every statewide official, Howard said, but it’s not enough to just send a wish list to the state capital.

“We have someone up there every week. We are weighing in on bills,” she said. “We’ll testify on bills.”

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