Can rising tide of taxes wash away state deficits?

As state governors study their agendas for the coming year, one item blurs all the rest - their coffers have been drained by the recession. Accordingly, governors and legislators, many of whom won election last fall on pledges to hold down taxes, have either reluctantly changed their tune or soon may do so.

More than three-quarters of the states are either considering or have enacted tax increases in recent months, including several of major proportions.

Post-election legislative sessions late last fall produced new or increased levies in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York.

At least nine other states - Alabama, California, Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia - have enacted either permanent or temporary tax boosts thus far at 1983 lawmaking sessions. And another state, Wisconsin, made permanent a 1982 temporary tax boost.

Many observers decline to speculate about further tax increases in the coming weeks. But some, such as Robert Schleck of Tax Foundation Inc., say this could be ''a record year'' for revenue increase measures.

Jack Lavery, chief economist of Merrill Lynch & Co., noting the fiscal problems most states are facing, forecasts $5 billion in state tax hikes this year. This compares with increases amounting to $2.5 billion in 1981 and $3.5 billion in 1982.

Twenty-two states upped one or more taxes last year, and Karen Benker of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), forecasts what may be a bumper crop of such measures in 1983. ''Rarely is there as much tax activity this early in a year,'' she observes.

Tax packages of various proportions filed by at least half the nation's 50 governors are among the scores of proposals pending in state legislatures, says Elaine Knapp of the Council of State Governments. She adds that a few others are still preparing their tax increase measures.

Proposing even modest tax increases may be politically risky, even distasteful, for some governors. But many have little choice. In most instances they have already cut budgets heavily, making further reductions even more difficult. And unlike the federal government, most states are constitutionally compelled to operate with balanced budgets.

A January NCSL survey found that in order to cope with looming deficits, governors and lawmakers in 40 states either had or were trying to trim fiscal 1983 budgets from what had been authorized earlier.

The fiscal crisis confronting most states stems largely from the recession. But cuts in federal grants, and other factors such as demands for improvements in various state programs also have contributed.

Even states that have come up with enough money to get through the current fiscal year - which in most cases ends June 30 - are looking at new taxes or spending curbs to make it through the next one- or two-year budget cycle.

All but 10 states have had tax proposals before their legislatures. These measures include the extension of temporary personal income and business tax surcharges, increases in the number of items covered by sales taxes, boosts in income, corporate, and sale taxes, and increases in excise taxes on cigarettes, motor fuels, or liquor.

Revenue increase measures approved since January include:

* Sales tax boosts from 3 percent to 4 percent in Idaho and Iowa, and from 5. 4 percent to 6.5 percent in Washington.

* A 1 percent contingency hike in California's current 4.75 percent sales tax. The increase takes effect next fall or in early 1984 if state revenues fall short of expectations.

* Permanent income tax surcharge increases of 90 percent and a temporary public utility tax in Ohio.

* A business and occupations tax increase in Washington state.

* A temporary increase in Rhode Island's personal income tax rate from 21.9 percent of the taxpayer's federal income tax liability to 27.5 percent, and an increase in the state's corporate income tax rate from 8 percent to 9 percent.

* Motor fuels tax hikes from 10 percent to 11 percent in Rhode Island and addition of 5 percent sales tax to the 10.5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax in West Virginia.

* An increase in Alabama's natural gas and oil severance tax rate from 8 to 10 percent.

* Temporary sales tax and cigarette tax increases imposed last year to help meet an impending fiscal crisis were made permanent in Wisconsin.

Late 1982 revenue increase measures include sales tax hikes in Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, and New Jersey; personal income tax boosts in Indiana, Minnesota, and New Jersey; a gasoline tax rise in Michigan; a corporate surcharge on firms in 12 New York counties served by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to help finance the authority's operations.

Personal income tax boosts are being pushed or expected to be introduced shortly in Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. South Carolina lawmakers are weighing a sales tax hike from 4 percent to 5 percent.

Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh (R) is calling for expanding his state's 6 percent sales tax to cover cigarettes, liquor, nonprescription drugs, candy, and entertainment tickets. Also sought are higher levies on certain business profits, including those on gas and oil produced in the state, and the adoption of a system for income tax withholding.

Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R) has sent a revenue package to the Illinois Legislature that would increase the personal income tax from 1.5 percent to 4 percent and the corporate income tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, raise the gasoline tax from 7.5 cents a gallon to 11 cents a gallon, and increase liquor taxes. He also has indicated he might back an increase in the sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent.

Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) wants to keep the state's 10 percent personal income tax surcharge, which was increased from 7 percent. He also wants to keep the sales tax at 6 percent. It was increased from 5 percent at the same time the personal income tax surcharge was raised. He would extend the sales tax to cover magazines. Increases in gasoline and motor vehicle excise levies are similarly proposed to help head off a potential $750 million revenue shortfall over the next two years.

Gov. John Spellman (R) of Washington is readying a new tax package to help balance fiscal 1984-85 budget. In addition, there is some support in the Legislature for imposition of a personal income tax. This tax was recommended by a gubernatorial task force set up to help find ways to deal with the state's revenue needs.

Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard (D) is proposing a permanent boost in the state's personal income tax from 4.6 to 6.1 percent. His fiscal program also includes a new temporary 0.25 percent special debt tax on income.

Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh (R) of Oregon supports a 1 percent net receipts tax on corporate and personal income to help avert a potential fiscal 1984 deficit. Such proposals have been rejected several times in the past and would require voter approval.

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