Tug on taxpayer purse strings is gentler in many states this year

This may be the year millions of American taxpayers have been waiting for. While state tax boosts aren't exactly a thing of the past, the number of increases in the past five months is down substantially.

And with many legislatures winding down their 1984 sessions, prospects for more tax hikes in the next seven months are increasingly remote.

Those close to the state financial scene are reluctant to suggest that the squeeze on state coffers is over, but they generally agree that new taxation this year will fall far short of the record $7.5 billion in 1983 and the $3.5 billion in 1982 and $2.5 billion in 1981.

Since January only 11 states have raised one or more levies. And five states - Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin - have lowered some , either through legislative action or by allowing temporary increases to lapse. Similar moves are on the way in Delaware, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

By contrast, last year 39 states raised one or more taxes and reductions of even modest proportions were virtually nonexistent.

Contributing to the current less taxing environment is the desire of lawmakers to please, or at least not displease, voters in an election year.

In addition, many states now have small surpluses in their treasuries resulting from the improved economy.

Robert Schleck of the Washington D.C.-based Tax Foundation Inc. declined to speculate about the outcome of pending tax legislation, but said that ''even if all proposed increases and decreases are approved, the net gain in revenue produced would be only around $1.15 billion.''

Some states, including several that had major tax increases in the past 17 months, are better off than others, observes Steven Gold of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

''Most of the states raising taxes this year generally did not have major tax increases last year,'' he notes.

Particularly in need of increased revenue are Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, three states heavily dependent on income from oil and natural gas exploration, which has been slowed considerably by falling prices.

Oklahoma lawmakers, who last November rejected $650 million in tax increases recommended by Gov. George Nigh, this spring approved a $260 million revenue measure.

It includes raising the sales tax from 2 percent to 3 percent, hiking the gasoline tax from 6.58 to 9 cents a gallon, increasing liquor taxes, and making cigarettes subject to the state sales tax as well as the cigarette tax.

The year's biggest tax boosts so far are in Louisiana, where a $136 million hike enacted last December was followed by a $732 million tax package early this spring. And on May 30 Gov. Edwin W. Edwards proposed additional raises projected to yield another $293 million annually.

Increases put on the books since January in Louisiana include a sales tax boost from 3 to 4 percent, doubling the gasoline tax from 8 to 16 cents a gallon , hiking the cigarette tax from 11 to 16 cents a pack, and boosts of varying amounts in liquor and corporate income taxes.

The latest gubernatorial proposal would drop the gasoline tax to 12 cents a gallon, double the Louisiana corporate-franchise tax, and reduce the sales-tax exemption on personal income taxes.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Texas, lawmakers called into special session on June 4 face a $1.3 billion tax-boost package to improve public education and roads.

The proposal, filed by Gov. Mark White, includes raising the sales tax from 4 to 5 percent and doubling the gasoline tax from 5 to 10 cents a gallon.

Texas was one of but 11 states that made it through last year without a levy boost.

Besides Louisiana and Oklahoma, only Tennessee has raised its sales tax since January. By contrast 18 states boosted their sales taxes during 1983. The Tennessee increase from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent is accompanied by a four-year phase-out of sales tax on food.

Other 1984 state levy increases include gasoline taxes from 11 to 13 cents a gallon in Alabama, from 14 to 15 cents in Connecticut, and 13 to 14 cents in Utah; cigarette tax hikes from 16 to 16.5 cents a pack in Alabama and 13 to 15 cents in Arizona, and subjecting cigarettes in Maine to the sales tax as well as the state cigarette tax; and a rise in the personal income tax from 16 percent to 26.5 percent of the taxpayers' federal income tax liability in Vermont.

Arizona and Idaho have made permanent their 1983 temporary boosts in their sales tax. The Arizona levy now stays at 5 percent instead of expiring on June 30. In Idaho the rate, which went from 3 percent to 4.5 percent last year, now drops to a fixed 4 percent.

Colorado lawmakers, who similarly boosted their sales tax 0.5 percent for a year, scheduled to end June 30, have postponed until July 31 the rollback to 3 percent.

South Dakota, whose gasoline tax was to have dropped back to 12 cents a gallon on April 30 with expiration of a temporary 1-cent boost imposed two years ago, froze the rate at 13 cents.

Most of this year's levy reductions and those in the works involve personal income taxes.

Rhode Island lawmakers, for example, lowered the rate from 26 percent of taxpayers' federal income tax liability to 24.9 percent.

Minnesota and Wisconsin legislators phased out temporary 10 percent income-tax boosts, imposed last year, that had been scheduled to run until 1985.

The Illinois, corporate income tax automatically rolls back to 4 percent, from 4.9 percent, and the personal income tax 3 percent to 2.5 percent, on June 30.

A phase-down of the Pennsylvania personal income tax, from 2.45 percent to 2. 35 percent, is scheduled July 1, and if Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh has his way, a reduction in the state's corporate income tax from 10.5 percent to 9.5 percent will be on the way, too.

Michigan's personal income tax, raised last year from 5.35 percent to 6.1 percent, is scheduled to drop to the former rate on Oct. 1. But Gov. James Blanchard is seeking to speed the rollback to July 1.

In Delaware, Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV is seeking a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the state's personal income tax and an increase in personal exemptions plus a drop in the top levy rate from 19.8 percent to 14 percent.

A temporary 0.5 percent hike in the Nebraska sales tax expired on March 1, when the the rate returned to 3.5 percent.

The latest tax-reduction move is here in Massachusetts where the state senate June 5 overwhelmingly approved a series of personal income-tax trims totaling $ 82 million.

But Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has indicated he is unwilling to go along with such a measure, which the Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation has blasted as something the state cannot afford.

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