Illinois' sin taxes are some of the highest in country

by Joe Barnas, Writer
Illinois Policy

Many New Year’s resolutions may include kicking bad habits, but even when the government tries to curb smoking, drinking and caloric intake by imposing one of the heaviest tax burdens it’s still a matter of personal choice.

Excise taxes have failed to improve Illinoisans’ health while creating an undue burden for those with the least. But lawmakers have yet to kick the habit.

If Illinoisans’ celebratory excess this holiday season is to be followed by resolution to be better next year, maybe politicians, too, need to end the bender and cut back their penchant for excise taxes.

A 2019 study from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found Illinois captured the sixth-highest amount per capita in excise taxes during fiscal year 2016.

Excise taxes are a “tax on a specific good or activity” and include “sin taxes” such as those on alcohol, tobacco, gambling and marijuana.

In fiscal year 2016, Illinois collected an average of $788 from every person in state and local excise taxes, according to the Tax Foundation. This exceeded each of Illinois’ neighbors by at least $100 per person.

Illinois’ myriad excise taxes are compounded by those imposed by municipalities at the local level. Chicago, for example, recently levied a 9% “amusement tax” on concerts and sporting events – which it expanded to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

Illinois has seen many new and increased taxes since the study, including new taxes on recreational marijuana, legal sports betting, parking garages, as well as a doubled gas tax, increased tax on e-cigarettes, a new $1 per pack fee on cigarettes, a progressive tax on gambling proceeds – and that’s at the state level alone.

Politicians use sin taxes to generate quick tax revenue while looking to curb behavior advocates deem undesirable. But those objectives are at odds with each other: If a sin tax successfully discourages residents from purchasing the item it’s been applied to, tax revenues from those products and services are expected to decline.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center found that, despite Illinois’ statewide alcohol tax hikes in 1999 and 2009, the increases had no significant impact on drunk driving fatalities.

Sin taxes are also some of the least reliable revenue sources. Tax Foundation research from 2017 showed inflation-adjusted net collections from cigarette taxes demonstrate a pattern of brief revenue spikes immediately after an increase, followed by significant long-term dips. Tobacco use has steadily and significantly declined since the 1960s, so cigarette sin taxes are extremely unreliable as a revenue source. Data from the Illinois Department of Revenue shows the Prairie State’s 2012 cigarette tax hike fell more than $120 million short of projections.

In another example, promises of new revenue fell short after Illinois legalized video poker and slots in 2009 – slapping it with a tax to help fund a $31 billion infrastructure spending program. State lawmakers projected state revenues to reach $1 billion by November 2013. In reality, the state brought in less than $70 million by then. Five years later, total state revenues were supposed to rise to $2.5 billion, but state coffers only saw $1.4 billion by November 2018.

Excise taxes are also largely regressive. While well-to-do residents may not need to tighten their belts to afford high excise taxes, low-income consumers suffer most under them.

Plus, Illinois’ exorbitant alcohol and cigarette taxes will surely move border-town residents this New Year’s to cross over to neighboring states for friendlier prices. According to at least one estimate, Illinois loses up to $30 million annually on cross-border alcohol sales.

Soda taxes have proven the regressive nature of sin taxes, according to the Tax Foundation – but that didn’t stop Cook County from imposing its own highly unpopular soda tax, while exaggerating its potential public health benefits. The tax was eventually repealed following backlash.

Not only has taxing Illinoisans’ appetites failed to rescue the state from its fiscal plunge, it’s also hurt those with the least.

This new year, Springfield lawmakers should look to real pension reform instead of regressive tax hikes to fix the state’s financial problems. Illinoisans should be left to fix their bad habits at their own discretion.

Joe Barnas is a writer at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that promotes responsible government and free market principles. Originally published December 23, 2020.
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