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Vermont, known for tackling progressive issues, has a new goal in sight: Adding new taxes that would target its wealthiest residents, aiming to tackle growing income inequality and to ensure that the rich are paying their fair share. 

Lawmakers in the state this week introduced a pair of bills that would add two wealth taxes. The first would imposed a 3% tax on individuals with adjusted gross income of more than $500,000. The second would add a tax on capital gains on assets above $10 million.

Vermont isn’t the first state to propose wealth taxes, with eight states last year proposing adding levies on the rich with the goal of raising billions to fund social programs. There’s also been push on the national front, from the likes of President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to create a federal wealth tax. 

Yet while polling suggests most Americans are in favor of raising taxes on the rich, wealth tax proposals so far have failed to gain much legislative traction. One exception is Massachusetts, which in 2023 instituted a so-called “millionaire’s tax” that added a 4% levy on annual income above that threshold. The revenue raised from the tax is paying for free school meals, among other uses.

Rich getting richer even in Vermont

Vermont may not have the same huge wealth disparities as bigger states like Massachusetts or California, but inequality is growing in the New England state, which has a population of about 650,000 people. 

“Vermont has significant unmet needs and must raise more revenue to adequately address those needs,” Vermont Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, who is sponsoring the bills, told CBS MoneyWatch. “At the same time, we know that economic inequality is increasing: The wealthiest Vermont residents are getting wealthier, while wages for the majority of Vermont residents are not keeping up with rising costs of living.”

The tax system in Vermont “consolidates wealth at the top, which prevents the state from raising sufficient revenue while placing an undue burden on middle-class families,” added Kornheiser, a Democrat. “Our tax system additionally leaves a significant amount of wealth untouched.”

Across the U.S., the rich generally pay a lower share of their income in taxes than low earners, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). A recent analysis by the left-leaning think tank found that the average effective state and local tax rate paid by residents to their home state is 7.2% for the top 1% of earners; for the lowest-earning 20%, that rate tops 11%.

In Vermont, the top 1% pay a combined effective tax rate of 10.1%, while residents with income between $83,300 and $135,900 have a tax rate of about 10.5%, ITEP found.

“The wealthiest Vermonters are paying lower rates than some middle-income earners,” ITEP research director Carl Davis said. “We know that wealthy people receive a huge share of overall income, and so choosing to tax all that income at lower rates can really impact states’ ability to fund schools, parks, infrastructure and every other public service.”

Would rich people flee?

Vermont has a Democratic legislature, while Gov. Phil Scott is a moderate Republican who has said he won’t approve measures that would raise taxes. He’s also expressed concern that wealth taxes could push some well-heeled Vermonters to move to lower-tax states, according to Vermont Public Radio.

But it’s not clear whether the rich are motivated to move solely for tax purposes. Some Americans have shifted to low-tax states in recent years, such as Florida and Texas, but those people could be opting to move for factors including a better job or warmer weather.

ITEP’s Davis said wealthy Americans actually move less frequently than the broader population “because they’ve already found economic success.” Instead, the people who move to new states tend to be people who are pursuing better wages, cheaper housing or want to be in a warmer climate. 

“We’ve all heard the anecdotes about rich people moving because they didn’t like their tax bill, but the data tell us that these stories are exceptions, and it’s not happening on a wide scale,” Davis said. 

At least some research supports that view. In a 2016 study that examined the tax records of every U.S. millionaire over more than a decade, Stanford University and U.S. Treasury Department researchers found that only 2.4% of millionaires migrated to another state over that period, compared with 2.9% for the population at large.

“The most striking finding of this research is how little elites seem willing to move to exploit tax advantages across state lines in the United States,” they wrote at the time.

Are you ready for 2024 tax season? Experts breaks down what you need to know before filing


Another hurdle facing the proposals would be putting a wealth tax on capital gains. Most retirement accounts would be exempt, but investment accounts above $10 million that incurred an unrealized gain of $1 million — meaning the account rose to $11 million in value despite the owner selling no stocks or assets — would pay the top income tax rate of 8.75%. Realized gains above $10 million would also pay the new wealth tax. 

A case now before the Supreme Court examines whether unrealized gains are subject to taxation.

“But there’s no reason to expect that case to impact state taxing authority,” noted Davis. 

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