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All Contents © 2018The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By David Muhlbaum, Senior Online Editor
| February 28, 2017
Funny thing about our federal system of government: There’s that complicated tax code that Uncle Sam keeps and the IRS enforces.
Then there’s an even larger patchwork of taxation schemes crafted by 50 state legislatures, all coming up with new ways to extract coin from their citizenry (or create social policy through tax breaks). Some of these regimens are, well, quirky.
We’ve found ten of the strangest from across the land.
Zirpe/Dladek via Wikimedia Commons
Maine legislators, a flinty bunch, tax anyone who deals in their official state fruit—wild blueberries, at the rate of $0.015 per pound. The resulting revenues—almost $1.7 million to state coffers in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016—are used to promote the crop and agricultural research.
The state also taxes harvesters and processors of hard-shell clams (known in the state as mahogany quahogs) at $1.25 a bushel, but state revenues for that are much lower. The taxes are levied at the wholesale level, but naturally, they end up being passed on to the consumer.
Just as Maine taxes its blueberries and clams, Virginia taxes its … sheep. The Old Dominion levies a $0.50 excise tax on every lamb or sheep sold in the state.
Both the Maine and Virginia taxes are examples of “checkoff” programs that collect taxes from an industry to fund promotional campaigns for the products. National commodity checkoff programs, authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have brought you campaigns such as “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Got Milk?”
But the Virginia program is extremely modest by comparison, having collected only about $11,000 in fiscal year 2015. The funds go to the Virginia Sheep Industry Board, which spends them largely on predator control.
Eager to see married couples stay that way, South Carolina’s legislators have encouraged those tying the knot to take a premarriage counseling course by offering a tax credit.
A couple who sits through (together, natch) a minimum of six hours with a licensed professional or active member of the clergy (or their designee, if “trained and skilled in premarital preparation”) can take a $50 tax credit when filing jointly once married.
The law was passed in 2006. Keeping up with the times, in 2015, the South Carolina Department of Revenue updated the relevant tax form to change who could claim it from “a man and a woman” to “a couple.”
All states tax property: New Hampshire taxes it if you move it around. Well, if you move an awful lot of it around.
The Granite State is, of course, a rocky place, with plenty of quarries and gravel pits. And so the state has an excavation tax at a rate of at $.02 per cubic yard of earth excavated (if more than 1,000 cubic yards are moved). While this is primarily aimed at industrial extraction (most states levy severance taxes on coal, oil and other mineral wealth), New Hampshire specifically notes that the tax is due even if you're just giving away the dirt. So you can put up a “FREE FILL” sign and hope someone takes it, but you’ll still owe the tax man.
The Sunflower State is among a bevy of jurisdictions that allows sale of lower-alcohol beer (the term of art is “cereal malt beverage”) in convenience and grocery stores.
But Kansas also taxes “3.2” beer differently—and there lies the rub. At a liquor store, all products, including, say, a conventional six-pack of Budweiser (with 5% alcohol by volume), are taxed at a special rate of 8%. At the convenience store down the street, however, ordinary sales tax is levied on the lower-alcohol, cereal malt beverage bottle of Bud. That often ends up being more than the 8% alcohol tax. In Pomona, Kans., for example, the effective rate on the weaker beer would be 10%. Go figure.
When it comes to taxation, the rule is generally the stronger the booze, the higher the tax (that's why Kansas's beer tax scheme is an anomaly). California follows that curve, but at 100 proof, you’d better be ready to pay through the nose.
Distilled spirits are taxed at $3.30 a gallon if below 100 proof, or 50% alcohol. Go over that, as with some “barrel proof” whiskeys or Cruzan 151 rum, and the tax doubles to $6.60. Maryland also notes the 100 proof point, but it only adds 1.5 cents per proof, per gallon, to the relatively modest liquor tax of $1.50 per gallon, taking the levy on the Cruzan to $2.27 per gallon.
Djzanni via Wikipedia
While most states have programs that provide some property breaks for the disabled, Hawaii's laws are notable for calling out a specific ailment: Hansen's Disease, better known as leprosy.
Why? For decades -- in fact, until 1969 -- the state had a policy that banished thousands of sufferers to an isolated area on the island of Molokai; a handful still live there by choice, in what is now a national park. The disease is now curable.
Hawaii has sought to make amends for the policy, exempting the first $50,000 of real property's value from taxation for those with the disease, the same break as for residents who are blind, deaf or totally disabled. Compensation Hansens' patients receive for their ailment is also exempt from state income tax.
Entertainment venues pay a business tax to the Silver State ranging from 5% to 10% on admissions fees (and food, drink and merchandise sales) whenever there’s live entertainment going on.
There are exemptions, however, including this one, for businesses that provide " . . . Instrumental or vocal music, which may or may not be supplemented with commentary by the musicians, in a restaurant, lounge or similar area if such music does not routinely rise to the volume that interferes with casual conversation and if such music would not generally cause patrons to watch as well as listen."
So your piano player can play “Feelings” softly and even crack a few jokes, tax-free, for your business. Just make sure they're not funny enough to attract attention.
Want to own a plush or fuel-thirsty ride? That’ll cost you extra in the Garden State.
Cars that cost $45,000 or more or have a combined EPA fuel-mileage average of 19 or below pay an additional 0.4% on top of New Jersey’s 7% sales tax.
In the Land of Enchantment, making it to 100 years has a payoff beyond the chance that Al Roker will wish you a happy birthday on the "Today" show: You don’t have to pay state income tax anymore.
If you’ve been physically present in the state for at least six months and a resident of the state on the last day of the year, and you’re not someone’s dependent, you’re eligible. You’ll still need to file, and there are some complications if you’re married and your spouse doesn’t qualify.
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