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Lawmakers Should Reverse Course on Irresponsible Tax Cuts and Continue Positive Momentum on Reforming Criminal Legal Fees

States across the country made huge progress last year in reversing course on the use of criminal legal fees — eliminating some, or even all, of the fees that can be applied to people who become ensnared in the criminal legal system. But that momentum is being threatened as lawmakers in many states simultaneously pursue costly and irresponsible tax policies.

As my colleague Wes Tharpe noted in a report late last year, 26 states cut their personal and/or corporate income tax rates between 2021 and 2023. These cuts have already cost states billions of dollars and will reduce future revenue by an estimated $111 billion over the next four years. This year, lawmakers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Iowa, and Oklahoma have all expressed a desire to eliminate state income taxes altogether. Such large-scale cuts make it harder for states to adequately invest in schools, public health, affordable housing, and transportation.

Large-scale tax cuts are also at odds with needed reforms like eliminating burdensome criminal legal fees and using other available tax revenue to fund the criminal legal system.

In Oklahoma, for example, Governor Stitt has been vocal about reducing court fines and fees, and lawmakers are considering a bill that would eliminate district attorneys’ supervision fees. But Stitt also wants to cut Oklahoma’s personal income tax, over time aiming for its full elimination. Some in the state have expressed concerns, including one lawmaker who noted, “You’re going to have to fund our courts somehow … You can't eliminate how we pay for courts and then turn around and also cut the income tax." In Missouri, a bill that would have eliminated fines and fees for children in the state’s youth justice system failed to gain traction, but lawmakers are still debating corporate income tax cuts, which would cost the state $900 million a year when fully implemented.

Failing to maintain last year’s momentum on reforming criminal legal fees and enacting costly tax cuts would be the worst of both worlds. Not only would states have less revenue available to fund important public services — many of which help to lower a person's likelihood of engaging with the criminal legal system — but criminal fines and fees have tremendously harmful effects on people’s financial and economic well-being and are incredibly difficult to collect, making them an irresponsible option for funding government services.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to make meaningful progress on unraveling harmful and inefficient criminal legal fees. They should take full advantage and more responsibly fund important state and local services by reversing course on costly tax cuts.