Supreme Court to Decide If Tax Breaks for State and Local Government Retirees Are Unlawful

This case currently affects only two states (West Virginia and Connecticut). If the Supreme Court approves West Virginia’s law, other state legislatures might follow suit.

BLOG POST | Sep 6, 2018
By Lisa Soronen

by Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center 

In Dawson v. Steager, the Supreme Court will decide whether states may give some retired state and local government employees a bigger tax break on retirement benefits than retired federal employees.

West Virginia taxes the government-provided retirement income of most local, state, and federal employees. While retired federal employees and most state and local government employees may exempt up to $2,000 of retirement benefits from their taxable income, certain state and local police officers, sheriffs, and firefighters can exempt all of their benefits. This group comprises about 2 percent of all state government retirees.

James Dawson, a former U.S. Marshal, sued West Virginia alleging that preferential treatment for state and local law enforcement officials violates 4 U.S.C. § 111. This federal statute allows states to tax federal retirement benefits only “if the taxation does not discriminate . . . because of the source of the pay or compensation.”

In Davis v. Michigan Department of Treasury (1989), the Supreme Court held that Michigan’s tax scheme, where all state retirement benefits were exempt from state taxation while all federal retirement benefits were taxed, violated 4 U.S.C. § 111.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held that West Virginia’s law doesn’t discriminate against federal retirees. The court distinguished this case from Davis on the grounds that the West Virginia tax exemption was not a blanket exemption for all state employees, but it was “intended to give a benefit to a very narrow class of former state and local employees.” The court also reasoned that federal retirees receive a tax benefit identical to the majority of state retirees and a better benefit than non-state retirees, so there was no intent to discriminate against federal employees.

It is unclear how much of an impact this case will have on other states. The United States notes that Massachusetts and New Mexico state courts have upheld state and local employee retirement-benefit exemptions similar to West Virginia’s, while courts in Missouri, Arkansas, and Colorado have struck them down. It appears, however, that as of 2015 only West Virginia and Connecticut (see Table 2) disfavor federal government employees versus state employees in exempting taxing retirement benefits.

It may be that state legislatures have rejected providing more favorable tax treatment to state and local retirees than federal retirees for policy reasons. It is also possible that state legislatures have not done so because of uncertainty in the law. Either way, states will have a better idea of what is lawful following the Supreme Court’s decision in this case.

Related Resources  

State and Local Governments Win Online Sales Tax Case. In this blog post from 2018, Lisa Soronen reviews the court's ruling in a case on whether state and local governments can collect sales tax from online retailers.

Tax Bill: What You Should Know. This blog post breaks down the provisions of the 2017 tax law that affect local governments.

Leadership and Innovation: Encouraging Residents to Vote for a Tax Increase. In another 2018 blog post, ICMA looked at three communities and how their local government managers and staff encourage residents to vote for much-needed tax increases.


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