January 23, 2012

Check out the Citizens for Tax Justice Digest

Although this blog is now inactive, we are postings lot of new and dynamic content at our new blog the "Tax Justice Digest."

Go check it out now: http://www.ctj.org/taxjusticedigest/

December 23, 2010

The Wall Street Journal and "Missing Millionaires": Evolution of a Lie

We've all heard Mark Twain's quip that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." For those of us who think accurate statistics need to be a guidepost for sound economic policy, this line rankles a bit-- if people distrust all statistics, then how can we ever gain popular support for sound policies? But it's much easier to understand why Twain's putdown rings true with so many Americans when you read the latest anti-tax diatribe from the Wall Street Journal's editorial board. In an editorial about the alleged disappearance of Oregon's upper-income taxpayers in response to a recent tax hike, they trot out this old chestnut:

All of this is an instant replay of what happened in Maryland in 2008 when the legislature in Annapolis instituted a millionaire tax. There roughly one-third of the state's millionaire households vanished from the tax rolls after rates went up.
The Journal first broke this story in an editorial in May of 2009, when they breathlessly declared that "[o]ne-third of the millionaires have disappeared from Maryland tax rolls" between 2007, when the state increased its top income tax rate on high-income families, and 2008. This was, as it turns out, not even close to true. A report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, published a few days after the Journal's editorial, showed that in fact, the most likely explanation for the decline in the number of Marylanders with taxable incomes over $1 million during this period was that they stopped being millionaires: while preliminary data available at the time did show the number of millionaire filers dropping by 13% between 2007 and 2008 (far less than the "roughly one-third" claimed by the Journal), the same data also showed a sharp increase in the number of filers earning less than $1 million, and a net increase in the overall filer population.

To be clear, the data available at the time couldn't be used to say anything definitive about what really happened to the missing millionaires-- all anyone really knew is that they had either gotten poor, or moved, or died. But the fine folks at the Journal were all too happy to give the impression that nearly a third of the state's millionaires had hopped a Lear Jet for Florida. And dozens of prominent and less-prominent blogs and news outlets obediently repeated the "one-thirds" claim as indisputable fact.

Almost a year later, in March of 2010, the Journal swooped in for another driveby lesson in supply-side Maryland economics. This time, their claim was understandably less bold:
One-in-eight millionaires who filed a Maryland tax return in 2007 filed no return in 2008.
One-in-eight is 12%-- so the good news is that they were now at least using the correct number ITEP had identified a year earlier, in lieu of the clearly-inaccurate "one third" figure. But the bad news is that by this time, the bean-counters in Maryland's tax-collection agency had released revised numbers which showed quite clearly what had really happened to upper-income filers during the year in question. And again, an ITEP report gave the real scoop: in fact, of the millionaires who filed as Maryland residents in 2007, just 6.8 percent had not filed as Maryland residents in 2008, far below the 12% figure the Journal was reporting (and, of course WAY below the "one-third" figure the Journal had originally touted).

6.8% of millionaires is still bigger than zero, of course, so that might seem like a problem. But, as the same ITEP report noted, you could sensibly ask what amount of millionaire mobility was normal in Maryland in the pre-income-tax-hike years. The answer: in the seven years before the enactment of the tax hike in question, an average of 5.6 percent of Maryland’s millionaire filing population moved out from one year to the next.

So after all that brouhaha, the "smoking gun" in Maryland was that in a normal year, 5.6 percent of Maryland millionaire filers move, or die, or for other reasons stop filing in Maryland. In the year following the income tax hike, that number nudged up slightly to 6.8 percent.
Which meant that at most, what the Journal was fussing about was 1.2 percent of Maryland millionaires.

This question stopped being interesting for Maryland policymakers earlier this year when they decided to allow their high-end income tax hike (which was temporary) to expire as scheduled.
But it became interesting to the Journal again when another state, Oregon, enacted similar legislation. And so it happened that in an editorial ostensibly analyzing the impact of Oregon's proposal on the number of millionaires in that state (which ITEP, clearly irritated at this line of argument, promptly took apart here), they slipped in the old "one-third" canard to bolster their claim that mass millionaire migration is the inevitable outcome of hiking state income taxes on the rich. Here it is, one more time:
All of this is an instant replay of what happened in Maryland in 2008 when the legislature in Annapolis instituted a millionaire tax. There roughly one-third of the state's millionaire households vanished from the tax rolls after rates went up.

And, because the Wall Street Journal said so, once again a drumbeat of "blogs" and tweeters have echoed the totally-false "one-third" claim.

Some statistics are accurate. Others are misleading. And others are simply, demonstrably, wrong. The Journal's mystifying insistence on repeating an assertion that they've previously acknowledged was wrong could just be the result of an early holiday vacation for the fact-checking crew at the WSJ editorial board, if any such crew exists. But it's uncontestably what Twain would have called a "damned lie." Hopefully policymakers in Oregon (and Maryland) will recognize it as such.

August 10, 2010

Here is why "Meet the Press" isn't worth listening to

From Sunday's edition, in which David Gregory tries, and tries, and tries to get John Boehner to answer the f***ing question at hand, which happens to be an eminently answerable one (do tax cuts pay for themselves). And then stops trying.

MR. GREGORY: ... I'm sorry, you're -- that -- you're not,
you're not being responsive to a specific point, which is how can you be for cutting the deficit and also cutting taxes, as well, when they're not paid for?

REP. BOEHNER: Listen, you can't raise taxes in the middle of a weak economy without risking the double-dip in this recession. President Obama's favorite Republican economist, Mark Zandi, came out several weeks ago and made it clear that raising taxes at this point in, in the economy is a very bad idea.

MR. GREGORY: But do you agree that tax cuts cannot be paid for...

REP. BOEHNER: You cannot balance the budget without a...

MR. GREGORY: But tax cuts are not paid for, is that correct?

REP. BOEHNER: I am not for raising taxes on the American people in a soft economy.

MR. GREGORY: That's not the question, Leader Boehner. The question...

REP. BOEHNER: And the people that the president wants to tax...

MR. GREGORY: ...is, are tax cuts paid for or not?

REP. BOEHNER: Listen, what you're trying to do is get into this Washington game and their funny accounting over there. You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America and to get the economy going again. If we want to solve the budget problem, we've got to have a healthy economy and we have to get our arms around the runaway spending that's going on in Washington, D.C.

MR. GREGORY: I just want to clarify this. I mean, if you -- I'm relying on what Chairman Greenspan said. Maybe -- if you're accusing him of funny Washington games. He says that tax cuts that aren't paid for are not -- they are not cutting the deficit, that they are not actually paid for, it's borrowed money. And so do you believe tax cuts pay for themselves or not?

REP. BOEHNER: I do believe that we've got to get more money in the hands of small businesses and American families to get our economy going again, and the only way to get that economy going again is to do that and to get our arms around the spending.

MR. GREGORY: All right. [Moves on to another topic.]

So why was this exchange even worth HAVING?

August 09, 2010

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August 03, 2010

Ever wonder what the GOP alternative to Obama's tax plan is?

Wonder no more: a new report from Citizens for Tax Justice examines the "Economic Freedom Act," which would add an additional $7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade while managing to give the poorest 80 percent of Americans just 12 percent of the tax cuts in 2012 and thereafter.

Among the plan's notable features:
-complete elimination of the income tax on capital gains;
-estate tax repeal;
-eliminating about 3/4 of the corporate income tax;
-a temporary cut in the payroll tax.

CTJ's report suggests that the bill should instead be referred to as the "Endless Borrowing Act," with cause.

There's no indication, of course, that this bill's going to go anywhere. And it's not even accurate to say that this is "the Republican alternative to Obama's tax plan," since the equally entertaining tax cuts proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan are still out there in the ether somewhere.

But the fact that otherwise responsible lawmakers would introduce this bill without specifying where $7 trillion in spending cuts are going to come from suggests that these guys aren't taking the exercise very seriously.

January 30, 2010

Nevada GOP Gubernatorial Candidate: Scrap the Caps

GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Montandon is making his views on Nevada property tax reform known-- and so far they all seem quite sensible.

As reported by the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Montandon thinks:
(1) it's absurd that Nevada remains the only state that values real property for tax purposes based on depreciated value (which depends primarily on how old your house is) rather than market value;
(2) the "tax caps" enacted a few years ago, which restrict the amount by which a property's tax liability can increase each year to 3 percent for residential properties, were (and remain) a bad idea;
(3) property needs to be valued in a systematic and professional manner. (Right now, as is becoming increasingly clear, different localities are using different standards of valuation.)

Caveats: I'm paraphrasing, and things #1 and things #3 shouldn't be that controversial anyway.
But saying thing #1 amounts to repudiating the big property tax cuts Nevada enacted in 1981 to head off a Proposition 13-style tax revolt, and that takes some guts-- even if it's obviously correct.

It's to be expected, maybe, that a guy coming from a local government background (he was mayor of North Las Vegas) will have a critical stance toward state-imposed constraints on local taxing authority, but still. Bottom line is that Montandon is saying precisely the things that ought to be said about Nevada's past, and hopeful future, property tax changes.

December 22, 2009

Can Louisiana Double Its Gas Tax?

In January, Louisiana lawmakers will be hearing a lot about exactly how big that state's transportation funding shortfall is, as a committee releases the findings of a long-term study of this problem. But House Transportation Committee Vice-Chairman Hollis Downs (R) gave a sneak preview yesterday.
Louisiana needs $750 million per year in new revenue to address road and bridge needs, the vice-chairman of the House Transportation Committee said Monday.
To put this in context, Louisiana raises a bit less than this annually from its entire gasoline tax right now. So if the money were all coming from own-source gas tax revenues, Louisiana would have to more than double its gas tax to meet its needs.

Of course, the state's transportation funding doesn't really work that way. The feds kick in a fair amount, and state vehicle fees, tolls and general fund revenue fill in the gaps. But the size of the annual gap still should give pause to any Louisiana lawmakers who think they've got a budget surplus.

Hawaii: A Budgetary Shell Game, or Just Train Robbery?

This week Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle released the outline of her budget proposal for next year. It's not a pretty picture: the two most prominent tax policy changes in the Lingle plan are a money grab from county governments and a money grab from... the future.

It's true: following up on a similar threat last year, the state would simply stop allocating revenue from the "Transient Accomodations Tax," as the Hawaii hotel tax is known, to counties. The law says that just under half of all TAT revenues should be allocated to the counties. Under the Lingle plan, the state would simply not do that next year, and would instead keep the money to help balance the state budget. Of course, this would leave counties with a budgetary hole of their own, which they'd have to patch by either hiking property taxes or cutting spending. A great deal for the state, and it's only a bad deal for those Hawaii residents who live within a county. Which is to say, all of them.

House Ways and Means Chairwoman Donna Mercado Kim thinks this is actually a pretty good policy. How, you ask? Here's the money quote:
It's a re-occurring pot of money, which is good.
That's right. Once you've taken the counties' lunch money in one year, you can go right back and do it again as long as you want! This isn't really what advocates of sustainable taxation have in mind when they urge states to find recurring (as opposed to one-time) revenue sources...

The second half of the Lingle budget's tax plan amounts to sending an IOU to next year's budget. Under Lingle's proposal, any income tax refunds due as a result of April filings wouldn't be paid until after the next fiscal year begins on July 1. That way, these refunds don't count towards this year's budget. Who are the losers under this plan? Well, anyone who's owed a refund when they file their 2009 taxes, since these guys will basically be asked to give an interest-free loan to the state until July 1. And more fundamentally, whichever legislators are around to deal with the mess during the next fiscal year, since really all this move does is to put part of this year's budget deficit in a box and mail it to next year.

Not the most inspirational stuff.

December 09, 2009

Study in House "Extenders" Bill Would Provide Valuable Info on Many Tax Breaks

Earlier today, the House of Representatives passed its most recent version of the "Tax Extenders" package (H.R. 4213). The "tax extenders" consist of about 50 temporary tax provisions that, as their name suggests, need to be extended every 1-2 years to prevent their expiration. While multiple theories exist as to why these provisions aren't simply made permanent, it is clear that relatively little thought has been given to their effectiveness in promoting the multitude of goals for which they've been supposedly been enacted. The House bill seeks to remedy this problem by requiring that the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) conduct studies of each of these provisions using 10 different criteria explained in the bill's language. Addressing each of these 10 criteria would provide valuable insights into these provisions' worth. The full list is quoted below, though items #3, 4, 7, and 10 are of particular note:

(1) An explanation of the tax expenditure and any relevant economic, social, or other context under which it was first enacted.

(2) A description of the intended purpose of the tax expenditure.

(3) An analysis of the overall success of the tax expenditure in achieving such purpose, and evidence supporting such analysis.

(4) An analysis of the extent to which further extending the tax expenditure, or making it permanent, would contribute to achieving such purpose.

(5) A description of the direct and indirect beneficiaries of the tax expenditure, including identifying any unintended beneficiaries.

(6) An analysis of whether the tax expenditure is the most cost-effective method for achieving the purpose for which it was intended, and a description of any more cost-effective methods through which such purpose could be accomplished.

(7) A description of any unintended effects of the tax expenditure that are useful in understanding the tax expenditure’s overall value.

(8) An analysis of how the tax expenditure could be modified to better achieve its original purpose.

(9) A brief description of any interactions (actual or potential) with other tax expenditures or direct spending programs in the same or related budget function worthy of further study.

(10) A description of any unavailable information the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation may need to complete a more thorough examination and analysis of the tax expenditure, and what must be done to make such information available.

The importance of Criteria #3, 4, and 7 should be obvious -- they attempt to directly address the core issue of these provision's value. But criteria #10 is also of great importance. If the JCT is unable to conduct a thorough study because of a lack of available data, how could lawmakers be expected to meaningfully evaluate these provisions' worth? If the mandate for this study is included in the final "Extenders" bill, any recommendations provided under criteria #10 should be taken very seriously.

Ultimately, the inclusion of this study in the final "Tax Extenders" package would help to pave the way for eliminating any "extenders" that are failing to live up to their original billing. This result should be especially welcome in 2010, when Congress is expected to consider tax reform more broadly in the context of the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts. For this reason, the Senate should be sure to include this study in their version of the Extenders bill as well.

Finally, as somewhat of an aside, the criteria laid out in this proposed study may also be of use in contemplating a more fundamental overhaul of our government's "performance evaluation" infrastructure, as was proposed in a CTJ report just a few weeks ago.

For more on the Tax Extenders package in general, check out this coverage in CTJ's Tax Justice Digest.

Louisiana: Can Property Tax be Too Low?

In Louisiana, the answer is probably "yes, they could."
An excellent editorial in the Daily Advocate notes that the ten lowest-property-tax counties in America in 2006-2008 (for residential property) were all in Louisiana. The main reason for this is pretty straightforward: every owner-occupied home in Louisiana receives an exemption for the first $75,000 of home value. In practice, this amount covers something close to half of all properties in the state.
The topic is being raised right now because there are active proposals to increase the homestead exemption. As the Advocate editorial correctly notes, the impact of this would be a
shift of tax burdens directly onto owners of business and commercial property. It also would shift more of the property tax burden onto renters, rather than homeowners; renters pay property taxes through their monthly checks to landlords, without benefit of a homestead exemption.
This isn't an argument that Louisiana's homestead exemption actually needs to be reduced. But it certainly makes a good case that further increases ought to be the last thing on state policymakers' minds at this time.

November 30, 2009

Louisiana Tax Amnesty: A $303 Million Success?

The count is in: the recently-ended Louisiana tax amnesty brought in $303 million in revenue for the state.
The lion's share of the money-- $277 million-- was paid by delinquent businesses, with individuals ponying up the remaining $26 million.
This result raises three interesting policy questions.
1) Was the amnesty, taken on its own, a good deal for the state? Amnesties are often driven by the need to get revenue immediately at any cost, and all too often the result is that states agree to give up all penalties and interest if delinquent taxpayers just pay the original balance. The problem with this, of course, is that the delinquent taxpayers are essentially getting an interest-free loan, and the state is not getting what they're legally due. In this particular case, the deal apparently was that if you settled up in full, you got to keep half of the interest that was due. This is less costly than what a lot of states have done. It still does, however, carry a cost to the state. Verdict: Could have been worse.
2) What to do with the money? More than half is going to shore up specific funds: the rainy day fund and a "coastal fund." The rest, more controversially, is going to pay for health care. If this is controversial, it's because it's using what is arguably a one-shot revenue inflow to pay for what is clearly an ongoing expenditure. Put another way, finding a dollar bill under the cushions of your couch can help buy you dinner tonight, but then it won't help you tomorrow night. Gov. Jindal is arguing explicitly that at least some of this revenue should be thought of as ongoing, because they're bringing taxpayers back into the system. But the official verdict will come from the Revenue Estimating Conference. Verdict: thumbs up for shoring up rainy day fund, but don't pat yourself on the back for solving the health care funding problem just yet.
3) What are the implications for successful enforcement of the tax laws? A main argument against amnesties is that if folks know they're coming, they'll be less afraid to avoid taxes in the first place. This will be a problem if Louisiana continues to do amnesties, but is not clearly so yet. The really interesting question is what you can infer from the huge different between the amount raised from businesses ($277M) and the amount paid by individuals ($26M). Does this mean that businesses are cheating more? Alternative plausible explanations: businesses pay proportionally more of Louisiana taxes to begin with than do individuals (although this really can't explain the huge difference), or that the individuals who owe the most aren't taking advantage of the amnesty simply because they can't afford to, even with half the interest given back.

The $303 million yield of this amnesty will certainly help the fiscal situation in the short run. But Louisiana policymakers should take this opportunity to think strategically about what this success means for future amnesties-- and, more importantly, what it tells them about where they need to focus their normal enforcement efforts.

August 08, 2009

Federal Home-Buyer Tax Credit Prompts Cheating

In today's Washington Post, Kenneth Harney reports evidence that some people are falsely claiming the new federal income tax credit for first-time homeowners.

Two quick thoughts.

First, the question of whether incentives for first home purchases are a good idea. Gonna say no: The benefits aren't necessarily going to buyers-- in some markets, sellers will just increase their asking prices to factor in the value of the credit. Moreover, plenty of better-off people who are getting this credit simply don't need it, and the lower-income folks who DO need a tax credit to be able to afford purchasing a home-- well, maybe they're not quite ready to own. Brings to mind Michael Bloomberg's quote RE the silliness of corporate tax incentives:
Any company that makes a decision as to where they are going to be based on the tax rate is a company that won’t be around very long. If you’re down to that incremental margin you don't have a business.
Same deal with first-time homeowners: if it really takes a tax credit to make this doable for them, what does that say about their ability to pay monthly mortgages in the long run?

Second point here, more on Harney's topic: why should the IRS be burdened with administering this pig? Kudos to them for doing it, but if it's gonna be someone's job in the US government to check that someone claiming to be a first-time homebuyer really is one, why not someone at HUD rather than IRS? Let the IRS guys collect the revenue-- and let Housing guys decide who needs help with their housing expenses.

June 16, 2009

Why Won't the Obama Administration Accept Taxing Employer-Paid Health Premiums?

Barack Obama's fiscal policy platform as a presidential candidate was hardly a profile in courage, but he had his moments. This, however, was not one of them:
"For the first time in American history, [John McCain] wants to tax your health benefits. Apparently, Senator McCain doesn’t think it’s enough that your health premiums have doubled, he thinks you should have to pay taxes on them too. That’s a $3.6 trillion tax increase on middle class families. That will eventually leave tens of millions of you paying higher taxes. That’s his idea of change."
This was a fairly unprincipled thing to say, and begged the question: why shouldn't employer-paid health care be taxed? Obama never gave us an argument for this beyond the idea that it would be a "middle class" tax hike. In the end, you got the sense that he was saying this not because he believed it would be a bad idea to tax employer benefits, but because it was a good soundbite for him and allowed him to blur the distinction between the stereotypes of the tax-happy Dem and the tax-averse Republican.

One could hope that a year later, when the full extent of our fiscal crisis had become more apparent, the Obama administration would be able to quietly tiptoe away from this position. And Obama has indicated his openness to the idea of taxing employer paid health care like the income it is. But then along comes V-P Joe Biden on Meet the Press last Sunday:
MR. GREGORY: Will the president sign a bill that taxes healthcare benefits for employees?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: We made it clear we do not think that is the way to go. We think that is the wrong way to finance this legislation.
MR. GREGORY: So if the bill comes with that...
VICE PRES. BIDEN: But--no, no, no.
MR. GREGORY: ...the president wouldn't sign it?
VICE PRES. BIDEN: I didn't say that. I said when the bill is going to come, this is the most--this is going to be one of the most comprehensive changes in law since Medicare in the beginning. We'll have to see what the whole bill says. But we made it clear we do not believe you should be taxing, taxing the benefits that people receive through their employers now.
Once again, though, the question is: why take this position? Is there a principle behind it?
There's an easily-stated and compelling rationale for the opposite stance, treating employer-paid health care as taxable income: as Citizens for Tax Justice noted in a 1996 report, it's hard to see "why a person who pays cash for insurance should be taxed more heavily than another person who gets insurance as a fringe benefit (and accepts lower cash wages)."

Put more concretely, if worker A earns $50,000 a year and buys her own health insurance, while worker B gets $45,000 of salary and $5,000 of employer-paid health insurance, the two workers' incomes should be thought of as basically identical. But our tax system gives a preference to the worker who's accepted some of her income in the form of employer-provided health insurance.

The fact that Obama and Biden aren't making principled arguments the other way doesn't mean such arguments don't exist, of course. The best argument I've heard against undoing this tax preference has to do with the inequities between similarly situated workers that would result. Two workers for competing firms in the same industry can have very different health care premiums, depending entirely on how old and frail their co-workers are. The quality of care they personally receive can be identical-- they can even go to the same doctor--but one's employer-paid health premiums will be higher because his co-workers are more likely to be sick.

Under this scenario, taxing employer-provided health benefits could result in the same sort of tax inequity we see in the current system. To which the most obvious response is that these inequities would certainly be less widespread than the inequities of the current system. Add to this that taxing employer-paid health benefits would provide a clear incentive for employers to offer more competitively priced benefits and this argument (which, to be clear, Biden has not even made) becomes not at all compelling.

A variety of other arguments can be made that should give us pause before rushing into paring back the existing tax break: some have to do with equity, while others have to do with the potential administrative difficulty of valuing health benefits for tax purposes. Howard Gleckman summarizes some of these arguments here, in a thoughtful read.

But at the end of the day, the most compelling argument either way is an old and simple one borrowed from the 1986 Tax Reform Act: income is income. Whether it's capital gains or pensions or unemployment benefits, the presumption should be that all types of income are taxed in the same way. Failing to do so introduces economic distortions, encouraging employers to pay their workers in the form of more lightly-taxed forms of income. Those who benefit most from these distortions will yell loudest when they're taken away-- but that shouldn't blind us to the fact that it was wrong to enact them in the first place.

May 11, 2009

Georgia: Perdue Vetoes Capital Gains Tax Cut

A big tax fairness gain in Georgia today: after thinking on it for a few weeks, Governor Sonny Perdue has decided to veto legislation that would have cut the state's income tax on capital gains. The proposed tax cut, which the legislature had approved at the same time as a bill ending state funding for a property tax credit for homeowners, would have done little or nothing for most middle- and low-income Georgians. Viewed in combination with the property tax legislation, moreover, the combined effect would have been a tax hike on middle-income folks and a tax cut at the top! ITEP's analysis has details.

Opponents of the capital gains cut argued that the cap gains cut was essentially being paid for by the repeal of the homeowner property tax credit. While this isn't technically true, it is essentially correct: the legislature made the politically-odd choice to repeal a popular homeowner tax break not because they wanted people throwing bricks thru their windows, but because they needed the money to balance the budget. And they needed more money because of their zeal for cutting cap gains taxes.

The "Think Progress" blog is already arguing that Perdue's decision constitutes a repudiation of supply-side policy. This is wishful thinking, or else just a rhetorical cheap shot. Perdue's veto message says pretty clearly (to my eyes) not that capital gains tax cuts don't work, but that they take more than one year to work:
Georgia is constitutionally required to maintain a balanced budget: for every dollar in decreased revenue, we must correspondingly cut expenditures. We cannot deficit spend as the federal government does, even if those deficits generate economic growth in the long term.
In other words, in a deficit environment, when the goal for the state has to be to make things balance in the current year, he's saying it's impossible to push a tax cut unless you can pay for it immediately. Cap gains tax cuts will still grow the economy, he's saying-- it's just that the growth will happen outside the single-year budgetary window. National anti-taxers don't need to get nervous-- Perdue is not rejecting supply-side principles. He's simply operating within a political framework that doesn't recognize that sometimes supply-side policies need a big canvas to work on in order to be effective. A reeaalllly big canvas.

Having said that, I'll take the outcome. The cap gains bill was a real threat to the income tax (and to the fairness of the tax system), and repealing the property tax break is hardly all bad. Of course, using the lost revenues to enact a new "circuit breaker" property tax break would be a great thing. But the important first step is to recognize that the existing property tax credit is a big, fat, untargeted, unaffordable thing, and the legislature has done that.

But it's not over-- the cap gains fight, after all, is NEVER really over. Secretary of State Karen Handel (who clearly has no interest at all in higher office) had this to say:
While I appreciate the Governor’s position that the tax cuts included in the bill would have made balancing our state budget even more difficult, I believe that the economic benefits to our state would have outweighed these concerns.
Now is the time for us to cut taxes in order to help grow jobs and ignite our economy.
Taken at face value, Handel is saying one of two things here: either (1) Perdue is wrong because the cap gains cuts actually would have grown revenue immediately, offsetting the revenue loss, or (2) silly budget deficit rules don't matter and we can ignore them. Neither position speak well for Handel's abilities to manage a budget if she ever decides she'd like to hold a higher office than she currently does

Another feather in the cap for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which got editorial attenion statewide for its criticisms of the capital gains cut.

April 30, 2009

Illinois EITC Expansion: "Welfare?"

The debate over how to resolve Illinois' looming budget deficit has, so far, been an unusually gratifying one. A brand-new governor with little political capital to spend has made a gutsy (and, in our view, basically correct) decision to push for an increase in the state's personal income tax, which is bar-none the least fair in the nation and among the very lowest as well.

There are, of course, things missing from the governor's plan. Eliminating income tax exemptions and sales tax exemptions would make the tax base more sustainable (and would reduce the pressure to increase tax rates). But in the short run Quinn's doing what is needed to make ends meet and has picked a quite fair way of doing it.

If there's one quite legitimate beef with the governor's plan as proposed, it's that there's not sufficient attention devoted to low-income tax relief. Which is why it's great to see the editorial board at the Springfield Journal-Register coming out in favor of an expansion of the state's Earned Income Tax Credit. The SJR's (correct) rationale:
This kind of credit is especially valuable to low-income working families in Illinois, where the poorest one-fifth of Illinois families spend an average of nearly 13 percent of their earnings in state and local taxes while the wealthiest 1 percent of Illinois households spend less than 6 percent of their incomes likewise.
All true. The underlying point here, unstated by the SJR, is that the EITC is valuable because it's an income-tax based credit that is refundable, meaning it can be used not only to offset income taxes but to offset sales, excise and property taxes paid by low-income families as well. And the main reason why the poorest Illinoisans pay such a huge chunk of their incomes in tax is because of these non-income taxes.

So you've got to charitably assume that it's because the SJR editorial doesn't explain this point clearly that half a dozen commenters on the SJR editorial make the boneheaded assertion that the EITC constitutes "welfare" because folks who get it have "zero tax liability" and are therefore getting "free money." One commenter, who claims to work at the Illinois Department of Revenue, has this to say:
I work at Revenue. Under the current system, many people pay no tax and still get a refund of their EIC on their state return. This is a form of welfare. People are getting money from the state that is not theirs, and they did nothing to earn it.
This tells me only that it's possible to work for the Department of Revenue and understands precisely zero about how the EITC works. It's based on earned income. If you have a job and a salary, you get the EITC. The more you earn, the more you get. So to say that EITC recipients "did nothing to earn it" is quite possibly the single most breathtakingly wrong thing one could ever assert about it.

It's important for people to understand that refundable income tax credits play a critical role in helping to reduce the unfairness of state tax systems overall, and that they shouldn't be understood as applying only to income taxes. But it's equally important for people to get that the EITC is a work incentive, and that work incentives respond to... work. A generation of "welfare reformers" who've worked diligently to create work incentives for low-income poverty relief would put their heads in their hands and quietly weep (or pull their hair out in despair) at the notion that one can "do nothing to earn" the EITC.

And, I suppose, the fundamental underlying lesson of all this is that we should really just never even bother reading the 'comments' section of web-based newspapers articles.

April 07, 2009

Georgia Lawmakers Swap Income for Property Taxes

Who knew Georgia lawmakers were such fans of the property tax? Only a year after giving serious consideration to a plan that would have repealed most local property taxes in the state, the state General Assembly has ratified, and sent to Governor Perdue, a budget plan that would provide a 50% exclusion for capital gains taxes that's estimated to cost north of $340 million a year, and pay for it by eliminating the state's $20,000 property tax homestead exemption (technically $8,000 of assessed value, but Georgia homes are valued at 40% of market value for tax purposes).

Paring back the property tax break, known as the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant or HTRG, isn't the dumbest idea you'll hear this week, but that's primarily because the capital gains plan takes that coveted spot.

A recent ITEP report gives the skinny on why state capital gains tax breaks are a misguided tax strategy in general, and the arguments presented therein all apply to Georgia. But there's an extra layer of absurdity to this strategy in the Peach State-- Georgia already allows a very generous capital gains break, and it's targeted to the group most lawmakers would say most need capital gains breaks: the elderly.

In 2008, a Georgia taxpayer aged 62 or older can deduct $35,000 of "retirement income" from her taxable income. This can include pension benefits, but can also include a full $35,000 of capital gains. This is on top of the regular exemptions and deductions available to all Georgians, mind you. And a married couple, both of whom are over 61, can deduct $70,000 of retirement income.

Bottom line is that it's fairly hard to be a senior in Georgia and pay any capital gains tax at all. So who benefits from the cap gains cut included in the budget? Very rich people. And not that many of them. A new ITEP analysis released today shows that 77 percent of the benefits from the capital gains proposal would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of families, and that the poorest 80 percent of the state's income distribution would collectively see less than 1 percent of the tax cuts.

The second-dumbest component of the Georgia plan is repealing the HTRG. Done correctly, this would be an OK move: smarter people than I have argued correctly that there are better approaches to targeted property tax relief than a state-funded homestead exemption, and that a targeted "circuit breaker" credit could provide more relief to fixed-income homeowners and renters at a lower cost than the HTRG.

But the legislature's action last week doesn't count as "done correctly." They've simply pulled the rug out from under local governments, forcing them all to choose either to continue to provide the homeowner exemption at their own expense or else increase property taxes on most Georgia homeowners.

Getting to this point in the budget process took a lot of difficult and painful decisions-- which makes it all the more crazy that the HTRG got yanked to pay for something as frivolous as a capital gains tax cut.

The good news is that the budget is not yet law, because Governor Perdue hasn't signed it. And there's some indication that he's concerned about the fiscal implications of the cap gains cut. Here's hoping he throws some cold water on the legislature's drunken tax-cutting binge.

April 03, 2009

Why Does Blanche Lincoln Hate the Estate Tax So?

The chart above probably answers the question asked by the title of this post. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

If there was an "endangered species list" for tax policies, the federal estate tax would have been on it for the past fifteen years, starting when the anti-tax gang cleverly re-labelled it the "death tax." The gradual repeal legislation (which would be phased in between 2001 and 2010) passed at the behest of President Bush in 2001 didn't help matters, of course. But for those of us who think the estate tax plays a vital rule in preventing the concentration of economic (and, as important, political) power in the hands of a few elites, it was heartening to see the Congressional tax writing committees taken over by Democrats, and then to see the White House occupied by Barack Obama. The policy question, it seemed to most sensible folks, was how much (if any) of the Bush tax cuts that had already taken effect would be allowed to remain. The cuts that had not yet taken effect when Obama took office, of course, would never take place.

So how did we get here, with a Democratic Senate approving more estate tax cuts?

It was bad enough when Obama, even as a presidential candidate, signaled that he thought the best "reform" option for the estate tax was to make permanent most of the Bush administration's cuts in the estate tax rates. As a December 2008 Citizens for Tax Justice analysis of Obama's plan noted,
President-elect Barack Obama has proposed a change that would prevent the estate tax from disappearing in 2010, but which would also unnecessarily cut the estate tax below the level itwould reach in years after 2010 if Congress simply does nothing.
Put another way, Obama's first estate-tax-related act as President was not to reject the Bush administration's estate tax cuts, but to allow even more of them to take effect at the beginning of 2009. Even estate tax proponents whose reform ambitions were limited to "first, do no harm" were disappointed by this stance.

And now, at at time when the federal government faces deficits unrivalled since World War 2, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is actively arguing that Obama's cuts aren't enough. The Lincoln proposal would drop the top estate tax rate to 35 percent and exempt the first $10 million of an estate's value from tax.

For Lincoln to view this as a priority, she has to somehow think that the 2009 rules Obama has allowed to take effect-- which exempt the first $7 million of a married couple's property from tax and then apply a rate structure with a top rate of 45 percent-- are just too onerous.

One has to ask the question: who are these guys with estates worth over $7 million that she's so worried about?

A look at the history of Arkansas estate tax collections (that's the chart at the beginning of this post, reprinted below) gives a hint. For much of the last 20 years, Arkansas estate tax collections have been pretty flat, hovering between $10 and $30 million a year. But in fiscal 1996, the state collected just under $120 million in estate taxes. While the state is (understandably) not telling what the source of the single-year bump was, it's generally understood to have been largely due to the death of Wal-Mart co-founder "Bud" Walton in 1995.

Given this history, and given the recent track record of the Walton family in pushing for estate tax repeal, Lincoln's opposition to the estate tax becomes more understandable-- but still remains profoundly disappointing.

Does Lincoln really have such a chronic case of "tin ear" that she's willing to make a high-profile stand for further estate tax cuts in the era of Madoff/AIG bonuses/etc? Apparently so.

March 17, 2009

Will Special Tax Breaks Be More Closely Scrutinized Under the Obama Administration?

Buried in President Obama’s recently released budget blueprint were four little-noticed and perhaps unexciting sentences that could signal the coming of a major change in the way the executive branch thinks about, evaluates, and reports on tax expenditures:
The Administration will fundamentally reconfigure the Program Assessment Rating Tool. We will open up the insular performance measurement process to the public, the Congress and outside experts. The Administration will eliminate ideological performance goals and replace them with goals Americans care about and that are based on congressional intent and feedback from the people served by Government programs. Programs will not be measured in isolation, but assessed in the context of other programs that are serving the same population or meeting the same goals.
While the term “tax expenditure” isn’t explicitly included in this brief preview of things to come, a recently issued statement from Citizens for Tax Justice makes clear that meaningfully implementing the promises made above will have to involve shining a bright light on government programs hidden within the tax code.

For the uninitiated, the term “tax expenditure” essentially refers to tax laws that focus more on encouraging a specific activity or rewarding a particular group of people, rather than on trying to improve the efficiency, simplicity, or fairness of our tax system. Put another way, these provisions more closely resemble non-tax, spending-like programs than they do principled tax policy. Special tax breaks for capital gains income, research and development activities, mortgage interest payments, and retirement and health benefits all fit this billing. Altogether, there are more than 160 tax expenditures in our tax code (the precise number varies somewhat depending on the definition you use), and recent estimates peg their total size at upwards of $800 billion annually.

Even though most tax expenditures don’t constitute smart tax policy, it can at times be sensible to administer these programs as tax policies in order to piggyback on the IRS’ existing distribution structure. More often, however, these items are unwisely grafted to the tax code merely as a way to protect them from the annual scrutiny of the appropriations process, or to cash in on the widespread popularity of reducing taxes while simultaneously being able to re-direct government resources toward favored objectives.

Regardless of why these items ended up in the tax code, there’s a clear need to evaluate their effectiveness in achieving the goals for which they were enacted. Have the lower tax rates for capital gains and dividends income encouraged investment? Has the mortgage interest deduction resulted in a higher rate of home ownership? These kinds of questions deserve much more rigorous and visible consideration inside government than they have received in recent years.

Fortunately, if the President is sincere in his promise to assess programs “in the context of other programs that are serving the same population or meeting the same goals”, the OMB’s “Program Assessment Rating Tool” (PART) will have to be expanded and re-worked in a way that allows for the consideration of precisely these types of questions. How, for example, could one ever hope to evaluate any U.S. health care policy without considering it in the context of the $160 billion subsidy for health insurance given through the exclusion of employer provided health care? Likewise, what kind of housing policy analysis could ever ignore the $90 billion given to homeowners via the mortgage interest deduction? But as things stand today, this is exactly how the Program Assessment Rating Tool is used.

As the Citizens for Tax Justice statement pointed out, the push to include tax expenditures alongside other programs in the performance review process has received significant attention in the recent past. Unfortunately, however, up until this point its merits have not been enough to propel it past the political obstacles. In writing about the very specific language calling for tax expenditure performance reviews that was included in the Senate report accompanying the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), one observer pointed out:
Clinton’s Treasury Department, of which I was a part from 1998 to 2000, was unenthusiastic about performing these evaluations, reasoning that a comprehensive evaluation of tax expenditures would necessarily raise serious objections to measures enthusiastically advanced by the Administration … Although the menu of favorite tax expenditures changed when President Bush took office, the Office of Management and Budget has not published any new tax expenditure analyses

- Len Burman. “Is the Tax Expenditure Concept Still Relevant”. National Tax Journal. September 2003.
In order for real reform to occur, President Obama’s very visible push for greater government transparency will have to outweigh the coldly political calculations that have made for “politics as usual” up until this point.

December 24, 2008

Evaluating the National Retail Federation's "Tax Holiday" Idea

Yesterday the National Retail Federation published an open letter to President-to-be Barack Obama urging that come January, Obama's stimulus package should including a national "sales tax holiday," three ten-day periods in 2009 during which states that normally collect sales taxes on retail purchases would stop collecting them.

A new Citizens for Tax Justice report takes the shine off this idea a bit, noting a few fairly important reasons why a tax holiday might be not the right answer for America at this time.

Among them:
  • As with state sales tax holidays, it's hard to know whether the benefits would go to consumers or retailers.
  • To the extent consumers would be better off, the savings would go to even the very best-off families. No effort could be made to target these savings to families hit hardest by the current downturn.
  • Even if Congress likes the idea, that's not enough to implement it. Every state with a sales tax would have to pass legislation to make this work. And then every retailer in these sales-tax states would have to train workers and program computers to stop collecting state sales tax (but keep collecting local sales tax) during the holidays.
  • Since the first proposed tax holiday would take place in March, the immediate effect of such a plan would be to... encourage people to spend less money right now, and wait until March. Which is an odd feature in a stimulus plan.

The CTJ report is here.

December 20, 2008

Why Virginia Won't Hike Its CIg Tax

Earlier this week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine proposed doubling the state's cigarette tax from 30 to 60 cents per pack. Once upon a time, this would have been a pretty substantial hike. But with the wave of cigarette tax hikes nationwide over the past decade, this proposal would best be described as bringing Virginia's tax more in line with what the rest of the states currently do. As the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports, the nationwide average cig tax is now $1.19 per pack.

The Republican-led House quickly announced that it was having none of this. Their reason? Economic development:
[Virginia House Speaker William] Howell and [U.S. House member Eric] Cantor argued that a cigarette tax hike would send the wrong signal to other states, which might be more inclined to raise their cigarette taxes. That could lead to job losses in the tobacco industry, especially in Virginia.
The most obvious response to this rationale is that they're trying to close the barn door after the horses have gotten out. State lawmakers have looked--and continue to look, right now-- to cigarette taxes as their favorite source of new tax revenue for years now. The idea that other states are waiting for the official sanction of tobacco-producing states before further jacking up their cig taxes is pretty far-fetched.

But the more interesting question is why Howell views the tobacco industry as the most vital component of Virginia's economic development strategy going forward. (To say nothing of why Cantor, who after all is a member of the US Congress, not Virginia's legislature, is weighing in on this point.) Tobacco consumption has been falling for decades nationwide. Not just on a per capita basis either-- we're just collectively purchasing fewer and fewer smokes every year, as public knowledge of the immense healthcare costs associated with smoking increases.

It's a dying industry, a relic of the past. So why should Virginia, a state that has enjoyed a real technology boom over the past decade, want to reinforce the role of this industry in its economy? The Washington Post's Pete Earley has a disheartening, but probably apt, answer: because Virginia lawmakers got paid to think this way. As Earley notes, virtually every member of Virginia's tax writing committees in the House and Senate regularly take campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. You don't have to be a Rod Blagojevich for these contributions to have a subtle influence on how you think and vote on economic policy issues.

At a time when we're contemplating spending billions of dollars to prop up the US auto industry, it's hard to get too sniffy about efforts to keep the Virginia tobacco industry going. But as Virginia confronts a major budget deficit, every dollar of tax revenue not collected from the tobacco industry is coming from somewhere else. And by refusing to consider hiking the cigarette tax on economic development grounds, Virginia lawmakers are basically asserting that any other interest that could be taxed-- whether it's manufacturers, small retail businesses, or individual wage-earners and consumers-- are less vital to Virginia's long-term economic growth than are tobacco farmers. And it's hard to see any other explanation for this backwards approach to economic development than campaign contributions. As the late, great Mark Felt apparently never really said, "follow the money."