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Posts tagged Charles Bruner

Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

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While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

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DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

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While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

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DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax credits: Just review them!

Posted November 11th, 2019 to Blog
Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be. Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today. The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018. It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010. Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024. Basic RGB While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.
  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.
As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before. Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk. The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits. As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms. Basic RGB DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it. In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need. Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities. Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel. These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them? MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Better target senior tax breaks

Posted June 19th, 2019 to Blog

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax-cutters’ lack of confidence

Posted June 13th, 2019 to Blog

In the confidence game of cutting taxes, where the world is promised to all but delivered mainly to the wealthy, Iowa’s tax-cutters are showing how little confidence they have in their own political talk.

State Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull is backing off his chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee as he runs for Congress in 2020, leaving the door open to Senator Jake Chapman of Adel.

Both have been big talkers painting the glories of tax cuts while running down Iowa’s competitive tax structure, and they have been successful using that political spin to make big changes — many of which are scheduled but yet to take effect.

Even then, they apparently will waste no time in rushing through new tax cuts, as evidenced by this story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. There, Chapman is quoted that “he expected the Legislature would continue next session ‘to reform income taxes and reduce some of the highest tax rates in the country.’”

Before addressing the fundamental inaccuracy of the senator’s comment, one must wonder at least two things:

•   Are they not confident what they have passed already will not deliver what they promised?
•   Are they not confident they will retain political power through the Statehouse (the House is a much closer partisan split than the Senate) past the 2020 election?

Answering “yes” to either would explain their perceived need to rush more ill-advised tax policy into law.

In a very short span, Iowa lawmakers have eroded revenues with new tax giveaways to the wealthy and powerful, leaving scraps to working families in the middle and below. This has come with changes in personal income taxes, corporate income taxes and property taxes.

As Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner pointed out in an Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis, he income-tax cuts passed in 2018 give almost half of the overall benefit to the highest-earning 2.5 percent of taxpayers — those making $250,000 or more.

 

 

 

 

 

Senator Chapman plays games with the term “tax rates” as if the highest tax rate is what anyone ever paid on all their income. It’s an illusion.

The highest rate — already reduced from 8.98 percent to 8.53 percent this year under the 2018 law — is a marginal rate; it is paid on only the highest share of income. The same taxpayer who pays the highest rate on one share of income also pays the lowest rate on the share of income where that rate applies.

In short, it’s a mix of rates — and they are applied to taxable income, which has many adjustments to lower that amount. Most notable among those is Iowa’s unusual provision to allow taxpayers to deduct federal income tax from state taxable income, which benefits higher-income people the most.

The tax-rate myth promoted by Senator Chapman is an old game, but the people who want to reduce public services and investments in the future keep playing it. And why not? They’re getting away with it.

The 2018 legislation includes ongoing rate cuts — if revenues reach high-enough levels. One reason to pass rate cuts again in 2020, before that deadline, is that you don’t expect the revenue targets to be met.

These changes have come at great cost to public services, including poor funding of public education from K-12 through community colleges and universities.

Looking ahead to the future of our state, and beyond the next election, would be the wisest course for Iowa tax policy. That is not what we’re getting.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax cuts: Already tried, failed

Posted April 23rd, 2018 to Blog

Former Iowa Department of Revenue official Michael Lipsman discusses tax issues at a public forum last week at the State Capitol as former Senator Charles Bruner, left, and Senators Joe Bolkcom, Janet Petersen and Amanda Ragan listen. The institutional memory of experts such as Lipsman has been lost as legislators have rushed into plans to overhaul Iowa’s tax system, with most discussions taking place outside public view and earshot.

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Twenty-one years ago the Iowa Legislature enacted an across-the-board 10 percent cut in state income tax rates. That tax cut not only failed to spur economic growth, but bears a share of the blame for the under-performance of the Iowa economy in the years following. And it led to recurring revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.

Some in the Iowa Senate aim to repeat the experiment, this time with an 8 percent cut. There is no reason to expect a different result.

A 2004 report by Michael Lipsman, then head of the Tax Research and Program Analysis Section of the Iowa Department of Revenue, explains why the tax cuts of 1997 and 1998 had a negative effect on the economy.[1] That legislation cut all income tax rates by 10 percent, expanded the exemption for capital gains income, increased the pension exclusion, and exempted lineal ascendants and descendants from the state inheritance tax.[2]

The tax cuts were expected to reduce state revenue by $318 million in 2019. But Lipsman estimates that the effect of all these tax provisions was a reduction in revenue exceeding $600 million a year by 2002. Why the larger number? Because not only did the state take a smaller share of Iowans’ income in taxes, but income grew more slowly than it would have without the tax cuts.

This runs counter to the ideology of supply-side economics, which predicts that tax cuts will always spur growth. But Lipsman’s point is that it depends on the nature of those cuts — how much goes to non-residents, how much to high-income residents, where savings are likely to be invested, and where goods are produced.

The Iowa tax rate cuts, the pension exclusion, and the capital gains preference all concentrated their benefits on higher income taxpayers, and over a third of the inheritance tax benefit went to non-residents. The 3 percent of Iowa taxpayers with over $100,000 income got 24 percent of the benefit from the rate cuts, and these are the taxpayers most likely to invest their tax cut rather than spend it locally. It is likely that much of the tax savings was invested outside the state. Furthermore, most of the high-value consumer goods purchased by upper-income Iowans are produced outside the state.

At the same time, the tax cuts reduced state and local revenue, and public-sector employment dropped as a result. State and local government payrolls in Iowa decreased 16 percent from 1997 to 2002, over twice the rate of decline for the country as a whole. And state and local governments spend primarily within the state of Iowa, helping to boost the state economy. Cuts in public sector spending hurt the state economy directly (reduced purchases from local suppliers) and indirectly (reduced local purchases by public sector workers).

The upshot is that the tax cuts appear to have slowed growth, taking money out of the economy that ultimately ended up invested elsewhere, or went directly to non-residents, or was spent on goods produced elsewhere, instead of supporting Iowa businesses. In the five years leading up to the tax cuts, the Iowa economy grew at a rate nearly identical to the national economy: 28 percent. In the five years following the cuts, Iowa’s growth fell to 22 percent, compared to the national rate of 27 percent.

The massive tax cutting experiment in Kansas produced similar results — the Kansas economy slowed rather than accelerated. The experiment was a failure, and was ended by the Legislature.

The latest House tax bill would shower three-fifths of its benefits on taxpayers with income over $100,000, much more skewed to the top than the 1997 legislation. The Senate bill is likely to be skewed as well; it includes a pass-through income loophole that would cost $100 million, four-fifths of that going to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is not the definition of rational policy making.

[1] Michael A. Lipsman. The Economic Effects of 1997 and 1998 Iowa Tax Law Changes. Tax Research and Program Analysis Section, Iowa Department of Revenue, July 2004.

[2] These are the major provisions, accounting for 90 percent of the cost. The bills also increased the personal credits and the tuition and textbook credit.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Enhancing tax fairness for families

•  Making household living costs part of the mix in Iowa tax policy  
•  How reforms can help Iowans support their families

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By Charles Bruner for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership

170118_capitol_170603-4x4Iowa takes only small steps but could do much more to recognize essential costs families face to support a household and raise children. The standard (or itemized) deduction, personal exemptions, and personal credits on the income tax all seek to recognize these costs. Such exemptions from taxable income (or credits applied to taxes owed) are based upon recognized tax principles of fairness — not taxing those essentials (food, housing, transportation, etc.) that are needed simply to get by. The standard deduction provides a basic recognition of this cost, while the option to itemize deductions enables tax filers to recognize higher costs of specific household expenses (primarily mortgage interest costs, taxes, high medical expenses, and charitable contributions).

Iowa’s current standard deduction already was very small in relation to the federal standard deduction, before changes in the new federal tax cut (Iowa’s for 2018 are $2,030 for a single filer and $5,000 for a married joint filer, compared with the federal deductions of $6,500 and $13,000 before the changes). Under the new federal law, standard deductions will increase to $12,000 for a single filer and $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly (although the current personal exemptions are eliminated).

As a result of the low standard deduction, Iowa also has one of the most complex state income tax systems in the country. At the federal level, even before the federal tax cut, 70 percent of tax filers claimed the standard deduction[1] (the figure is expected to rise to 85 percent with the expansion of the deduction). Only about half of Iowa tax filers do.[2] This means, for future tax years, if Iowa does not expand its standard deduction, about 4 in 10 Iowans who claim the federal standard deduction will have to go through the extra and often complicated process of calculating and claiming a state itemized deduction.

When it comes to the costs of raising children, the differences are even greater. Families with children have child-raising expenses that have been estimated at $13,000 per year for a middle-income family.[3] Previously, the federal tax code had provided a $1,000 credit plus a $4,050 personal exemption from income for each child. The federal tax cut legislation eliminated the personal exemption while doubling the child tax credit to $2,000. For a tax filer in a marginal tax bracket of 22 percent, often middle-income families, that credit is equivalent to a deduction of a little over $9,000, a substantial contribution to the $13,000 estimated cost of raising a child.

Iowa, however, has only a $40 credit for each child. For a filer in a 6 percent state income tax bracket, this is equivalent to a deduction of about $670. This is where[4] Iowa’s individual income taxes are most out-of-line with the federal income tax and taxes in many other states. A further complication and inequity is that many Iowa families with children and incomes below $50,000 owe Iowa income taxes, but do not owe (and even receive a refund) at the federal level. While the federal tax code works to support working families with children in making ends meet, the current Iowa tax code often does the opposite.

Both SF2383 and the Governor’s proposal make changes to Iowa’s standard deduction, but neither makes changes to Iowa’s personal credits for children.

SF2383 essentially adopts the new federal standard deductions ($12,000 for a single individual and $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly). The Governor’s proposal raises the standard deduction to $4,000 for a single individual and $8,000 for a married couple filling jointly. Neither, however, would change the personal credits. The Governor’s proposal also adds an additional deduction of $1,500 for elderly and blind individuals, which expands the already preferential tax treatment of seniors over working people.[5]

The increases in the standard deduction in both versions have very substantial costs, but also substantial contributions to tax fairness and simplicity in Iowa. In particular, they benefit moderate and middle-income tax filers, especially those who rent and do not have mortgage interest deductions that would increase the housing expense deduction they would claim if itemizing.

Both the Governor’s proposal and SF2383 begin to address inequities in Iowa’s tax code regarding essential household living costs through the standard deduction expansion. Neither, however, addresses the inequities related to the costs of raising children.

Given the expansion in the standard deduction, one way to better recognize children in the Iowa income tax would be to limit the provision of personal credits to dependents (primarily children) and redirect the cost of the current credits for adults to expand the child tax credit. Another is to ensure that other changes to Iowa’s personal income tax (closing loopholes, adjusting rates) make room to increase the dependent credit to better reflect the cost of raising children. Such reforms would enhance fairness in Iowa’s income tax.


[1] Internal Revenue Service (2017). Individual Income Tax Returns, Preliminary Data, Tax Year 2015. 69.2 percent of returns claimed standard deduction.

[2] Iowa Department of Revenue. 2015 Iowa Individual Income Tax Annual Statistical Report. Tables 11 and 12. https://tax.iowa.gov/sites/files/idr/Individual Income Tax Report 2015 Revised.pdf

[3] United States Department of Agriculture (2017). Expenditures on Children by Famillies, 2015. 0-18 cost of raising child $233,000 = $13,000 per year.

[4] Iowa Fiscal Partnership, Resolving inequities in Iowa taxes, February 2012. http://www.iowafiscal.org/resolving-inequities-in-iowa-taxes/

[5] Iowa Fiscal Partnership, Tax reform and seniors: Better focusing on the real need, March 2018. http://www.iowafiscal.org/taxing-seniors-retirees-benefit-already/

 

Charles Bruner, Executive Director, CFPCCharles Bruner is director emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines. CFPC and another nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City. IPP and CFPC collaborate on state public policy issues as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Reports are available at www.iowafiscal.org.

Find IFP’s 2018 Tax Policy Kit here: http://www.iowafiscal.org/areas-of-research/ifps-2018-tax-policy-kit/

 

Taxing seniors: Retirees benefit already

Tax reform and seniors: Better focusing on the real need

Over age 65, Iowans already benefit without unneeded, unfair tax breaks

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By Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner

Tax bills in the Iowa Legislature offer substantial new tax breaks for seniors without any demonstration of need or recognition of existing preferences. Seniors have the lowest poverty rate of any age group in Iowa. Furthermore, tax preferences for those age 65 or older already mean that seniors collecting just an average Social Security benefit could pay no tax even with a total income of up to $40,000 for a single person, or up to $69,000 for a couple. Further tax breaks will only serve to benefit the most well-off seniors, who already pay substantially less in taxes than working families with the same income. 

Seniors are now the age group least likely to live in poverty and most likely to have substantial wealth, providing very ample revenue for the later years. Iowa’s seniors are half as likely to be in poverty as Iowa’s children, and almost four in ten have current incomes above 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($65,800 for a married couple living alone).

Moreover, Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

  • All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.
  • The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.
  • Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.
  • While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors. [1]

The average annual Social Security benefit for retired workers in Iowa was  $16,360 as of December 2016. [2] However, the maximum amount possible (for those who earned very high incomes during their working years) is currently a little over $44,000.[3] In most instances, those receiving this maximum also have other pension income and earnings from investments. Assuming at least $6,000 in pension benefits, that means the first $22,360 in income for the average earner and the first $50,360 in income for the highest earner would not be taxed. This compares with working-age adults, who would be taxed on all their earnings.

In short, under current Iowa tax law, seniors get very substantial breaks. The table below shows what a single retiree or a retired couple could earn in Social Security and pension income without paying any Iowa income tax. As illustrated, a single retiree earning the average Social Security benefit could receive as much as $24,050 in pension income, for a total income of $40,410 — over three times the poverty level — and pay no Iowa income tax. A married couple, each with the average Social Security benefit, could have $36,220 in pension income, for a total income of almost $69,000 — over four times the poverty level — and still pay no Iowa income tax. 

In contrast, a family of four with both parents working and the same total income $68,940 entirely from wages and salaries would pay over $2,000 in Iowa income taxes.[4] For a retired couple with the maximum Social Security benefit, their combined income could reach $129,900 and still be tax exempt.

180321-IFP-seniors-table

Calculations are based on current law for the 2017 tax year. Households are assumed to own their homes outright and to claim the standard deduction. They pay annual Medicare Part B and Medicare Supplement Plan F premiums of $3,689 annually, which they deduct on line 18 of the Iowa return. Income is split evenly between the filer and spouse for couples. The low earner receives monthly Social Security benefits of $650, approximately the 10th percentile of benefits nationally in 2017. The average earner receives $16,360 per year, the average retiree benefit in Iowa in 2016. The Iowa tax free income levels vary because taxpayers will pay some federal income tax on Social Security benefits, and federal tax is deductible on the Iowa return. Also, low earners may benefit from the high retiree tax free threshold, the alternate tax calculation (married couples) or the income tax reduction (singles).  

Both the Governor’s proposal and SF2383 offer additional preferential treatment for seniors without regard to their overall income. The Governor’s proposal increases the standard deduction to $4,000 for an individual and $8,000 for a married couple, and then adds an additional $1,500 for seniors and the blind. The Senate bill, SF2383, doubles the pension income exclusion from $6,000 for an individual and $12,000 for a married couple to $12,000 for an individual and $24,000 for a married couple.  The cost of this provision for FY2023 may be in excess of $50 million annually.[5]

Because seniors already receive substantial preferential tax treatment under the Iowa income tax, most are not subject to any tax until their incomes are well above the poverty level. They also pay substantially less than individuals or couples with the same income, but from earnings. Moreover, many of the greatest benefits accrue to very high-income seniors, who have big Social Security checks and pension income in addition to other investment income and earnings.

To follow principles of tax fairness — ability to pay and equal treatment of people in similar economic circumstances — at least some of the current benefits and the exclusion of income from Social Security and pension income from tax should be phased out at high income levels. The Governor’s proposal, and to a greater degree SF2383, goes in the opposite direction.

By that standard, lawmakers would not offer additional tax benefits either through expanding the pension fund exemption or additional deductions solely for the reason of being over 65. Eliminating these additional preferences items would also prevent a further reduction of tax revenue that threatens the adequacy of Iowa General Fund revenue, which benefits programs that support all Iowans but especially those that support low-income Iowans at any age.



[1] The income used to determine whether this threshold is met is “modified adjusted gross income.”

[3] $44,376 ($3,698 per month) for the highest income earners retiring at age 70 in 2018 (Social Security Administration)

[4] Each earns $32,247, two school-age children (no child care expense), $4,445 in employee contributions to health insurance from a job, standard deduction, $5,071 in Federal taxes for 2017 deducted on Iowa return.

[5] The revenue estimate for the increase between the original bill and the amendment from $10,000 to $12,000 and $20,000 to $24,000 was over $16 million, with the increase from $6,000 and $12,000 at least 3 times that amount.

 

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City and Charles Bruner is director emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines. IPP and CFPC are nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that collaborate on public policy analysis as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Find reports at www.iowafiscal.org.

Passing through a special break

Passing through a special break for wealthiest filers

•  Individual filers with business income win with special deduction in Iowa tax proposals
•  Qualified Business Income Deduction (QBID) adds complexity, cost

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By Charles Bruner for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership

Basic RGBThe tax bill that recently passed the Iowa Senate included a provision from the recent federal tax cut bill that provides preferential tax treatment for certain kinds of business income earned mostly by the highest income taxpayers. The “Qualified Business Income Deduction” (QBID) provides a 20 percent exemption of that income from the personal income tax. This is one of the most complicated and least understood provisions in the federal legislation, and one of the most amenable to manipulation. It also is one of the costliest and is skewed to very high-income tax filers. It applies to income (known as pass-through income) from partnerships and other non-corporate businesses reported on the individual income tax. The federal QBID alone is estimated to account for over one-third of the total costs of the federal tax bill by 2023, and could be more as tax accountants and attorneys seek ways to maximize the QBID benefits.[1]

The pass-through deduction was included in the tax that bill passed the Iowa Senate on March 1 (SF2383) with the same 20 percent exemption from income that exists in the federal law. Governor Reynolds’ proposal (HSB671) provides for a 5 percent exemption.

The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) provided an estimate to the Iowa Legislative Services Agency (LSA) on the cost and distribution of this one change to Iowa’s income tax system.[2]  

That analysis shows the cost of the full 20 percent exemption to income tax revenues would be $106.7 million in FY2019, rising to $118.0 million in FY2020. In FY 2019, $54.9 million (51 percent) would go to the 5 percent of tax filers with adjusted gross incomes over $200,000 — extremely skewed toward very high-income individuals.

Since the Governor’s proposal offers a QBID or “pass-through,” of 5 percent, its impact would be about one-quarter of the Senate plan, but still over $25 million a year. Further, these estimates do not reflect any large growth in the size of such pass-through income, but some tax experts are concerned that the presence of the deduction will lead to substantially more transfer of income to pass-through income from income taxed at the standard rate.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), which models the state and federal tax codes, came up with a similar estimate: $108 million. The table below shows ITEP’s estimates of the benefits of the QBID by household income for Iowa residents.[3]

Basic RGBThe primary rationale for this provision at the federal level is that the reduction in federal corporate income tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent requires some adjustment in individual income tax rates for pass-through business income to provide a continuing benefit for those filing on income from a subchapter S corporation, limited partnership, or sole proprietorship through the individual income tax. (The top tax rate on the personal income tax is higher, remaining above 35 percent). In Iowa, however, the top corporate income tax rate remains above the individual income tax rate (and corporate income, unlike individual income, is taxed both through the corporate income tax and shareholder taxes on dividends). Thus, the federal rationale simply does not hold within Iowa’s tax system.

Other arguments made for the federal exemption are to provide incentives for entrepreneurship. Even these arguments, however, are harder to make when applied to Iowa’s income tax, as tax filers already will receive the substantial federal break, even without an additional but much smaller Iowa exemption. Further, a disproportionate share of the Iowa benefit is likely to accrue to wealthy, nonresident tax filers, who make a share of their profits in Iowa but don’t live in the state. Moreover, the state of Kansas abandoned its recent experiment exempting 100 percent of pass-through income after it failed to produce measurable increases in new business formation while costing the state millions in lost revenue.[4]

Adopting any QBID would reduce overall Iowa income tax revenue, disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest, and with considerable uncertainty surrounding its use (and misuse) in the future. More experience with the use of this break and and its costs at the federal level would give state lawmakers a better understanding of who benefits, how they benefit, and any public purpose.


[1] The Joint Committee on Taxation (which provides official fiscal notes on federal tax legislation) estimates the federal cost of the QBID provision is $47.1 billion for tax year 2019, or 24.9 percent of overall personal income tax costs of changes in the income tax code. This grows as a share of costs to 37.2 percent in tax year 2023. Joint Committee on Taxation. JCX-67-17 (December 18, 2017) Estimated Budget Effects of the Conference Agreement For H.R.1, “Tax Cuts And Jobs Act.” https://www.jct.gov/publications.html?func=startdown&id=5053
[2] Letter to Jeff Robinson and Legislative Services Agency from John Good, Iowa Department of Revenue
[3] The Iowa Department of Revenue also provided a distributional table, but for residents and non-residents combined, with married couples filing separately reported as separate tax filers instead of as a household, and by adjusted gross income rather than total family income. The ITEP estimates provide a more accurate view of how the benefits are distributed among residents by total household income.
[4] Michael Mazerov. “Kansas Provides Compelling Evidence of Failure of Supply Side Tax Cuts. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Jan. 22, 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/kansas-provides-compelling-evidence-of-failure-of-supply-side-tax-cuts

 

Charles Bruner, Executive Director, CFPCCharles Bruner is director emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines. CFPC and another nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City. IPP and CFPC collaborate on analysis of state public policy issues as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Reports are available at www.iowafiscal.org.

Leveling sales-tax playing field

Modernizing Iowa’s sales tax: Leveling the playing field 
•  Governor Reynolds’ plan would secure needed revenue from e-commerce and remote sales 
•  Further measures could ease regressive impact to lower- and moderate-income families

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By Charles Bruner for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership

IMG_3798Sales tax plays a core role in funding Iowa’s general fund budget, contributing about one-third of the revenue for Iowa’s current $7.2 billion budget.[1] One-sixth of Iowa’s 6 percent state sales tax is earmarked for a state fund for K-12 school infrastructure.[2] Cities and counties also receive sales tax with 1 percent local-option tax referendum votes, with revenues directed to specific projects.

Over the last several decades, Iowa’s and the nation’s economies have shifted toward greater purchases of services rather than goods and toward greater purchases online and through remote locations rather than direct, local sales. To retain revenue from the sales tax, either the sales tax needs to be raised in size or broadened and modernized to reflect these changes.

Iowa periodically has updated its sales tax to cover new services and has a fairly broad tax base in that respect. Until recently, however, Iowa has not had a viable way to collect sales tax from many out-of-state vendors who make sales in Iowa, particularly through e-commerce.

Despite efforts by states, including Iowa, the federal government has not enacted legislation to clarify how state sales taxes can be imposed on out-of-state retailers. Recently, however, Colorado and a growing number of states have adopted provisions that make such collections possible, and these have been upheld in federal court.[3] Not only do such actions increase sales tax revenue; they also create a level playing field for in-state businesses that must compete with out-of-state retailers and are at a competitive disadvantage when they must collect sales tax and remote sellers do not.

The Governor’s proposed tax package would expand the Iowa sales tax and the enforcement and collection of that tax, as some other states have done. SF2383 also contains similar provisions, although amendments adopted substantially reduce their scope and revenue generation. The Department of Revenue’s fiscal note on the Governor’s proposal focuses upon six key elements:

  • Digital Goods: Ending the exemption for goods purchased and delivered online, such as e-books, games, and phone apps. The exemption was enacted when the internet was new and few goods were delivered digitally.
  • Ride Sharing: Establishing taxation of all ride services including traditional taxi services and internet-based ride-sharing businesses such as Uber and Lyft.
  • Subscription Services: Expanding the sales and use tax to capture the change in consumption from tangible good purchases such as video game cartridges and CDs to subscription services including streaming audio and video and software as a service.
  • Online Sellers: Expanding the definition of sales tax nexus to include any retailer selling more than $100,000 of products or making more than 200 separate sales into the state, whether or not through an online marketplace.
  • Online Marketplaces: Expanding the definition of retailer to include any marketplace provider (Google Play Store is an example) that facilitates sales into the state, to rectify the current disadvantage faced by traditional retailers required to charge sales tax on in-person sales while retailers in online marketplaces claim to have no such requirement.
  • Online Travel Company Websites: Clarifying auto rental and hotel/motel tax obligations, in particular including online travel companies.

The Department of Revenue estimates these changes together will result in increased state sales tax revenues of $46.7 million in FY2019 growing to $137.5 million in FY2023. SF2383, as passed from the Ways and Means committee, had these six provisions but also included several new sales tax exemptions (for grain bins, agricultural consolidation, and construction equipment dealers), reducing its impact by about one-half. Adopted amendments further reduced the estimated revenue impact, to $1.1 million in FY2019, going up to $23.7 million in FY2023. 

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The full provisions in the Governor’s proposal help to cover a large share of the revenue reductions proposed in the state income tax, while the provisions in SF2383 do not even begin to cover the revenue reductions in its corporate tax cuts, let alone individual income tax cuts. The Governor’s proposal also, through LOST and SAVE, provides greater assistance to local government and school districts.

Like most sales tax measures, the proposed increases are somewhat regressive, taking a larger share of income from moderate and middle-income Iowans than from high-income Iowans. This, however, can be offset by other changes (particularly in the individual income tax) that are progressive. Other IFP backgrounders examine this aspect with respect to the Governor’s proposal and SF2383.

Overall, the Governor’s proposal, if retained in its current form, does modernize Iowa’s sales tax and makes it fairer to Iowa retailers. It better assures the sales tax will maintain its role in financing the General Fund and supporting, in a small but significant way, schools and local jurisdictions with a local option sales tax.


[1] Governor’s Budget in Brief, FY2019. The current year general fund budget of $7.2 billion has been adjusted and is further being adjusted during the 2018 legislative session due to projected shortfalls. The Governor has proposed a $7.4 billion general fund budget for FY19. About $3 billion, or 33 percent, of projected general fund revenues come from sales tax.

[2] This is known as the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education fund, or SAVE. This revenue source began as local-option tax authority, later merged into a statewide tax and pooled for more equitable distribution statewide.

[3] While currently upheld, the Supreme Court may rule further on this case.

 

Charles Bruner, Executive Director, CFPCCharles Bruner is director emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. CFPC and another nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, together form the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.