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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged flat tax

Big ‘Oops’ for tax-cutters in school vetoes

Posted July 15th, 2015 to Blog

Governor Branstad’s vetoes of “one-time” funding pose “ongoing” and “recurring” problems for a major and ill-advised proposal by his allies to restructure personal income taxes in Iowa.

And they should.

During the last session, while lawmakers and the Governor were telling schools the state could not afford more than a 1.25 percent increase in per-pupil school aid, a group in the House was pushing a plan to let individuals choose a “flat” income tax rate option. In other words, figure your taxes under the current rate structure, then compare it to the flat rate, and choose which one costs you less.

It benefits primarily the wealthy, and it costs big money. There is no upside.

We have seen such a proposal in the past, and we are virtually guaranteed to see it again in some form in 2016. Not only does it compound fairness issues in Iowa’s tax structure, but it loses hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, year after year, that Iowa legislators and the Governor have been telling us we cannot afford to lose.

Its supporters cannot avoid that contradiction, given their obsession this year about not letting a surplus — and a sustained one at that — be used for “ongoing” or “recurring” expenses on grounds they were not “sustainable.” Those are the grounds for the Governor’s vetoes of one-time funds for local schools, community colleges and state universities.

For good analysis of the 2015 alternative flat-tax proposal, which was not presented on the House floor as some of these messaging contradictions quickly became clear, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher. As Fisher noted, the projected revenue loss was projected at nearly half a billion dollars — $482 million — for the new fiscal year and around $400 million for each of the next three.

In short, the flat-tax idea is not “sustainable.” No need to discuss in the 2016 session.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

More for Millionaires, Part II

Posted April 20th, 2015 to Budget, Equity and Fairness, Income Taxes, Taxes

Flat-Tax Option Grants Most of Benefit to Minority of Iowa Taxpayers — Plus Out-of-State Millionaires

PDF (2 pages)

Department of Revenue estimate — tax plan choices
Department of Revenue estimate — tax plan benefit differences

By Peter S. Fisher

The optional flat tax bill recently introduced in the Iowa House would give $26.5 million in tax cuts to people living outside the state, including almost 5,000 non-resident millionaires. The remaining $346.6 million in tax cuts for Tax Year 2015 would go to Iowa residents, but nearly two-thirds of that would go to the 1-in-8 taxpayers making $100,000 or more.

The bill does not cut income taxes for everyone. It provides an optional way of calculating tax, so that taxpayers would need to compute their taxes two different ways to determine which was better. The flat option is more likely to be advantageous for those over $100,000 per year. The Department of Revenue estimates about 54 percent of those taxpayers would choose the flat tax.

For the vast majority of taxpayers making less than $100,000, however, at most 35 percent would benefit from the flat tax option. Because the flat option does not allow any tax credits, lower income households using the Earned Income Tax Credit or other refundable credits would be unlikely to benefit from the flat tax, and certainly would not if they now receive a refund because of a credit.

Table 1 shows the number and percent of Iowa resident taxpayers choosing the flat option vs. the current system. For example, 61.5 percent of taxpayers earning $40,000 to $100,000 per year stick with the current system because the flat option would cost more; they would get no benefit. The remaining 38.5 percent of taxpayers in that income bracket would choose the flat tax and receive on average a $549 cut.

Table 1. Iowa Residents: Minority Benefit from Flat Tax Option

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Source: Tables 2A, 2B, 5A and 5B, for residents vs. non-residents, for tax year 2015, provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue upon request, March 31 and April 2, 2015.

While 858,000 Iowa resident taxpayers making under $200,000 a year (and representing 61 percent of all Iowa resident taxpayers) would see no tax reduction under this bill, a handful of Iowa millionaires would choose the flat option and gain an average of $26,798 each.

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More Millions for Millionaires

IFP POLICY BRIEF /

Flat-Tax Option Showers Benefits at High Incomes — Services Face New Cuts

2-page PDF

 

By Peter S. Fisher

Tax legislation pending in the Iowa House would shower most benefits on higher income Iowans, while reducing revenues by over half a billion dollars.

Already for the coming fiscal year, $277 million — two-thirds of the increased revenue to the general fund — is going to be funneled to commercial and industrial property tax relief. This will leave the state short of funds to adequately finance education and other services, before the new legislation would strip the general fund of another $482 million.

House File 604 would give taxpayers a choice each year: File income taxes using current law, or a new flat rate option. Under the flat rate option, the tax is 5 percent of all “base income,” where that is defined more broadly than current taxable income (no deduction for federal taxes), but allows the deduction of all federal interest, all retirement income, and a larger standard deduction.

Higher income Iowans would benefit most — Iowa tax filers with adjusted gross income of $40,000 or less (representing over half of all taxpayers) get just 6 percent of the $373 million in tax cuts for tax year 2015 under this bill, for an average of just $30 savings per tax filer (see Table 1).[i] Nearly two-thirds of the $373 million goes to those with income of $100,000 or more, representing just 1 in 6 taxpayers. Of that group, Iowa’s millionaires — representing just four-tenths of 1 percent of taxpayers — get 10 percent of the total benefit, or $5,463 each.

Table 1. Tax Savings from HF604 Flow Mostly to High Income Iowans

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Source: Letter from the Iowa Department of Revenue to Jeff Robinson, Legislative Services Agency, March 26, 2015. Note: This table omits $11.5 million in tax benefits for 2,542 composite returns with unknown AGI. This amount is part of the $373 million total tax reduction.

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Iowa’s millionaires get 183 times the average benefit of those under $40,000 in income (Figure 1). Those with $1 million or more income get on average a 15 percent tax cut; other taxpayers average 11 percent.

None of this should be surprising given provisions in the bill. Key points:

  • The flat tax option cuts the top rate — which applies to income over $69,225 — by 44 percent.
  • The tax rate on taxable incomes below $13,851, now between 0.36 percent and 4.5 percent, would actually be higher under the flat tax.
  • While the flat tax option does eliminate the deductions for federal taxes, itemized deductions, and Iowa capital gains (features of the current tax that benefit primarily higher income taxpayers), it also eliminates all taxes on pension income.

Since current law already exempts all of Social Security benefits and the first $6,000 per person of pension income, eliminating the rest of the tax on pensions primarily benefits higher income seniors. The flat tax option also eliminates all tax credits, some of which (such as the Child and Dependent Care Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit) are worth more to lower income taxpayers.

Moving to a flat tax does nothing for tax simplification. Claims to the contrary are entirely disingenuous. The bill does not substitute a simpler tax for the current calculation; it offers taxpayers the option of filing under the current system or the alternative flat tax. Thus taxpayers will have to figure their tax both ways to determine which one works to their advantage. This additional complication also increases the cost of tax administration by an estimated $796,000.[ii]

The bill will almost certainly cost the state’s general fund more than the estimates provided in the Department of Revenue tables. As the DOR points out, giving taxpayers an option provides an opportunity for taxpayers to game the system by filing under the current law one year and the flat option the next. For example, a taxpayer could have extra federal tax withheld during 2015 and then file Iowa income tax for 2015 under current law, deducting all those extra federal taxes and reducing Iowa tax. In April 2016 the taxpayer receives a large federal refund because of overpaying for 2015. But the taxpayer files Iowa tax for 2016 using the flat rate option and so does not have to add the refund to Iowa taxable income as would be required under current law. The entire amount of the federal refund, deliberately inflated by the taxpayer, thus represents Iowa income that should be taxable but escapes Iowa income tax entirely. The DOR had no way of knowing the extent of such gaming and so could not include its effects in its revenue estimates.

In sum, the flat tax bill is a very expensive effort to sharply cut taxes, mostly for upper income Iowans, and especially for millionaires. It would put a large hole in state finances for years to come, undermining the state’s ability to maintain a quality education system.


[i] The $373 million is the amount for tax year 2015 — that is, the reduction in taxes owed for income received during calendar 2015 on tax returns filed by April 2016. The Department of Revenue has translated tax year losses into fiscal year losses. The reduction for FY2015 is estimated at $482 million, then settles down to around $400 million for each of the next three fiscal years.

[ii] Letter from the Iowa Department of Revenue to Jeff Robinson, Legislative Services Agency, March 26, 2015.

Note: This Policy Brief, originally circulated March 25, 2015, was revised March 26 with new estimates from the Department of Revenue, which previously had estimated a larger benefit than shown here to filers with adjusted gross income greater than $1 million.

2010-PFw5464Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project, which together with the Child & Family Policy Center formed the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a nonpartisan initiative focused on helping Iowans to understand the impacts of budget choices and other public policy issues on Iowa families and services. IFP reports are at www.iowafiscal.org.

Flat tax plan legalizes cheating on Iowa taxes

Posted March 11th, 2013 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The Iowa House of Representatives will soon take up a bill that would legalize cheating on your Iowa income taxes. While that isn’t the intent, it will certainly be the effect, at least for anyone who has an accountant or who can figure out how to do it on their own.

Officially, the bill is HF3, which would create an alternative flat tax of 4.5 percent. The taxpayer could choose between the current system and the flat rate. If you choose the flat rate, you get a standard deduction but cannot deduct federal income taxes, itemize deductions, or take any credits. But if you currently pay a higher rate than 4.5 percent, and don’t have a lot of deductions or federal income taxes, you might come out ahead picking the alternative flat rate.

To see how this opens the door to massive tax avoidance, you need to understand one important feature of Iowa’s income tax: federal deductibility.

Let’s say you earn $75,000 in Iowa adjusted gross income (AGI) for 2013 and you had $5,000 in federal income taxes deducted from your paycheck during the year. You can deduct the $5,000 from your AGI, leaving you with that much less income to pay tax on. But if you also got a refund check from the federal government in 2013 (because you had too much withheld during 2012, and deducted too much federal tax on your 2012 Iowa return), you have to add that back to your taxable income. This ensures that, over the years, you always end up deducting exactly what you actually paid in federal taxes.

HF3 changes the rules — and here’s how any taxpayer could game the system under HF3. Let’s call it, “Follow the 20,000.”

•  First stop, your W-4. During 2013 you file a W-4 to have five times as much federal income taxes withheld from your paycheck as you really need to. (Or, if you are self-employed, pay quarterly estimated taxes five times what is required.) So when you go to file your 2013 Iowa tax in April 2014, you can deduct $25,000 from your income instead of $5,000. This lowers your Iowa tax bill considerably. If you were in the top 8.98 percent bracket, the extra $20,000 deduction would save you $1,796 on your state income tax. So you choose to file under the current system instead of using the flat rate.

•  Why that’s a bad idea now. Under the current system, your strategy would bite you in the back the next year, because now the $20,000 excess withheld in 2013 comes back as a refund check in 2014. The $20,000 refund check from the feds in 2014 would have to be added back to your 2014 income. You have to pay state tax on it.

•  Flat tax changes the game. If you can take the alternative flat tax for 2014, you will see a huge break. While you would not be able to deduct federal taxes withheld during 2014 under that scheme, you don’t have to add back the $20,000 refund check either.

So for 2014, you pick the flat tax alternative, and pay 4.5 percent on “all” your income — but in the state’s eyes, it’s like that $20,000 never existed.

•  An endless payoff. By doing this, you magically avoid ever paying Iowa income taxes on that $20,000. You didn’t pay tax on it the year it was withheld, because that year you filed the old way and took federal deductibility. And you didn’t pay tax on it the next year, either, because that year you chose the flat tax alternative and didn’t have to add in the $20,000 refund check.

You could argue that if the Legislature makes it legal, it can’t be called cheating. But it sure smells like it. That’s a “tax avoidance” strategy useful only to those in the higher tax brackets.

And that strategy can be avoided if HF3 gets no further in the Iowa House.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director