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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged income tax

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.

KanOwaSin: Low-road neighbors, together?

Posted June 27th, 2017 to Blog

Here we sit in Iowa, nestled between two political petri dishes where experiments have gone wrong, and wondering if our elected leaders may let the mad scientists loose on us as well.

Some politicians would like to turn Iowa into another Kansas, another Wisconsin, where tax-cut zealotry already has driven down economic opportunity.

Welcome to KanOwaSin. In the anti-tax ideologues’ world, we’d all look the same. Why not ​share a name?


​Before someone squeezes another drop of anti-tax, anti-worker snake oil on us, let’s get out the microscope.Our friends in Wisconsin tell us: Don’t become Wisconsin. Our friends in Kansas tell us: Don’t become Kansas — and Kansans already are turning off the low road.A couple of researchers in Oklahoma are telling us: Listen to those folks. From the abstract of their working report:

“The recent fiscal austerity experiments undertaken in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin have generated considerable policy interest. … The overall conclusion from the paper is that the fiscal experiments did not spur growth, and if anything, harmed state economic performance.”

 

Their findings are among the latest exposing the folly of tax-cut magic, particularly with regard to Kansas, which IPP’s Peter Fisher has highlighted in his GradingStates.org analysis that ferrets out the faulty notions in ideological and politically oriented policies that tear down our public services and economic opportunity.

Iowa has long been ripe for tax reform, due to a long list of exemptions, credits and special-interest carve-outs in the income tax, sales tax and property tax. These stand in the way of having sufficient resources for our schools, public safety and environmental protection.

Each new break is used to sell Iowans on the idea that we can attract families and businesses by cutting  — something we’ve tried for years without success, as Iowa’s tortoise-like population growth has lagged the nation.

On balance, this arrangement favors the wealthy over the poor. The bottom 80 percent pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes that are governed by state law. The top 1 percent pay only about 6 percent. Almost every tax proposal in the last two decades has compounded the inequities.

For the coming 2018 legislative session, and for the election campaigns later that year, we are being promised a focus on income tax. Keep in mind, anything that flattens the income tax — the only tax we have that expects a greater share of income from the rich than the poor — steepens the overall inequity of our regressive system.

Thus, as always, the devil is in the details of the notion of “reform.” If “reform” in 2017 and beyond means more breaks for the wealthy, and inadequate revenue for traditional, clearly recognized public responsibilities such as education and public health and safety, then it is not worthy of the name.

So, when you hear about the very real failures of the Kansas and Wisconsin experiments, stop and think about what you see on your own streets, and your own schools. Think about the snake oil pitches to follow their lead, and whether you want Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

That is the promise of Kansas and Wisconsin for Iowa.

Or, if you prefer, KanOwaSin.

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Dan S. Rickman and Hongbo Wang, Oklahoma State University, “Tales of Two U.S. States: Regional Fiscal Austerity and Economic Performance.” March 19, 2017. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/79615/1/MPRA_paper_79615.pdf
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

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

Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.

 


Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.

 

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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


IFP News: Who Pays Taxes in Iowa?

Posted January 30th, 2013 to Taxes, Who Pays Taxes in Iowa?

Making Wealth Pay: Richest Iowans Pay Lower Tax Rate

Study Shows Poorest or Middle-Income Families Pay Larger Share of Income;
New Report ‘Illustrates Unfairness’ of Proposed $750 Income Tax Credit

Download this news release — 2-page PDF and Iowa fact sheet 2-page PDF

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Jan. 30, 2013) — A new national report shows Iowa taxes — like those in most states — are much greater as a share of income from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families.

The report, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States, by the Washington-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), shows the effect of sales taxes and property taxes on lower-income households tilts Iowa’s overall tax system so the poorest pay the highest percentage in taxes.

“The latest findings confirm a nagging problem of inequity in Iowa’s overall tax system,” said David Osterberg, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP).

“In fact, the ITEP report illustrates the unfairness of a new proposal at the State Capitol to give away Iowa’s surplus in $750 chunks through income-tax credits. Many Iowans who pay most of their taxes on sales and property would not benefit from the proposed income-tax credit.”

According to the ITEP report, the average effective overall tax rate for the non-elderly taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent is 10.9 percent. The rate drops steadily to a 6 percent level for the top 1 percent of taxpayers. In the middle 20 percent, the level is 10.1 percent.

The report — available at www.whopays.org and www.iowafiscal.org — separately examines the share of income paid at various income levels for sales and excise taxes, personal income tax and property tax. It also calculates the reduction, a tax offset going mainly for higher-income families, caused by the ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal income tax. In addition, Iowa state income-tax payers may deduct their federal income taxes paid, again a device that disproportionately benefits higher-income earners.

 “The state’s present surplus is a poor excuse to give one more break to the wealthiest — at the expense of fairness for lower-income earners, and at the expense of critical public services that need to be funded,” said Charles Bruner, executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center, also part of IFP.

For low-income families (earning below $21,000 per year), sales and excise taxes take a 6.4 percent share of family income, compared with 0.9 percent in the top 1 percent (income of $312,000 and higher).

“We know that governors nationwide are promising to cut or eliminate taxes, but the question is who’s going to pay for it,” said Matthew Gardner, executive director of ITEP and an author of the study. “There’s a good chance it’s the so-called takers who spend so much on necessities that they pay an effective tax rate of 10 or more percent, due largely to sales and property taxes. In too many states, these are the people being asked to make up the revenues lost to income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest taxpayers.”

State consumption taxes (mainly sales taxes) are particularly regressive — meaning they take a greater share of income from people at low incomes than people at high incomes. Overall, those rates average 7 percent for the poor, 4.6 percent for middle incomes and a 0.9 percent for the wealthiest taxpayers nationwide.

Gardner noted that in some states, there are efforts to cut or eliminate the income tax, and that of the 10 most regressive tax states, four do not have any taxes on personal income and one applies it only to interest and dividends. The other five have a personal income tax that is flat or virtually flat across all income groups. 

“Cutting the income tax and relying on sales taxes to make up the lost revenues is the surest way to make an already upside down tax system even more so,” Gardner stated.

The data in Who Pays? also demonstrates that states commended as “low tax” are often high-tax states for low- and middle- income families. 

“When you hear people brag about their low tax state, you have to ask them, low tax for whom?” Gardner said.

The fourth edition of Who Pays? measures the state and local taxes paid by different income groups in 2013 (at 2010 income levels including the impact of tax changes enacted through January 2, 2013) as shares of income for every state and the District of Columbia.  The report is available online at www.whopays.org.

Low-Income Iowans Pay Greater Share of Income in State/Local Tax Than Higher Income Iowans

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who pays table

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The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are at www.iowafiscal.org.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that works on federal, state, and local tax policy issues. ITEP’s mission is to ensure that elected officials, the media, and the general public have access to accurate, timely, and straightforward information that allows them to understand the effects of current and proposed tax policies. www.itep.org.