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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.

 

Don’t emulate North Carolina, either

Posted March 7th, 2018 to Blog

The ideologues advocating for large state income tax cuts haven’t given up defending the Kansas experiment, despite overwhelming evidence that it forced drastic budget cuts while doing nothing to stimulate growth. Now they would have us believe that North Carolina provides an even better example of the benefits of the tax-slashing strategy. It doesn’t.

Two recent analyses of the North Carolina tax cuts, which took effect in 2014, show pretty clearly that the cuts did not boost the economy, and that they will soon precipitate large budget shortfalls. Prior to the tax cuts, the state’s economy generally grew at a comparable rate to the surrounding states, despite North Carolina having higher personal income tax rates than its neighbors. And it outpaced the national economy, jobs in North Carolina growing at 5.8 percent from late 2001 through the end of 2013, compared to 4.2 percent for the nation.

Since the tax cuts took effect in 2014, has North Carolina’s economic performance become even more impressive? On the contrary; since 2014, North Carolina has lagged behind the nation in growth in jobs and GDP, and has also lagged behind neighboring Georgia and South Carolina.

The tax-cut advocates are fond of saying simply that since the tax cuts, North Carolina has experienced rapid growth. The state has certainly grown faster than Kansas, but nothing in the evidence suggests that the tax cuts boosted growth; in fact, relative to its neighbors and to the nation its performance declined after taxes were cut.

The North Carolina tax cuts were phased in from 2014 through 2019, and by next year will cost the state 15 percent of the general fund budget. Major fiscal challenges now loom on the horizon. The state’s budget analysts project a structural budget shortfall of $1.2 billion in 2020, with the shortfall rising after that.

Tax and budget cuts are a formula for decline, not prosperity. Over the past decade, North Carolina has cut per student funding for education — K-12 by 7.9 percent, higher education by 15.9 percent, when adjusted for inflation — and the tax cuts will make it difficult, if not impossible, to restore those funds, no less to increase its investments in the state’s children. They are putting the long-term prosperity of the state at risk.

These results are not surprising. Tax cuts have budget consequences; they do not pay for themselves through growth. In fact, the preponderance of serious research finds that the effects of state income taxes on state growth are negligible.

Let’s hope Iowa does not follow either Kansas or North Carolina down the path of chronic budget crises and underfunding of the state’s responsibilities for education, health and public safety.

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

A poisoned process

Posted February 28th, 2018 to Blog

As early as today, a bill may be debated in the Iowa Senate to drastically slash revenue for public services — phased in at a cost of over $1 billion a year, or about one-seventh of the state’s General Fund.

The Senate bill, as does any legislation with a fiscal impact, comes with a “fiscal note.” This analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, using Department of Revenue data, was made available sometime late Tuesday. The legislation itself was introduced a week ago today, and passed out of subcommittee and full committee the following day.

The legislation is so complex that it took the state’s top fiscal analysts a week to put together their summary, which includes four pages of bullet points in addition to tables of data about various impacts. The nonpartisan analysis finds that the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations once again are the big winners.

The timing of the official fiscal analysis was only the latest example of cynical approach to public governing that has slapped brown paper over the windows of the gold-domed sausage factory in Des Moines.

This General Assembly was elected in 2016. It is an understatement to suggest that this legislation could easily have been developed through the 2017 legislative session or the months leading up to this session. The public who will be affected, and advocates across the political spectrum, could have weighed in, and independent fiscal analysis considered.

Many have tried to educate the public about what is at stake for Iowa — including the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, which among other activities brought in experts from Kansas last year to show what has happened there with similar tax slashing. IFP also offered a reminder in October of what real tax reform could include, and later about both open government and the folly of Kansas’ course. Last week, we warned about the fiscal cliff ahead.

Everyone knew the legislative leadership and Governor wanted to do something to cut taxes, but no specifics were available, just a couple of hints with no real context. The session opened in the second week of January, and it wasn’t until most had left the building on the second-to-last day of February that a fiscal analysis magically appeared.

With a more transparent and deliberate process, everyone — including and especially the legislators who will be voting on it — would have had a chance to get full information about its impacts.

Instead, it is being rammed through. Regardless of whether the legislation itself is good or bad, the process has poisoned it. And perhaps it has poisoned governance in Iowa for years to come.

There are elements of the commentary defending and opposing this legislation that show general agreement on two key points of what meaningful, responsible tax reform would entail. On both sides, there is recognition that:

•  removing Iowa’s costly and unusual federal tax deduction would enable a reduction of top tax rates that appear higher than they really are; and

•  corporate tax credits are out of control and costing the state millions outside the budget process, while education and human services suffer.

The process, however, has shielded from public view a clear understanding of how the specifics of this legislation would affect two principles central to good tax policy: (1) the purpose of raising adequate revenues for critical services, and (2) raising those revenues in a way that reflects ability to pay — basic fairness of taxation, where Iowa (like most states) has a system that shoves greater costs on low-income than high-income taxpayers.

It also has raised to the altar of absurdity a ridiculous image of the competitiveness of Iowa taxes, which independent business consultants’ analysis has shown to be lower than half the states and in the middle of a very large pack that differs little on the state and local business taxes governed by state policy. (chart below)

Ernst&YoungFY2016

As the process moves from the Senate to the House, these concepts of good governance need to be central to timely debate, not just fodder for editorial pages afterward.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and project director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint initiative of IPP and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Cliff ahead: Learn from Kansas

The Iowa Senate is poised to move a massive tax cut bill out of committee today, in the belief that somehow what was a disaster in Kansas will be a big success in Iowa.

Despite chronic revenue shortfalls that have forced a series of mid-year budget cuts over the past two years, and the prospect of a tight budget for next year, Senate Republicans propose to cut $1 billion a year from the state budget. They are moving the bill forward without even an analysis of its impact.

Proponents claim this will make Iowa more competitive and boost the economy. There are two problems with this claim. First, two major accounting firms that rank states on their level of business taxation continue to put Iowa right in the middle of the pack, or even better. We are already competitive. Ernst & Young (below) ranks Iowa 29th, while Anderson Economic Group’s measure ranks Iowa 28th — in both cases, showing little difference across a broad middle range of the scale.

Second, there is good reason to expect the bill to have negative effects on the economy, not positive. When Kansas enacted major cuts to state income taxes in 2012 and 2013, the Governor and his friends at ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) lauded this experiment — which five years later has proven to be a dramatic failure.

Abundant evidence shows the tax cuts failed to boost the Kansas economy. In the years since the tax cuts took effect Kansas has lagged most other states in the region and the country as a whole in terms of job growth, GDP growth, and new business formation.

When confronted with the Kansas failure, the bill’s proponents respond that the only problem in Kansas was that they failed to cut services sufficiently to balance their budget. But here’s the problem: Their constituents were up in arms over the cuts they did enact; they would not have stood for anything more drastic.

In order to bring the budget somewhat back in balance, Kansas borrowed from the future, using up reserves, postponing infrastructure projects, and missing contributions to the pension fund. Schools closed weeks early when state funding ran out. Had they cut spending further, that would have put a bigger dent in the economy, as recipients of government contracts were forced to retrench and workers laid off spent less in the local economy.

A supermajority of the Kansas Legislature voted to end the experiment last year, recognizing it as a failure and responding to the demands of Kansas citizens to restore funding to education, highways, and other state services they rely on. That decision no doubt saved the state economy from performing even worse in the years to come.

The Senate bill would harm Iowa in much the same way. Education accounts for over half of the state budget. Tax cuts of this magnitude would have very serious consequences for our public schools, and would force tuition up drastically at community colleges and regents institutions. Our court system would be forced into further personnel cuts, meaning long delays for those seeking justice. We would see more children suffer as family service workers face ever higher caseloads.

Proponents claim the Senate plan is “bold.” So is jumping off a cliff.

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

 

Related from Peter Fisher:

The Lessons of Kansas

The Problem with Tax Cutting as Economic Policy

Kansas poses warnings for Iowa

IFP News:

Failed tax-cut experiment shows states how not to proceed
New report exposes the danger of supply-side tax-cutting by states

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (Jan. 24, 2018) — A new report shows Iowa lawmakers should pay attention to the failed experiment in Kansas and focus any tax changes on fairness and stabilizing revenues for education and other critical services.

“Kansas tried cutting taxes to promote economic growth in 2012 and instead wound up lagging its neighbors — including Iowa — and the nation, forcing cuts in school funding and other needs,” said Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP).

The new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is the latest illustration of why Kansas shows how not to proceed. And now that this is clear, tax-cut proponents have backed off their earlier celebration of Kansas.

“It’s a bad risk for our state,” Fisher said. “It is being driven by outside forces and ideology, and we already know it does not work.”

In 2012, tax-cut supporters said Kansas would boost its economic competitiveness by sharply curtailing taxes on high-income people and businesses. While Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had called the cuts a “shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” the result left tax-cut supporters scrambling for excuses, saying that the Brownback experiment was tainted.

CBPP, however, found the Kansas tax cuts to be a valid test of supply-side economics. That they failed the test is not a surprise. The CBPP report as well as previous IPP research by Fisher, available at www.gradingstates.org, shows that the preponderance of academic research has found that personal income tax cuts typically produce little if any economic growth.

From December 2012 (just before the tax cuts took effect) to May 2017 (just before they were repealed) jobs in Kansas grew only 4.2 percent, below all of its neighbors except Oklahoma and less than half of the 9.4 percent job growth in the United States.

Yet in Iowa, promises of tax changes are coming with a heavy dose of the failed supply-side, trickle-down approach. And work on the changes is — so far — behind closed doors.

“Iowa’s tax discussion from start to finish belongs out in the open. The impacts will be felt by all Iowans, and all Iowans should be at the table — with legitimate analysis like that from CBPP, IPP’s Peter Fisher and other respected Iowa economists, to be front and center,” said Mike Owen, executive director of IPP.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has identified keys to responsible tax reform, which includes eliminating federal deductibility as Governor Reynolds has proposed to reduce tax rates that appear higher than they are — but only if that change comes without a reduction in revenue, and does not increase the overall inequity in Iowa taxes that favors the wealthy.

“At a time of budget shortfalls, we cannot afford to lose more resources for schools and vulnerable families, and in any case we need to introduce more fairness in taxes to reflect Iowans’ ability to pay,” Owen said.  “Currently, the bottom 80 percent of Iowa working-age households pay — on average — 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, and the wealthier pay steadily less. New income-tax cuts at the top would make this worse.”

CBPP’s research found that Kansas’s tax cut experiment was a valid — and failed — real-world test of supply-side economics for the following reasons:

  • Kansas sharply curtailed spending after enacting the tax cuts. Some argue that the tax cuts didn’t produce economic growth because lawmakers didn’t follow it with spending cuts, but this does not match reality. State spending was tightly restricted in the aftermath of the tax cuts. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, Kansas’s General Fund spending rose only 0.3 percent without adjusting for inflation and fell 5.5 percent after adjusting for inflation and population growth. If Kansas had cut spending more, its economic and job growth would have been even more lackluster as teachers, nursing home aides paid with Medicaid funds, private road maintenance contractors compensated with Highway Fund dollars, and others employed by the state would have had less money to spend locally.
  • Downturns in agriculture, energy, and airplane manufacturing don’t explain the tax cuts’ ineffectiveness. Some have cited the decline of oil, gas, and commodity prices, as well as a decline in Kansas’s energy sector to help explain the state’s poor economic performance. But the aircraft manufacturing and energy sectors are too small a part of the Kansas economy for their downturns to appreciably affect the state’s job creation record. The two sectors lost 2,500 and 3,100 jobs, respectively, between 2012 and mid-2017 — well under 1 percent of the state’s total employment. And, while combined earnings of farmers fell significantly in Kansas in the years following the tax cuts, all of the state’s neighbors except Nebraska had even bigger declines, as did the country overall. Despite this, Kansas’ job growth still lagged behind all but one of its neighbors.
  • Kansas’s exemption of “pass-through” income from the income tax led to only modest tax avoidance. The exemption for pass through income — that is, income from businesses such as partnerships, S corporations, and sole proprietorships that filers report on individual tax returns — did create an incentive for various kinds of tax avoidance strategies. But the Kansas Department of Revenue’s own data shows that there was, at most, only a small and temporary uptick in the number of pass-through business formations that might have been due to tax avoidance.

“Some will continue to argue that Kansas’s fiscal and economic struggles after its tax cuts aren’t relevant to other states, but plenty of evidence says that they are. Other states should be very cautious in pursuing tax cuts in the name of supply-side economics because time and time again we have seen this approach fail,” said Michael Mazerov, author of the report.

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Rest/best/worst of the story

Posted January 2nd, 2018 to Blog

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Senator Joni Ernst is using Facebook to gin up support for the new tax bill. It is a one-sided picture, to say the least.

So, what does it really mean for Iowans that the tax bill is law?

  • Middle and low-income Iowans will see temporary ​tax cuts in the short term that are ​drastically smaller​​ than those high-income taxpayers will see — and these will be taken away or turned into tax increases by 2027 to help pay for permanent tax cuts for corporations.
  • Millions of people nationwide will lose health insurance coverage as elimination of the individual mandate drives up costs for all.
  • The wealthy will keep more millions of dollars that have never been taxed due to further exemptions in the estate tax.
  • The Child Tax Credit will be extended to affluent families who do not need assistance, while 86,000 children in working families in Iowa receive a token increase of $75 or less — both expansions to evaporate after 2025.
  • Businesses will get enormous, permanent tax breaks with no requirements to create jobs.

Some might recall a longtime radio commentator, Paul Harvey, and his “Rest of the Story” pieces. The points above are the “rest of the story” that you might not hear from backers of the latest tax giveaway in Congress. You might be OK with them and call them the “best of the story.”

Or, you might be concerned about the impact they will have on U.S. and Iowa families, on national debt and new challenges they bring to the safety net, and call them the “worst of the story.”

But they are the real story, and they should not be forgotten as the spin continues.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Careful backpedaling on estate tax, Senator

Posted December 5th, 2017 to Blog

One of the problems with backpedaling is if you don’t do it well, you trip. Somebody catch Senator Chuck Grassley.

As has been widely noted across social media — a good example is this post in Bleeding Heartland — The Des Moines Register quoted Iowa’s senior senator that estate tax repeal would reward “people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.

Ironically, while promoted as a pullout quote in the packaging of the story, the “booze or women or movies” comment came quite low in the piece. More substantive problems with the Senator’s rationale for opposing the estate tax were presented higher: specifically his continued insistence that this has something to do with the survival of family farms.

It. Does. Not.

10-30-17tax-factsheet-f1Senator Grassley has promoted this unsupportable justification for his position for many years. This New York Times piece from 2001 includes it.

And he renewed it again Monday in claiming his “booze or women or movies” comment was out of context, taking the opportunity to promote his spin again — and again getting wrong the facts behind his fundamental objection: the impact on farms.

There, he claimed in the story that he wants a tax code as fair for “family farmers who have to break up their operations to pay the IRS following the death of a loved one as it is for parents saving for their children’s college education or working families investing and saving for their retirement.”

While only a handful might actually have to pay any tax at all because of the generous exemptions in the estate tax — shielding $11 million per couple’s estate from any tax — no one in the many years the Senator has pretended this is an issue has been able to cite a single farm that had to break up because of the tax.

Contrast his current statements with the one he made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when there was a move afoot to slash the estate tax. And — as shown by the graphs below — even fewer estates in Iowa and the nation are affected by the estate tax now than at that time, when he said “it’s a little unseemly to be talking about doing away with or enhancing the estate tax at a time when people are suffering.”

The tax legislation in Congress will cause millions to suffer, directly through a loss of health insurance, some with actual tax increases even at middle incomes, and over time with a loss of critical services that help low- and moderate-income families just to get by.

Furthermore, any middle-income tax cuts expire in 2026 while high-income benefits and corporate breaks remain in effect. And then, even more will suffer.

Questions we have been asking for years remain relevant today, and each time pandering politicians take a whack at the estate tax:

  • Is it a greater priority to absolve those beneficiaries of the need to contribute to public services — and make everyone else in the United States borrow billions more from overseas to pay for it — or to establish reasonable rules once and for all to assure the very wealthiest in the nation pay taxes?
  • Do we pass on millions tax-free to the heirs of American aristocracy, or do we pass on billions or trillions of debt to America’s teen-agers?

We all shall inherit the public policy now in Congress. As long as the estate tax exists, it remains the last bastion assuring that at least a small share of otherwise untaxed wealth for the rich contributes to the common good, or at least toward paying the debt they leave us. Fear not for their survivors; they still will prosper handsomely.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Iowa City. Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Editor’s Note: This post was updated Dec. 6 with the graphs showing the decline in Iowa estates affected by the estate tax.

Beware corporate tax con job

Posted November 29th, 2017 to Blog

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this piece appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, Cedar Rapids Gazette. Online version here.

Those pushing the tax bill now before Congress have a tough job. They have to convince ordinary taxpayers that they should embrace a bill that gives massive tax cuts to corporations and rich people, raises the national debt, results in millions losing health care, and sets the stage for huge cuts in programs, from Medicare to food assistance to education.

Their principal argument — that trickle-down economics is going to bestow jobs and wages on the middle class — is a con job.

Why do U.S. corporations need a tax cut when they are already paying taxes at a lower overall effective rate than in other advanced economies? They don’t.

You have probably heard just the opposite: that our rates are the highest in the world, a skewed view that ignores only the nominal tax rate is higher than most other countries. In fact, a myriad of deductions and loopholes brings the actual rate corporations pay way down, to below average.[1]

The huge deficits created by this tax bill — $1.5 trillion over 10 years — would push interest rates up and would choke off investment, counteracting any tendency of the corporate tax cuts to increase investment. Furthermore, an examination of developed economies across the globe shows that corporate tax cuts over the past 15 years have not produced growth in capital investment. [2]

Nor is a cut in corporate tax rates going to lead to wage increases. U.S. corporate tax rates were slashed in the late 1980s, and in the years since we have seen the historic link between productivity and wages broken. In other words, the last corporate tax cut ushered in a period of stagnant wages, even though productivity continued to rise.

Think of it this way: Why would we expect tax cuts now would lead to corporations sharing productivity growth with workers through higher wages? It hasn’t been happening for the past 30 years.

It gets worse. The bill is supposed to be only $1.5 trillion because there are other tax increases that hold down the total. However one of those offsets won’t work as planned. A minimum tax on overseas profits, which sounds like a good idea, will actually provide an incentive for multinational companies to move American jobs overseas in order to escape the new tax.

Those who want us to believe in the magic of trickle-down economics are trying the oldest tactic in the books: misdirection. Focus on this shiny bauble — a small cut in your taxes in the short run — and this pie-in-the sky promise of jobs and higher wages; pay no attention to the billions of dollars going to corporations and the rich, and the inevitable cuts in programs, from health care to education to Medicare.

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

 

[1] U.S. corporation income taxes amount to 2.2 percent of GDP, while other advanced economies (the remaining countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) collect 2.9 percent of GDP in corporate taxes. See “Common Tax ‘Reform’ Questions, Answered.” Josh Bivens and Hunter Blair, Economic Policy Institute, October 3, 2017.

[2] Josh Bivens, “International Evidence Shows that Low Corporate Tax Rates are not Strongly Associated with Stronger Investment.” Working Economics Blog, Economic Policy Institute, October 26, 2017.

Congressional tax bills: New loopholes

Posted November 22nd, 2017 to Blog

To most people, tax reform means closing loopholes. To those in Congress pushing an overhaul of federal taxes it apparently means the opposite. The House and Senate tax bills would reopen a number of loopholes used by high-income taxpayers to shelter income from tax, and create a huge new one. Without shame, they are calling this “tax reform.”

First, the new loophole. This one is doubly ingenuous, touted as a “reform” that helps “small business.” It allows individuals who receive income from a business that they own (if that business is not a corporation) to pay no more than the 25 percent individual income tax rate on that income. Here’s the thing: Most truly small businesses are already in that tax bracket, or lower, because they have less than $250,000 in business income; these taxpayers get no benefit from the bill.

So who would benefit? Almost 70 percent of this “pass-through” income goes to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers. They are hedge fund managers and real estate developers who own a non-corporate business, and who now pay tax at one of the top rates for individuals (up to 39.6 percent). This pass-through loophole is no help to small businesses; it is a gift to the rich, and a very costly one indeed: $597 billion over 10 years.

Now for the loopholes re-opened. If you are an ordinary, hard-working middle income taxpayer you probably have never had to worry about something called the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). That’s because you didn’t have income from incentive stock options, you didn’t take an oil depletion allowance, you didn’t claim net operating losses. In short, you didn’t have the kinds of income that escape taxation. You had mostly wages and salaries, which are fully taxed.

The AMT originated in the late 1960s and was supposed to ensure that those with preferentially treated income or large deductions paid at least some minimum amount of income tax. Donald Trump, for example, was required to pay an additional $31 million in 2005 because of the AMT. (We know this because of the partial tax return for that year that was made public.) Without the AMT, tens of millions of his income would have escaped taxation.

The AMT does need fixing; it does not succeed in taxing all kinds of preferential income, and many of the very rich still find ways to avoid tax. But instead of fixing it or replacing it with something better, this bill would just eliminate it permanently, at a cost of $696 billion over 10 years, a big chunk of the total cost of the bill.

In the name of tax reform, congressional Republicans are opening the loophole floodgates for high-income taxpayers; these two measures will cost $1.3 trillion. That means another $1.3 trillion in federal deficits, or in cuts to programs like Medicare and food assistance, to keep wealthy donors happy.

Peter Fisher, research director of the Iowa Policy Project

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org