Posted tagged ‘tax fairness’

Some bad ideas never die

April 24, 2013
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The Iowa House today proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy. On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety, and other services, and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district. What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on their own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources – try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm – when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets. There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own – there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans. No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway. Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Flat tax plan legalizes cheating on Iowa taxes

March 11, 2013
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

How to make Iowa’s tax system more unfair

February 5, 2013
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

How odd that a new proposal to make Iowa’s tax system more regressive and unfair comes out just when new evidence shows it already is unfair. HF3 would make the Iowa income tax rate flat where it needs to reflect ability to pay. Since higher income people pay more in income tax, and because they are expected to pay a greater percentage as their income rises, moving to a flat or flatter income tax is a reward to them. It does not help low- and moderate-income people.

As shown in the recent “Who Pays?” report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), the poorest pay the highest portion of their income in taxes. (See graph.) The sales tax is much steeper as a share of income from low-income Iowans than it is from high-income Iowans, and the property tax is marginally more expensive to low-income people as a share of income than it is to those with high incomes. The income tax is the only progressive element of Iowa’s state and local tax system.

graph of Who Pays Iowa taxesTo flatten the only progressive feature of Iowa’s tax system would make the overall tax system more regressive. That would be the inevitable effect of HF3.

The problem with Iowa’s tax system is not that it’s too progressive. In fact, it is regressive — taking a larger share of the income of people at low incomes and middle incomes than of people at the top. HF3 would compound this.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

EITC boost would help families who need it — and economy

January 17, 2013
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

If you imagine a packed Kinnick Stadium on game day you have an idea of how many Iowans were kept out of poverty from 2009 to 2011 thanks to two refundable tax credits.

A new state-by-state analysis from the Brookings Institution finds that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 71,123 Iowans out of poverty, over half of them children.

The Governor’s Condition of the State speech Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss the value of Iowa’s own Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to Iowa families and prospects for an expansion — something he has twice vetoed on grounds that he wanted more comprehensive tax reforms.

The Brookings analysis uses a new way of looking at poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an updated approach to the calculation of whether an Americans household is in poverty. So it’s a valuable look that we haven’t seen for state-level figures.

The EITC is designed to encourage work when low-income jobs don’t provide enough for a family to make ends meet. So, as a family earns more income, they become eligible for a larger credit; as their income approaches self-sufficiency the EITC gradually phases out.[1]

At the state level, Iowa families who are eligible for the federal EITC also qualify for the state EITC, which is set at 7 percent of the federal credit. Proposals in the past would take that higher, to 10 percent or even 20 percent. It can be an important break for lower-income working families because Iowa already taxes the income of many who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. Currently, a married couple with two incomes and two children who qualifies for the federal EITC doesn’t have to start paying federal income taxes until their incomes reach $45,400. That same family would have to pay Iowa income taxes when their incomes reached $22,600.[2]

The EITC is the the nation’s largest and most successful anti-poverty program, largely because it encourages and rewards working families. With Iowa’s 85th General Assembly under way, discussions about raising Iowa’s EITC above 7 percent may once again emerge after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last year.

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

December 13, 2012
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Better understanding the 47 percent

October 1, 2012
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

The current political environment has set off a firestorm of confusion about who does and who does not pay taxes in America — and unfair criticism of many working families and others.

It’s true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay taxes. In fact, almost two-thirds of the 47 percent are low-income, working households who are paying payroll taxes to help finance Social Security and Medicare, and many pay federal excise taxes on things like gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes.[1] These households are also paying a large percentage of their income in state and local sales and property taxes.

Many working Americans are exempt from the income tax because of features Congress added to the tax code — with overwhelming bipartisan support, in an effort to enable people to care for themselves and their children while encouraging them to work. Some of these features include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a Ronald Reagan era anti-poverty program that enables low-wage working families with children to meet their basic needs while promoting employment. In addition, the child tax credit gives families a tax credit through the form of a refund check even when they don’t owe federal income taxes.[2]

The other one-third of the 47 percent — those households that aren’t paying either major federal tax — includes those who are unemployed, low-income senior citizens who paid taxes during their working years and aren’t currently taxed on Social Security benefits, students, those who have disabilities or can’t work due to serious injury and people who don’t meet the income tax obligation because their wages aren’t high enough.

Often missed in the focus on those who are not currently paying income taxes is the errant assumption that all those people have never paid taxes and never will. Just because a household doesn’t owe income tax one year, doesn’t mean they won’t pay income taxes over their lifetime. For many, a career change, the loss of a job, a disability or injury, or low wages can lead to incomes too low to pay taxes.

Iowa households who aren’t paying federal income tax are still paying a large percentage of their incomes to state and local taxes. As the Iowa Policy Project reported in (2009), moderate-and low-income Iowans pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the rich do. [3] [4]

whopays2009As the graph at right shows, Iowa’s regressive tax system takes a larger share of the incomes from those who have the least, and a smaller share from those who have the ability to pay a larger percentage of their income. Make no mistake: Working Iowans pay taxes.

For more on this issue, see our two-pager, “Better understanding the 47 percent.”

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


Iowa’s holiday from taxes — and reality

August 3, 2012
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Oh, boy! It’s sales-tax holiday weekend in Iowa.

We’re talking about a “7 percent off” sale, folks — on only a limited list of items. When’s the last time that brought you into a store? At any other time of year, it would not draw customers, but guffaws. Seven percent? Really?

As IPP’s Andrew Cannon pointed out last year at this time, these gimmicks “drain revenue, and feed unfairness in a state tax system.” They are found, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR), in 17 states, and take various forms.

Of course the folks in the malls will say they’re great — anything to get someone in the door. But think about it. We’re literally talking about a few bucks off a pair of jeans, about $5 off a $70 pair of shoes. You could do a heck of a lot better on a regular sale at a store even when you’re paying sales tax.

And when you’re paying the tax, you’re not stiffing the school that your child will be attending in a few weeks in new jeans and shoes.

There is a price to public services any time we chip away at revenues. Whether the cost is around $3 million — as this gimmick appears to cost, according to a 2009 report from the DOR — or $40 million in some business tax credit program, it all adds up. Money not brought in due to exceptions in the tax code costs the bottom line every bit as much as money spent by a state agency.

Make no mistake, Iowans are being sold a bill of goods — but at least it’s tax-free!

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


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