Don’t compound Iowa tax inequity

The big winners would be those with the highest incomes.

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The first report by a self-proclaimed conservative think tank in Iowa is getting some attention today, and reviving dubious ideas about taxes.

First, we applaud the recognition from Engage Iowa that our state’s various tax rates are not as high as they appear at first blush, because of federal deductibility — which permits tax filers to reduce their state taxable income for federal taxes paid. Ending federal deductibility, which Engage Iowa proposes, is something Iowa should consider. That would allow lowering the top rate to around 7 percent and eliminate the perception problem the group is so concerned about.

Unfortunately, however, this is not a well-thought-out plan to improve fairness and simplicity in Iowa taxes, or to assure adequate revenues for schools and other critical services, which are the best way to promote economic growth.

It compounds the overall regressive nature of Iowa taxes — and does nothing to help low- to moderate-income working families. In fact, for many families it would destroy the most important recent advance — the Earned Income Tax Credit. Some 147,000 recipients making over $10,000 — 70 percent of all EITC recipients — would lose the EITC.

While raising low-income Iowans’ taxes, the plan would buy down income-tax rates for higher-income Iowans with a sales tax increase. This would compound existing inequities in Iowa’s state and local tax system, which taxes the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers at about 10 percent, and the highest earners only 6 percent. The big winners would be those with the highest incomes.

The report’s claims about taxes and migration fly in the face of much published academic research showing that in fact taxes have very little influence on interstate migration. The claims that the flat tax would result in substantial economic gains to the state are highly suspect.

Finally, the group’s argument rests on discredited assumptions about Iowa’s so-called “business climate” and ignores the fact that Iowa already is very — perhaps overly — friendly to business. The plan places a great deal of weight on the Tax Foundation rankings, which have been thoroughly debunked. The author could have consulted more credible rankings of business climate, such as the Anderson Economic Group (which places Iowa 20th best, with below-average business taxes) or Ernst and Young, which has Iowa 28th, with an effective rate equal to the national average.

In short, the plan focuses mostly on a perception about Iowa taxes, a perception that is inaccurate but is cultivated by anti-tax forces, rather than ways to improve the stability and sustainability of funding for the critical public services on which all Iowans depend.

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

 

Flat tax plan legalizes cheating on Iowa taxes

You could argue that if the Legislature makes it legal, it can’t be called cheating. But it sure smells like it.

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

Federal deductibility: the reality

The word of the month in Iowa tax discussions is “federal deductibility.” It means you can deduct your federal income tax from your state income at filing time. Only a handful of states let their residents do it.

Iowa is one of only three states that permit taxpayers to deduct the full amount of federal income taxes paid.

Make no mistake: Federal deductibility is a benefit targeted for Iowa’s highest-income families. Some others benefit, but mostly, it is those at higher incomes.

The last, best analysis of this we have shows that the wealthiest 20 percent of Iowa taxpayers receive 80 percent of the tax benefit from federal deductibility (2002 figures). For the other 80 percent of Iowans, the tax cut amounted less than half of 1 percent of their income. Using those 2002 numbers, by the way, the dollar amount of the average tax cut for the top 1 percent of taxpayers was about $13,900 — more than the income of people in the bottom 20 percent.

To understand why wealthier people get the greatest benefits under federal deductibility, consider this: You have to pay federal income tax to get the Iowa deduction. Many Iowans at moderate and low incomes simply do not make enough money to pay income tax to the federal government — but Iowa law still makes them pay income tax. some provisions in the tax-reform bill in the Iowa Legislature make that situation better for low-income families.

Remember these perspectives when someone defends “federal deductibility” as something to help low- or middle-income working families. For most of them, it’s just not so.

Focus on Facts: Reform Lowers Rates

There’s a lot of confusion being promoted by some about the tax-reform plan before the Iowa Legislature.

There are three main points to it:

  • • It lowers Iowa’s tax rates, taking the top rate down by 2 percentage points.
  • • To enable the lower rates, it does away with federal deductibility.
  • • There are additional boosts in tax credits targeted to low- and moderate-income working families.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysts have — like others — been going through the figures provided by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) about the effects of the total package. Those effects have been portrayed many ways. IFP considers the following to be the most important points to be understood from that LSA analysis:

  • • For both 2009 and 2010, 73 percent of households with incomes below $50,000 a year would see their taxes either stay the same or decrease under the reform proposal.
  • • During 2009, households earning below $50,000 would, on average, see a tax change of no more than $70 in either direction, as a cut or an increase.
  • • Overall, Iowans earning below $125,000 would, on average, see a tax cut or no change.

That last number is an important one. We’ve been hearing a lot in recent days about effects on small business. Many of the claims don’t hold water.

As our researchers have found, more than 70 percent of small business owners in the U.S. earn less than $125,000. Because many small-business owners report and pay their state income tax on individual returns, this plan obviously helps them, too.

This plan makes a small but positive change in the tax code.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Common sense, stability in tax reform

Statement of Beth Pearson, Iowa Policy Project
Public Hearing on Income-Tax Reform • Iowa House Chamber • March 31, 2009

Beth Pearson
Beth Pearson

Thank you, and good evening. In my capacity as a researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, I evaluate potential budget and tax policies according to whether they make our overall fiscal system more sound and help support our shared public priorities.

In general, good changes to our tax system are ones that make it fairer, more competitive, more stable and secure, and easier to understand. We want a system that provides sufficient revenue to fund essential public services, but we want it to generate that revenue in a way that respects a taxpayer’s ability to pay a tax and doesn’t distort an individual’s private economic decisions.

The income tax reform proposal now before you goes a long way in moving Iowa’s overall tax system — comprised of income, sales, and property taxes — in the direction of these basic principles. Let me talk about just two of those principles: competitiveness and fairness.

First, competitiveness. When profits dip for a small business owner during a recession, their income tax bill goes down automatically. Even those small business owners lucky enough to have steady profits in these tough economic times will likely see a tax decrease as a result of this proposal. The Tax Policy Center, a project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, found that, nationwide, seventy percent of taxpayers with small business income earned less than $100,000 in 2009. Assuming the same distribution holds true for Iowa, that would mean that more than 70 percent of taxpayers with small business income in Iowa would see an average tax decrease under this proposal. I think that makes it a more competitive system.

Second, fairness. There’s no question that there are particular types of households who benefit the most under this package: low-income working families with children. In addition to seeing lower income tax rates, these families also stand to benefit from expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps make work pay by targeting tax assistance to income earners with children, as well as expansions in the child and dependent care credit. So, yes, this package does offer a disproportionate share of its benefits to low-income families who are sending their kids to child care every day so that they can hold down a job in a tough economy. I think that makes it a fairer system.

Most tax changes made during the past 20 years in Iowa haven’t held up when scrutinized according to good budget and tax principles. But this proposal offers us an opportunity to take a step in the direction of common sense and fiscal stability, and I urge the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign this bill.

See the Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis (3-page PDF) of the legislation, Iowa Income Tax Reform: An Emphasis Upon Sound Principles.