Careful backpedaling on estate tax, Senator

Contrast Senator Grassley’s current statements with his 2005 thought that “it’s a little unseemly” to suggest repealing the estate tax “at a time when people are suffering.” The tax bill promises suffering.

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

Those who want us to believe in the magic of trickle-down economics are trying the oldest tactic in the books: misdirection.

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

Needed fixes on the Alternative Minimum Tax would limit the ways the very rich avoid taxes — but the bill in Congress would just eliminate it, at a cost of $696 billion over 10 years.

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

The Case of the Missing Middle-Class Tax Cut

If you’re looking for a real middle-class tax cut in the Senate plan, you’d better put Sherlock Holmes on the job.

If Sherlock Holmes were a United States Senator, he’d be on it: “The Case of the Missing Middle-Class Tax Cut.”

We’ve all heard about the suspicious tax cut. It’s been in all the papers, all the social media posts, anywhere the spin merchants can find a way to promote the idea that the proposed massive and permanent tax-cut giveaway to millionaires, billionaires and corporations is somehow a “middle-class tax cut.”

Puh-leeze.

No reliable information can justify the billing. Middle-class and lower-income taxpayers ultimately will — on average — pay more as a result of this legislation if it becomes law.

In Iowa, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has shown that despite some minor benefits upon enactment, the bill when fully phased in will actually result in a tax increase, on average, for the bottom 60 percent of Iowa taxpayers. Higher up the income scale, tax cuts will remain. (In the graph below, average tax changes for the bottom three quintiles of Iowa taxpayers are shown as increases, above the line.)

Someone in Iowa making $1.5 million in 2027 would get about a $4,800 benefit under the ITEP analysis — not a lot to people at that income, maybe a good payment on luxury box rent at the ballgame.

But that break for the top 1 percent would total about $68 million — a hit to services on which the money could be spent on behalf of all.

Millions of Americans — an estimated 13 million — would lose health insurance under this bill, a large share of those not giving up insurance voluntarily, but because they could no longer afford it.

Billion-dollar estates that already have $11 million exempt from tax under current law would see a doubling of that exemption, as if the first $11 million free and clear is not enough while the millions of working families struggle to get by, some at a $7.25 minimum wage that has not been raised in over eight years (in Iowa, 10 years).

A Child Tax Credit designed to help working families with the costs of raising children would be extended to families earning $500,000 a year — as if those families need the extra help, when families making $30,000 get little from the deal. By the way, that is one of the changes billed as a middle-income break, and even it would expire in 2025.

There is no expiration, meanwhile, on the estate-tax break or on new giveaways to corporations.

If you’re looking for a real middle-class tax cut in this legislation, you’d better put Sherlock Holmes on the job. Even then, anything you find has an expiration date, plus tax increases. And the millionaires’ cuts that remain will clamp down on resources for the essential things that government does to protect and assure opportunity for us all, and our nation’s future.

You cannot afford to do both — provide critical services and also cut resources to pay for them.

It’s elementary.

Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Red ink, inequity and pain

UPDATED NOV. 20*

redink-capitol

To dive into an ocean of red ink for a tax cut that will do little to boost the economy is one thing. To pretend it benefits middle-class families is, at the least, cynical.

It is impossible to view either the Senate or House tax bills moving in Washington as anything but a boost to the wealthy.

Responsible analysis by respected research organizations makes this apparent. The wealthy don’t just do the best in this legislation — they are the clear focus of it.

New data released by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy offer several key illustrations of how the Senate Republican proposal approved last week by the Finance Committee, which includes Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, will affect Iowans:

  • The middle 20 percent of families, people making between $59,300 and $87,080 (average $72,400) receive only 12 percent of the overall tax cut in 2019. Meanwhile, the top 20 percent receive more than half — 62 percent.
  • In 2019, the top 1 percent has a larger overall tax cut than the bottom 60 percent, $483.1 million (average $32,200) to $407.9 million (average $450).
  • In 2027, as the small benefits at the middle phase out and structural changes at the top are made permanent, the bottom three-fifths of Iowa taxpayers will see $58.7 million in tax increases averaging $60, while the top 1 percent will keep an average $4,770 tax cut at a cost to the treasury of $67.7 million.

Those who are promoting this bill should at least have the honesty to call it what it is: a new handout to the wealthy — one that everyone will pay for, to the tune of $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and an almost certain loss of critical services that benefit all.

* Note: The original post from Nov. 14 has been updated with figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis of the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Tax cuts vs. clean energy

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

Much is being written about the effects of the House Republican tax proposal on different states. By excluding or limiting deductions for state taxes, the proposed tax plan favors states with no income tax — which often is the tax most fair to all of a state’s residents.

Another way states will be affected differently is in energy development.

The Midwest, and especially Iowa, has invested in wind and solar power. There is a production tax credit for wind and an investment tax credit for solar. Both wind and solar are under attack in the new plan.

The wind tax credit already is scheduled to phase out over the next five years but the Republican plan would both speed up the date and cut the present amount of the tax credit. Authors of the bill may not succeed because of something obvious to everyone in Congress, and noted in one news report:

“A report released by Morgan Stanley last week said the Senate is unlikely to pass changes to the tax credit, noting that 85 percent of wind projects are in Republican jurisdictions.

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a statement last week saying he’s working to block the proposed changes. He told reporters last year that he would fight to preserve the PTC, saying President Trump will ‘have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body.’”

As someone who ran against Senator Grassley in 1998, I can tell you we agree on this issue. Proponents of the tax plan claim wind has to get a reduced tax benefit so that taxes on business can be cut overall.

Oddly, they do not see the same need to rein in all tax credits for all energy industries. The state of Georgia where a two-unit nuclear plant is way over budget and way late being finished gets the benefit of extending a tax credit for its big utility company. I bet our Senator Grassley will point that out if and when the tax plan gets to the Senate.

The Trump Administration ignores climate change and wants to subsidize coal plants. But now the U.S. House tax plan would add to the problem of warming our atmosphere by helping to cut back on the cleanest, safest, cheapest new energy source.

It turns out the skewing of benefits to the wealthy, clearly evident in this plan, may not be the plan’s only problems.

David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Unions overcome unbalanced bargaining law

ALEC-friendly lawmakers, eager to crush public-sector unions, may have instead given them new organizational life.

If Iowa lawmakers thought that their Draconian revisions to Chapter 20 could break the back of public-sector unionism, the last two months have proven them spectacularly wrong. Since early September, almost 500 of Iowa’s public-sector bargaining units have been forced into recertification elections.

Under the new rules, locals had to pay for the election themselves — and then win a majority of the entire bargaining unit (not just the votes cast). AFSCME’s Danny Homan remarked that of those pushing the new restrictions, “not one … could win an election under the rules they gave us.”

As is evident in the returns, public-sector workers have not only dug in their heels against the attack on their rights to bargain, but have begun to push back. ALEC-friendly legislative leaders, so eager to crush public-sector unions and silence their political voice, may have instead given them new organizational life.

Consider some of the numbers from the September and October elections (summarized in the graphic above). Of those voting, almost 98 percent voted to keep the union. In 229 elections, all the votes cast were “yes” votes.

Of the 32 bargaining units (accounting for about 1,000 workers) decertified, only five lost the majority of votes cast; in 21 units, nonvoters — counted as “no” under the new rules — tipped the balance. In six other units, no one voted.

A look at the 32 decertification returns suggests results that are starkly undemocratic: At Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, for example, nurses voted 74-27 to stick with SEIU 199. But, because they needed 99 votes to capture half of the bargaining unit, they lost. In the Iowa Falls Community School District, a Teamsters 238 local voted 27-0 to certify. But because they needed 33 votes to capture half of the bargaining unit, they lost.

As an example of the success of strong organizing in the face of the rules imposed upon workers, Iowa State Education Association locals in 233 locations mobilized for recertification votes — winning 229 of those and losing only four by a total of 15 votes. Even in those four isolated cases, ISEA was favored by a majority of those actually voting — just not enough to satisfy the special restrictions placed on them by lawmakers.

Colin Gordon, senior research consultant to the Iowa Policy Project

cgordonipp@gmail.com