As we move past the inauguration festivities and on to the really important stuff, one of the main federal issue that rises high on the agenda is tax reform. Okay, I know, some people in Washington, like lyin’ Don in the Oval Office, have not seriously moved on yet. Just pretend that there are more important things than counting the millions who attended the inauguration and who voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
The Republicans who control all the DC levers are very anxious about cutting taxes and changing the tax code. One would think 2017 is the year, if there ever was or ever will be such a year, to accomplish that. There will be the obligatory talk about how tax cuts for the rich will incredibly stimulate the economy and actually increase tax revenues. There may also, however, be some cooler heads who will realize that when you cut federal revenues with those tax cuts for the one percenters, you’ll probably lose revenues that might need to be made up in some other way. That means, the conversation goes, closing “loopholes.”
Of course, everyone wants to close loopholes. Except the ones that you or I use. The long-time Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the late Russell Long, offered this commentary about “tax reform”: “don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!”
As so it thus remains.
As the Republican leadership in Congress and the Trump administration, such as it is at this point, discuss “tax reform,” they are looking for that “fellow behind the tree.” I hate to tell you this, but we who live in New York State are the fellow behind the tree.
In looking for loopholes to cut, Republicans in Congress led by Speaker Paul Ryan are focusing on a rather large one, the deduction for state and local taxes. Not only is there a lot of dollars there, but targeting state and local tax deductions also lets the Republicans target states that have high state and local taxes – think New York, California, and Illinois for starters.
In the way we have come to conveniently pigeonhole states, there is lots of discussion about red states that are generally Republican and blue states that are Democratic. New York, California and Illinois are three very prominent blue states which just so happen to raise lots of money in state and local taxes. So for those loophole hunters, voila, a twofer – close a big loophole and stick it to the blue states all in our fell swoop.
This particular “loophole” has been a topic and target of opportunity for Republicans for many years, but of course now they have the advantage of controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, making it much more possible to do what they want to do with the tax code.
On a national basis, the “cost” of the state and local taxes provision of the law in 2015 was estimated by the conservative Heritage Foundation at $80.6 billion. The Foundation suggests that just ten states claim 62 percent of the value of state and local taxes deduction. They also point out that the benefit only helps those who itemize their deduction, which they report to be nationally just 30 percent of federal tax filers.
There are, of course, other “loopholes” that cost the federal government money. According to the Heritage Foundation, non-taxed medical insurance premium benefits cost three-times as much as the state and local tax deduction. Both retirement savings accounts and tax savings from owner-occupied housing also dwarf the state-local benefit.
The voluminous tax code, of course, is also loaded with hundreds of special loophole deductions that apply to a very limited number of individuals or businesses. And then there is the spending side of the federal budget, when spending is not apportioned equitably among the states. Military bases are more plentiful in “red” states, as are agricultural subsidies.
As the discussion about “tax reform” proceeds this year, the talking points offered by Speaker Ryan on the subject will dominate. Like most other issues, the Trump administration position on the subject seems to trend toward Ryan’s position, but until someone in the Treasury Department puts something on paper we can never be sure about these things.
While the national Republican position may be to close the state and local taxation loophole, how does that translate for congressional Republicans in blue states? We’re looking at you, Chris Collins, cheerleader-in-chief for Donald Trump.
Collins fancies himself as the congressional liaison between the House and the White House. He also appears to be a loyal soldier in Ryan’s army. But if the Republicans choose to close the state and local taxation deduction there are a whole lot of Chris Collins’ constituents who will wind up getting screwed in the deal. So there will stand Chris: do I go with Trump and Ryan or do I go with my constituents?
Trying to find total income and property tax collections in New York State is a bit of a needle-in-the-haystack problem. Records indicate that total county, municipal and school district property taxes in Erie County in 2015 were approximately $1.3 billion. Total New York State personal income tax liabilities in Erie County in 2013 were approximately $900 million. So we are talking about a whole lot of state and local tax deductions. Because of the high taxes in New York State it is likely that a much higher percentage of New Yorkers itemize their federal taxes than residents in many other states.
Chris Collins, of course, is not the only federal legislator who will need to ponder this decision. Tom Reed, John Faso, Elise Stefanik, Lee Zeldin, Peter King, Daniel Donovan, Claudia Tenney and John Katko are Republicans representing districts in New York. There are 14 Republican House members from California and 7 from Illinois. There are more in other “blue” states. Add them up and you have a pretty decent sized caucus of House members whose constituents stand to lose if “tax reform” hits the deduction for state and local taxes.
Here in Western New York we can concentrate on Chris Collins and Tom Reed for the moment. Do they stand with Ryan and Trump or their constituents? Hold on to your wallets.