Tag Archives: tax reform

State tax refunds and limiting spending growth

This fall eligible Alaskans will be receiving a check of $1,100 from their state government. Although the amount of the check can vary, Alaskans receive one every fall – no strings attached. Other state residents are probably more familiar with IRS tax refunds that come every spring, but this “tax refund” that Alaskans receive is unique. It’s a feature that residents have benefited from for decades, even in times when the government has experienced fiscal stress. Considering the state’s unique and distressed budget situation that I’ve described in an earlier post, I think it warrants a discussion of the fiscal viability of their refunds.

A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that made closing Alaska’s budget gap this year very difficult. It even contributed to pulling down Alaska from 1st in our 2016 ranking of states by fiscal condition to 17th in our 2017 edition. Given this deterioration, it will be helpful to look into how and why Alaska residents receive dividend payments each year. There is no public finance rule that says giving refunds to residents is fiscally irresponsible, but there definitely are better ways to do it, and Alaska certainly hasn’t proven to display best practices.

Another state that we can look at for comparison is Colorado, which has a similar “tax refund” for residents but is structured very differently. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) requires that higher than expected tax revenues each year be refunded to taxpayers and acts as a restraint on government spending growth. In contrast, Alaska’s check comes from the state’s Permanent Fund’s earnings that are generated from oil severance taxes each year, and acts more like a dividend from oil investment earnings.

Are distributing these refunds to taxpayers fiscally responsible? I am going to take a deeper look at these mechanisms to find out.

First, Alaska’s refund.

The figure below displays Alaska’s Permanent Fund checks since 2002 overlaid with the state’s revenue and expenditure trends, all adjusted for inflation. The highest check (in 2015 dollars) was $2,279 in 2008 and the lowest was $906 in 2012, with the average over this time period being about $1,497 per person. Although the check amounts do vary, Alaska has kept on top of delivering them, even in times of steep budget gaps like in 2002, 2009, and 2015. The Permanent Fund dividend formula is based on net income from the current plus the previous four fiscal years, so it makes sense that the check sizes are also cyclical in nature, albeit in a slightly delayed fashion behind oil revenue fluctuations.

Alaska’s dividend payments often end up on the chopping block during yearly budget debates, and there is growing pressure to at least have them reduced. Despite this, Alaska’s dividends are very popular with residents (who can blame them?) and probably won’t be going away for a long time; bringing a new meaning to the Permanent Fund’s name.

The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 by constitutional amendment and was seen as an investment in future generations, who might no longer have access to oil as a resource. Although this may have been decent forward-thinking, which is rare in state budgets, it does illustrate an interesting public finance story.

Alaska is a great example of a somewhat backwards situation. They generate high amounts of cash each year, but because of the way many of their funds are restricted they are forced to hoard much of it, and give the rest to citizens in the form of dividends. If a different state were to consider a similar dividend before dealing with serious structural budget flaws would be akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Luckily for Alaskan dividend recipients, there are many other areas that the state could reform first in order to improve their budget situation while avoiding cutting payments. As my colleague Adam Millsap has recommended, a fruitful area is tax reform. Alaska doesn’t have an income or sales tax; two of the most common sources of revenue for state governments. These are two potentially more stable sources of income than what the state currently has.

How does Colorado’s “tax refund” compare?

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) has a feature that requires any tax revenue growth beyond inflation and population growth be refunded to taxpayers. It was adopted by Colorado voters in 1992 and it essentially restricts revenues by prohibiting any tax or spending increases without voter approval.

A recent example of this playing out was in 2014 when the state realized higher than expected tax revenues as a result of marijuana legalization. At the point of legalization, the plan was to direct tax revenues generated from the sale of marijuana towards schools or substance abuse program funding. But because of the higher than expected revenues, TABOR was triggered and it would require voter approval to decide if the excess revenues would be sent back to taxpayers or directed to other state programs.

In November of 2015, Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure that gave state lawmakers permission to spend $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of marijuana. The first $40 million was sent to school construction, the next $12 million to youth and substance abuse programs, and the remainder $14.2 billion to discretionary spending programs. A great example that although TABOR does generally restrain spending, citizens still have power to decline refunds in the name of program spending they are passionate about.


The second figure here displays TABOR refunds compared with state revenues and expenditures over time. Adjusted for inflation, checks have varied from $18 in 2005 to $351 in 1999, much smaller than the Alaska dividend checks. TABOR checks have only tended to be distributed when revenues have exceeded expenses. The main reason why checks weren’t distributed between 2006 and 2009, despite a revenue surplus, was because of Referendum C which removed TABOR’s revenue limit for five years, allowing the state to keep collections exceeding the rule. The revenue limit has since been reinstated, but some question the effectiveness of TABOR given an earlier amendment in 2000 which exempts much of education spending from TABOR restrictions.

The main distinguishing factor between Colorado’s refund and Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is that the former also acts as a constraint on spending growth. By requiring the legislature to get voter approval before any tax increase or spending of new money, it implements automatic checks on these activities. Many states attempt to do this through what are called “Tax and Expenditure Limits” or TELs.

The worry is that left unchecked, state spending can grow to unsustainable levels.

Tax and Expenditure Limits

A review of the literature up to 2012 found that although the earliest studies were largely skeptical of the effectiveness of TELs, as time has passed more research points to the contrary. TELs can restrain spending, but only in certain circumstances.

My colleague Matt Mitchell found in 2010 that TELs are more effective when they (1) bind spending rather than revenue, (2) require a super-majority rather than a simple majority vote to be overridden, (3) immediately refund revenue collected in excess of the limit, and (4) prohibit unfunded mandates on local government.

Applying these criteria to Colorado’s TABOR we see that it does well in some areas and could improve in others. TABOR’s biggest strength is that it immediately refunds revenue collected in excess of the limit in its formula, pending voter approval to do otherwise. Automatically refunding surpluses makes it difficult for governments to use excess funds irresponsibly and also gives taxpayers an incentive to support TABOR.

Colorado’s TABOR does well to limit revenue growth according to a formula, rather than to a fixed number or no limitation at all. The formula partially meets Mitchell’s standards. It stands up well with the most stringent TELs by limiting government growth that exceeds inflation and population growth, but could actually be improved if it limited actual spending growth rather than focusing on tax revenue. When a TEL or similar law limits revenues, policymakers can respond by resorting to implementing more fees or borrowing. There’s some evidence of this occurring in Colorado, with fees becoming more popular as a way to raise revenue since TABOR’s passing. A spending-based TEL is more difficult to evade.

Despite its faults, Colorado’s TABOR structure appears to be doing better than attempts to constrain spending growth in other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures still considers it one of the strictest TELs in the nation. Other states, like Arkansas, could learn a lot from Colorado. A recent Mercatus study analyzes Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Law and suggests that it is missing a component similar to Colorado’s TABOR formula to refund excess revenues.

How much a state spends is ultimately up to its residents and legislature. Some states may have a preference for more spending than others, but given the tendency for government spending to grow towards an unsustainable direction, having a conversation about how to slow this is key. Implementing TEL-like checks allows for spending to be monitored and that tax dollars be spent more strategically.

Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is not structured as well as Colorado’s, but perhaps the state’s saving grace is that it has a relatively well structured TEL. Similarly to Colorado’s TABOR, Alaska’s TEL limits budget growth to the sum of inflation and population growth and is codified in the constitution. Alaska’s TEL doesn’t immediately refund revenue that is collected in excess of the limit to taxpayers as Colorado’s TABOR does, but it does target spending rather than revenues.

Colorado’s and Alaska’s TELs can compete when it comes to restraining spending, but Colorado’s is certainly more strict. Colorado’s expenditures have grown by about 55 percent over the last decade, while Alaska’s has grown approximately 120 percent.

The Lesson

Comparing Colorado and Alaska’s situations reveals two different ways of giving tax refunds to residents. Doing so doesn’t necessarily have to be fiscally irresponsible. Colorado has provided refunds to residents when state revenues have exceeded expenses and as a result this has acted as a restraint on over-spending higher than expected revenues. Although Colorado’s TABOR has been amended over time, its general structure illustrates the effectiveness of institutional restrains on spending. The unintended effects of TABOR, such as the increase in fees, could be well addressed by specifically targeting spending rather revenue, like in the case of Alaska’s TEL. Alaska may have had their future residents’ best intent in mind when they designed their Permanent Fund Dividend, but perhaps this goal of passing forward oil investment earnings should have been paired with preparing for the potential of cyclical budget woes.

Many working-age males aren’t working: What should be done?

The steady disappearance of prime-age males (age 25-54) from the labor force has been occurring for decades and has recently become popular in policy circles. The prime-age male labor force participation rate began falling in the 1950s, and since January 1980 the percent of prime-age males not in the labor force has increased from 5.5% to 12.3%. In fact, since the economy started recovering from our latest recession in June 2009 the rate has increased by 1.3 percentage points.

The 12.3% of prime-age males not in the labor force nationwide masks substantial variation at the state level. The figure below shows the percentage of prime-age males not in the labor force—neither working nor looking for a job—by state in 2016 according to data from the Current Population Survey.

25-54 males NILF by state 2016

The lowest percentage was in Wyoming, where only 6.3% of prime males were out of the labor force. On the other end of the spectrum, over 20% of prime males were out of the labor force in West Virginia and Mississippi, a shocking number. Remember, prime-age males are generally not of school age and too young to retire, so the fact that one out of every five is not working or even looking for a job in some states is hard to fathom.

Several researchers have investigated the absence of these men from the labor force and there is some agreement on the cause. First, demand side factors play a role. The decline of manufacturing, traditionally a male dominated industry, reduced the demand for their labor. In a state like West Virginia, the decline of coal mining—another male dominated industry—has contributed as well.

Some of the most recent decline is due to less educated men dropping out as the demand for their skills continues to fall. Geographic mobility has also declined, so even when an adjacent state has a stronger labor market according to the figure above—for example West Virginia and Maryland—people aren’t moving to take advantage of it.

Of course, people lose jobs all the time yet most find another one. Moreover, if someone isn’t working, how do they support themselves? The long-term increase in female labor force participation has allowed some men to rely on their spouse for income. Other family members and friends may also help. There is also evidence that men are increasingly relying on government aid, such as disability insurance, to support themselves.

These last two reasons, relying on a family member’s income or government aid, are supply-side reasons, since they affect a person’s willingness to accept a job rather than the demand for a person’s labor. A report by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors argued that supply-side reasons were only a small part of the decline in the prime-age male labor force participation rate and that the lack of demand was the real culprit:

“Reductions in labor supply—in other words, prime-age men choosing not to work for a given set of labor market conditions—explain relatively little of the long-run trend…In contrast, reductions in the demand for labor, especially for lower-skilled men, appear to be an important component of the decline in prime-age male labor force participation.”

Other researchers, however, are less convinced. For example, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt thinks that supply-side factors play a larger role than the CEA acknowledges and he discusses these in his book Men Without Work. One piece of evidence he notes is the different not-in-labor-force (NILF) rates of native born and foreign born prime-age males: Since one would think that structural demand shocks would affect both native and foreign-born alike, the difference indicates that some other factor may be at work.

In the figure below, I subtract the foreign born not-in-labor-force rate from the native born rate by state. A positive number means that native prime-age males are less likely to be in the labor force than foreign-born prime age males. (Note: Foreign born only means a person was born in a country other than the U.S.: It does not mean that the person is not a citizen at the time the data was collected.)

25-54 native, foreign NILF diff

As shown in the figure, natives are less likely to be in the labor force (positive bar) in 34 of the 51 areas (DC included). For example, in Texas the percent of native prime-age men not in the labor force is 12.9% and the percentage of foreign-born not in the labor force is 5.9%, a 7 percentage point gap, which is what’s displayed in the figure above.

The difference in the NILF rate between the two groups is also striking when broken down by education, as shown in the next figure.

25-54 native, foreign males NILF by educ

In 2016, natives with less than a high school degree were four times more likely to be out of the labor force than foreign born, while natives with a high school degree were twice as likely to be out of the labor force. The NILF rates for some college or a bachelor’s or more are similar.

Mr. Eberstadt attributes some of this difference to the increase in incarceration rates since the 1970s. The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than almost any other country and it is very difficult to find a job with an arrest record or a conviction.

There aren’t much data combining employment and criminal history so it is hard to know exactly how much of a role crime plays in the difference between the NILF rates by education. Mr. Eberstadt provides some evidence in his book that shows that men with an arrest or conviction are much more likely to be out of the labor force than similar men without, but it is not perfectly comparable to the usual BLS data. That being said, it is reasonable to think that the mass incarceration of native prime-age males, primarily those with little formal education, has created a large group of unemployable, and thus unemployed, men.

Is incarceration a supply or demand side issue? On one hand, people with a criminal record are not really in demand, so in that sense it’s a demand issue. On the other hand, crime is a choice in many instances—people may choose a life of crime over other, non-criminal professions because it pays a higher wage than other available options or it somehow provides them with a more fulfilling life (e.g. Tony Soprano). In this sense crime and any subsequent incarceration is the result of a supply-side choice. Drug use that results in incarceration could also be thought of this way. I will let the reader decide which is more relevant to the NILF rates of prime-age males.

Criminal justice reform in the sense of fewer arrests and incarcerations would likely improve the prime-age male LFP rate, but the results would take years to show up in the data since such reforms don’t help the many men who have already served their time and want to work but are unable to find a job. Reforms that make it easier for convicted felons to find work would offer more immediate help, and there has been some efforts in this area. How successful they will be remains to be seen.

Other state reforms such as less occupational licensing would make it easier for people— including those with criminal convictions—to enter certain professions. There are also several ideas floating around that would make it easier for people to move to areas with better labor markets, such as making it easier to transfer unemployment benefits across state lines.

More economic growth would alleviate much of the demand side issues, and tax reform and reducing regulation would help on this front.

But has something fundamentally changed the way some men view work? Would some, especially the younger ones, rather just live with their parents and play video games, as economist Erik Hurst argues? For those wanting to learn more about this issue, Mr. Eberstadt’s book is a good place to start.

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

Does the New Markets Tax Credit Program work?

Location-based programs that provide tax credits to firms and investors that locate in particular areas are popular among politicians of both parties. Democrats tend to support them because they are meant to revitalize poorer or rural areas. In a recent speech about the economy, presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton spoke favorably about two of them: the New Markets Tax Credit Program and Empowerment Zones.

Some Republicans also support such programs, which they view as being a pro-business way to help low-income communities. However, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent tax reform blueprint generally disapproves of tax credit programs.

Due to the volume of location-based programs and their relatively narrow objectives, many taxpayers are unfamiliar with their differences or unaware that they even exist. This is to be expected since most people are never directly affected by one. In this post I explain one that Hillary Clinton recently spoke about, the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program.

The NMTC program was created in 2000 as part of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act. It is managed by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department.

The NMTC program provides both new and established businesses with a tax credit that can be used to offset the costs of new capital investment or hiring new workers. The goal is to increase investment in low income communities (LIC) in order to improve the economic outcomes of residents.

Even though the program was started in 2000, no funds were issued to investors until 2003 (although some funds were allocated to the program in 2001 and 2002). Since 2001 over $43 billion has been allocated to the program. The figure below shows the allocations by year, amount issued to investors, and the total amount allocated from 2001 – 2014 (orange bar, uses right axis).

NMTC allocations

Figure 1

Practically all of the allocated funds from 2001 to 2012 have been issued to investors. A little over $250 million remains from 2013 and $1.3 billion from 2014. As the figure makes clear, this program controls a non-trivial amount of money.

The types of projects funded by the NMTC program can be seen in the figure below. The data for this figure comes from a 2013 Urban Institute report.

NMTC projects funded

Figure 2

So what have taxpayers gotten for their money? The program’s ‘fact sheet’ asserts that since 2003 the program has

“…created or retained an estimated 197,585 jobs. It has also supported the construction of 32.4 million square feet of manufacturing space, 74.8 million square feet of office space, and 57.5 million square feet of retail space.”

Like many government program administrators, those running the NMTC program seem to confuse outputs with outcomes. Presumably the goal of the NMTC program is not to build office space, which is a trivial achievement, but to improve the lives of the people living in low income communities. In fact, the program’s fact sheet also states that

“Investments made through the NMTC Program are used to finance businesses, breathing new life into neglected, underserved low-income communities.”

What really matters is whether the program has succeeded at “breathing new life” into LICs. To answer this more complicated question one needs to examine the actual economic outcomes in areas receiving the credits in order to determine whether they have improved relative to areas that haven’t received the credits. Such an exercise is not the same thing as simply reporting the amount of new office space.

That being said, even the simpler task of measuring new office space or counting new jobs is harder than it first appears. It’s important for program evaluators and the taxpayers who fund the program to be aware of the reasons that either result could be speciously assigned to the tax credit.

First, the office space or jobs might have been added regardless of the tax credit. Firms choose locations for a variety of reasons and it’s possible that a particular firm would locate in a particular low income community regardless of the availability of a tax credit. This could happen for economic reasons—the firm is attracted by the low price of space or the location is near an important supplier—or the location has sentimental value e.g. the firm owner is from the neighborhood.

A second reason is that the firms that locate or expand in the community might do so at the expense of other firms that would have located there absent the tax credit. For example, suppose the tax credit attracts a hotel owner who due to the credit finds it worthwhile to build a hotel in the neighborhood, and that this prevents a retail store owner from locating on the same plot of land, even though she would have done so without a credit.

The tax credit may also mistakenly appear to be beneficial if all it does is reallocate investment from one community to another. Not all communities are eligible for these tax credits. If a firm was going to locate in a neighboring community that wasn’t eligible but then switched to the eligible community upon finding out about the tax credit then no new investment was created in the city, it was simply shifted around. In this scenario one community benefits at the expense of another due to the availability of the tax credit.

A new study examines the NMTC program in order to determine whether it has resulted in new employment or new businesses in eligible communities. It uses census tract data from 2002 – 2006. In order to qualify for NMTCs, a census tract’s median family income must be 80% or less of its state’s median family income or the poverty rate of the tract must be over 20%. (There are two other population criteria that were added in 2004, but according to the study 98% qualify due to the income or poverty criterion.)

The authors use the median income ratio of 0.8 to separate census tracts into a qualifying and non-qualifying group, and then compare tracts that are close to and on either side of the 0.8 cutoff. The economic outcomes they examine are employment at new firms, number of new firms, and new employment at existing firms.

They find that there was less new employment at new firms in NMTC eligible tracts in the transportation and wholesale industries but more new employment in the retail industry. Figure 2 shows that retail received a relatively large portion of the tax credits. This result shows that the tax credits helped new retail firms add workers relative to firms in transportation and manufacturing in eligible census tracts.

The authors note that the magnitude of the effects are small—a 0.2% increase in new retail employment and a 0.12% and 0.41% decrease in new transportation and wholesale employment respectively. Thus the program had a limited impact during the 2002 – 2006 period according to this measure, despite the fact that nearly $8 billion was granted to investors from 2002 – 2005.

The authors find a similar result when examining new firms: Retail firms located in the NMTC eligible tracts while services and wholesale firms did not. Together these two results are evidence that the NMTC does not benefit firms in all industries equally since it causes firms in different industries to locate in different tracts. The latter result also supports the idea that firms that benefit most from the tax credit crowd out other types of firms, similar to the earlier hotel and retail store example.

Finally, the authors examined new employment at existing firms. This result is more favorable to the program—an 8.8% increase in new employment at existing manufacturing firms and a 10.4% increase at retail firms. Thus NMTCs appear to have been primarily used to expand existing operations.

But while there is evidence that the tax credit slightly increased employment, the authors note that due to the limitations of their data they are unable to conclude whether the gains in new employment or firms was due to a re-allocation of economic activity from non-eligible to eligible census tracts or to actual new economic activity that only occurred because of the program. Thus even the small effects identified by the authors cannot be conclusively considered net new economic activity generated by the NMTC program. Instead, the NMTC program may have just moved economic activity from one community to another.

The mixed results of this recent study combined with the inability to conclusively assign them to the NMTC program cast doubt on the programs overall effectiveness. Additionally, the size of the effects are quite small. Thus even if the effects are positive once crowding out and reallocation are taken into account, the benefits still may fall short of the $43.5 billion cost of the program (which doesn’t include the program’s administrative costs).

An alternative to location-based tax credit programs is to lower tax rates on businesses and investment across the board. This would remove the distortions that are inherent in location-based programs that favor some areas and businesses over others. It would also reduce the uncertainty that surrounds the renewal and management of the programs. Attempts to help specific places are often unsuccessful and give residents of such places false hope that community revitalization is right around the corner.

Tax credits, despite their good intentions, often fail to deliver the promised benefits. The alternative—low, stable tax rates that apply to all firms—helps create a business climate that is conducive to long-term planning and investment, which leads to better economic outcomes.

The Public Choice of Sustainable Tax Reform

Comprehensive tax reform has gotten a jump-start from Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.  The Senate’s two top tax writers announced a new “blank slate” approach to tax reform in a “Dear Colleague” letter issued last week.

The Senators describe their new, blank slate approach as follows:

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences…

However, under their framework, every current tax privilege has a chance to survive.  The Senators explain:

We plan to operate from an assumption that all special provisions are out unless there is clear evidence that they: (1) help grow the economy, (2) make the tax code fairer, or (3) effectively promote other important policy objectives.

This plan has drawn both praise and criticism, and rightly so.  Yes, this is a step in the right direction; however, this is unlikely to lead to any sustainable reforms for two reasons.

First, forcing Congress to defend tax privileges won’t be hard.  To become law, each privilege had a sponsor, and each sponsor had a rationale to defend it.  Each tax privilege was passed by Congress, and each was then signed into law.  It is difficult to see how privileges that have already survived this process won’t once again find a congressman willing to defend them.  So long as Congress has the power to create and protect tax privileges, it will be nearly impossible to simply wipe such privileges away.

Second, even if a blank slate were achieved, it is unlikely that a privilege-free tax code would last long under the current institutional framework.  This is best demonstrated by what happened in the aftermath of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA86).

James Buchanan, writing after the passage of TRA86, predicted that very little its reforms would remain intact.  Buchanan noted that “[t]o the extent that [political] agents do possess discretionary authority, the tax structure established in 1986 will not be left substantially in place for decades or even years.”

Buchanan was spot on.  From 1986 through 2005, the tax reform of 1986 suffered a death of 15,000 tweaks.  As reported by the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform in 2005, in the two decades after the 1986 tax reform bill was passed, nearly 15,000 changes were made to the tax code – equal to more than two changes per day for 19 years straight.

What insight did Buchanan have that allowed him to so aptly predict the demise of the Tax Reform Act of 1986?  Buchanan understood that institutions matter.  That is, he understood that no matter how many times the tax code was reformed, so long as the same institutions remain unchanged, political actors will continue to respond in predictable ways, and the result would be tax privileges creeping their way back into the code.  Buchanan explained:

The 1986 broadening of the tax base by closing several established loopholes and shelters offers potential rents to those agents who can promise to renegotiate the package, piecemeal, in subsequent rounds of the tax game. The special interest lobbyists, whose clients suffered capital value losses in the 1986 exercise, may find their personal opportunities widened after 1986, as legislators seek out personal and private rents by offering to narrow the tax base again. In one fell swoop, the political agents may have created for themselves the potential for substantially increased rents. This rent-seeking hypothesis will clearly be tested by the fiscal politics of the post-1986 years.

Going forward, if any sort of reforms are achieved in the tax code, this rent-seeking hypothesis will be tested again.

Senators Baucus and Hatch admit that a blank state “is not, of course, the end product, nor the end of the discussion.”  If Buchanan’s predictions remain true today, as they most certainly are, then the Senators are quite right in admitting that a blank slate is not, and will never be, an end product.  That is, of course, unless any reform in the tax code is paired with institutional reforms to ensure that special tax privileges do not creep back into the code.

A time when politicians tried to coax ‘the opposition’ to their view

Rostenkowski,danOn May 28, 1986, Ronald Reagan delivered an Oval Office speech calling for tax reform: a revenue-neutral plan to reduce marginal tax rates and close scores of loopholes that privileged particular firms, industries, and individuals. The Great Communicator lived up to his reputation, delivering a flawless speech that somehow managed to evoke lofty images (“Two centuries later, a second American revolution for hope and opportunity is gathering force again”) and yet grounded these images in relatable prose (“No other issue will have more lasting impact on the well-being of your families and your future.”)

Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill asked Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to deliver the Democratic response. The choice was controversial. Over the previous five years, the Democrats had flopped in just about every one of their responses to the president. Rostenkowski, famous for his mumbled delivery and mixed metaphors, seemed unlikely to do any better. Here is what the congressman said:

Good evening, I’m Dan Rostenkowski from Chicago. Let me read you something that pretty well explains what tax reform is all about, and what Democrats are all about.

[Reading from a book] “The continued escape of privileged groups from taxation violates the fundamental democratic principle of fair treatment for all and undermines public confidence in the tax system.” That was Harry Truman’s message to Congress thirty-five years ago.

Trying to tax people fairly: That’s been the historic Democratic commitment. Our roots lie with working families all over the country, like the Polish neighborhood I grew up in on the northwest side of Chicago. Most of the people in my neighborhood worked hard in breweries, steel mills, packing houses; proud families who lived on their salaries. My parents and grandparents didn’t like to pay taxes. Who does? But like most Americans they were willing to pay their fair share as the price for a free country where everyone could make their own breaks.

Every year politicians promise to make the tax code fair and simple, but every year we seem to slip further behind. Now most of us pay taxes with bitterness and frustration. Working families file their tax forms with the nagging feeling that they’re the biggest suckers and chumps in the world. Their taxes are withheld at work, while the elite have enormous freedom to move their income from one tax shelter to another. That bitterness is about to boil over. And it’s time it did.

But this time there’s a difference in the push for tax reform. This time, it’s a Republican president who’s bucking his party’s tradition as protectors of big business and the wealthy. His words and feelings go back to Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy. But the commitment comes from Ronald Reagan and that’s so important and so welcome.

Because, if the president’s plan is everything he says it is, he’ll have a great deal of Democratic support. That’s the real difference this time. A Republican president has joined the Democrats in Congress to try to redeem this long-standing commitment to a tax system that’s simple and fair. If we work together with good faith and determination, this time the people may win. This time I really think we can get tax reform.

Then, he asked the audience to send letters of support:

Even if you can’t spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather—Rosty. Just address it to R-0-S-T-Y, Washington, D.C. The post office will get it to me. Better yet, write your representative and your senator. And stand up for fairness and lower taxes.

This account comes from Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray’s classic history of the 1986 tax reform, Showdown at Gucci Gulch. They write:

When the speech was over, and the microphones were turned off, the camera crew did something Rothstein [Rostenkowski’s media consultant] had not seen before: they broke into applause. “That was my first clue we hit it over the fence,” Rothstein says.

The second clue was an ecstatic call from the White House. The third was the incredible response from the American people who deluged Washington with more than seventy-five thousand supportive letters addressed to “Rosty.”

I’m not one for nostalgia. I think many humans have a tendency to look at history through sepia-colored glasses that idealize our own political and cultural past.

But it is hard to read Rostenkowski’s speech without seeing the glaring contrast with today’s political rhetoric. The speech is still partisan in a way: He makes it seem as if Democrats had always wanted a simpler and fairer code and he congratulates Reagan for coming around to their view. This is, of course, ahistorical as both parties were at fault for a tax code riddled with loopholes. But the whole thrust of the speech seems designed to make the other side feel safe about moving towards Rostenkowski’s position.

As an economist, I’m accustomed to thinking about human interaction as exchange: when two people meet, there is almost always an opportunity for mutually beneficial exchange (though transactions costs mean that many of these opportunities are unrealized). And the more different these people are in their tastes and in their productive abilities, the greater the opportunity for exchange.

It is interesting that more politicians don’t see their task as one of getting “the other side” to feel comfortable about abandoning its position and moving toward the middle. Instead, politicians seem to increasingly address themselves to their own base. Unfortunately, what draws the base in often pushes the other side away.

In a follow-up post, I’ll address some possible explanations for this.

When politicians can’t see their own loopholes

TaxesAccording to a 2008 IRS report, the Federal Tax Code “has grown so long that it has become challenging even to figure out how long it is.”

A search of the Code conducted in the course of preparing this report turned up 3.7 million words. A 2001 study published by the Joint Committee on Taxation put the number of words in the Code at that time at 1,395,000. A 2005 report by a tax research organization put the number of words at 2.1 million, and notably, found that the number of words in the Code has more than tripled since 1975.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama spoke eloquently about the need for tax reform to clean up the code:

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries.

Amen. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the President said:

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.

And a few lines after that:

We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest.

The tax code didn’t get to be as complicated as it is by accident. Every complication; every loophole; every deduction, exemption, and credit got there because some elected official had a clever idea. It got there because someone dreamed up an innovative scheme to use the tax code as a way to encourage some sort of behavior.

The code is the way it is because politicians who decry loopholes and special-interest privileges can’t see that their own clever schemes are part of the problem.

States Aim to Eliminate Corporate and Individual Income Taxes

Although the prospects of fundamental tax reform on the federal level continue to look bleak, the sprigs of beneficial tax proposals in states across the US are beginning to grow and gain political support. Perhaps motivated by the twin problems of tough budgeting options and mounting liability obligations that states face in this stubborn economy, the governors of several states have recommended a variety of tax reform proposals, many of which aim to lower or completely eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, which would increase state economic growth and hopefully improve the revenues that flow into state coffers along the way.

Here is a sampling of the proposals:

  • Nebraska: During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Dave Heineman outlined his vision of a reformed tax system that would be “modernized and transformed” to reflect the realities of his state’s current economic environment. His bold plan would completely eliminate the income tax and corporate income tax in Nebraska and shift to a sales tax as the state’s main revenue source. To do this, the governor proposes to eliminate approximately $2.8 billion dollars in sales tax exemptions for purchases as diverse as school lunches and visits to the laundromat. If the entire plan proves to be politically unpalatable, Heineman is prepared to settle for at least reducing these rates as a way to improve his state’s competitiveness.
  • North Carolina: Legislative leaders in the Tar Heel State have likewise been eying their individual and corporate income taxes as cumbersome impediments to economic growth and competitiveness that they’d like to jettison. State Senate leader Phil Berger made waves last week by announcing his coalition’s intentions to ax these taxes. In their place would be a higher sales tax, up from 6.75% to 8%, which would be free from the myriad exemptions that have clogged the revenue-generating abilities of the sales tax over the years.
  • Louisiana: In a similar vein, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has called for the elimination of the individual and corporate income taxes in his state. In a prepared statement given to the Times-Picayune, Jindal emphasized the need to simplify Louisiana’s currently complex tax system in order to “foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create good-paying jobs.” To ensure that the proposal is revenue neutral, Jindal proposes to raise sale taxes while keeping those rates as “low and flat” as possible.
  • Kansas: Emboldened by the previous legislative year’s successful income tax rate reduction and an overwhelmingly supportive legislature, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out his plans to further lower the top Kansas state income tax rate from the current 4.9% to 3.5%. Eventually, Brownback dreams of completely abolishing the income tax. “Look out Texas,” he chided during last week’s State of the State address, “here comes Kansas!” Like the other states that are aiming to lower or remove state income taxes, Kansas would make up for the loss in revenue through an increased sales tax. Bonus points for Kansas: Brownback is also eying the Kansas mortgage interest tax deduction as the next to go, the benefits of which I discussed in my last post.

These plans for reform are as bold as they are novel; no state has legislatively eliminated state income taxes since resource-rich Alaska did so in 1980. It is interesting that the aforementioned reform leaders all referenced the uncertainty and complexity of their current state tax systems as the primary motivator for eliminating state income taxes. Seth Giertz and Jacob Feldman tackled this issue in their Mercatus Research paper, “The Economic Costs of Tax Policy Uncertainty,” last fall. The authors argued that complex tax systems that are laden with targeted deductions tend to concentrate benefits towards the politically-connected and therefore result in an inefficient tax system to the detriment of everyone within that system.

Additionally, moving to a sales tax model of revenue-generation may provide state governments with a more stable revenue source when compared to the previous regime based on personal and corporate income taxes. As Matt argued before, the progressive taxation of personal and corporate income is a particularly volatile source of revenue and tends to suddenly dry up in times of economic hardship. What’s more, a state’s reliance on corporate and personal income taxes as a primary source of revenue is associated with large state budget gaps, a constant concern for squeezed state finances.

If these governors are successful and they are able to move their states to a straightforward tax system based on a sales tax, they will likely see the economic growth and increased investment that they seek.

Keep an eye on these states in the following year: depending on the success of their reforms and tax policies, more states could be soon to follow.

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction: A Bad Deal for Taxpayers

A new policy brief released by the Mercatus Center and co-authored by Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles analyzes one of the most popular—and therefore one of the most difficult to reform—subsidies in the tax code: the home mortgage interest deduction. This study touches on many of the points that Emily talked about in her op-ed on the subject last month; namely, this policy’s failure to achieve its intended effects and the fact that a lion’s share of the benefits go to high-income homeowners. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the home mortgage interest deduction, the authors argue that the benefits of this policy are overstated and the consequences are understated.

The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the largest tax expenditures in the U.S. tax code, second only to the non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. Proponents of the home mortgage interest deduction argue that this policy provides needed tax relief to the middle class and encourages the oft-invoked American dream of homeownership. These folks may be surprised to learn, as Horpedahl and Searles point out, that a mere 21.7% of taxpayers even claim this benefit. What’s more, most of these benefits don’t go to the middle class, but rather to households with incomes of over $200,000. Here’s a breakdown of the tax savings from the brief:

The claim that this policy is necessary to encourage home ownership is dubious as well. The authors explain:

Empirical evidence supports the claim that the mortgage interest deduction has little effect on homeownership rates in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997, homeownership rates stayed within a narrow range of 62 to 66 percent, despite the fact that the implicit tax subsidy fluctuated dramatically. During the recent housing bubble, the homeownership rate rose to 69 percent, but it has since returned to the historical range. This rise appears to have been unrelated to the mortgage interest deduction, though it was almost certainly related to other housing policies that encouraged the bubble. More sophisticated analysis suggests that the homeownership rate would be modestly lower without the deduction, by around 0.4 percent.

Ironically, the home mortgage interest deduction likely creates the perverse effect of discouraging homeownership by artificially raising home values. Economic intuition suggests, and empirical studies have supported, that the deduction does not provide much in the way of savings at all since the value of the deduction is simply capitalized into the value of home prices. The artificially higher house prices prevent would-be home owners on the margins of affordability from purchasing a home within their price range. This effect, combined with the low rates of deduction claims and concentration of benefits to high-income earners, likely contributes to the inefficacy of the home mortgage interest deduction to boost homeownership to the degree that its proponents envisioned.

Additionally, countries like Canada and Australia have managed to produce comparable rates of home ownership as the US without the crutch of a mortgage interest deduction.

While the home mortgage interest deduction doesn’t do much for increasing the number of houses, it has a knack for increasing the size of houses, as a study by Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out. The deduction has had the unintended consequence of directing capital and labor to high-income residential housing projects that might not have been taken without government intervention—and the benefits overwhelmingly go to the wealthy.

This is all before considering the regressive effects of the policy by design: low- and middle-income renters are made to subsidize the increasingly opulent residences (and sometimes the extra vacation homes!) of their more well-off peers while they struggle to make ends meet in a sometimes-inhospitable economy. This injustice, combined with the inefficacy of the tax deduction to increase homeownership in any meaningful way, causes the justifications for the mortgage interest deduction to grow scarce.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that this policy, which evaded the fate of its similar counterpart—the credit card interest deduction—during the tax fight of 1986, continues as law not because of good economics but because of bad political incentives.

Horpedahl and Searles offer three proposals for scaling back the home mortgage interest deduction: policymakers could 1) eliminate the deduction entirely, 2) eliminate the deduction while simultaneously lowering marginal income tax rates to compensate for the virtual tax increase, or 3) stop the deduction and replace it with a tax credit that taxpayers could redeem upon purchase of their first house. Horpedahl and Searles demonstrate that while this deduction is popular with the public and the real estate industry, it is simply a bad deal for most taxpayers.

Rating State Business Tax Climates

Today the Tax Foundation released its annual State Business Tax Climate Index.

Good tax policy is not just about low rates. The Index’s author, Kail Padgitt, writes:

State lawmakers are always mindful of their states’ business tax climates but they are often tempted to lure business with lucrative tax incentives and subsidies instead of broad-based tax reform. This can be a dangerous proposition.

The public choice pressures that Dr. Padgitt is talking about encourage state policy makers to cut special tax deals for politically-important businesses and to keep rates high for those who are aren’t so well-connected. The Business Tax Climate report is a nice antidote to such thinking:

The goal of the index is to focus lawmakers’ attention on the importance of good tax fundamentals: enacting low tax rates and granting as few deductions, exemptions and credits as possible. This “broad base, low rate” approach is the antithesis of most efforts by state economic development departments who specialize in designing “packages” of short-term tax abatements, exemptions, and other give-aways for prospective employers who have announced that they would consider relocating. Those packages routinely include such large state and local exemptions that resident businesses must pay higher taxes to make up for the lost revenue.

The best climates: South Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming, Nevada, Florida, Montana, New Hampshire, Delaware, Utah and Indiana.

And the worst: New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and North Carolina.