Tag Archives: tax expenditures

Come On Down to Big Phil’s Big Incent-a-palooza!

“YOU get a tax incentive! YOU get a tax incentive! And YOU get a tax incentive! In fact, ALL of you get a tax incentive!”

This appears to be the nuts of Phil Scott’s plan for boosting our economy. The guy who once told VTDigger “I like incentives” certainly does; over the course of his gubernatorial campaign, he’s floated tax-incentive ideas that cover just about every contingency.

It is his favorite approach to boosting growth. It costs nothing up-front; you can stage a shiny photo opportunity with every recipient; and the fallout is vague, hard to measure, and located somewhere in the future.

Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence that tax incentives accomplish anything. At best, they are blunderbusses in a target-shooting contest. At worst, they are just plain giveaways that hurt necessary government programs.

Officially, the state calls these programs “tax expenditures,” which is the appropriate term. It reminds us that every time we offer an incentive, we are forgoing tax revenue. It should be evaluated the same way we’d review a government program: does it work, and is it worth the money?

What’s worse, Vermont’s existing incentives are problematic due to a lack of documentation and oversight. And we need more of that?

There has been, naturally, no counting the cost of all these giveaways. Perhaps that’s why Scott’s own website fails to disclose any specific incentive ideas; if he presented the list all in once place, it’d be downright embarrassing.

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Happy budget fun times

The two House committees in charge of the state’s purse strings got together for a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon, and heard a solid hour of sobering news. The state has a substantial budget gap that seems to be widening by the day, and there is little appetite for the scale of cutbacks or tax increases necessary to close it. The two panels: Ways and Means, which acts on taxation and revenue; and Appropriations, which makes the spending decisions. In a tough budget year like this one, each of the two panels wanted to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the other.

The bulk of the session was a walkthrough of proposed expenditures and revenues for the coming fiscal year, led by Joint Fiscal Office budget guru* Sara Teachout.

*Not necessarily her actual title. 

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

She began the session by outlining one of the little-known worms in the budgetary apple: cuts in spending would take effect on July 1, the start of FY 2016, but many of the potential revenue enhancements would not. For example: If the state eliminates a tax deduction on personal income, that revenue would not be realized until April 2016, when 2015 tax returns are due. That’s three-quarters of the way through FY 2016.

Much of Teachout’s presentation was a repeat of her tax-budget tutorial I heard at a recent Ways and Means meeting; I wrote three reports on the meeting, which can be found here, here, and here. (If you don’t want to wade through all three, do the last one first.) She did offer more detail at this joint meeting, including a very specific listing of the real costs of various tax expenditures and deductions. (All of her documents are posted on the Ways and Means webpage.)

There was some limited discussion after Teachout’s teach-in. Most significantly, Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel restated her support for a cap on tax deductions: “Speaking for myself, it’s the right thing to do if we’re looking for new revenue.” Rep. Mary Hooper, a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that a cap on deductions “spreads out the impact, rather than zeroing in on specific exemptions or deductions.”

As I reported previously, Vermont’s tax rules allow the average million-dollar earner to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in deductions. That’s why top earners pay an effective income tax rate of 5.1% instead of the statutory rate of 8.95%.

Two years ago, the House approved a cap on itemized tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction; the measure died, mostly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition. This year, he has signaled his openness to changing deductions and expenditures, even as he remains steadfast in opposing increases on his Big Three taxes: income, sales, and rooms & meals.

The cap would, IMO, greatly enhance the fairness of our state tax system. Currently, top earners pay a lower proportion of their earnings in state and local taxes than people in any other income group.

There was also some support in the room for looking at some of the sales-tax exemptions. For example, the state could impose a ceiling on clothing purchases — making them tax-exempt only below a certain dollar amount.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, Appropriations chair, said her committee will “begin a conversaiton soon to lay out targets [for spending cuts].” She noted the importance of the joint meeting for gaining a clearer picture of “where the revenue could be coming from.”

The meeting was one more small step in what promises to be a long, grinding process leading to decisions that will make at least some constituencies unhappy. As one Statehouse observer told me — only half jokingly — “it might take until July” before they can work everything out.

Tax deductions: the big kahuna

This is the third in a series of posts about the January 27 meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, which explored the tax expenditures and deductions available under the state’s tax code. Part 1 concerned tax expenditures; part 2 focused on the tax deduction for medical expenses as an indicator of the widespread distress caused by our pre-Obamacare health system. 

It’s no secret that state lawmakers are looking for ways to raise some extra revenue without causing too much pain. One area under close examination is the tax code, and all the ways we allow people and businesses to limit their tax liability.

Some tweaks are possible in the tax expenditure side of things. But tax deductions actually offer a better opportunity to make our tax system fairer while giving the money tree a modest shake.

It’s an underreported fact that the wealthy actually get the best deal in our supposedly progressive tax system. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the wealthy pay the lowest per-capita share of state and local taxes combined, and they pay the lowest actual income-tax rate of any group besides the poor. Top earners are subject to an income tax rate of 8.95%, but the amount they actually pay is only 5.1%.

The single biggest reason for that disparity? Our generous rules on taxable income and tax deductions. A couple of examples from the category of Bet You Didn’t Know… (all information from the Joint Fiscal Office; tax figures are from the 2011 tax year)

— “Interest You Paid” is tax deductible. For most of us, that means mortgage interest. But it also applies to vacation homes — and boats. That chiefly benefits the wealthy. Renters, who tend to be at the bottom of the income scale, don’t benefit from the mortgage deduction.

— Property taxes are deductible. Including property taxes paid in other states. Again, that benefits those sufficiently well-off to own multiple properties.

— Charitable contributions can be deducted up to 50% of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Only the wealthy can support anywhere near that level of giving. And, given the proliferation of ersatz foundations, it’s easy for a person of means to effectively launder money through a nonprofit. (For example, check out the nonprofit empire spawned by the Koch brothers.)

The power of this virtually unlimited allowance? Among Vermont taxpayers with incomes over $1 million, the average charitable deduction — the average — was $131,360. That’s a lotta stops at the Sally Army bell-ringer.

But here’s the biggest eye-popper of them all. If you add up all the average deductions for Vermont’s million-dollar class, you get $528,000.

That’s right: the average million-dollar taxpayer claimed deductions worth more than half their income.

And that’s how 8.95% turns into 5.1%.

The numbers for those earning less than $1 million are not quite so appalling, but the upper and upper middle classes clearly benefit from our current tax code. The primary reason: our permissive rules on tax deductions and taxable income.

Setting limits

The 2011 standard deduction in Vermont was $5,800 for a single taxpayer, $8,500 for a head of household, and $11,600 for a married couple filing jointly. Peanuts by comparison. I bring this up because Betcha Didn’t Know that 10 of the 50 states don’t allow itemized deductions. Everyone gets the standard — no more, no less.

That option could be on the table. It would bring the effective tax rate for top earners much closer to statutory levels. The resulting revenue could be used to cut taxes on the middle class, who get hit hardest by Vermont’s tax system; or they could be used to close the budget gap without sacrificing state services.

I’m not expecting anything that radical from our frequently timorous Legislature. But as recently as two years ago, the House passed a bill that would have capped itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard. That bill died in the Senate, mainly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition.

Yes, our Democratic Governor blocked the path to a fairer tax code. Wait, let me double-check… Yep, he’s a Democrat. Says so, anyway.

If that bill had passed, members of the Million-Dollar Club would have seen their deductions capped at $29,000 — a far cry from $528,000.

The situation may be different this year, as the state faces a large budget gap and Shumlin has deliberately soft-pedaled his anti-tax stance. During his budget address, he stated his opposition to “raising income, sales, and rooms & meals tax rates” — very deliberately emphasizing the word “rates,” which had not been part of his boilerplate in the past.

If that wasn’t signal enough, Shumlin’s budget proposed an end to the tax deduction for state income taxes paid in the previous year. And with that, as Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel told me, “He put the whole discussion about itemized deductions on the table.”

Ancel would not commit to revisiting the deduction-capping bill, but it’s clearly on her mind. “It [would have] made the tax system more fair,” she says. She may get a second bite at the apple this year, and thanks to our budget situation it might actually pass muster with the Governor. One can only hope.

Searching for revenue in all the right places

Warning: This post is full of public-policy geekery. You should not operate heavy machinery during or immediately after reading. Still, I hope you’ll stick around; you’ll learn some useful stuff.

I spent Tuesday morning at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee, as it conducted an item-by-item overview of tax expenditures and tax deductions. The subtext is the state budget situation, with its projected $100-million-plus gap. Committee members engaged in a lot of poking and prodding, in search of ways to goose income or reduce outgo.

“Tax expenditure,” for those not in the know, is the technical term for a tax exemption. “Expenditure” is a nice insightful term; in granting an exemption, the state is forgoing tax revenue. In essence, it is spending that money without ever receiving it. In granting a sales tax exemption on food, for example, we are “spending” the uncollected revenue for a social purpose — making food more affordable, and limiting the regressive impact of the sales tax. The Earned Income Tax Credit, given to the working poor, is a tax expenditure. It’s the largest one, in fact, accounting for 49% of the foregone revenue from expenditures. (The second-highest, at 32%, is the Capital Gains Exclusion, which almost entirely benefits top earners.)

As for the sales tax exemption on major equipment at ski resorts… Well, you tell me what social purpose that serves. Beefing up resort owners’ profits, is my guess.

I learned a lot of interesting stuff about expenditures and deductions. The most crucial stuff is about deductions, and I will write about them in a subsequent post. For now, some notes on expenditures.

(For those interested in a whole lot of detail, the Joint Fiscal Office’s 91-page report on state tax expenditures is available online.

Sen. Tim Ashe, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has his eyes set on the ski-equipment exemption as part of a broader reconsideration of the financial arrangements between the state and resort operators. Auditor Doug Hoffer recently reported that Vermont’s leases of public land to the resorts are outdated and don’t generate as much revenue as they could.

Ashe agrees. “Circumstances have changed dramatically in the industry,” he told me. “The lease conditions haven’t kept pace.” He sees an opportunity to reopen the leases as part of a “recalibration” of the state/resort relationship. On the government side, that might include more lucrative leases and an end to the equipment exemption. On the resort side, it might include changes in state regulation.

The door seems to be open. But as Sen. Ashe puts it, “Is the legislature interested in recalibrating the relationship?” This, and many other taxation issues, may not be settled until the session’s closing days, when the House, Senate, and Governor try to agree on a balanced budget acceptable to all parties.

Ashe also told me that his committee “went through every tax expenditure in the tax code” last year. Some were eliminated, all others were more clearly defined. This year, Ashe has introduced a bill that would require a determination that each tax expenditure is achieving its intended purpose. That might touch on some of the corporate tax breaks, such as the exemption for research and development. At the Ways and Means hearing, it was said that large corporations can simply assign a portion of their entire R&D expense to Vermont, whether or not the work was actually done here. There was some sentiment on the committee to rein in that exemption — define it more narrowly, or tie it more directly to job growth in Vermont.

Most tax expenditures are relatively uncontroversial. Purchases of home heating supplies — oil, gas, propane, wood — are exempt from sales tax. This is a big item, but who’d want to repeal it?

There was surprise around the table that the sales tax exemption on food is very broadly defined. It includes soda, candy, and nutritional supplements. That’s a lot of foregone revenue for stuff that is either harmful to health, or whose benefits are questionable. And it’s ironic, at a time when we’re considering a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But it’s difficult to draw a hard and fast line. Is a CLIF Bar “candy”? Pop-Tarts? Yogurt-covered almonds? Kettle corn? Vermont Maple Syrup?

So that’s a can of worms that no one will likely want to open.

One item that might be revisited is the exemption on clothing sales. Vermont used to cap the exemption at purchases of $110 or less. That cap went out the window when the state adopted something called the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, a mutually agreed-upon standard for rules on sales taxes that includes 44 states and the District of Columbia.

At the time Vermont adopted the SSUTA, it did not include limits on clothing purchses. It has since been amended, and Vermont could reimpose a limit so that, say, fur coats would be subject to sales tax.

However, Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office warned the committee that much of the potential revenue would be unrealized because so many clothing purchases are conducted online. And I’m sure brick-and-mortar retailers would scream if lawmakers considered limits on the clothing exemption.

The terms of some tax expenditures are outdated, or in imminent danger of becoming so. For example, there’s a sales tax exemption for newspapers. But does it apply to digital subscriptions? No one in the hearing room had a clue.

There’s an exemption for movie theaters’ purchases of films — on the grounds that ticket sales are taxed, so taxing the film purchases would be a form of double taxation. But these days, virtually all theaters are showing digital movies. They don’t get cans of film; they get a “black box” that contains a playable (but not reproducible) digital copy of the movie. That copy is set to expire and become unplayable at the end of a movie’s run. Can it be said that the theater is actually buying anything?

Mobile and modular homes have a partial tax exemption. But these days, almost all home building includes modular elements, pre-constructed at a factory. Has the tax code kept pace with the industry?

Those were the most interesting tidbits about tax expenditures, at least to my eyes. The JFO’s report includes a wealth of information; for each expenditure, there are figures for the total estimated cost, the number of taxpayers who take advantage, and a short explanation of the reasons for the expenditure.

Coming in the near future: tax deductions — the #1 creator of unfairness in Vermont’s income tax system.  This may become the battleground over how, or whether, to raise additional revenue and limit the scope of necessary budget cuts.

How to get those ski leases reopened

Last Tuesday, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report on Vermont’s leases with ski resorts. The leases, he said, were outdated and were not bringing a fair return for the resorts’ highly profitable use of public lands.

At the time, you may recall, the state Parks and Rec Commissioner Michael Snyder basically threw up his hands and said there was nothing the state could do until the leases expire — decades from now.

Well, I’ve been reminded by someone more aware of state finances than I (which probably includes a substantial percentage of my readership) that the state does, indeed, have a hammer it could hold over the resorts’ heads.

It’s a tax exemption, granted in 2002, on ski lifts and snowmaking equipment. This exemption cost taxpayers $1.42 million in foregone revenue in fiscal year 2012.

It’s been suggested that this is basically a giveaway to a lucrative industry. Sen. Tim Ashe, chair of the the Senate Finance Committee, has called for a cleanup of Vermont’s cluttered, nonsensical “tax expenditure” system, and cited the ski equipment exemption as a clear example of the problem. As he put it, “every time they pay less, we all pay more.”

Well, hey. Why not dangle that juicy tax break in front of resort owners, and say something along the lines of “Gee, it looks like you’re getting a sweetheart deal on your leases AND a questionable tax exemption. Tell you what, we’re feeling generous; you can have one or the other, but not both.”

Makes all kinds of sense, at a time when the Governor and lawmakers are scrambling to find revenue and/or cut the budget. Problem is, the underlying reality hasn’t changed since I last wrote about this. Resort owners are politically connected (how many trips has Gov. Shumlin made with Bill Stenger?), and generous with campaign contributions. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to take either of their windfalls away.

Need proof? How about the sound of silence from the Statehouse in the aftermath of Hoffer’s report? Nobody wants to touch this one. It’s a shame. I expect better from my Democratic majority.