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A Blueprint for Tax Reform and Health Reform
Before the Senate Committee on Finance
The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.
In this testimony Burman outlines a plan for tax reform that would maintain progressivity, raise enough revenues to finance the government, and dovetail with plans to provide universal access to health insurance. It would combine a value-added tax (VAT) dedicated to pay for a new universal health insurance voucher with a vastly simplified and much flatter income tax. With a new financing source for health care, income tax rates could be cut sharply—the top rates could be cut to 25 percent or less. The health care voucher would also offset the inherent regressivity of a VAT. And, under the simplified system, most Americans would not have to file income tax returns.
The text below is an excerpt from the complete document.
Chairman Baucus, Ranking Member Grassley, and members of the committee: Thank you for inviting me to testify on tax reform.
It is a great honor to speak to you on this topic. The last great tax reform effort lured me to Washington away from academia to work for the Treasury Department in 1985. I remember when Chairman Packwood rescued reform from the abyss with his “27-percent solution”—a top rate so low it caught the public’s attention and sustained momentum for what became the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The creativity and bipartisanship of this committee were key elements in the success of the 1986 Act.
In the mid-1980s, the tax system desperately needed fixing. Tax shelters were rampant, with investment decisions often motivated solely by the tax savings they could produce, rather than their underlying economics, which were often dubious. The public had lost confidence in the fairness of the tax system.
If anything, the need for tax reform is even greater now for at least four reasons. First, under current law most of the tax cuts enacted since 2000 are set to expire at the end of 2010 and the code will revert to that of 2000. In theory, this will trigger what tax cut advocates are already calling the largest tax increase in history, but extending the tax cuts seems fiscally reckless. Second, the baby boomers are beginning to retire and the costs of providing their Social Security and medical care will strain available federal revenues. Third, under current law, the reach of the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT), a pointlessly complicated and unfair element of the current code, is scheduled to mushroom, hitting 32 million taxpayers by 2010, up from 4 million in 2007. Were that to happen the middle class would scream in protest, but making up for the hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue that the AMT is projected to produce will be a huge challenge. Finally, there is growing public dissatisfaction with our federal tax system which is complex, riddled with loopholes, and widely perceived to be unfair. It is hard to see how these challenges can be tackled without a major tax reform.
Although tax reform is always a long shot, there are reasons for optimism. Politicians in both parties—and even current presidential candidates—understand that the current situation is unsustainable. A new president who had campaigned on a platform of working in a bipartisan way to advance objectives that matter to both parties may be willing to stake political capital on advancing tax reform. And the fact that both sides acknowledge that this is a “change election” bodes well for the next president’s willingness to take political risks.
(End of excerpt. The entire testimony is available in PDF format.)
The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.