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It is time for TaxVox’s annual Lump of Coal awards for the worst tax ideas (or most depressing tax stories) of 2015. As always, choosing the Top 10 was not easy, but here they are:
10. The Michigan House. Lawmakers tried to pay for new transportation projects by eliminating the state’s earned income tax credit. We know most politicians are terrified of raising gas taxes, but paying for roads by taxing only low-income working families? Seriously? Cooler heads finally prevailed and the state did raise its gas tax.
9. Illinois and Pennsylvania. At least Michigan passed a budget. In Illinois, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner wants to reduce business costs while the Democrats who control the state legislature want to raise taxes and cut spending. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf wants to raise taxes and GOP state legislative won’t go along. Meanwhile, the fiscal year is now six months old and neither state has a budget.
8. Tax credits for what ails you. Hillary Clinton has taken a page out of Bill Clinton’s fiscal playbook: Identify a kitchen table problem and propose a modest tax subsidy to relieve the pain. She has tax credits for families burdened by the high costs of education, caring for aging parents, and high medical costs. And she’s proposed another credit to encourage employers to give workers a stake in their companies. My TPC colleague Gene Steuerle has a name for this: tax deform.
7. Raising taxes on the rich, and no one else. Clinton would pay for her middle-income tax subsidies by raising taxes on fewer than 10 percent of households. Among other ideas, she’s looking at some form of a Buffett tax—a minimum tax on those with very high-incomes. But, like Barack Obama, she vows to never raise taxes on households making less than $250,000 (who she calls middle class). Trouble is, that’s more than 90 percent of all taxpayers. Her major Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders takes a different path: He’d pay for new spending on enhanced family leave, health care, and education with a mix of big tax hikes on high-income households and a modest payroll tax increase on all workers.
6. Puerto Rico. A beautiful place to spend the holidays, the island fell victim to a toxic mix of a local government incapable of managing costs; yield-chasing investors who were just shocked, shocked, that the commonwealth’s bonds would default; and a federal government unable to agree on a way out.
5. The Cadillac Tax: Who says there is no consensus in American politics. First, lawmakers of both parties complained about the high cost of health care. Then, many joined together to trash a one of the few serious efforts to hold down medical cost growth—the Affordable Care Act’s tax on high-cost employer sponsored health plans. Thus, the Cadillac tax, which wasn’t due to begin until 2018, will now be delayed until 2020—at least.
4. Tax Inversions. It seemed like these mergers--marriages between U.S. firms and foreign partners primarily aimed at reducing corporate taxes--never left the news in 2015. The Obama Administration and Congress huffed and puffed, but the deals went on. One reason: Lawmakers see the problem through completely different lenses. Republicans believe inversions are a symptom of high U.S. tax rates. Democrats think they are merely the result of multinational firms abusing the tax code.
3. The Highway Bill. In December, Congress proudly authorized $305 billion in new spending for roads and transit over the next five years, but it paid for only a small fraction of the cost. Where will the rest of the money come from? Not a gas tax hike, which Congress refused to even consider. Rather, Treasury will have to borrow the funds. Instead of simply acknowledging this reality, Congress decided to hide behind what is, even for it, a remarkably egregious collection of phony pay-fors. The worst: private collection of tax debts and the transfer of $53 billion in Federal Reserve bank surpluses into the general fund.
2. Tax Extenders: Just before leaving town, Congress played out its annual tax-extender drama. Everything about this is so wrong. The waiting until the last minute. Extending through 2016 tax breaks for timber, hard cider, NASCAR racetrack operators, horserace owners, movie producers, and a long list of other not-so-special interests. Continuing temporary tax cuts enacted as part of the 2008 stimulus law, seemingly unaware that the Fed is raising interest rates because the economy is growing. Oh, and the bill added $700 billion to the national debt.
1. And the winner is: The GOP’s tax cut sweepstakes: Somehow, the GOP presidential nominating contest has turned a debate over tax reform into a competition over who can propose the biggest budget-busting tax cuts. There are many variations on the theme but one constant: Enormous tax rate reductions paid for by largely unidentified loophole closers, unspecified spending cuts, and promises of unbridled economic growth. TPC is still analyzing the plans but there is no doubt that most would add trillions of dollars to the debt over the next decade. And we’ve still got nearly 11 months to go before the election.
No matter. Happy holidays from all of us at TaxVox.
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