When Texas Gov. Rick Perry unveiled a tax plan Tuesday, there was some hope that he would deliver viable tax reform and distinguish himself from his Republican presidential rivals.
Perry’s plan— like those plans of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain — is deeply disappointing when measured against the triumvirate of good tax-policy principles: fairness, simplicity and the ability to raise sufficient revenue.
Although Perry and Cain certainly get points for boldness for suggesting an entirely new tax system, their plans fall woefully short on all three criteria generally embraced by tax experts. Romney’s approach is more conventional and simply tweaks the current baffling tax code — but without any major improvements.
Everyone from corporate executives to small-business owners to average Americans is studying the proposals and their distributional effects to try to divine how they would be affected by the changes. Would the emphasis on flattening and simplifying the tax code help the wealthier more than the middle class, as many experts are predicting? And is this rush to reduce tax rates a thinly veiled effort to starve government programs by reducing the long-term revenue flow as a percentage of the economy? Here’s a snapshot of the “Big Three” GOP tax plans:
● The Perry plan offers taxpayers the choice of paying under the current federal tax system, or under a new flat tax of 20 percent that would be applicable to all individuals, no matter what their income.
Those opting for the flat tax system would pay no taxes on capital gains, dividends, interest and Social Security. They would still get to deduct mortgage interest, charitable donations and state and local taxes, and their standard deduction would be bumped up to $12,500 from the current $11,600.
For all taxpayers, no matter which system they opt for, the Perry plan scraps the estate tax. The corporate tax would drop from today’s top rate of 35 percent to 20 percent.
●Cain’s “9-9-9” plan would scrap the current tax code and introduce a 9 percent business tax, 9 percent individual income tax and 9 percent national sales tax. Taxpayers living below the poverty line would be excused from the individual income tax.
●Romney’s plan extends the Bush-era tax cuts, preserving today’s top marginal income-tax rate of 35 percent rather than allowing it to jump to 39.6 percent, as it is scheduled to do next year. It scraps the estate tax. And for taxpayers earning less than $200,000 a year, there would be no taxes on capital gains, dividends or interest. The plan would also lower the corporate tax to 25 percent.
When it comes to fairness — defined as distributing the tax burden according to who can afford to pay it — the Cain plan gets the lowest grade. That’s because it would give massive tax cuts to the wealthy and tax increases to any taxpayer with annual earnings above the poverty line and below $200,000 a year.
The biggest increase in the tax burden would be for those earning between $40,000 and $50,000. They would pay $4,399 more in taxes annually, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. A couple with the median family income of about $60,000 would incur a $4,326 increase.
Anyone earning $200,000 or more in annual income could bank on a tax cut. A $3 million-a-year earner’s annual tax bill would decline by about $455,000. Someone earning $7.9 million would see about a $1.4 million drop in his or her taxes.
Some middle-income taxpayers might reap a benefit under Romney’s plan if they realize capital gains, dividends or interest. Romney would render those gains tax-free. But that would do little to help the middle class, because investment income for that group of taxpayers is typically minimal. Compared with the benefit the wealthy would get under Romney’s plan from an elimination of the estate tax, Romney is essentially throwing the middle class a few bones.
As for Perry’s plan, the Texan shrewdly immunized himself against criticism that he was proposing to raise taxes on any group by offering folks the option of paying under the current system.
There would be no “losers” under the first option, but there would be a limited number of “winners” under the second option. That’s because, under the best-case scenario, only individuals or families with gross earnings of upward of $200,000 a year would reap a benefit.
At that taxable income threshold of $150,000 (which is income minus deductions), the effective tax rate is 20 percent, which is the same as Perry’s flat tax rate. So anyone with taxable income of more than $150,000 would see a higher-than-20 percent effective rate under the current system, and they would opt to pay the flat tax, says Jeff Lancaster, a principal at Bingham, Osborn and Scarborough in San Francisco.
“He’s not raising taxes on anyone — just lowering them for people with more than $150,000 of taxable income,” Lancaster says.
And even though Perry bills his plan as refreshingly simple — anyone paying under the flat-tax system need only file on a postcard, he likes to point out — it is anything but that. By giving taxpayers an option of whether to pay under the current or flat-tax systems, he would maintain the complexities of the current tax system and layer an entire new tax system on top of it. That would hardly be an improvement.
As for Romney’s plan, it’s as dense and complicated as the current system, because he only makes some changes on the margins. His central changes are to eliminate capital-gains taxes on taxpayers earning less than $200,000 and to repeal the estate tax.
Cain’s plan appears simple, but think again. “Would it be difficult to file taxes? No,” says Michael Linden, director for tax and budget policy of the Center for American Progress.
But if simplicity is defined partly by transparency, “the plan is misleading,” Linden says.
The 9 percent business tax isn’t ultimately paid by businesses, as its name suggests. It works like a value-added tax, a levy that passes down the supply chain of any item’s production and is ultimately embedded in prices. “It is essentially borne by consumers but doesn’t show up on their tax return,” Linden says, pointing out that the 9-9-9 plan is essentially a 27 percent tax paid by individuals.
Revenue, meanwhile, is the whole point of having a tax system, but none of the Republican plans would raise revenue matching the current tax system’s $4.6 trillion, which some argue isn’t even enough.
Details of the various plans’ revenue haven’t been released. The only plan that actually raises taxes is Cain’s — on the middle class — but his massive tax cuts for the wealthy would far outweigh any added revenue collected from the middle class.
Clearly, any tax plan will have to include compromises when it comes to fairness, simplicity and revenue.
“These criteria are often in conflict with each other,” says Chris William Sanchirico, a Samuel A. Blank professor of law, business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“For example, simplicity may be in conflict with fairness. As soon as you want to key tax liability to people’s ability to pay, then you have to look for indications of people’s ability to pay, and all of a sudden it becomes quite complicated,” Sanchirico says.
Still, the average American ought to be miffed at the Republican candidates’ push for major tax changes that would do little for them while helping the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers.
Hube is a columnist for The Fiscal Times, an independent news organization that provides original reporting and analysis on fiscal and economic matters.