The late Washington Post columnist Robert Novak once said, “God put the Republican God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes. If they don’t do that, they have no useful function.”
Attempting to prove that the GOP still has a useful function, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie rolled out his own tax cut plan on Thursday, promising, among other things, to reduce Virginians’ personal income tax rates by 10 percent over three years.
On the face of it, this would appear to follow Novak’s dictum to the letter.
Except Gillespie’s proposal is not all it appears to be and actually perpetuates Virginia’s long-running policy of fleecing the poor to fatten its coffers.
The rate cuts would only go into effect if state revenues grow. Gillespie’s plan rests on premise that the state will take in an addition $3.4 billion over the next five years. Forty percent of that — $1.4 billion — would pay for his proposed tax cut.
There would be an assortment of triggers before the cuts would take hold. And there are other details involving spending and tax preferences that would be left to the General Assembly to decide.
But Gillespie misses the opportunity to take the next step and index Virginia’s personal income tax. Even under Gillespie’s rate cuts, the top income tax rate kicks in at $17,000, a level established in 1990.
The federal poverty level for a family of four in 2017 is $24,600. The Virginia Department of Taxation notes that joint filers whose adjusted, gross income exceeds $23,900 must file an income tax return.
One Republican saw this problem and sought to do something about it. In 2016, Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) told me he was introducing a bill to index the state’s income tax to the rate of inflation. LeMunyon said “Every year, the commonwealth of Virginia gets tens of millions of dollars in extra revenue because the top individual rate kicks in at $17,000.”
He noted that put people making “$10 or $11 an hour” in the top state bracket.
“We — Republicans — are taxing the poor, and that’s unconscionable,” LeMunyon said. “We just can’t do that anymore,” LeMunyon told me.
His House colleagues disagreed, as his bill was left in the Finance Committee.
They likely did so because indexing would have had a substantial effect on state revenues. The budget impact statement attached to LeMunyon’s bill showed it would take progressively larger bites out of state revenues, reaching an estimated $192.5 million by 2022.
While Mr. Gillespie’s rate cut would blunt bracket creep to some extent, it wouldn’t eliminate it.
Gillespie spokesman Matt Moran told me that was because Gillespie’s plan decided to take “a different direction.”
“The current progressivity of Virginia’s tax brackets will be maintained, “Moran said.
Mr. Gillespie sidestepped the bracket creep issue because he wanted a plan that would “help the most Virginians in the largest way possible.”
Arguably, rate cuts can help a lot of people keep more of the money they earn.
But inflation erodes those gains – even when projected inflation rates are generally low and seemingly benign.
The Gillespie campaign deserves credit for putting tax cuts back on the table — and for challenging insidious local taxes such as BPOL and the machine and tool tax.
But it has yet to take the next, critical step in any reform proposal: lifting the burden the state puts on its poorest taxpayers.
Fellow GOP gubernatorial candidate Corey A. Stewart has broadly sketched a tax reform proposal that would remove the “regressive tax brackets that take dollars out of the pockets of the poor by cutting taxes for all Virginians who make below $17,000” and establish a single rate for those making more than $17,000.
That partially addresses bracket creep, though it does not eliminate it. We’ll have to wait for the details, which Stewart says will be released in the coming weeks.