After a hideous winter, spring has finally arrived in northern New Jersey, where I live. So am I writing about nature’s bounty? About having finally gotten to run my snowblower dry and put it away? About the joys of being able to drink an iced coffee outside without risking frostbite?
Nope. I’m writing about taxes. Specifically, about New Jersey tax revenge legislation that took effect on Friday, when Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed legislation allowing Jersey taxpayers to make charitable donations to cities, counties, school boards and other local government entities instead of paying taxes to them.
It’s the kind of thing that I would normally denounce as tax avoidance verging on evasion and refuse to participate in.
But these aren’t normal times. This legislation, you see, is a counterattack against the parts of last year’s tax cut bill — which I won’t call tax reform — that were designed to hurt New Jersey and other high-tax, high-home-value, blue-leaning states.
I suspect — and hope — that New Jersey’s counterattack will be one of many, as other trashed blue states fight back. That’s why I’m discussing a local state issue with a national publication.
Yes, these counterattacks, as I call them, divide our country, which I don’t like. But the tax bill divided the country in a way that I never thought I’d see.
The bill intentionally trashed many Jersey residents by limiting state and local tax deductions on federal tax returns to $10,000 a year. That’s less than half the average real estate tax bill for Jersey residents.
Not to mention our state income taxes and, for many Jersey residents, New York state income taxes.
Before last year’s tax bill, deductions for such state and local taxes — which go by the acronym SALT — were unlimited.
The change is costing some people lots of money and is hurting some property values.
So New Jersey is striking back by enacting legislation designed to let us make charitable donations that will offset all — or virtually all — the real estate taxes that we owe. There’s no federal limit on charitable donations.
The contribution-instead-of-taxes idea, it turns out, originated last year with an adviser to Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), and Gottheimer brought it to Murphy’s attention.
Gottheimer talks about “moocher states” — a phrase I’ve fallen in love with — that, unlike New Jersey, get back far more money from Washington than their inhabitants send there.
“The moocher states stole our wallets by gutting SALT,” Gottheimer told me, “and it’s only fair for us to fight back any way we can.”
On the surface, substituting donations for tax payments and expecting it to pass muster with the IRS is absurd.
After all, if you get something of value for making a donation, you’re supposed to subtract its value from your federal deduction.
For example, if you contribute $100 to your local public radio station and get a bag of coffee worth $15 as a thank you gift, you’re supposed to deduct only $85 from your federal taxable income.
What Jersey is trying to do involves a clever — and I hope successful — way around this problem.
You can find the rationale for it in this paper, a 44-page opus written by eight tax academicians: wapo.st/2IdXxQS
The paper lists details of 113 programs in 32 states plus the District of Columbia to which people can make donations that are deductible for federal tax purposes and that generate local tax breaks that donors don’t have to subtract from their federal tax deduction.
So, the argument goes, if residents in places from Alabama through West Virginia can get local tax breaks for making donations to things like private school scholarship funds and don’t have to offset their federal tax deductions by the local tax benefits they get, Jersey residents should be able to do the same with “contributions” to towns, school districts and counties.
I’m willing to take my chances on this, provided that it’s not been struck down by a court. And assuming, of course, that my town, county and school district shuffle the necessary papers before my Aug. 1 quarterly tax payment is due.
I don’t know how many other states are planning to go the Jersey route by setting up charities, but I hope a lot of them do. There are other workaround proposals out there, including a plan proposed by my friend Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research to substitute an employer tax for some state income taxes on salary. I don’t know enough about Baker’s plan to venture an opinion.
Sure, the “charity” end run and other plans are divisive. But trashing residents of New Jersey and some other blue states, which could well damage their economies and hurt home values, was both divisive and unjust.
If New Jersey’s legislation works as intended, we Jersey folk will just be getting some of our own back. At least, that’s how I see it.
And now, off to my deck to bask in summer. And hope that no one from the IRS drops by to share an iced coffee and have a little chat.