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Posts Tagged ‘Flat Tax’

Last year, I said the nation’s most important referendum was the proposal to emasculate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (I was delighted when voters said no to the pro-spending lobbies and preserved TABOR).

This year’s most important referendum is taking place in November in Illinois, where pro-spending lobbies are very anxious to repeal the state’s flat tax.

If they succeed, the steady flow of taxpayers out of Illinois will become a torrent.

That’s because the flat tax is the only semi-decent feature of the state’s fiscal policy. If it goes, there won’t be any hope.

My buddy from the Illinois Policy Institute, Orphe Divounguy, has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the dismal fiscal and economic outlook in the Land of Lincoln.

Long the economic hub of the Midwest, Illinois has lost more than 850,000 residents to other states during the past decade. The state has been shrinking for six consecutive years and suffered the largest raw population decline of any state in the 2010s. …Growing government debt and a crushing tax burden are depressing economic growth. State spending is up, but personal-income growth is lagging. Since 2000, Illinois’s per capita personal income growth has been 21% lower than the national average. …ratings firms are paying attention. Illinois’s credit rating is one notch above junk. …Illinois’s public pension payments already consume nearly a third of the state budget, yet the unfunded liability—which the state currently pegs at $137 billion, though others put the figure much higher—continues to rise. …Since 2000, Illinois has increased pension spending by more than 500%.

Orphe then points out that politicians in the state have been raising taxes with depressing regularity.

Needless to say, that never seems to solve the problem (a point I recently made when looking at fiscal policy in Washington).

Illinois has a culture of trying—and failing—to tax its way out of its problems. In 2011 then-Gov. Pat Quinn approved a temporary tax hike aimed at making a dent in the state’s $8 billion in unpaid bills. By 2014, Illinois still had a $6.6 billion bill backlog, and lawmakers were calling for families and businesses to give up more money. Another permanent income-tax increase came in 2017, but again more taxes failed to solve Illinois’s problems. The problems, in fact, got worse. In his freshman year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law 20 new taxes and fees totaling nearly $4.6 billion, including a doubling of the gasoline tax. Now Mr. Pritzker wants a progressive income tax he claims will really solve the issue.

The bottom line is that politicians in Illinois want ever-increasing taxes to finance ever-increasing pensions for state and local bureaucrats.

This cartoon from Eric Allie nicely summarizes the attitude of the state’s corrupt political class.

To be sure, there are plenty of states that have big fiscal holes because politicians have showered bureaucrats with overly generous compensation packages.

What presumably makes Illinois unique, Orphe explains, is that retired government workers get annual adjustments that are much greater than inflation.

Which means that there’s a simple and fair solution.

Illinois taxpayers can save $50 billion over 25 years, and dollars can be freed to support their eroding public services. Policy makers can finally shrink Illinois’s pension liability by reducing the main driver of its growth: the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Currently, the COLA doesn’t reflect any actual cost-of-living increase, since it isn’t pegged to inflation. By simply replacing the existing guaranteed 3% compounding postretirement raise with a true COLA pegged to inflation, among other modest changes, Illinois can save $2.4 billion in the first year alone. No current retiree would see a decrease in his pension check. Current workers would preserve their core benefit.

P.S. I don’t know how long this policy has existed. If it’s a long-standing policy, Illinois bureaucrats actually were net losers in the pre-Reagan era when the U.S. suffered from high inflation.

P.P.S. The ultimate solution is to shift bureaucrats to “defined contribution” retirement plans, akin to the IRAs and 401(K)s that exist in the private sector.

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The most important referendum in 2019 was the effort to get Colorado voters to eviscerate the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Fortunately, the people of the Centennial State comfortably rejected the effort to bust the state’s successful spending cap.

The most important referendum in 2020 will ask voters in Illinois whether they want to get rid of the state’s flat tax and give politicians the leeway to arbitrarily impose higher rates on targeted taxpayers.

I’ve written many times about how a flat tax is far less destructive than so-called progressive taxation.

And I’ve also written that Illinois’ flat tax, enshrined in the state constitution, is the only decent feature of an otherwise terrible fiscal system.

So if the politicians convince voters to get rid of the flat tax, it will hasten the state’s economic decline (if you want more information, I strongly recommend perusing the numerous reports prepared by the Illinois Policy Institute).

Today, though, I want to focus on politics rather than economics.

To be more specific, I want to expose how supporters of higher taxes are using disingenuous tactics.

For instance, the state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, warns that he’ll have to impose big spending cuts if voters don’t approve the referendum.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state’s next budget will be balanced, but said if voters don’t approve a progressive income tax in November, he would have to reduce state spending across the board in future years. …the governor said 15 percent cuts in state spending would be needed across the board. …Illinois’ most recent budget called for spending about $40 billion dollars in state money. The state spends another $40 billion of federal tax money. …Pritzker is set to deliver his budget address on Feb. 19. He said he will propose a balanced budget to begin in July without relying on revenue from the proposed progressive income tax.

For what it’s worth, I actually think it would be good news if the state was forced to reduce the burden of government spending.

But that’s actually not the case.

How do I know Pritzker is lying?

Because his own budget documents project that state revenues (highlighted in red) are going to increase by nearly 2 percent annually under current law.

In other words, he wants a tax increase so he can increase overall spending at an even faster pace.

Of course, his tax increase also will increase the pace of taxpayers fleeing the state, which is why the referendum is actually a form of slow-motion fiscal suicide.

But let’s set that aside and examine another lie. Or, to be more accurate, a delayed lie.

The politicians in Illinois already have approved legislation to impose tax increases on the state’s most successful taxpayers, though the higher rates won’t actually become law until and unless the referendum is approved.

In hopes of bribing voters to approve the referendum, supporters assert that the other 97 percent of state taxpayers will get a cut.

That’s true. Most taxpayers will get a tiny reduction compared to the current 4.95 percent tax rate.

But how long will that last? Especially considering that the state’s long-run fiscal outlook is catastrophically bad?

The bottom line is that approving the referendum is like unlocking all the cars in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The expensive models will be the immediate targets, but it’s just a matter of time before everyone’s vehicle gets hit.

Indeed, this warning has such universal application that I’m going to make it my sixth theorem.

By the way, this theorem also applies when an income tax gets imposed, as happened with the United States in 1913 (and also a lesson that New Jersey residents learned in the 1970s and Connecticut residents learned in the 1990s).

P.S. Here are my other theorems.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.

P.P.S. Pritzker is a hypocrite because he does everything he can to minimize his own tax burden while asking for the power to take more money from everyone else.

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Following their recent assessment of the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation has published its annual State Business Tax Climate Index, which is an excellent gauge of which states welcome investment and job creation and which states are unfriendly to growth and prosperity.

Here’s the list of the best and worst states. Unsurprisingly, states with no income tax rank very high, as do states with flat taxes.

It’s also no surprise to see New Jersey in last place. The state has fallen dramatically, especially considering that it was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

And the bad scores for New York, California, and Connecticut also are to be expected. The Nutmeg State is an especially sad story. There was no state income tax 30 years ago. Once politicians got that additional source of revenue, however, Connecticut suffered a big economic decline.

Here’s a description of the methodology, along with the table showing how different factors are weighted.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems and provides a road map for improvement.The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. Property taxes and unemployment insurance taxes are levied in every state, but there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top 10 while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases.The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, has the second highest-rate corporate income tax in the country and a particularly aggressive treatment of international income, levies an inheritance tax, and maintains some of the nation’s worst-structured individual income taxes.

For those who want to delve into the details, here are all the states, along with their rankings for the five major variables.

If you want to know which states are making big moves, Georgia enjoyed the biggest one-year jump (from #36 to #32) and Kansas suffered the biggest one-year decline (from #27 to #34). Keep in mind that it’s easier to climb if you’re near the bottom and easier to fall if you’re near the top.

Looking over a longer period of time, the states with the biggest increases since 2014 are North Carolina (+19, from #34 to #15), Wisconsin (+12, from #38 to #26), Kentucky (+9, from #35 to #24), Nebraska (+8, from #36 to #28), Delaware (+7, from #18 to #11), and Rhode Island (+6, from #45 to #39).

The states with the biggest declines are Kansas (-9, from #25 to #34), Hawaii (-8, from #29 to #37), Massachusetts (-8, from #28 to #36), and Idaho (-6, from #15 to #21).

We’ll close with the report’s map, showing the rankings of all the states.

P.S. My one quibble with the Index is that there’s no variable to measure the burden of government spending, which would give a better picture of overall economic liberty. This means that states that finance large public sectors with energy severance taxes (which also aren’t included in the Index) wind up scoring higher than they deserve. As such, I would drop Wyoming and Alaska in the rankings and instead put South Dakota at #1 and Florida at #2.

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Regarding fundamental tax reform, there have been some interesting developments at the state level in recent years.

Utah, North Carolina, and Kentucky have all junked their so-called progressive systems and joined the flat tax club.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Illinois politicians are desperately trying to gut that state’s flat tax.

And the same thing is true in Massachusetts.

The Tax Foundation has a good explanation of what’s been happening in the Bay State and why it matters for the competitiveness, job creation, and entrepreneurship.

A joint constitutional convention of Massachusetts lawmakers has voted 147-48 to approve H.86, dubbed the Fair Share Amendment, to impose a 4 percent income tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million. The new tax would be levied in addition to the existing 5.05 percent flat rate, bringing Massachusetts’ total top rate to 9.05 percent. …Massachusetts requires legislatively-referred constitutional amendments be passed in consecutive sessions, meaning that the same measure would need to be approved in the 2021-2022 legislative session before it would be sent to voters in November of 2022. The millionaires’ tax, though targeted at a wealthy minority of tax filers in the Bay State, would cause broader harm to Massachusetts’ tax structure and economic climate. It would eliminate Massachusetts’ primary tax advantage over regional competitors… The Bay State’s low, flat income tax on individuals and pass-through businesses is the most competitive element of its tax code, giving the Commonwealth a clear strength compared to surrounding states and regional competitors. Income tax rate reductions in recent years have helped shed the moniker of “Taxachusetts” while setting up the Bay State to be a beneficiary of harmful tax rate increases in surrounding states. However, a 9.05 percent top rate would be uncompetitive even in a high-tax region. The amendment would hit Massachusetts pass-through businesses with the sixth-highest tax rate of any state.

Here’s a map showing top tax rates in the region (New Hampshire has an important asterisk since the 5-percent rate only applies to interest and dividends), including where Massachusetts would rank if the new plan ever becomes law.

The Boston Globe reports that lawmakers are very supportive of this scheme to extract more money, while the business community is understandably opposed.

A measure to revive a statewide tax on high earners received a glowing reception on Beacon Hill Thursday, suggesting an easy path ahead despite staunch opposition from business groups. “We are in desperate need for revenue for our districts,” said Senator Michael D. Brady of Brockton, one of the proposal’s more than 100 sponsors and a member of the Joint Committee on Revenue…. “We have tremendous unmet needs in our Commonwealth that are hurting families, hurting our communities, and putting our state’s economic future at risk,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis of Winchester, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the proposal. …business groups…came armed with arguments that hiking taxes on the state’s highest earners would drive entrepreneurs — and the jobs and tax revenue they create — out of the state, as well as unfairly harm small- and mid-sized business owners whose business income passes through their individual tax returns. “Look, we’re trying to prevent Massachusetts from becoming Connecticut,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reports that the Republican governor is opposed to this class-warfare tax.

Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned the Legislature against asking for more money from taxpayers with the so-called millionaire tax… “I’ve said that we didn’t think we should be raising taxes on people and I certainly don’t think we should be pursuing a graduated income tax,” Baker told reporters yesterday. …Members of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations, religious groups and labor unions, are staunchly supporting the tax that is estimated to raise approximately $2 billion a year. …The Massachusetts Republican Party is sounding the alarm on what they’re calling, “the Democrats’ newest scheme,” to “dump” the state’s flat tax system.

The governor’s viewpoint is largely irrelevant, however, since he can’t block the legislature from moving forward with their class-warfare scheme.

But that doesn’t mean the big spenders in Massachusetts have a guaranteed victory.

Yes, the next session’s legislature is almost certain to give approval, but there’s a final step needed before the flat tax is gutted.

The voters need to say yes.

And in the five previous occasions when they’ve been asked, the answer has been no.

Overwhelmingly no.

Even in 1968 and 1972, proposals for a so-called progressive tax were defeated by a two-to-one margin.

Needless to say, that doesn’t mean voters will make the right choice in 2022.

The bottom line is that if the people of Massachusetts want investors, entrepreneurs, and other job creators to remain in the state, they should again vote no.

But if they want to destroy jobs and undermine the Bay State’s competitiveness, they should vote yes.

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Proponents of bigger government sometimes make jaw-dropping statements.

I even have collections of bizarre assertions by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What’s especially shocking is when statists twist language, such as when they claim all income is the “rightful property” of government and that people who are allowed to keep any of their earnings are getting “government handouts.”

A form of “spending in the tax code,” as they sometimes claim.

Maybe we should have an “Orwell Award” for the most perverse misuse of language on tax issues.

And if we do, I have two potential winners.

The governor of Illinois actually asserted that higher income taxes are needed to stop people from leaving the state.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker…blamed the state’s flat income tax for Illinois’ declining population. …“The people who have been leaving the state are actually the people who have had the regressive flat income tax imposed upon them, working-class, middle-class families,” Pritzker said. Pritzker successfully got the Democrat-controlled state legislature to pass a ballot question asking voters on the November 2020 ballot if Illinois’ flat income tax should be changed to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. …Pritzker said he’s set to sign budget and infrastructure bills that include a variety of tax increases, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees, higher tobacco taxes, gambling taxes and other tax increases

I’ve written many times about the fight to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory graduated tax in Illinois, so no need to revisit that issue.

Instead, I’ll simply note that Pritzker’s absurd statement about who is escaping the state not only doesn’t pass the laugh test, but it also is explicitly contradicted by IRS data.

In reality, the geese with the golden eggs already are voting with their feet against Illinois. And the exodus will accelerate if Pritzker succeeds in killing the state’s flat tax.

Another potential winner is Martin Kreienbaum from the German Finance Ministry. As reported by Law360.com, he asserted that jurisdictions have the sovereign right to have low taxes, but only if the rules are rigged so they can’t benefit.

A new global minimum tax from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is not meant to infringe on state sovereignty…, an official from the German Federal Ministry of Finance said Monday. The OECD’s work plan…includes a goal of establishing a single global rate for taxation… While not mandating that countries match or exceed it in their national tax rates, the new OECD rules would allow countries to tax the foreign income of their home companies if it is taxed below that rate. …”We respect the sovereignty for states to completely, freely set their tax rates,” said Martin Kreienbaum, director general for international taxation at the German Federal Ministry of Finance. “And we restore sovereignty of other countries to react to low-tax situations.” …”we also believe that the race to the bottom is a situation we would not like to accept in the future.”

Tax harmonization is another issue that I’ve addressed on many occasions.

Suffice to say that I find it outrageous and disgusting that bureaucrats at the OECD (who get tax-free salaries!) are tying to create a global tax cartel for the benefit of uncompetitive nations.

What I want to focus on today, however, is how the principle of sovereignty is being turned upside down.

From the perspective of a German tax collector, a low-tax jurisdiction is allowed to have fiscal sovereignty, but only on paper.

So if a place like the Cayman Islands has a zero-income tax, it then gets hit with tax protectionism and financial protectionism.

Sort of like having the right to own a house, but with neighbors who have the right to set it on fire.

P.S. Trump’s Treasury Secretary actually sides with the French and supports this perverse form of tax harmonization.

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Earlier today at the Friedman Conference in Australia, I spoke on the proper design of a tax system.

My goal was to explain the problem of double taxation.

I’ve repeatedly shared a flowchart to illustrate the pervasive double taxation in the current system (my example is for the United States, but many other nations make the same mistake).

And to help explain why this is economically misguided, I developed a (hopefully) compelling visual based on how to harvest apples.

But I’ve always wondered if I was presenting the information in an accessible and understandable manner. So for today’s presentation, I decided to experiment with some different visuals.

Here’s how I illustrated the current system.

As you can see, there are several additional layers of tax on people who save and invest their after-tax income.

And I explained to the crowd that this is very foolish since every economic theory agrees that saving and investment are key to long-run growth.

Even socialism. Even Marxism. (Socialists and Marxists are foolish to think government can be in charge of allocating capital, but at least they realize that future growth requires saving and investment.)

In other words, you don’t achieve good tax policy solely by having a low tax rate.

Yes, that’

s important, but genuine tax reform also means no bias against saving and investment.

Here’s another visual. This one shows the difference between the current system and the flat tax. As you can see, all the added layers of tax on saving and investment are jettisoned under true tax reform.

By the way, there are some people who prefer a national sales tax over a flat tax.

I question the political viability of that approach, but I’ve always defended the sales tax.

Why? Because it’s conceptually identical to the flat tax.

As you can see from this next visual, the difference between the two systems is that the flat tax grabs a bit of money when income is earned and the sales tax grabs a bit of money when income is spent (either today or in the future).

Remember, the goal is to eliminate the bias against saving and investing.

To economists who specialize in public finance, this is known as shifting to a “consumption base” system.

But I’ve never liked that language. What really happens under true tax reform is that we tax income, but using the right definition.

The current system, by contrast, is known as a “comprehensive income tax” with a “Haig-Simons” tax base. But that simply means a system that taxes some forms of income over and over again.

Time for one final point.

Some people like a value-added tax because it avoids the problem of double taxation.

That’s certainly true.

But this final visual shows that adding a VAT to the current system doesn’t solve the problem. All that happens is that politicians have a new source of revenue to expand the welfare state.

If a VAT was used to replace the current tax system, that might be a very worthwhile approach.

But that’s about as likely as me playing the outfield later this year for the New York Yankees.

P.S. The VAT visual is overly simplified and it sidesteps the logistical issue of whether politicians would go for a credit-invoice VAT or a subtraction-method VAT. But the visual is correct in terms of how a VAT would interact with the current system.

P.P.S. All you need to know about the VAT is that Reagan was against it and Nixon was for it.

 

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If the people who advocate higher taxes really think it’s a good idea to give politicians more cash, why don’t they voluntarily send extra money with their tax returns?

Massachusetts actually makes that an easy choice since state tax forms give people the option of paying extra, yet tax-loving politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry never avail themselves of that opportunity.

And the Treasury Department has a website for people who want to give extra money to the federal government, yet proponents of higher taxes (at least for you and me) never lead by example.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s call this type of behavior – not choosing to pay extra tax – conventional hypocrisy.

But what about politicians who support higher taxes while dramatically seeking to reduce their own tax payments? I guess we should call that nuclear-level hypocrisy.

And if there was a poster child for this category, it would be J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois governor who is trying to replace his state’s flat tax with a money-grabbing multi-rate tax.

The Chicago Sun Times reported late last year that Pritzker has gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure his money isn’t confiscated by government.

…more than $330,000 in property tax breaks and refunds that…J.B. Pritzker received on one of his Gold Coast mansions — in part by removing toilets… Pritzker bought the historic mansion next door to his home, let it fall into disrepair — and then argued it was “uninhabitable” to win nearly $230,000 in property tax breaks. …The toilets had been disconnected, and the home had “no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” according to documents Pritzker’s lawyers filed with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

Wow, maybe I should remove the toilets from my house and see if the kleptocrats in Fairfax County will slash my property taxes.

And since I’m an advocate of lower taxes (for growth reasons and for STB reasons), I won’t be guilty of hypocrisy.

Though Pritzker may be guilty of more than that.

According to local media, the tax-loving governor may face legal trouble because he was so aggressive in dodging the taxes he wants other people to pay.

Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year, WBEZ has learned. …The developments demonstrate that the billionaire governor and his wife may face a serious legal threat arising from their controversial pursuit of a property tax break on a 126-year-old mansion they purchased next to their Gold Coast home. …The county watchdog said all of that amounted to a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers out of more than $331,000. …Pritzker had ordered workers to reinstall one working toilet after the house was reassessed at a lower rate, though it’s unclear whether that happened.

This goes beyond nuclear-level hypocrisy – regardless of whether he’s actually guilty of a criminal offense.

Though he’s not alone. Just look at the Clintons. And Warren Buffett. And John Kerry. And Obama’s first Treasury Secretary. And Obama’s second Treasury Secretary.

Or tax-loving international bureaucrats who get tax-free salaries.

Or any of the other rich leftists who want higher taxes for you and me while engaging in very aggressive tax avoidance.

To be fair, my leftist friends are consistent in their hypocrisy.

They want ordinary people to send their kids to government schools while they send their kids to private schools.

And they want ordinary people to change their lives (and pay more taxes) for global warming, yet they have giant carbon footprints.

P.S. There is a quiz that ostensibly identifies hypocritical libertarians.

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