“Death Tax” Dead, But Not For Long

July 19, 2010

Back in 2001, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman suggested that the Bush tax cut package should perhaps have been called the Throw Momma From the Train Act because it phased out the estate tax, ending with a total repeal this year.

But only for this year. If your multi-millionaire mom dies before New Year’s Day, you’ll inherit everything she left you tax-free, unless you live in the District of Columbia or one of the 18 states that collects an estate or inheritance tax applicable to descendants.

If you wait till next year to throw her from the train, you’ll owe the fed a top 55% tax rate on the total value of her estate over $1 million — assuming that Congress lets the Bush tax cuts expire.

But it won’t. So no reason to take your momma on a train ride.

Deficit hawks may choke at the budgetary impacts of extending unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance subsidies and the higher federal match on state Medicaid costs. But I doubt they’ll grab the chance to add billions a year to the federal treasury by letting the estate tax revert to its pre-Bush level.

Nor apparently will more moderate factions in Congress. The starting point for the debate seems to be President Obama’s proposal to make the 2009 stage of the phase-out permanent. This would essentially give a lot of potential revenues to the heirs of quite wealthy people.

Specifically, the first $3.5 million of an estate left by an individual and the first $7 million left by a couple would be exempt from the tax. Assets above these amounts would be taxable up to a top rate of 45%. The Tax Policy Center says these rules would reduce federal revenues by $234 billion over the first 10 years.

I’ve asked myself why Obama would embrace such a large tax giveaway. Sure, he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. But people with $3.5 million in assets aren’t, to my mind, middle class folks.

Perhaps he figured he’d got enough fights on his hands — health care reform, reform of the financial system, meaningful climate change legislation, etc. But it won’t be easy to get the 2009 estate tax reinstated.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) plans again to push for the bigger tax giveaway that he and Senate Blanche Lincoln (D-AZ) proposed last year. They want to raise the exemptions to $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a couple, while also dropping the top tax rate to 35%.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is all for this “bipartisan compromise.” And he’s got company on both sides of the Hill.

Senator Kyl has reportedly said that the plan would be “almost as good as full repeal” of the estate tax. And indeed it would. Last year, the Tax Policy Center figured that only 0.3% of estates would owe any tax in 2011 if the President’s proposal were adopted. The Kyl/Lincoln proposal, it said, would cut the number by almost half.

Wonk Room blogger Pat Garafalo reports that Senator Kyl will try to attach the proposal to a small business bill that may come up for a vote in a couple of weeks.

But first Kyl’s got to find an offset for the extra $80 billion or so it will cost. Remember, this is not the total cost — only the projected additional cost as compared to the President’s proposal and only for the first 10 years.

In May, Kyl told reporters that he’d pretty well figured out the pay-for. He and some other leading estate tax opponents in the Senate had come up with a couple of gimmicks that would mask the actual costs. The coalition has fallen apart. Hard to know whether this means the gimmicks have been shelved.

Another clever idea that’s been floated would allow people to prepay their estate tax. No details here, but the bottom line is that it would improve the 10-year cost score by forfeiting tens of billions later.

But say that Senator Kyl and colleagues came up with an offset that wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. Why should Congress be giving away billions more to the wealthiest fraction of Americans?

Is there nothing better to do with the money? Do we or don’t we have a long-term deficit problem?


Disposable Bag Fee Hits Low-Income Residents In the Pocket

January 4, 2010

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act. Big news in the District last June and again now, as the proverbial hits the fan.

Brief review: The bill the DC Council passed established a 5-cent fee on virtually every plastic or paper shopping bag used to pack customers’ purchases at retail food establishments, including grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, street vendors and liquor stores.

The intent, as signaled by the name of the bill, was to secure funds to clean up the Anacostia River and protect it from further trash build-up. The funds were to come from the disposable bag fees, though retailers could retain 1 cent per bag–or 2 cents if they offered customers a 5-cent credit for each carryout bag they provided.

Lots of enthusiasm for this legislation. The Council vote was unanimous. Councilmember Jack Evans, not usually a fan of new taxes, said the bill was a “first step to address” the fact that “our country’s becoming inundated with plastic bags and bottles.” Mayor Fenty called plastic bags “a menace to our waterways” and said the legislation would “have measurable impact almost immediately.”

Some, however, raised concerns about the impacts on low-income residents. These were generally discounted–in part because the most vocal source was the plastic bag industry. Besides, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who co-sponsored the legislation, pledged an ongoing supply of free reusable bags for distribution to those for whom every penny matters.

Fast forward to January 1, the day the fee kicked in.

The city had committed to providing 122,000 bags for low-income residents and seniors. News4’s Tom Sherwood reports that it had distributed 20,000 by December 29. An additional 80,000 were on order but not expected for weeks. Nothing about the 22,000 bags the city will still be short.

Bread for the City, which had planned to serve as a free bag distribution center, has posted a plea for donations because the city didn’t come through. But who knows how much its clients and other poor people will have to spend, either on bag fees or on reusable bags–even if the city gets the promised bags out the door by month’s end?

I’ve done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. My husband and I bring home a minimum of six full bags from our weekly grocery shops. That’s at least three bags per person. According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were about 96,640 District residents below the federal poverty line in 2008. There are probably more now.

So it would seem that at least 290,000 bags would be needed to protect the poorest D.C. residents from ongoing bag fees–or a minimum initial expenditure of $4.20 (99 cents per reusable bag, plus tax). And what about next year and the year after that? Reusable bags wear out. They get contaminated by leaky food packages. They get lost or stolen.

Yes, the District is legally obliged to clean up the Anacostia. And reusable bags reduce other pressures on the environment. But did anyone really think through what the bag tax would do to the budgets of the poorest households–or what would be entailed in delivering effective relief?


Senate Health Care Bill Puts Cost Burdens On Low-Income People

December 5, 2009

Bear with me for a moment. There’s been such an over-plus of proposals, polls, pontificating and  propaganda that I’ve half-forgotten why we decided to plunge into health care reform to begin with. And it seems I’m not the only one.

As I recall, the idea was to make good health insurance affordable for everyone because most people can’t get the health care they need without it. Bringing down health care costs was a means to this end, though it’s taken on a life of its own.

I’ve gone back to the basics because I think they’re a lens for looking at what the bill the House passed and the bill the Senate’s debating will do to ensure that low-income people can get sufficient, affordable health care.

I’ve already put in my two cents on the employer responsibility provisions. So what about affordable health insurance for those who won’t be able to get it through their jobs?

On this score, the House bill does more for poor and near-poor people. It would extend Medicaid, which offers good coverage at very low cost, to individuals and families up to 150% of the federal poverty line. The Senate bill would cut off Medicaid eligibility at 133% of the FPL.

Above these thresholds come a range of actuarial values, i.e., levels of subsidized coverage provided by insurance purchased through the exchange. These decrease as income brackets go higher. Put them together with the Medicaid cut-offs and you’ve got significant cost differences.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has updated its comparative table. As it shows, the Senate bill would keep costs lower for individuals and families at higher income levels by shifting the costs to those who have less.

  • Individuals and families who would be covered by Medicaid under only the House bill would pay nearly two-thirds more under the Senate bill–$613 more for families and $362 more for individuals.
  • Those at 150% of the FPL would pay somewhat over a third more under the Senate bill–$462 more for families and $252 more for individuals.
  • The situation reverses at 300% of the FPL, with families paying $100 less and individuals $65 less under the Senate bill.
  • By 400% of the FPL, the point spread has increased to $1,611 less for families and $953 less for individuals.

Similarly, the House bill would provide cost-sharing assistance to families up to 350% of the FPL, while the Senate bill would cut it off at 200% of the FPL. At the same time, actuarial values are lower under the Senate bill at all levels except for 400% of the FPL.

This means that low-income households would have to pay larger deductibles and co-pays than under the House bill. And again, the differences would be greatest for those in the lowest income brackets.

CPBB estimates that a family of three at 175% of the FPL would be responsible for $3,867 in deductibles and co-pays if the Senate plan were in effect now. That would be more than 10% of its annual income. And it would already have paid $2,307–6.3% of its income–for the premium.

Yes, the family would have insurance. But would it be able to afford the health care services it needs. I rather doubt it. And there goes one of the bill’s two main objectives–“to provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans.”

And if the family can’t afford the out-of-pockets, its members are likely, as now, to wind up in emergency rooms–a very costly alternative to preventive and maintenance care. Or it may decide simply to pay the relatively modest penalty for not having health insurance. One way or the other, there goes the bill’s other main objective–“to reduce the growth of health care spending.”

Will the bill that comes out of the Senate come closer to these objectives? More likely getting those precious 60 votes will mean even more compromises at the expense of those who need health care reform most.


Senate Finance Committee Health Care Bill Better and Worse

October 21, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee worked hard, if not collaboratively, on the health care bill introduced by its chairman, Senator Baucus. A whopping 564 amendments considered. What it’s come up with has something for everyone to dislike. And I’m no exception.

Set aside the hot button issues like the lack of a public option and prospective cutbacks in Medicare. The committee failed to resolve two major problems in the Baucus bill that would adversely affect low-income people. In fact, it made at least one of them worse.

One big problem is affordability. The Finance Committee bill made some improvements here. However, both premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for low and moderate income households would still be much higher than under either the main bill pending in the House of Representatives or the bill passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again crunched the numbers. As its new brief shows, for people below 200% of the federal poverty line, premiums would be two to four times greater.

If the bill were effective now, deductibles and co-pays for families at 250% of the FPL could be as high as $5,800 a year. For a family of three, this would be on top of an initial $4,349 premium–9.5% of its total income. And, for reasons explained in my earlier posting, premiums would eat up an increasing percentage of income over time.

The Finance Committee apparently recognized that health care would still be hard for many people to afford. But rather than adopt a different cost-sharing scheme, it waived the penalty for not having insurance for households whose premium costs for the lowest-cost plan in the insurance exchange would exceed 8% of their income.

CBPP says the waiver would apply to people with incomes between about 220% and 400% of the FPL. Given the costs of the insurance, many might decide to remain uninsured. Others might opt for the expanded “young invincible plan,” which isn’t just for young people any more. Under this plan, coverage would kick in only after people have met a high deductible–$5,800 for individuals and $11,600 for families.

One way or the other, a lot of low to moderate income people would still not have insurance that enables them to get the health care they need. Those most likely to opt out would be the healthiest–those who feel they’re invincible. But of course they’re not. Major illnesses and injuries can happen to anyone. And if the healthiest opt out, the risk pool would include mostly people with higher health costs. Up go the premiums. Up go the number of people who can opt out.

Another big problem in the Baucus bill was the “free rider” provision, i.e., the requirement that employers who don’t offer health insurance with benefits up to a minimum standard pay a fixed amount only for employees who are eligible for subsidies and work at least 30 hours. The fee would also apply if the insurance they offered was unaffordable for these employees.

Needless to say, this provision give employers a strong incentive to hire only people who don’t qualify for subsidies. It could also prompt them to convert current full-time, low-wage employees to part-time. Hardest hit would be near-poor single parents with dependent children because fees for them will be highest.

The Finance Committee bill strengthens this perverse incentive in two ways. First, it denies employers the right to deduct the costs of the fees as a business expense, even though health insurance is deductible. Second, it changes the formula for calculating the fees in such as way as to make them more costly.

The Finance Committee was trying to reduce the impacts of health care reform on the federal budget. Impacts on low-income people seem to have been of less concern. It could have done a better job if it had adopted a standard pay-or-play option for employers and tapped revenue sources outside the health care system, as the Coalition on Human Needs has recommended.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the thankless task of reconciling the Finance Committee bill with the Senate HELP Committee bill–and with an eye toward getting the 60 votes needed to get his version passed. It’s bound to have something that everyone–not just the all-but-solid Republican opposition–dislikes.

But will so many Senators, organized interest groups and we grassroots Americans dislike so much of it so much that it fails?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers