Congress Does Another Pretty Good Thing

December 21, 2015

No, I’m not referring to the budget Congress just passed. Better than a government shutdown, of course — or what we would have had if Congress hadn’t lifted the spending caps. But more a relief from what could have been than a pretty good thing.

It’s rather the package that will extend expiring tax breaks — most, as usual, with a new end date, but some permanently, i.e., unless and until Congress repeals or changes them.

Many converted from nominally temporary to permanent will benefit businesses or well-off individuals. But poor and near-poor families will also benefit because the improved Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit become as permanent as the rest.

Here, briefly, is what this means as a practical matter — and, also briefly, why the bill isn’t plain good, but probably as good as it could be under the circumstances.

More Spendable Income for Working Families

The Recovery Act made two changes in the EITC that benefit working families. It reduced the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the lower benefit some married couples receive when both have earned income. And it added a higher benefit for those with three or more children.

The Recovery Act also reduced the minimum wage income required to claim the refundable part of the CTC from what was then $12,500 to $3,000, enabling many more low-income parents to get a modest budget boost at tax time.

All these improvements would have expired in 2017. Some 16.4 million people would have fallen into poverty or deeper poverty — mostly the latter, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ latest estimates.

And results would have worsened in future years because the former permanent law linked the threshold for claiming the CTC to consumer price inflation.

Urgent Though Not Expiring at Year’s End

One might think that Congress could have waited to deal with the improvements — as it tends to do with extenders. But excluding them from the package would have made preserving them later much tougher.

Because the more tax breaks made permanent, the greater the chance that the improvements would have hung out there alone. Republicans would then have insisted they be fully paid for, i.e., offset by spending cuts or revenue raisers.

But they wouldn’t go for the latter. So they could have forced a choice between a rollback to the pre-improved tax credits and spending cuts.

This might not have proved the only hurdle. As a recent letter from major advocacy organizations warned, the improvements could “essentially be held hostage for other deleterious policy changes.”

Anyone who’s been reading about the policy riders Republicans tried to hang onto the budget bill has some notion of how supporters of the improvements might find those changes too high a price to pay.

Downside for Some Immigrant Families

To no one’s surprise, the anti-immigrant sentiment among some Republicans infiltrated the tax bill negotiations.

One proposal, resurrected repeatedly since 2012, would have denied the refundable CTC to parents who file tax returns using an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identifications Number) — the alternative to a Social Security number that undocumented immigrants, among others must used to comply with their legal obligations.

That would have ended the annual income supplement that helps with the costs of raising more than 5 million children — as many as 4.5 million of them citizens, if that matters, as I think it shouldn’t.

At least two other proposals sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from claiming either one or both of the refundable tax credits. Whether these were only floated or actually put on the table only a fly on the wall could say.

Opponents fended them off. But Republican negotiators apparently felt the need to do something hostile to immigrants — if only to get enough of their colleagues on board when the bill came to a vote.

And their Democratic counterparts apparently felt they had to swallow something to get a deal done — and passed. They knew, after all, as did the Republicans, that right-wingers were insisting on a battery of anti-immigrants riders on the budget bill.

For whatever reasons, the final tax package does several things that will disadvantage some immigrant taxpayers.

One provision will deny those who filed with an ITIN but shortly thereafter got a Social Security number from claiming the EITC benefits they could have claimed before if they’d had it. Another will bar retroactive CTC claims in cases where the credit wasn’t initially claimed due to lack of an ITIN.

Still another will translate into law some recent rules that require about 21 million ITIN filers to get a new number and, at the same time, make the process more difficult.

Bottom Line

Even without the anti-immigrant provisions, the bill would be only far better than one that omitted the refundable tax credit improvements.

Progressive advocates and some members of Congress, not only progressives, have proposed further improvements. These will have to wait for another day — and a very different Congress.

Last but not least, the tax cuts alone will cost nearly $629 billion over the next 10 years, according to Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.* And not a penny of the revenue loss is offset. This will surely cramp needed investments.

To say that extensions of nominally temporary tax cuts are never paid for doesn’t make the bill fiscally responsible. This is one reason a majority of House Democrats and six in the Senate voted against it.

But, as CLASP says, “it is highly likely that Congress would have simply extended the business credits without doing anything for working families.”

So to my mind — and not mine only — the bill the President signed represents a major victory for the bipartisan-minded negotiators and for progressive advocates, including grassroots folks who signed petitions, called Congress members and visited them on Capitol Hill — or got in their faces when they were back home.

Something to recall as we head into a new year, with new challenges.

* The total package Congress passed postpones three taxes established by the Affordable Care Act. This makes the cost larger, though by how much we can’t yet know because the delays may or may not become conventional extenders

 

 


Putting Brakes on Runaway DC Tax Breaks

December 10, 2015

The District of Columbia has pretty well recovered from the Great Recession. Not all residents have, of course. And some had no recession to recover from because they were jobless, homeless and the like before it began.

But a fair number do seem to have higher earnings now since tax revenues have increased and are expected to increase further during the next several years.

So barring some unforeseen disaster — or dreadful policy choices — we’re unlikely to see severe spending cuts driven by the District’s need to keep its budget balanced. That doesn’t mean the District has the wherewithal to meet all critical needs, however. Not even close.

For one thing, as I’ve remarked before, the District, like other state and local governments, will have to spend more merely to make up for shrinking federal support.

For another, the District has needs beyond what even less stingy federal funding would cover — affordable housing, new shelters for homeless singles, as well as families, better public education, especially for low-income and/or minority students …. Well, you can fill in the blank as well as I.

So the DC Council should do two things during the upcoming budget season — both under the heading of do no (further) harm.

Stop the Triggered Tax Cuts

The Budget Support Act the Council passed in 2014 includes a provision that makes certain tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission automatic when projected revenues are sufficiently greater than they were when the budget became final to keep it balanced, despite the losses.*

Basically, the Chairman chose the tax cuts he liked best. Then he ranked those that would have immediately thrown the budget out of whack so that the most preferred would kick in first, then the next and so on.

The priority order itself reflects some dubious preferences — a cut in the tax rate for personal incomes over $350,000, for example, and two increases in the minimum value estates must have to owe any District tax.

But the triggers are to my mind — and not mine only — irresponsible in principle because they deny Councilmembers the opportunity to weigh revenue losses against unmet spending needs on a case-by-case basis.

We’d expect triggers from Red states with governors and legislatures bound and determined to slash spending — and in at least some cases, convinced that tax cuts will stimulate so much growth as to pay for themselves.

And indeed, most, though not all states that have adopted triggers are Red. No economic booms. Google Kansas or Oklahoma budget deficit for specific sorry results.

Fortunately, the District isn’t controlled by officials who take their cues from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes triggers as a way to starve governments of funds needed for services, as well as other laws its Koch brother and other corporate backers favor.

So it seems to me our elected representatives shouldn’t persist in an approach that will privilege tax cuts over services that could do more good for more people.

Stop Administrations From Needlessly Giving Money Away

Four years ago, the Council passed a sensible law to exert some discipline into the process of awarding tax breaks to specific entities or projects. It postponed any Council hearing until the Chief Financial Officer provided an assessment.

Well, the Bowser administration recently moved to give a $60 million property tax cut to the Advisory Board — a large consulting firm that had indicated it might move its headquarters to Virginia. Some commitments on the Board’s part, mostly jobs for District residents.

But the Board would probably hire at least as many residents anyway, the CFO opined. And the annual $6 million more it would have to pay without the cut would “not affect the company’s ability to maintain operations or continue its growth.”

In any event, the CFO said, “research indicates that tax incentives are generally not a critical factor in corporate locational decisions.” The Council rubber-stamped the tax break anyway.

This is hardly the first such tax giveaway. The District has a long history of them — more than I could possibly cite here, even if I could compile the list.

Like me, however, some of you may remember former Mayor Gray’s $32.5 million tax break package for LivingSocial — a bad bet, as it proved, on the company’s growth and new hires.

In this case, the CFO took a pass on whether enticing LivingSocial to locate its headquarters here would have economic benefits. But he again concluded that the company would be able to pay its expenses and sustain its operations without the tax breaks.

And he noted presciently that it had yet to turn a profit, casting doubts even then on benefits the District and its residents would reap. Unanimous approval from Councilmembers anyway.

So clearly, the law isn’t working as intended. And every time the Council approves one of these corporate tax breaks, it encourages other enterprises to engage in the same sort of extortion.

It could take an alternative approach. It could fold property tax reductions (technically, abatements) and other locally-funded tax incentives into the budget for economic development.

Not my idea. But to me, it makes all the sense in the world because tax breaks are a form of spending — hence the term tax expenditures, which is how budget wonks refer to them.

Putting a line item for corporate tax breaks into the budget would compel the administration and Council to weigh the total against other spending options — and force choices later, since the budget would cap the total dollar value of the giveaways.

Neither of these policy shifts would ensure sufficient funding for programs and services that benefit low-income residents — because they’re targeted or because they improve the economy and quality of life in our community.

But the shifts would tend to foster decisions that weigh direct spending needs against spending through the tax code.

* The 2015 Budget Control Act pushed the triggers back to an earlier revenue forecast. So some will kick in even before the Council has a proposed budget to work on.

UPDATE: Very shortly after I published this, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute published a post warning that the District could have to cut spending for next year unless policymakers can find alternative ways to fund “one-time” items in the current budget.

 

 


Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.

 


New Plan to Reduce Child Poverty in America

August 20, 2015

Children have the highest poverty rate of any age group in our country. Nearly 14.7 million of them — 19.9% — are officially poor, according to the latest Census report.

The percent is even higher for infants and toddlers, a new brief from the Center for American Progress tells us — nearly 23% or well over one in five. CAP has a four-part proposal to reduce the child poverty rate — and the depth of poverty for children who’d still be poor.

Unlike a plan I earlier blogged on, its parts all have to do with the Child Tax Credit. The first part, tucked into the brief as a starting point, is a permanent extension of the improvement the Recovery Act made. It’s now among the refundable tax credit improvements due to expire in 2017.

CAP’s plan would then do what some progressives advocated for the Recovery Act — drop the threshold for claiming the CTC to the first dollar of earned income, rather than the first dollar over $3,000.

At the same time, the plan would make the CTC fully refundable. In other words, a family would get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service for the entire amount its income tax liability fell short of the deductions and credits it claimed.

The credit now phases in to a maximum of $1,000 per child, leaving low-income parents with only a partial credit — or in some cases, no credit at all for a second or third child.

A third change would index the per child credit to inflation so that it didn’t lose value over time. Like the other two parts I’ve cited, linking the credit to the Consumer Price Index the IRS uses for tax provisions would make the CTC more like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Now comes a part that CAP refers to as “enhancing” the CTC, but would actually be more like the child allowances many European countries (and a few others) provide. Families with children less than three years old would get $125 a month, regardless of income or how they net out at tax time.

They’d get this supplement monthly as a direct deposit to their bank account or on a debit card. So they’d have more to spend as they needed it to pay for the costs of caring for their babies and toddlers.

These costs can be very high. I’ve already said my bit about diapers. Full-time day care in a center for an infant cost, on average, more than $10,000 a year in half the states in 2013. And far from all poor and near-poor families can have their children’s daycare costs subsidized by either of the two main federal funding sources.

Rolling all the costs together, a CNN Money calculator tells us that a low-income family will have to pay, on average, an estimated $176,550 to raise a child born two years ago — $35,880 more if they live in an urban area in the northeast part of the country.

Now, CAP’s proposals would hardly supply parents with the wherewithal to pay for anything approaching this. Nor are they intended to. They wouldn’t eliminate child poverty either. They would, however, reduce it.

The overall poverty rate for children under seventeen would fall by 13.2%, CAP says. About 18% of children under three would be lifted out of poverty altogether — this, I assume, because of the extra income boost parents of children this young would get.

CAP also looks at the combined effects of its proposals on families with infants and toddlers who’d still have incomes (less any EITC refund and/or cash benefits) below the federal poverty line.

For them, it estimates how far its proposal would go toward closing the “poverty gap,” i.e., the difference between their average income and the FPL.

The gap would shrink by an estimated 26.1% nationwide, it reports. But, of course, the proposals would shrink the gap for all now-poor families with children — perhaps, in fact, lifting some of them above the FPL and, for sure, reducing the poverty gap for all.

The gap-closing effects of the proposals would vary considerably from state to state, a map supplement to the brief shows. They range from 25.4% in Hawaii to 12% in Wyoming. We who live in the District of Columbia could see a gap roughly 16.4% smaller.

CAP’s proposals would cost an estimated $29.2 billion if they were all in place this year. Somewhat more in the future, since the child tax credit would increase to keep pace with consumer price inflation.

This is hardly a big investment, even for spending through the tax code. So-called tax expenditures will cost the federal government about $1.22 trillion this year, the National Priorities Project reports.

Unlike many of the tax breaks, however, investments to reduce child poverty would pay for themselves many times over. An oft-cited study conducted in 2007 concluded that child poverty cost our country about half a trillion a year. Adjusting for inflation, CAP puts the total at more than $672 billion.

But this is a low-end estimate because the study included only the largest and mostly easily quantifiable costs, as the authors dutifully noted.

One doesn’t, I think, want our policies to hinge on dollars saved by alleviating the hardships and lifelong consequences of growing up in a family that’s so short on money as to be officially poor — or the hardships parents suffer to do the best they can for their children.

But if the return on investment would help CAP’s proposals gain support in a Congress that seems reluctant to even sustain the anti-poverty programs we’ve got, a strong talking point is ready to hand.

 


Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.

 

 


Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 


Should DC Raise Its Sales Tax to Help End Homelessness?

April 6, 2015

As you may have read, Mayor Bowser has proposed a quarter of a percent increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax to raise revenues for homeless services. The new rate would be 6%, as it was from mid-2009 until October 2013.

The bump-up would raise an estimated $22.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year and slightly more in each of the three out-years the budget must project. About $18.7 million would move the District toward the goal of ending homelessness.

One of those quick, easy Washington Post online articles asks whether Bowser should be increasing the sales tax — quick and easy because it consists mainly of imported tweets. But it poses a good question. And we’re bound to hear more answers than we already have.

Here’s how I see the issue at this point.

For the Sales Tax Increase

The best argument in favor of the increase is that the District needs more money to reduce homelessness — let alone to make it “brief, rare, and non-recurring,” as the new strategic plan intends.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute gives us an itemized account of $12.7 million in spending on plan priorities that the sales tax increase would apparently cover.* The remainder of the $18.7 million would give about 6,000 families a yearlong reprieve from the impending cut-off of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Many are homeless already. But the reprieve is still a fair, sensible preventive measure if ever there was one. It would be even more effective (and fairer) if the budget rolled back at least some portion of the earlier benefits cuts that have left the families with a pittance.

Against the Sales Tax Increase

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was quick off the dime. “When revenues are growing by 3 percent,” he told reporters, “you don’t need to be raising taxes.” This, however, assumes that projected revenuessans tax increases, will be enough to pay for all critical needs.

Tackling the large, complex homelessness problem is, of course, only one of them. Perhaps Councilmembers can carve out sufficient funding from other programs, but neither he nor anyone else knows that now. And it’s not what he’s saying.

What he also says, however, raises what’s probably the most significant objection to the sales tax increase — and to sales taxes generally. They’re regressive, i.e., take larger shares of income from lower-income people than from those who are wealthier.

The District’s sales tax isn’t as regressive as some. I recall my shock when I moved from Berkeley, California to St. Louis and discovered that I had to pay tax on food I bought at the grocery store and on over-the-counter medicines.

The proposed increase would nevertheless require anyone who shops in the District to pay somewhat more for items that are also basic necessities — toilet paper, soap, light bulbs, shoes, etc. Most shoppers who’d take the hit are District residents.

DCFPI’s Executive Director, Ed Lazere, puts the best face on this he can, telling a Washington Times reporter that the effect on families is likely to be modest — a point the Institute’s budget brief repeats.

But, he adds, “All things being equal in a city that is marked by increasing income inequality, it probably would have been reasonable to raise revenues by asking those with the highest incomes to pay a little bit more.”

Alternative Revenue Raisers

Now, I don’t have anything like the expertise to say how the District could raise at least as much revenue as the proposed sales tax increase in a more progressive way. But I can draw on concepts experts have floated.

You who follow this blog know I’m about to get on my hobby horse and cite services that are still exempt from the sales tax. All but six in the long list DCFPI compiled in 2010 still are. And the vast majority of them can hardly be viewed as basic necessities.

Our property taxes are also worth a look. We have some extraordinarily pricey homes here in the District that are taxed at the same relatively low rate as small, unrenovated homes in our as-yet ungentrified neighborhoods.

And the tax collected doesn’t capture their actual increasing value because residential property tax increases are capped. Owners who live in those homes most of the year also benefit from reduced assessments.

I understand the need to craft a property tax increase carefully so as to protect low-income owners who bought their homes many years ago, before housing prices soared. But I think it could be done.

What surely could be done is to repeal the recent property tax break for seniors with incomes far from low. This beneficiary would willingly forfeit it to help fellow residents with no homes whatever.

There are probably other — and perhaps better — alternatives. But whatever the DC Council may consider will raise outcries from some interested parties. That’s just how revenue policymaking works. As former Senator Russell Long quipped many years ago, “[D]on’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”

In the immediate case, I hope that fellow behind the tree won’t be a mother who already can’t afford to buy enough diapers.

That said, it may be wrong to frame this issue as an either-or choice. DCFPI cites several priorities that could require more revenues than the sales tax hike would raise. Two speak directly to homelessness — the rollback of the TANF benefits cuts and additional locally-funded housing vouchers.

More generally, I suspect that dedicated sales tax revenues will fall far short of the funds needed to end long-term homelessness in the District within five years — even if budgets continue to ensure $100 million a year for the Housing Production Trust Fund.

I note that the Mayor’s State of the District address pushes the target year forward to 2025. Doubt this is just a slip by her speechwriter.

* As DCFPI notes, the Mayor’s budget includes $40 million to construct some smaller shelters — a step toward replacing the DC General family shelter. The money would be borrowed, however, not drawn from sales tax revenues.

 

 


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